Monday, 09 January 2012 11:24



Wintertime magic can mean many things. For many lovers, it can be an end to the waiting game. During the holiday season, he (or she) popped the question, and now you’re getting married! Let the wedding planning begin!

These (often frenzied) preparations include a determined search for the right location, the right ambiance, the right rings, the right dress. Often a bride already knows exactly how she wants to look on her wedding day, if only she can find that perfect dress and its accessories.

But almost certainly she will not be expecting that her wedding dress will inspire some of the world’s greatest art. Or that her husband will continually re-imagine it as he shares the joy of their marriage in oil paint on canvas.

Yet that is exactly what happened to Russian Bella Rosenfeld-Chagall when, four years after their nuptials on the rainy evening of July 25, 1915, her painter-husband Marc Chagall stunned the art world with his Double Portrait with Wine Glass, a portrait of the couple in wedding garb that, nearly a century later, is considered “the most lyrical representation of connubial bliss ever put to canvas.”[i]

How did Bella’s wedding dress translate onto her husband’s canvases? Double Portrait (1917) makes it long-sleeved and décolleté, worn over purple undergarments that match her fan, while Marc, resplendent in red jacket and green shirt, rides on her shoulders and waves a wine glass.


But in Wedding (1918), Bella’s dress is primly high-collared, her veil long and her hand gloved, in keeping with Marc’s conventional suit and hat. In a distant tree branch, a fiddler plays, while hovering above and embracing the newlyweds is the red-winged figure of Ida, their little daughter, born in 1916.

What kind of wedding united such a blissfully happy couple? What lessons can we draw from the Chagalls?

The first was the depth, strength and confidence of their love. They first met when Bella was fourteen, Marc twenty-one. It was love at first sight, and it lasted forever.

Marc “has come and broken the calmness of my days,” Bella wrote. “His eyes, they were so blue as the sky oblong, like almonds. The face of this boy lives inside me as my second ego, his voice is in my ears.”[ii]

Marc rhapsodized, “Her silence is mine. Her eyes, mine. I feel she has known me always, my childhood, my present life, my future; as if she were watching over me, divining my innermost being, though this is the first time I have seen her. I knew this is she, my wife.”[iii]

 Bella with White CollarBut beautiful Bella was a mere adolescent, Marc a struggling artist, and they came from vastly different social and economic classes. The six years it took them to overcome these problems only deepened their love and strengthened their commitment to each other.

Marc was the oldest of nine children, whose hardworking father, did “hellish work” as a herring monger while his mother sold groceries from their home. Bella, however, the youngest daughter of a wealthy man who owned three jewellery stores, was well-educated and raised in luxury.

The Rosenfelds, Marc wrote, “prepared enormous cakes, apple, cheese, poppy-seed, at the sight of which I would have fainted. And at breakfast they served mounds of those cakes which everyone fell upon furiously, in a frenzy of gluttony.” The Chagalls, in contrast, made do with “a simple meal like a still life à la Chardin.”[iv] And unlike the Rosenfelds, who ate poultry daily, the Chagalls served it only on the eve of the Day of Atonement.

Bella’s mother ridiculed her daughter’s lover. “It looks to me as if he even puts rouge on his cheeks. What sort of a husband will he make, that boy as pink-cheeked as a girl? He’ll never know how to earn his living. You’ll starve with him, my daughter. ... And what will everybody say?”[v]

The Rosenfelds’ disapproval reinforced Chagall’s determination to make a name for himself as an artist, so that he could support a family. Thanks to a Russian patron, Chagall spent several years in art-rich Paris, studying and painting until he accumulated an impressive portfolio.

At the same time he thought “night and day” of Bella and, always faithful to her, refrained from sampling Paris’ fleshly delights. Instead, he focused on mastering his art and establishing himself as a painter and selling some paintings.

His persistence and Bella’s loyalty paid off. In 1915, back home in Vitebsk, the Rosenfelds succumbed to his arguments that he would make Bella a good husband.

But the wedding arrangements suited only the Rosenfelds, who planned and paid for it. Marc arrived very late, and overheard guests gossiping about him – “Who is his father?” one snob wondered aloud - and he mocked how gluttonously they eyed the wedding feast.

