Courage and Fear

Zoë Sharp

 I was intending to write my blog this week about going to the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in St Louis, but in thinking about the whole trip the theme of it gradually developed into something else.

An exploration of courage and fear.

That might seem like quite a leap, from a convivial gathering of authors to questioning what scares the bejaysus out of you, and how you get past that feeling, but it kept coming up.

To begin with, we landed in Chicago and spent nearly two hours getting through Immigration. Why? Fear. Fear of letting someone into the country who might be undesirable, who might be unfriendly. Fear of letting the wrong one slip through unnoticed.

Our first morning in Chicago, Andy and I, and fellow Brit author Anne Zouroudi went up what used to be the Sears Tower but is now the Willis Tower, to the observation Skydeck on the 103rd floor. Since the last time we went up to the Skydeck, they’ve built four glass boxes that extend four feet out from the side of the building and allow you to step out onto nothing and look straight down to the tiny toy cars and people in the street below.

After the initial leap of faith, as it were, it didn’t bother me. And especially once you put a camera in my hands. Somehow, the act of taking pictures steps you outside what’s happening, makes it not hard to understand how war photographers and camera operators put themselves in danger. As soon as you look through the lens, you’re somehow disconnected from what’s happening through the viewfinder.

After this we rewarded ourselves with a Food Tasting & Cultural Walking Tour of Chicago’s Bucktown and Wicker Park districts, once fairly infamous neighbourhoods but now gentrifying rapidly, although there was still some very entertaining lawn art to be found.

 As well as gorgeous food, it was a wonderful way to see some of the architecture of the area. And because the culture was slipped in amid the culinary treats, we swallowed it all just as eagerly. Plenty of lessons on how to painlessly include backstory to be absorbed there . . .

Anyway, we started off at George’s Hot Dogs for authentic Chicago hot dogs – no ketchup, if you please:

Then to Hot Chocolate for the most superb hot chocolate drink I’ve ever tasted, plus homemade marshmallow:

Not to mention the cakes on offer at The Goddess & Grocer.

Plus the ice cream at iCream, where liquid nitrogen creates instant any-flavour frozen deserts.

That makes it sound as if there was no savoury element to the tour, but that wasn’t the case. We also took in the Piece Pizzeria and Brewery, and the Sultan’s Market Middle-Eastern Deli and Store, but I was much too busy eating to take pictures at this point.

But I digress. On the Wednesday evening, I took part in an event at Lisle Library in Chicago, hosted by the delightful Patti Ruocco. As well as the usual talk and Q&A, Patti also asked me to do a self-defence demonstration, for which she kindly provided some plastic training daggers. As we were flying out to the States the day after the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I decided that trying to bring my usual rubber knife through Customs might not go down too well.

Anne very kindly volunteered to be my Crash-Test Dummy for the evening, and we went through a few knife defences and escapes from strangleholds. And again we are back to fear, and how to avoid being paralysed by it so that you are unable to act, unable to defend yourself with any degree of success. Even against a cake with attitude:

Then it was on to Bouchercon, via a brief stop in the wonderfully named Normal, Illinois, for breakfast at a traditional Mom & Pop diner – Uncle Tom’s Pancake House & Restaurant:

Of course, some people find the prospect of appearing on panels at such an event absolutely terrifying. It makes them physically sick. The only thing that’s ever bothered me is the possibility of nobody turning up. And as soon as I know we have an audience, I’m fine. Having a signing line is even better, because somehow that means that whatever I said on the panel did not completely alienate my potential readers!

It’s been a couple of years since I was last at Bouchercon, and it’s only when you go back that you realise what you’ve missed. It was just so nice to bump into friends, old and new, to sit and chat about books and writing and the business itself. I never fail to come back from B’con raring to get on with the latest project, and this was no exception.

But there is always a certain amount of fear underlying the work. Is it good enough? Will people ‘get’ it? Will they either love it or hate it, or will it just be yet another ‘OK’ read. Fear of failure seems to be a motivator with every writers, published or unpublished. And the few that don’t appear to suffer from any kind of self-doubt? Well, maybe they should . . .

