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My Friend with the Midlife Crisis

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Rufus F. 2015 (Photo: Lindsay Campbell Beaudoin)

We finish the shift around eleven thirty. It’s gone well but everyone is exhausted, drained, wrung out. Gary’s face looks like the white-tiled walls of the kitchen. He was working the line in the heat and grease when the barrage of orders came flying in and everyone else was panicking. Gary doesn’t panic; he’s been doing this job too long for that. The head chef, on the other hand, arrived at the beginning of the shift already panicking about the number of “resos” and paucity of our stock and, by the rush, was yelling at the servers like it was a fight in the prison yard, while Gary looked as calm and focused on his work as a tailor. Afterwards, Gary just seems cashed out. The two of us are behind the dumpsters blinking at the darkness of the night sky and having a smoke.

“Well, that was one hell of a shift!” I say and pause before adding “You guys seemed to handle it though!” Gary is a sous chef. I’m a dishwasher, prep guy, and general kitchen stooge. I sit out the panic.

“Yes” he nods but doesn’t say.

“Looks like we’ve got another one tomorrow.” I pick my words carefully, as if leaping across a stream from one rock to another.

Gary takes a long breath of smoke and stares out into the parking lot pensively for about twenty seconds and finally says calmly and reflectively “I do not want to die doing this job.”

Gary (I won’t use a fake name because I’ve nothing negative to say about him) and I met about three years ago when we started our band. He’s three months older than me, also forty, and has been working in kitchens for twenty-six years. Gary looks a bit like a movie cowboy with the crinkled squint and angular leanness, mutton chops hanging down his jaw line, except he dresses in Chuck Taylor’s, black jeans, tee-shirts and tattoos and slicks his hair down like a movie greaser. He jokes and laughs all the time too, and, on this particular evening, I am still chuckling on the drive home about his instructions to a server to describe the entrée as “lightly seasoned with animal tears and semen”. Gary is someone who I would describe to another man as a “good guy”: straightforward, uncomplicated, free of melodrama and totally unselfish. If your car breaks down on a darkened road at 2 a.m., call Gary and he’ll pick you up and joke about it on the drive to get smokes. He is the only original member of our band remaining, aside from myself, and will be the last one to leave, assuming we break up. He is a man in the same way my grandfather was a man: reliable and decent.

800px-Midnight_Line_Cook

“Midnight Line Cook” from Wikicommons

So, it is genuinely startling a few months later when Gary tells me he’s going to quit the business forever. “I’m just done,” he says. “I don’t care about food. I’m good at cooking it, but it’s all just focus and repetition. Focus and repetition. I’ve been doing this a long damn time.”

“So what are you going to do?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Going to take a month off and think about it.”

I’m stunned. With quiet men, it’s easy to forget that they have the same endless monologue of doubt and hope and sadness and fear running in their heads that the rest of us do. All this time, Gary was planning to let the kitchen down in spite of being reliable and decent! Oh, brother, are they going to freak out when he tells them! I say.

“Yeah, it’s great!” he laughs. I know what he means. Restaurant owners talk about “labor costs” in the same hushed tones one uses for historical atrocities or the boogeyman. They rarely have enough staff because they never want to pay more than can be pried from between their clenched teeth. At our place, they hire the fewest workers possible, put them all on salary, and work them until they break. When people quit, everyone remaining says they were “marshmallows”. It’s a macho business. The ideal is to be reliable, decent, and tough. I’d never imagined Gary would break.

Here’s a story: we had an Egyptian cook working in the banquet center where we both started who worked every day, constantly, until finally asking if he could go home early one afternoon because he didn’t feel well. No one called him a marshmallow about it because he was always thoroughly reliable. When he got to the front step of the restaurant, he fell over dead of a heart attack, and it must have been a “massive” one because the cops from the nearby station couldn’t revive him. When one of our best servers died in the kitchen a year before, the cops were able to bring him back to life twice and for good. Gary was working for both incidents. When he called about the dead waiter on the kitchen floor, our owner (of the restaurant, not us, you understand) yelled over the phone “I’m in a meeting! What do you want me to do about it?!” He’s dead now too, of cancer. Death might not be described as decent, but it is reliable.