As for the ceremony, the wise and crafty old rabbi rained down blessings – or “perhaps curses”? – until Chagall nearly fainted. “I became a hero of a traditional wedding ceremony under the wedding canopy exactly as it was in my pictures. I got benediction - all was done according to the traditions despite my objections,” he recalled wryly. He felt resentful, snubbed, yet supremely happy on this, “the most important night of my life.”[vi]

The wedding and its accoutrements – including the gown that came to symbolize their marriage - – were unimportant in themselves. What mattered was the romantic love, personal respect, deepest mutual commitment, shared values and unremitting hard work that enabled these extraordinary lovers to unite in an idyllic marriage that endured for twenty-nine years, until Bella’s death.

[i] James Adams, “Chagall reframed: AGO casts painter in a new light,” Globe and Mail, Oct. 14, 2011.

[ii] Bella Chagall, Burning Lights, quoted by http://www.1001art.net/chagall&;Bella.html

[iii] Marc Chagall, My Life, (reprinted 1994) p. 74.

[iv] Ibid., P. 121.

[v] Ibid., p. 122.

[vi] Ibid., pp. 123-4.

Sunday, 16 October 2011 14:32



In the 21st century, egalitarianism reigns -- or does it? Why, if a husband can have a mistress, can his wife not have a mister? Not just a "piece on the side," certainly not a gigolo, but a man with whom she shares a long-term, extramarital romantic and sexual relationship -- a mister, the male equivalent to husband's mistress. (Except that, in these modern times, she should not have to support him.)

This is by no means a new notion.  In 1778, Lady Julia Stanley -- the protagonist of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire's novel "The Sylph" -- muses that her husband has had a mistress since their wedding day and asks plaintively, "What law excludes a woman from doing the same?"

The simple answer was the law of the double standard that tolerated adultery in husbands but condemned it in wives -- the law of England, indeed, the law of most lands. In an era of marriages contracted as either commercial or family alliances, when (in Lady Julia's words) "the heart [was] not consulted," this law was particularly onerous.

Let's look at how patrician society in England and Italy attempted to assuage the wifely dissatisfaction and unhappiness that marked so many unloving marriages. Julia's creator, Georgiana, knew the rules. The wife must produce an heir and until then, remain faithful. Afterward, as long as she was discreet, she could become another privileged man's lover (no mating with the coachman or gardener!) but without conceiving his child. Her husband, who protected and provided for her, could only be clandestinely cuckolded.

Georgiana played by these rules. Whenever she seemed likely to stray, her controlling mother reined her in. It didn't matter that her husband's new mistress, Bess Foster, was her closest friend. Only after Georgiana had produced an heir could she decently look outside her marriage for the personal fulfillment so egregiously lacking inside it.                                                                                                                                                  361px-thomas_gainsboroguh_georgiana_duchess_of_devonshire_1783


Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Bess Foster, her best friend but also the Duke's mistress

That happy day came when Georgiana delivered William Hartington "Hart" Spencer, her third child and first son, the longed-for heir who (she rejoiced) freed her from marital bondage. She began a passionate love affair with the much younger politician, Charles Grey. But Grey was not her mister. Rather, she had become his mistress.

Then Georgiana broke a cardinal rule -- she became pregnant by Grey -- and her furious husband forced her to choose. If she did not break off with Grey, she would never again see her children. Georgiana's capitulation was immediate. Terrified and contrite, she renounced mistressdom and resumed her life as an unloved, cuckolded wife.

In Italy, the talented and beautiful Teresa Guiccioli, teenage wife of the very wealthy sixty-year-old Count Alessandro Guiccioli, had a similarly difficult marriage. But before she provided the Count with an heir, Teresa fell profoundly in love with the charismatic and equally smitten expatriate English poet George Gordon, Lord Byron.

They had sex almost immediately. Teresa's maid helped cover their tracks. A priest acted as their go-between. Their affair invoked the unreality of Italian opera -- assignations in gliding gondolas and charming, out-of-the-way villas, and long, long hours in bed. Soon, Byron proposed that they run away together.

        teresa-guiccioli  byron1

Countess Guiccioli and her cavalier servente and not-so-secret lover, Lord Byron

Teresa was shocked. Did Byron not know that in Italy, a wife could have both a husband and a cavalier servente, an eternally faithful, devoted (though chaste) lover? Teresa could have Byron and Guiccioli together -- as long as they pretended that she and Byron were not sexual partners.