For us, though, a visit to the States is never complete without firearms. I’d put a ‘Have breakfast and go to the gun range with Zoë Sharp’ lot into the charity auction, so we went to check out Top Gun Shooting Sports in nearby Arnold, Missouri. We took Anne with us, as well as other Brit virgin shooters Russel D McLean and Chris Ewan, plus Bouchercon Albany (2013) organiser Al Abramson,  Blake Crouch, and his cover designer, Jeroen Ten Berge.

Without naming names, not everyone was as happy about getting up close and personal with genuine firearms as perhaps they thought they might be, while others grew horns and came out with big grins on their faces. It’s one case where a healthy fear and respect for what you’re doing is definitely a Good Thing.

 For those who were unable to get to the range, Beth Tindall from Cincinnati Media had contacted a friend, Arbon ‘Doc’ Hairston of Fair Warning Systems, who runs firearms training simulators for law enforcement. Doc brought along various semiautomatics, revolvers, and even a pump action shotgun, along with training simulations that he uses to teach people when to shoot and when not to shoot. The guns are real, but hooked up to CO2 to work the action and provide a certain amount of recoil. A lot of fun was had by all who had a go, but somehow the fear factor was missing. Not difficult to see how kids brought up on video games have lost any respect they might have had for the dangers of real weapons.

In the charity auction, Brit crime fan Lesley ‘Mitchy’ Keech was the winning bidder, and as she wanted to attend the Bouchercon Sunday brunch, we arranged to take her for breakfast and to the gun range on the Monday morning after it was all over.

We also took fellow Brit thriller writer Matt Hilton with us. He agreed that, after firing the simulator, firing the real thing was a whole different ball game.

I tried to instil the basics of gun safety into Mitchy, starting off with only one live round in the chamber so she could get used to the feel and the noise of it, and giving her a good solid stance to shoot from. We let her try various SIG, Glock and Smith & Wesson 9mm semiautomatics, and also a couple of .357 magnum S&W revolvers. And finally they brought out an MP5 submachine gun, and she put a full clip through that, beginning on single shot and moving up to full auto. Those targets were definitely not getting up again!

I hope we made the experience fun without causing too much fear beyond just the right amount. After all, without the rush of endorphins (endogenous morphine) released by the pituitary gland and hypothalamus during periods of excitement, stress, or danger, how do we know we’re really alive?

On the Monday afternoon, we went up the Gateway to the West – the St Louis arch. An amazing feat of engineering, with an ingenious elevator system to get you to the cramped viewing area right at the peak of the arch. And as we rode up there, I could only think of all the people we knew who would completely freak out at the experience, first of the confined space, and then being over 600 feet off the ground.

But if something doesn’t particularly scare you, then doing it involves no courage. Or does it?

So, ‘Rati, if you went to Bouchercon, did you have a great time? Did you go up the arch?

And what was the last thing you did that really scared you?

For me, the answer to the first question is, “Hell, yes!”

 And the answer to the second is going on the Bomb Bay water ride at Wet ‘n’ Wild in Orlando Florida a few years ago. (And I’m talking squeal-like-a-girl-scared here.) You climb about eight storeys up, stand in a cylinder shaped like a cartoon bomb, which they winch out over a narrow chute filled with running water. They leave you there for an agonising few seconds, then a floor drops away and you PLUMMET down the chute until it levels out at the bottom and the force of the water being squeezed into places you don’t even want to think about, brings you to a stop.

Once was enough.

This week’s Word of the Week is horripilation, which means a contraction of the cutaneous muscles causing erection of the hairs and gooseflesh. The correct word for when all your hair stands on end. From the Latin horrere to bristle, and pilus, a hair.

One last thing. While we were away, my Twitter account was hacked, so please be careful about following any dodgy links that don’t obviously come from me. We also had problems logging on to Gmail, as it didn’t like the fact we weren’t at our home computer. So, apologies for any delays or confusion.

31 thoughts on “Courage and Fear

  1. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    I am so hugely impressed that you stood out on that glass platform and took photos! I don't care how many cameras you let me hold, I will never do that. Never. Never. Never. No. I will not. My Hualapai friends have tried to tease and shame me into doing their Skywalk at the Grand Canyon. No. I will not ever do that. No. No. No. Never. A camera helped? You are kidding. As Lois said to Superman, "Yeah, you've got me, but whose got you!"