Death is basically a loyal companion, staying with us throughout our lives as sentient beings; unobtrusive, quiet, always there, patiently observing and only calling on us once, if we’re lucky, from the far distance. The guitarist with whom Gary and I started the band has died. Gary’s mother died years ago. As you get older, death sends more frequent reminders, echoed by your body’s. You start to break down and need more repairs. Younger co-workers talk to you as if you’re old. Aging is something shameful and somewhat embarrassing in our emotionally regressive culture. Forty is middle-aged. Half-empty. Well on the way to that appointment in Samarra at any rate. All of this, no doubt, has occurred to Gary and nagged at him.

When he finally announces that he’s quitting, giving the restaurant a one-month notice in order to be decent, they at first try excoriating and shaming him. “You have a steady job and you’re going to throw it away to be a rock star?!” I’m always struck by the dichotomy between how “rational” bosses can be in setting the terms of employment and how moralistic they become in motivating their employees. Gary quitting is supposed to reveal something deeply negative about his sense of priorities, his work ethic, and ultimately what sort of man he is. You’d think he’d cheated on them. Eventually, they calm down a bit.

But there is a danger in life of letting a layover become a final destination. When men of a certain age, and for some reason it’s usually men this is said of, attempt to change their situation and address this danger, we call it a “midlife crisis”, often snickeringly. There’s something shameful and embarrassing about it and a bit undignified. We think of an older man, of a certain income level, buying a sports car or dating a much younger woman. Acting indecently, unreliably. Picture Kevin Spacey in American Beauty or, more grimly, Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

Women do these things too, of course, but it’s different somehow. My mother left my dad for another man and went on binge shopping trips in her mid-forties, which was something we described as the messy work of “finding herself” after decades of marriage to a difficult man. A few years prior, he had bought an ultralight plane and started flying up and down the East Coast. That was a midlife crisis. The thought of it sent waves of terror through her, so she asked him to quit flying and he either agreed to or didn’t agree, depending on who you ask, and she then left him with one of the guys in his flying club. A few months later, he quit his job, moved to Maine, grew a ragged white beard, and became a lobsterman. He could have stayed until retirement at his steady, reliable job, friends said. He’d been there for twenty-two years. That would have made more sense. After a certain age, though, you become deaf to those who try to reason with you.

In some sense, women already reached the point en masse that they stopped listening to the entreaties of “reasonable” people, usually men. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) is essentially about the female version of a midlife crisis, what Friedan called “the problem”, and addressing it was the task of the second wave of feminism. “The problem” was, and is, threefold, consisting of: patriarchy, which is as old as human society; the bourgeois nuclear family, a relatively new structure historically speaking and one with a very mixed track record; and finally the labor issue, as the book is, after all, about women’s unpaid work. These issues are still open, but given the complexity of “the problem”, feminism has done a miraculous job of critiquing and transforming society and showing how these norms hinder women, and men too. Patriarchy, paradoxically, gives men social power, while limiting their tangible options in how to live their lives and remain a man.

Feminism, of course, holds all of this up for critique. However, its very understandable lacuna is that it has no real picture of a non-social male. That is, feminism only really conceptualizes a man within patriarchy or rejecting patriarchy by establishing feminist relationships with women, which is still something social, or at least relational. It has no grounds to conceptualize a man existentially, outside of those two social contexts: no “men who run with the wolves” to write. As yet, we haven’t seriously and successfully inverted Freud’s famous question and simply asked: what does man want?

Men have tried, of course, to move in the direction of this question and conceptualize a recovered, non-social manhood with mixed success. The “mythopoetic” men’s movement of Jungians like Robert Bly, which aimed at finding the “wild man within”, seems to have fallen into abeyance recently, but I can recall when it was the subject of a good deal of ridicule (much like midlife crises are ridiculed) as a case of middle aged men in the woods in loincloths banging on drums. More recently, the “men’s rights movement” has been a hot mess, highlighting real problems that men face but getting mired in adolescent femme domme fantasies in which every woman is Tura Satana and every male is Spartacus. And again, it remains relational. It’s amazing how much of our thinking about men revolves around how they fulfill their duties to others and whether or not those duties are just. Whether, that is, men can be dependable and reliable, and not the question of who they are in the first place.

I think these were some of the reasons it was a shock to us around him when Gary said he didn’t know what he wanted, but not this life anymore. Add to this confusion the endless recession under whose threat we now live and the act of wanting something different becomes something quasi-revolutionary, and setting off to find what that might be seems downright radical. I was thrilled. Ideally, of course, society would support men and women in all their attempts to change their path at any point in life. Living would be seen as play and experimentation, as it is. Failing that, however, Gary somehow made a prison break from the expectations placed on men and left the rest of us in the kitchen scratching our heads. Maybe life does begin at forty; it sure doesn’t end. All I know is there are a few others of us left over in that kitchen wondering if Gary can do it, why can’t we?