The institution of cavalier servente did not challenge the husband's dominance in marriage. As in England, a wife was supposed to produce her husband's heir. Afterward, she was free to cavort with an amico -- a "friend" or soulmate who would accompany her to plays, churches and elsewhere. But unlike his English counterpart, the amico was forbidden to have sex with her.

The supposedly sex-starved amico also had to swear eternal fidelity to his mistress and promise never to marry or to leave Italy. (Priests were a favorite choice, for their vows of celibacy precluded marriage with anyone.) This arrangement also protected the husband; should he die, his merry widow could never marry her amico. Murder, or suspicious accidents aka "Divorce, Italian Style" could not change the amico's status. A husband's demise was no reason -- or excuse -- for his wife's platonic relationship to become a sexual one.

The wife's conduct was carefully regulated. She could see her amico in her home but not in his. She could invite him to theatrical productions in her family's box but not join him in his. She was bound forever to her husband, and she and her amico had to display admiration and affection for him, and never shame or dishonor him or his family's name or, for that matter, her father's.

So how did cavalier servente work for Teresa? First, Guiccioli "borrowed" a large sum of money from Byron, then invited him to move into their palace where eighteen servants spied on the lovers and made sexual trysts nearly impossible. Guiccioli also noisily exercised his husbandly right to sex with Teresa, making Byron intensely jealous.

As the affair deteriorated, Byron complained that a man should not be hobbled to a woman, and that his "existence [as a cavalier servente] is to be condemned." Weary of the conflict and rancor, and no longer "furiously in love," Byron left Italy -- and Teresa -- forever.  Teresa grieved. In breaking the rules that forbid a cavalier servente from abandoning his mistress, Byron had broken her heart and humiliated her. Soon after, her unhappy marriage failed.

Georgiana and Teresa were exceptional women in unexceptional marriages, and their experiences were typical of those of legions of dissatisfied and unhappy wives who struggled for a modicum of relief from the constraints of their arranged marriages. The English assumed sex would occur but penalized its consequences; the Italians permitted socializing and companionship couched in terms of medieval courtly love, but forbid sex. Both imposed strict standards of decorum that upheld husbandly authority.  Both systems were, in other words, based on hypocritical premises and for most women, could only work when practiced in the breach.

Our egalitarian society has yet to improve on these 18th century pioneering models by devising a way to respond to today's realities. More than two centuries later the challenge still resonates: If a husband can have a mistress, why can't his wife have a mister?

Friday, 02 September 2011 16:51


The "Fancy Woman" and her LoverThe "Fancy Woman" and her Lover

I grew up hearing about mistresses from my mother. She would tell us about the “fancy women” her grandfather, Stephen Adelbert Griggs, an affluent Detroit brewer and municipal politician, maintained in what she disdainfully referred to as a "love nest." Why did Great-grandmother Minnie tolerate this? Because in her comfortable 19th century world, the alternative – divorce – was unthinkable. But Minnie put a price on her husband’s philandering. For every diamond Stephen bought his latest mistress, he had to buy one for her. So his love nest hatched a glittering nest egg of rings, earrings, brooches and uncut gems, which Minnie bequeathed to her female descendants.

My great-grandfather walked a well-trodden path, and that’s why I wrote Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman as the central book in my historical relationship trilogy that includes A History of Celibacy and A History of Marriage. Mistressdom, in fact, has everything to do with marriage. It’s an institution parallel and complementary to marriage, and it evolved to accommodate the sexual double standard that tolerates adultery in husbands but condemns it in wives. Like celibacy, mistressdom offers a fascinating perspective into how women relate to men other than in marriage.

Mistresses, it seems, are everywhere. One U.K. reviewer was startled to find the painful story of the end of her own first marriage on page four of my book. Bel Mooney’s husband, British radio present Jonathan Dimbleby, suddenly plunged into a dramatic and obsessive affair with the magnificent soprano, Susan Chilcott, who was terminally ill with cancer. Against her anguished pleas that her very new lover consider his own well-being and not ruin his life for her, Dimbleby vowed to care for her until she died, and moved in with her and her little son. “I still do not adequately understand the intensity of passion and pity that animated my decision,” he said later. “It felt like an unstoppable force.” Yet he also “felt absolutely torn” about being away from Bel and their decades-long, happy marriage.