  2. Reine

    "…who's got you?"

    Oh yeah, and I was one of the lucky ones who was invaded with the twitter virus thingy. I think it's okay now. unless it has a time-release. nah.

  3. Sarah W

    1a) Absolutely, yes! I'm going next year if I have to walk to Cleveland.

    1b) Never in a million years. I can, and did, admire the Arch just fine from the ground, thanks.

    2) Last week, I drove to a strange city in my questionably-tuned car and attended a non-library convention all by myself, without knowing a soul there except through blog comments — all well out of my comfort zone, let me tell you. But the first person I met was a patron of my own library system (what are the odds) by the second day, I'd staked out the entrance to the bar and was flagging down my favorite writers (plus one agent and two editors) as if I had every right to do so.

    Please tell me you'll be at the next Bouchercon and that you'll offer the same auction item! I'll start saving up now.

    (just the thought of the Bomb Bay makes me break out in horripilation)

  4. JT Ellison

    I have hives.

    I'm afraid of heights – we all know that. I tempt myself sometimes, but no, no arch for me. It wasn't the height I was worried about, it was being wedged in that itty bitty capsule and hurled into the air. : )

    It was wonderful to see you and Andy! Brava for all the success – and keep them coming!

  5. Louise Ure

    Love the pictures, Zoe.

    Did I go to B'con, no.

    Lat scary thing (AKA last stupid thing) I did was to meet two men in a dark unfamiliar cul-de-sac, in order for them to "test" the SUV I was trying to sell after Bruce died. Stupid, stupid, and scary. But I at least had the sense to tell someone where I was going, who I was supposed to meet, and then to do every-ten-minutes IM's to check in.

  6. Rae

    Went to Bcon, had a fab time. Did not go to the Arch, don't like heights – and btw, would not step out into that little glass cube in Chicago for any amount of money. Oy.

    Last scary thing I did was work related – it wasn't physically scary, but nervous making in its own special way.

  7. Lisa Alber

    Wow, the photo from the Sears Tower was a little quesy-ifying. I remember going as a child — no platform, just grimy windows, and that was dizzying enough!

    Didn't go to Bouchercon this year — maybe Cleveland though!

    This is sad — I can't think of the last time I was really scared. I say this is sad because it tells me that I've been sheltering myself too much lately, holed up here in my condo with my pets and my fictional worlds…I suppose facing the page is scary enough sometimes. 🙂

    Though, I was apprehensive at the end of last year when I moved into this condo. I'd lived in my previous place for 10 years. For some reason, moving unsettled me to no end. It felt like the end of an era, but I couldn't tell what era exactly, and what did this mean for the next stage? Would it be better, or worse (please not that!)? It was a step up in the world, but that's always risky/scary because it means there's further to fall.

  8. Beth Tindall

    Zoe, the funny part is I'd never met Doc before — totally a cold call that worked out great. He wants to come to Cleveland and set up there, and join in the fun at the con. He did say that Bouchercon folks "drink like cops", FWIW. He couldn't believe how packed the bar was. Excellent to see you and get to talk to you at Bcon!

    Oh, and to answer your question about the last thing I did that really scared me — going to Bouchercon! I have lived with agoraphobia most of my life, and have had a hard few years these last few. Missed a few Bcons because of having to get medication adjusted and multiple-times-a-day panic attacks. Had some while at Bcon, but walked through them, and had a great time! Now I've spent the last three hours trying to psych myself up to go to the grocery store. I don't do deliberate adrenaline rushes when I can just live a regular life and have random ones!

  9. Bobby Mangahas

    Yeah, I'm not sure I would step out onto those glass boxes. And I really do wish I made B'Con this year. It would have been a lot of fun I think.

    Last scary thing I did was…I really don't remember to be perfectly honest.

    Oh and on a side note, Zoe. If you're in Boston, you have to stop off at Trident Booksellers and Café. They have the absolute best white hot chocolate you'll likely ever have.

  10. B.G. Ritts

    Went to B'con and had a wonderful time, but didn't have time to get to the arch. While I don't care for heights, as long as I don't have to look over a railing or step out onto a glass platform, I'm OK.