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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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68 thoughts on “My Friend with the Midlife Crisis

  1. Great piece.

    He could have stayed until retirement at his steady, reliable job, friends said. He’d been there for twenty-two years. That would have made more sense. After a certain age, though, you become deaf to those who try to reason with you.

    I was just telling my wife the other day that if I were to be laid off or fired, I don’t know if I would seek similar work in my industry or field; I’d want to just buy a pub, and run that. I just hit twenty years with my company – they are old-fashioned, and got me an expensive engraved watch (I would have preferred cash or equivalent instruments) – by any metric, I have gotten myself to a sweet setup. Work from home, talk to my boss every week or two and see him once or twice a year, benefits, the whole deal. But the thought of having to do it all over again – or indeed, for a whole lot longer – fills me with incredible dread and loathing.

    It’s amazing how much of our thinking about men revolves around how they fulfill their duties to others and whether or not those duties are just. Whether, that is, men can be dependable and reliable, and not the question of who they are in the first place.

    This is an astute observation, coupled with the compare/contrast to feminism. We now hold that thinking of women simply as their patriarchal “function” – the ‘duty’ to have babies, and keep a household, etc. was wrong and stifling for them. So far, so good.

    But of course men’s ‘duty’, to reliably provide for that household, perhaps by working steadily at a job he despises (but that has benefits!) until such time as he drops dead of it (and maybe, to go die for King and country if need be), remains largely the expectation.

    At least you don’t have kids. Despite my seemingly-cavalier attitude above about the possibility of being laid off and having to switch life gears, I have three small humans depending on me; and the thought of somehow not being able to provide for them, ALSO fills me with inexpressible dread and loathing. There’s something to be said for having kids younger – so that if you DO somehow ‘crack’, they are mostly able to fly from the nest for themselves.

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    • Right. I think feminism opened up the discussion of what men’s lives might look like outside of the impositions placed on them by social norms, which is all for the good, but now it’s up to men to figure that out for themselves because it’s outside the purview of feminism. For some reason, it still seems selfish when they try to do so.

      I think children are a major consideration for many people. I didn’t mention that my friend’s two daughters from a previous marriage are reaching legal age, but I know it was on his mind.

      It’s interesting too how much of this ties into the book I’m writing about my great-grandfather because I always wonder why he never wrote the novel he intended, given that he was hanging around with Hemingway and Henry Miller and the rest! But the truth is he kept filing reports and slogging away at his jobs and refusing to fail his family the way his father had. When he finally moved into the summer home by himself to start writing it, he died soon after. So, it was sad in a lot of ways, but also sort of noble.

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      • I think that there are a lot of barriers to discussing what men’s lives would look like without the imposition of social norms remaining though. Even in feminist circles, there still seems to be a lot of expectations about what a real man should do and that involves meeting a lot of the traditional social expectations and a lot of the new ones. Many people place great importance in the traditional social expectations. Many men still define themselves by them and many women want these expectations even if it contradicts some of their other principles.

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        • I think language can trip us up here.

          For instance, I would argue that a “real man” would provide for his family. But I’m using the word “provide” much more broadly than we traditionally think of when we talk about “real men” “providing” for their families. I don’t think the only way a man can or should provide for his family is financially. When I talk about “providing”, I think of a man working with his partner to ensure that the various members’ needs are met. And I would have the same expectation of the woman. How they divide up the various roles and responsibilities would be up to the couple. But I would hold them each responsible for ensuring that “provisions” are met.

          So, really, when I talk about this, I’m talking much more about maturity and adulthood and the like, really independent of gender. But I am somewhat hamstrung by language because if I just talk about men providing for their families, it is easy to imagine me advocating for men bringing home the bacon while the women stay barefoot in the contention.

          And, of course, all of this assumes the man has a family and a female partner… which itself is chock full of, well, assumptions.

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          • The problem is the entire concept of there being such a thing as a “real man.” Most of us could recognize the problem about talking about what a “real woman” would do. There is a growing recognition that gender identity is at least kind of to very fluid in people. However, when it comes to heterosexual cis-gender men people still cling to the idea that there is such a thing as a “real man.”