Less than three months after her last public performance, playing Desdemona and singing sorrowfully, her voice rising to a crescendo, “Ch'io viva ancor, ch'io viva ancor!” (Let me live longer, let me live longer!) Susan died. But a grieving Jonathan did not return to Bel and their tattered marriage unravelled into divorce. My retelling of their story, Bel wrote, “was a reminder that there are no easy generalisations about this subject.” But she did offer this perspective: “I admit to a suspicion that most men are ­susceptible to temptation. Show me a loyal ­husband and I’ll show you one who’s never had a real opportunity to stray.”


Bel Mooney - "Show me a loyal ­husband and I’ll show you one who’s never had a real opportunity to stray.”

Well, not all loyal husbands lack opportunity, but as Bel Mooney’s personal experience suggests, opportunity is all too often irresistible. Remember when President Clinton was under attack for his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky? We discovered later that as Reverend Jesse Jackson piously counseled and prayed for Clinton, he was also cheating on his wife with a mistress who was carrying his child. And Clinton’s self-righteous prosecutor, Newt Gingrich, was secretly pursuing a passionate relationship with Callista Bisek, whom he married after divorcing his wife, Marianne.

jackson and stanford

Rev. Jesse Jackson and Karin Stanford

gingrich and callista

Newt Gingrich and Callista Bisek

Both Jackson and Gingrich mistook the waning years of the 20th century for an earlier era, when mistressdom was the familiar handmaiden of marriage. That was clear when Jackson’s mistress, lawyer Karin Stanford, successfully sued him for child support. After millennia of protecting marriage by bastardizing the offspring of mistresses, indeed even making it difficult for men to recognize and provide for their “outside” children, our new laws essentially “outlaw” the concept of illegitimacy; they also demand parental accountability. Gingrich made another kind of mistake: he gambled on keeping his affair a secret but six years into it, he got caught. The values of the media world were also changing, and the man who-would-be-president on a platform of “family values” had to settle for becoming his mistress’s divorced new husband, who would never be president.

Mistresses are not always ruinous to their lovers’ marriages. Some people believe that love affairs enrich and enliven marriage. Frenchmen, for example, can justify the cinq à sept, the after-office-hours rendezvous a man enjoys with his mistress, by quoting French writer Alexandre Dumas's pithy observation: “The chains of marriage are so heavy that it often takes two people to carry them, and sometimes three.”

The British multibillionaire Sir Jimmy Goldsmith, who died surrounded by his wife, ex-wives and mistresses, had another take on marriage and mistressdom: “When a man marries his mistress,” Goldsmith opined, “he creates an automatic job vacancy.”

sir jimmy goldsmith

In today’s North America, when most marriages are rooted in mutual love and compatibility, mistresses pose a different and often greater threat to marriages. This was not always so. In the days of arranged marriages, when parents selected their children's spouses for economic reasons or to cement family, business or political alliances, romantic love was considered an irrelevant, self-indulgent and even treacherous foundation for marriage. Husbands and wives were expected to cohabit and operate as an economic unit, and to produce and raise children. They were not expected to adore one another or to fulfill each other's emotional needs. Though some spouses developed romantic feelings for each other, usually respect and camaraderie were as much as anyone could hope for, and many marriages were desperately unhappy. This was the context that prompted all but the most puritanical societies to tolerate the tradition of mistresses who enabled men to satisfy their romantic and lustful urges.

The times they are a’changing, and so is the nature of marriage and therefore of mistressdom. Laws and institutions are more egalitarian. Birth control is effective and accessible. Modern mistresses are less likely to depend financially on their lovers. Much more often they fall in love, usually with married men unwilling to divorce and regularize the relationship. The alternative to breaking up is the insecurity of the status quo. Many mistresses accept it but hope that somehow, someday, their liaison will be legitimized through marriage. Today as in the past, the two institutions are inextricably linked.