    From the grin on Mitchy's face, it appears she had a grand time shooting! She was very pleased to have won that opportunity at the auction.

  11. Christine McCann

    As someone who's strictly a civilian (aka reader/fan), I had a fantastic time at Bouchercon! I attended my 1st Bcon last year in San Francisco and I was hooked! I have every intention of being in Cleveland as well. I usually try to get out and see some of the city I'm visiting, but didn't take advantage of what St. Louis had to offer, including the Arch.

    One of the absolute highlights was meeting you and going up to the firearms training simulator with you and Andy. I'd never even touched a handgun before and you were very kind to give me instructions in proper handling and stance…and maybe a quiet word in my ear about the guy behind the desk on the left. 😉 Even though I knew that there was no ammunition in the guns, it was still a bit anxiety-inducing to handle the weapon or see someone else waving theirs about. (I was using a Smith & Wesson .40 caliber, yes?) Maybe by the next time I see you, I'll have had more instruction & practice and can join you on an actual gun range. Thanks again, Zoe!

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Didn't go in the Arch this time, although I wanted to – no time. I have very clear memories of doing it when I was about 10 years old, though. Interesting what sticks with you.

    I'm much more afraid of dark alleys and deserted parking lots than I am of physical things. Except for fire. I hate fire.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine
    Sorry it’s taken me a while to get to comments today. We only arrived home yesterday afternoon and I’m completely zonked. Even a brisk 5-mile walk has not had its usual wakening effect.

    As I mentioned, if something doesn’t really scare you, then doing it requires no bravery. I am immensely impressed by people who have a phobia that scares them witless, but manage to get past it.

    And look what happened to Superman …

    Yeah, that Twitter thing was a pain in the neck, and I hope I didn’t pass it on to too many other people.

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah
    Great to put a face to the name in St Louis, and why not flag down writers and industry people? Of COURSE you have every right to do so. Readers and bloggers make this industry go round – without them we’d all be shouting in the forest with nobody to hear. (I find a tripwire works best, btw…)

    Yeah, thinking about the Bomb Bay again after all this time doesn’t do much for me. Still, I’ve done it once – I don’t need to do it again …

    Hi JT
    The viewing area at the top of the arch was a little like being in an odd-shaped plane, but I can think of a LOT of people who would have freaked out about the elevator. It was this tiny little round capsule with five squished-together seats and no proper headroom, and it clanked as it adjusted itself all the way up. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, although I was fascinated by how the mechanics of the thing worked.

    Lovely to see you, also, and thank you for the good wishes. This year is heading to a close so much more positively than it started out, I’m pleased to say.

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise
    Wow, I’d think twice before doing something like that, but you not only got away with it but you recognised that you did so. Saves your legions of fans from having to hunt those two down afterwards …

    Incidentally, buying a selection of martial arts/cage fighting/gun range T-shirts and wearing them on such occasions is one of the best forms of self-defence I can think of.

    Hi Rae
    Great to see you – and looking so stress-free. Interesting comment about the scary thing being work-related. I’ve always been more troubled by the prospect of getting into trouble than of physical danger. Hmm, how dumb does that make me, I wonder?

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lisa
    Nice to hear from you, and sorry for the queasy-inducing pic. Perhaps I better not post the ones I take while hanging out of moving cars …

    Major change is incredibly scary – far more so than stepping out onto a glass floor. Major change is stepping out without knowing whether there really IS a glass floor there or not. I salute your bravery.

    Sheltering yourself is not necessarily a bad thing. Don’t forget that getting lost in a book, or a movie, can make your heart race and your palms sweat – if it’s done well enough. And that you can also get that endorphin rush from love and laughter.

    Hi Beth
    Bravo to you for making that call. It worked out brilliantly. Doc is a very cool guy and much kudos for you for finding someone who is not only clearly very good at what he does, but has the right attitude to fit in well with a group of crazy mystery people.