            This problem exists across the political spectrum on gender. I’ve heard the real man spiel from ostensibly liberal sex-positive people as well as conservatives. The details are different but the basic idea seems to be that “real men” should put up with a lot of sh*t in the service of the others rather than have any concerns or desires of his own. Conservatives might define this in terms of providing financially for your family or dying for your country and liberals might see this as you shouldn’t be concerned about your current partner’s romantic/sexual past but the definition always revolves around some form of sacrificing your desires, emotions, and wants for others without complaint.

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            • the definition always revolves around some form of sacrificing your desires, emotions, and wants for others without complaint.

              More than simply a social gender expectation, this sentence can also be used to describe several major religions, as well as more than one political philosophy or persuasion.

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                • You appear to be framing a dichotomy: Men can either have what they want, or be civilized.

                  There’s conflict there, but is there contradiction? Is it really so black and white? Isn’t that the very issue?

                  I spent decades enacting The Man With No Needs. It wasn’t good for anybody.

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            • That’s interesting. I view it as being defined sorta exactly the other way along that same axis. That is, a real man is someone who is not motivated by nor particularly interested in mambypamby things like “feelings”, either his or others, and is more concerned with imposing his desires – the good kind, of course!, as traditionally defined – on the world via an act of will. He’s sorta like Honey Badger in that he don’t take no shit. And he’s not squeamish about eating the head offa snake if that’s what it takes to get the job done.

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              • I see all of these things as basically about being a sacrifice. The concept of a real man is one who ignores his emotions and desires for those of his loved ones or community and does what it takes.

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          • I think we might just say “responsible adults” instead of “real men.” Not only because it’s gender neutral, but it captures most of what “real men” is supposed to mean without all the, er, patriarchal baggage.

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    • Please tell me you can at least balance a checkbook…
      Restaurants have a 75% death rate in the first six months, because most people who start them bloody don’t have the discipline to run anything.

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  2. Interesting post. One nit, though. You write: “As yet, we haven’t inverted Freud’s famous question and simply asked: what does man want? Men have attempted, of course, to pose this question and conceptualize a recovered, non-social manhood with mixed success.”

    The second sentence correctly negates the first; plenty of people have asked that question. I think you might want to add “successfully” before “inverted”.

    (I also think that “non-social manhood” or, for that matter, a “non-social womanhood” is an oxymoron. We are intrinsically a social species. Hermits are deviants.)

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    • Good points! I was driving at “successfully” or “fully” and not quite getting there. “Non-social” was my attempt at naming what it is about our existence that is not given socially, that is beyond the social realm. ‘Existential manhood’ seems to take it in a whole different direction. I do know what you mean about us being intrinsically a social species, but it seems that much of gender politics relies on the assumption that social norms somehow warp us or alter our individual nature, so there would have to be something prior to or beyond society. Of course, now this all sounds a lot like Rousseau, but since the discussion ties back into feminism, it could be that feminism really is strongly Rousseaunian…

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      • That social / non-social manhood section is the part of the essay that has got me scratching my head as well – I’m not sure I believe there is a non-social aspect of manhood. Personhood, humanity, yes.

        But I’m going to be puzzling all day over whether there is any aspect of being a gendered person, that is not a social thing, and if so what that thing might look like.

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        • Five years ago, I would have agreed with you. Then my daughter came out to us as a trans woman, and I started meeting and listening to and reading about a bunch of trans people, men and women.

          It’s pretty clear that there’s something that whispers to them of their gender, even when they are alone. It may not be much more than “I am supposed to have these kind of body parts instead of those”, but there’s something.

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          • I hope I haven’t given the impression that I think things that are social are in any way less genuine, less fundamental to who we are. I don’t know that I would use terms above exactly, but I think that our relationships with others, human and non-human, the norms we draw from those relationships, and the way we draw those norms, are profoundly and intrinsically part of what makes us human.

            I suspect that anything that is “beyond the social realm,” other than the basic physical drives of biology, is going to take real hard work to separate out. We’re so deeply social, maybe we can only really see shadows and intimations of it.

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          • Doctor Jay, I had roughly the same thought that you did when a former friend of mine came out as trans. If we’re going to say that gender is a social construct, wouldn’t that undermine her conviction that she is, in fact, a woman and not a man? Because she knew she was a woman, at all odds with the social programming and I was not comfortable saying she didn’t.

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        • dragonfrog,
          surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, there are plenty of aspects of being a gendered person that aren’t social things.

          But the fun part comes when you try explaining that you’ve got more like three genders…(everyone loves research, right?)

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  3. They rarely have enough staff because they never want to pay more than can be pried from between their clenched teeth.