Thursday, 14 July 2011 17:27



Legalizing gay marriage has opened the floodgates of impassioned debate about its most contentious sequel: gay parenting. The classic questions - How does their parents’ gayness affect children? Do gay parents “create” homosexuality in their children? – reflect baseless homophobic fears. The children of gay parents are no likelier to be gay than the children of heterosexuals.

The best answer ever to Gay Marriage critics!

Other, more child-centered questions include: Is it better to have two parents rather than one, even if both are fathers or mothers? Are gay parents likelier than heterosexuals to abuse their children? Will their children suffer more bullying or ostracism? What happens in case of divorce—which mother or father gets custody, and under what sort of arrangement? Because the nature of gay marriage means that only one—and often neither—spouse is the child’s biological parent, custody disputes are inherently more challenging.

More complicating still can be impregnation by sperm donors whose role the law, if not all the individuals involved, may interpret as fatherhood. The children may handily navigate their relationships, but defining them within the context of social and legal norms, and without apparent precedent, is not easy.

There’s one thing it’s difficult to dispute: the children of gay parents are not victims. Almost all studies, even those whose authors do not couch their premises in gay-friendly terms, conclude that gay parenting is pretty well comparable to its heterosexual equivalent. A quartet of Brigham Young University scholars, for example, conclude that “adolescents raised by gay and lesbian parents typically behave more like youth in two parent biological families, providing little support for gendered-deficit theories.”[1] Charlotte Patterson’s comprehensive 2005 study for the American Psychological Association interpreted three decades of research comparing lesbian and gay parents to heterosexual parents and concluded:

“The results … are quite clear … Not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents. … Lesbian mothers’ and gay fathers’ parenting skills may be superior to those of matched heterosexual couples … This was attributed to greater parenting awareness among lesbian nonbiological mothers than among heterosexual fathers. … In contrast to … the majority of American parents, very few lesbian and gay parents reported any use of physical punishment (such as spanking) as a disciplinary technique.[2]

Tori and Kate Kendell hold itheir five-month-old baby, Zadie, during their wedding on June 17, 2008, in West Hollywood, California.

Friday, 08 July 2011 06:56

Gay Marriage Act's Impact on Heterosexual Marriage

Whether straight men and women know it or not, New York’s new Gay Marriage Act will have an enormous impact on them. The reason? It will eliminate or at least drastically reduce the likelihood of gays attempting to conceal or even change their orientation through heterosexual marriage.

In the past, many gay people did not identify with or even fully understand what homosexuality was, or their relationship to it. In earlier centuries, for example, intense and sustained same-sex relationships were considered unremarkable. And because notions of privacy were still practised largely in the breach, it was customary for friends—even strangers—to save money or make do with limited space by sharing beds and many did so.

As a fledgling lawyer, Lincoln economized by sharing a bed with Joshua Speed, his lifelong friend.

At the same time, homosexuals “caught” being homosexual were treated as criminals. In 1953, for example, President Dwight Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450 required all civil and military federal employees guilty of “sexual perversion” to be fired, and thousands were. As late as 1965, Canada imprisoned a gay mechanic as a “dangerous sexual offender” after he admitted to having consensual sex with other men. He was released only in 1971, when the tide began to change.

Is New York's Gay Marriage Truly Historic?
Tuesday, 28 June 2011 18:53

happyTori and Kate Kendall hold their five-month-old baby, Zadie, during their wedding on
June 17, 2008, in West Hollywood, California

Google “New York Gay Marriage” and 73 million plus stories pop up, explaining, celebrating or lamenting the legalizing of gay marriage in New York. Bridal and tuxedo shops are bracing happily for an onslaught of wedding-minded gay partners. An ever-cautious President Obama praises the process of New York legislature’s democratic debate on the subject. Shocked homophobes and opponents of anti-gay marriage pray hard against it. Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who confessed his disappointment and need for “a good dose of the Lord’s graced and mercy,” adds that despite his pro-(heterosexual)marriage views, he loves gays very much. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls the vote “historic.”

Historic? Very much so, but not in the way that Clinton means. Gay people have always been around, and in eras when homoeroticism was viewed more matter-of-factly, as in ancient Egypt, various Greek city states, and the Roman Empire, there is evidence of same-sex unions, and perhaps marriage. What else to make of the Sifra, a third-century commentary on Leviticus often cited by the Talmud, forbidding the Israelites from copying what they believed to be Egyptian practices:

  • And what would they do?
  • A man would marry a man and a woman would marry a woman; a man would marry a woman and her daughter; a woman would be married to two men.
  • That is why it is said, “nor shall you follow their laws.”