    I had no idea you suffered from agoraphobia, which suggests that you cope with it extremely well. I hope they’ve managed to adjust your meds so it causes you the minimum amount of grief. You are far braver than I’ll ever be ;-]

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Bobby
    You don’t remember the last scary thing you did? Ah, the mind has a way of blanking out trauma ;-]

    We want to come back to Boston, so I’ll make a note to check out Trident for the white hot chocolate. I have to say, though, that the stuff we had in Chicago was so good that several of us wanted to be alone with it … OK, sorry to put such a scary mental image in your heads!

    Hi BG
    I still don’t like being too close to long drops, although climbing ladders and scaffolding while we were building the house cured me for most of it.

    Mitchy had a grand time I think – and check out the very pro grip she has on that 9mm S&W!

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Christine
    Hey, we’re all civilians in this game – we got into it by being readers and fans first, and writing second. We didn’t see much of St Louis beyond the arch, although the view from up there was stunning.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the simulator. I confess I’m a little paranoid about gun safety, about people who leave their fingers wrapped around the trigger when they’re not pointing the weapon at something they actually want to shoot! Yes, you had a .40 cal S&W Tactical. Probably the nicest of the handguns Doc brought along, I thought.

    Hi Alex
    Must be something about having too much imagination. Being in a very rural area, we have no streetlighting around our house, and walking up and down the lane to the house, in the dark, allows my imagination to run riot, inventing monsters looming over me. Far more scary than ‘real’ threats, which I know how to deal with. Maybe that explains why I can’t watch horror movies.

    And it’s no bad thing to be afraid of fire. People are too blasé about it. During the blaze that destroyed Kings Cross station in London a few years ago, people were insisting on getting off arriving trains onto the platform, even when it was clearly on fire. They’ve only recently identified the last victim.

  19. Reine

    Zoë, heh. If you really are, ". . . immensely impressed by people who have a phobia that scares them witless, but manage to get past it," you would have celebrated the day I walked across the glass floor (seven see-through stories up) of the Div School library stacks to talk with Helmut Koester about writing an essay to be admitted on his course. All my fears contained in one event and I don't know how I managed.

  20. Lisa Alber

    Forgot to mention one of my favorite quotes: "Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, "I will try again tomorrow." (Unknown)

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine
    You’re right, I would have celebrated, but only if YOU were the one pushing to do that walk of faith in the first place. I don’t like to see people peer-pressured into acts of personal courage. Bravery comes from inside, not outside, otherwise it’s just a different kind of fear.

    Hi Lisa
    What a great quote. However, I also admit to a sneaky liking for the Yoda quote, too:

    “Do or do not. There is no try.”


  22. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    Yes, I really wanted to do it, so I could meet Helmut and be admitted on his course. I also was promised a job working on the 18th and 19th century books in those stacks. I didn't really care about the conquering part of it. At least that's what I thought until I had actually done it. I was so proud of myself, I called home just to tell Step. Yay. But the Skywalk? No. Not enough motivation there. The teasing thing is very cultural in Indian Country and not problematic for me — but the emotional essence of that bridge scene in your e-thology. :•|

  23. KDJames

    Didn't go to B'con, but hope to someday. Almost certainly will attend in 2015 (how can that futuristic-sounding date be only fours years from now?), since it will be here in Raleigh.

    I don't fear heights, but I have a horrible fear of falling. A steep unfamiliar staircase makes me nervous, really fast express elevators that skip stops on all the middle floors on the way down nauseate me. I didn't even like sledding when I was a child, and snow skiing? Forget it. [A couple years ago, I found out as sort of an aside during a conversation with my mom that I fell down the basement stairs when I was a toddler. As they say, that explains SO MUCH.]

    Anyway, this morning when I was doing a quick two minute glance at my RSS feed (where the pics tend to be HUGE), I clicked on this post and got to the first pic from the Sears tower and, I tell you what, scrolling down from the top as it revealed the depth of the drop created a sensation exactly like falling. Damn it, Zoë. I literally slammed my laptop shut. Scared the crap out of the cat. Interestingly, I have been to the top of that tower and it didn't bother me in the least to be up there and look out. I knew I wasn't going to fall.

    Scariest thing I've done, physically, had to be going on my kids' favourite ride at DisneyWorld — Splash Mountain. I know, go ahead and laugh. But that sheer drop at the end is the stuff of nightmares. Stood in line with them and backed out five times before I decided that probably no one had ever ACTUALLY DIED doing it. I was close to being the first. Then they talked me into going twice more before I said enough already. Terrifying. Every. Single. Time. Pretty sure I would die of sheer terror if I had to go on that Bomb Bay thing. Eight stories up? No. No way.