    Awesome. (“Teeth” substituties for a not-family-friendly body part, right?)

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  4. Really good Rufus. I love this “…femme domme fantasies in which every woman is Tura Satana and every male is Spartacus.”

    There is a point where thinking about how gender fits into what you want and where you are going with life is a cul-de-sac. Not that it isn’t important but you can’t get out your own experience at some level. Sure think about how your conception of gender has led you to where you are, but you can’t ask a fish to think about life outside the water. I think some feminists and most MRA’s fall into that trap of focusing so much on gender they don’t see anything else, whether it is commonalities between genders, of which there are many, or they project all their issues onto their gender so they can’t see their individual life with its positives and negatives.

    The wife and i are looking at moving out of Ak in a couple years. That means giving up a good job but we also both want something new. It is a challenge to figure out whether we can get all the good stuff we have here but add more good stuff some place else.

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    • I wrote a thing that dealt with MRAs I’d met more extensively, but the gist of my take on them was that when people are living in bad situations, the moment that they liberate themselves can be one of the most powerful in their lives; the problem is when people want to live within that moment for years instead of moving on to the next stage of life.

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  5. Thanks all! This site is a real shot in the arm because I can send something like this to a bunch of outlets and get radio silence or the generic no thanks message: “Thanks for thinking of us. I don’t think this piece is quite right for _____. Good luck placing it elsewhere.” And then I’ll post it here and think “Yeah, I thought it was pretty good.” So, it’s much appreciated!

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  6. A long time ago, when I was still wet behind the ears concerning all things Adult, a wise man (eg, and actual Adult) gave me some offhand advice: don’t leave unless you know where you’re going. The narrow context in which it was uttered was opening a door (like, a literal one) but a larger one lurked behind, one that clearly resonated with me. One that I think is a good operational principle to this very day. (I still haven’t left that little room…) So I don’t know about the merits of leaving for leaving’s sake, even tho I get that a big adventure requires taking that first step. So while part of me is inclined to respect Gary for finally putting an end to the misery of his daily work-life, another part thinks that if he were capable of finding a better work life he wouldn’t have had to so radically sever the current ties. And if so, then he hasn’t taken the first step on the next big adventure, but something else. I dunno, tho. Of course. I mean, what the hell do I know?

    Also, I’m not sure that the existential issues you talk about towards the end of the post ought to be framed in terms of teasing out a concept of what it means to “be a man” in social, or non-social, or wildly-primordial terms. It seems to me that *that* issue just collapses into the bigger existential issue of the “why am I here?” variety, one which cannot be arrived at thru ratiocination. I don’t say that to dispute anything substantive you’ve said about feminism or Robert Bly, but rather to dispute the suggestion that even *more* intellectualizing will provide the right type of answer for the worries you address.

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  7. This is great, thank you for sharing.

    If this is a midlife crisis, I’ve had three of them all before I’ve gotten to 30. I guess I’m just tough to please. I can’t stand in one place for too long.

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  8. We need more of these. Get to work.

    As yet, we haven’t seriously and successfully inverted Freud’s famous question and simply asked: what does man want?

    I suspect part of the problem we have is trying to take these very individual questions (“What does he want? What does she want?”) and make them into guidance or prescriptive questions (“What should we encourage them to be in order to enable them to have the best likelihood of being avatars of their group?” for some group to which we believe they belong.)

    I know what I want.

    I don’t think that gives me any particular insight into what anyone else *should* want, though.

    I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the question of what everybody should want is one of the most perniciously, subtly, evil questions humankind has been obsessed with for longer than we can collectively remember.

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  9. I too, really liked this piece. Though I find midlife to be far less mysterious or threatening than some do. When we hit it, most of my friends just said, “Well, I realized that if I actually wanted to do all those things that I’d been telling myself that I’d do, I’d better get on with it.”

    But then, as a group they are reasonably privileged economically, which makes that sort of thing much easier.

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  10. Not having a midlife crisis is easier when you’ve adjusted to the probability of not living past the age of 25. When death dogs your heels, it’s suddenly a bit less of a thing to plan for the future.

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  11. When you’re driving around with an assfull of corn flakes and you hit a speed bump, something’s got to give.
    Young hearts can go their way, and all that.

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  12. We just rented a shop space and will be staffing up in the next week or so; maybe Gary would like to come work on Mon Tiki Largo for a few months while he sorts things out. If he’s good with a pastry bag I can make him into a boat builder in short order.

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