In ancient Greece, some fathers consented to quasi-marital unions between their sons and men who desired them. Similarly, in China’s Fujian province in the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), women ceremoniously bound themselves into intimate unions with girls, and men did the same with boys. These relationships ended years later, and the adult spouses then helped their young partners find and marry opposite-sex spouses.

Word Clouds – Or How I Stopped Hating Algorithms
Written by Elizabeth Abbott   
Tuesday, 28 June 2011 21:08

I flunked first year college math and algorithms were partly to blame. To me, algorithms were mysteriously ordered numbers at the back of the book; to the professor and most of my classmates, they were mathematical tools they (but not I) could manipulate in their various calculations.

algorithm1Decades did nothing to alter my (non)grasp of algorithms. But today, after an emailed Word Cloud made me catch my breath at its fantastical kaleidoscope of tumbling words, I had an epiphany: in the right hands, algorithms process and pummel words into artworks as fanciful and compelling as a burst of laughter.

I don’t know who invented Word Clouds but if my math professor had, and if he’d told us about them, I believe I’d have gobbled up algorithmic theory and aced the course. (Well: at least I might have struggled through and passed it.)

Look at just how intriguing Word Clouds can be. I created each of them with the same text pasted into the template; it’s from the Books section of  this site  and is a big whack of critical praise (it’s my prerogative to omit any of the critical un-praise) for my most recent book, A History of Marriage. Word Cloud algorithms then gulped down all these wonderful words and reproduced them, bowing to my instructions about font, colour and size, and whether they should be structured or randomized. I haven’t yet conquered saving those that aren’t jpgable, but I managed to learn how to do screenshots instead, a minor triumph for someone fighting a lifetime’s self-identification as a math-and-science dunce.

At least I thought I had.

Read More

But after posting this I realized that I can’t yet save screenshots on WordPress. Too bad, because my favorite Word Cloud is a Wordle, the colours rich against a stark background, key words jumbled out like an knock-down, no holds-barred spousal argument on a moonlit camping trip. Nor can I provide the source code, because Jonathan Feinberg, Wordle’s supremely clever inventor, wrote the the core algorithms on IBM company time, making IBM the owner, with reserved rights.

This Word It Out reminds me of a scribbled note in a womanly hand. It offers the promise (though it cannot deliver it) of a prose passage, an important message to be heeded if only one could.

Word CloudsMarriage Letter

This one is precise and messily serious, a teaching tool with built in Post-It notes and highlighter.


The one below is sexier, marriage and all its components squished into a heart pulsating with words in shades of pinkness.

d0bc1e0fe4645dbb4Marriage From the Perspective of a Pink Heart

But the dangers of Word Clouds are already revealed. They are wickedly seductive and time-consuming, which is why I’m going to post these Clouded Words now, algorithms now loved though as mysterious as they ever were.

Whodunnit? From Condoms to Cucumbers: The National Blame Game
Written by Elizabeth Abbott   
Tuesday, 28 June 2011 21:21

Leading the pack of scapegoats in Germany’s e-coli outbreak are Spanish vegetable farmers, as innocent as their cucumbers of contaminating (to date) hundreds of German salad eaters – make that salad eaters in Germany.


Spanish cucumbers, now absolved

In the first wave of panic, the crunchy green veggie was singled out. Days later it was exonerated, but not before thousands of Spanish farmers were devastated and perhaps ruined as the European (Dis)union rushed to national judgement. Only choleric Russia did not discriminate, and banned all EU veggies from Russian plates: LET THEM DRINK VODKA!


Victim of the French/English.Spanish/Christian/Polish Disease

In late nineteenth century England, when syphilis stalked the land, Englishmen and women died (they said) of the French Disease that in its French incarnation, however, was known as La Maladie Anglaise while the Russians condemned it as the Polish disease, the Dutch called it Spanish and the Turks condemned it as the Christian disease.

If only its legions of victims had worn a cucumber-like English safe or a French Letter to protect themselves!


The world's oldest condom


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