    Glad you had a good time at the conference and the gun range. I'd love to go fire weapons with you someday. That's a thrill I could handle without getting all horripilated. (love that word!)

  24. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine
    Hmm, just goes to show that anyone can overcome just about anything, if the motivating factor is strong enough. Now THERE’S an interesting topic to ponder …

    The bridge-swinging scene in A Bridge Too Far is taken directly from real life. That particular Dangerous Sports Club also perfected the art of bicycle abseiling, which is just as crazy as it sounds.

    Hi KD
    Please pass on my sincere apologies to your cat. (Lovely picture that presented, by the way.) I have a friend who is dreadful with stairs and drops, too. In fact, his vertigo is so bad that if he’s in a hotel room on anything other than the ground floor he has to have the curtains closed all the time he’s there. I don’t think there was any kind of precipitating event, though.

    And small children are not reliable indicators of danger. To misquote Kipling:

    "If you can keep your head
    when all about you
    are losing theirs …
    then you CLEARLY do not appreciate the true gravity of the situation."

    Hey, the more the merrier at the gun range, as long as everyone keeps their finger off the trigger most of the time – now that really DOES scare the crap out of me … ;-]

  25. KDJames

    *snort* I wasn't being literal about the cat. But she's 18-1/2 years old and just about everything is trauma-inducing these days. Well, the stuff she can still see and hear.

    A bit of terror first thing in the morning is probably good for all of us.

  26. Lisa Alber

    Ah, point taken! I'm thinking there's room for both. For example, I do the writing, that's for sure, but it's the larger picture, the trying to get a career going through my writing, that causes me the heartache and fear, that requires the courage from day to day…

  27. Zoë Sharp

    Hi KD
    Cats are like that – they have a sly sense of humour. When I was a kid and occasionally allowed to stay up late on my own to watch the show jumping highlights (which for some reason were on close to midnight, I seem to remember) one of our cats used to sit on my lap and keep me company. And every now and again, they’d sit bolt upright and dig their claws in, staring at a dark and creepy corner.

    OK, maybe more things than I realised scared the crap out of me ;-]

    Hi Lisa
    ALL writers suffer from that fear, trust me on this. A few years ago I’d just read a book to review by an author who is now a very big name. I sent her an email telling her how much I’d just enjoyed her work, and the email I got back said, “Wow, you don’t know how much I needed to hear that – I was just thinking it sucked and was about to throw my computer out the window …”

    Keep the faith.

  28. Karen O, NZ

    Hi Zoë,
    THIS scares me, which is why I'm actually doing it. I want to say thanks to the murderati community, because even though this e-intimacy feels weird (I feel like I'm getting to know so many of you, even though we may never meet face-to-face) I have read this blog avidly since coming across it via Zoë's website, and have never had the courage to comment.

    I say thanks for the depth and breadth of what is shared, and evoked and for connections made, insights gained, it's real 'food' for my mind and self.

    I got so close to commenting on Tess's post the other day – because as a reader I have heartfelt gratitude for the courage, persistence, sacrifices, discipline, the passion and the guts that it takes to bring forth the 'indefinable magic' of the stories that I value for so many reasons. Thanks to all of you for putting those precious aspects of yourself out there, and now that I've written it – hopefully I can get some sleep!

  29. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Karen
    Bravo – well done for taking that step. See, there was a glass floor under you after all. I'm so honoured that you chose to comment. We are all a very friendly crowd and it's great to be able to mingle with you here ;-]

  30. Reine

    Hi Karen O, I want you to know that I liked your comment and appreciate that you took the plunge, because this is a great community worth being brave for.

  31. jeroen

    Hi Zoë,

    It was a pleasure meeting Andy and you at Bouchercon, and sharing one of its highlights for me – the shooting range. I can assure you the horns are gone now, but the grin remains! After returning to Wellington I found a copy of KILLING INSTINCT at the library. LOVED it, now have the next one waiting to be read.

    Best to you both!


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