Back from Europe

By | October 10, 2023
Carole in the courtyard of the Vatican Museums in Vatican City, at the "Sphere Within a Sphere" sculpture. She is posing with Theodore, aka "Adventure Moose".

Carole in the courtyard of the Vatican Museums in Vatican City, at the “Sphere Within a Sphere” sculpture. She is posing with Theodore, aka “Adventure Moose”.

We just got back from a two and a half week trip to Europe. We flew to Bilbao, Spain (in the Basque country) and hung out there for two days, then boarded the Norwegian Gem for an 11-stop cruise that began in Bilbao and ended in Rome. After three days in Rome we flew home. A kind fellow tourist (identity unknown) managed to give us both Covid-19 toward the end of the trip — our last full day in Rome and our travel day home were both miserable, and we tested positive as soon as we got to our house. (We did wear masks the whole way home, our diagnoses unconfirmed but strongly suspected.)

Other than one “sea day” as we sailed from Bilbao to our first stop in Lisbon, Portugal, we had a different stop in a different city every day, winding up visiting a total of six countries:

  1. Lisbon, Portugal
  2. Portimao, Portugal
  3. Cadiz, Spain
  4. Gibraltar, UK
  5. Motril, Spain (jumping off point for a bus trip north to Granada)
  6. Ibiza, Spain
  7. Palma, Spain
  8. Barcelona, Spain
  9. St. Tropez, France
  10. La Spezia, Italy (jumping off point for a bus trip inland to Florence)
  11. Rome, Italy (we also visited Vatican City)

We are not inveterate cruisers — this is our fifth cruise, ever:

  1. 2004 Western Caribbean — Royal Caribbean
  2. 2007 Alaska — Royal Caribbean
  3. 2017 Hawaii — Norwegian Cruise Line
  4. 2018 Baltic Sea — Norwegian Cruise Line
  5. 2023 Spain/Portugal/Gibraltar/France/Italy — Norwegian Cruise Line

What made this one different, other than the length (the others were not as long) was that I bid for a room upgrade weeks prior to embarkation, not knowing if my bid amount would be enough to beat out others bidding for the same upgrades. Apparently it was, because we were upgraded; it was to a two-bedroom (a master bedroom and a smaller kids’ bedroom) “penthouse” suite that was the size of two regular staterooms and which came with butler service — daily treats and fresh ice deliveries multiple times per day, stuff like that, with our morning scheduled room service delivered *exactly* at the specified time each day, and other little lagniappes of elegance. We were also entitled to priority debarkation each day and we got to have breakfast each day in one of the specialty restaurants rather than fending for ourselves in the main buffet. It was nice. It will be hard to go back to a regular sized stateroom if we cruise again in the future. (Note: it was not a “Haven” suite — NCL has a whole deck at the very top of the ship for the people who really want to lay out some cash; you can’t even get to that floor without a special keycard. We did not spend that much.)

Would we do it again? Yes. It was fun. But as I said, we are not inveterate cruisers; we’re averaging one every 5.2 years.

What was our favorite part? Carole really liked Granada and the forests around the Alhambra. I liked Cadiz a lot — it was a bustling small city with lots of color and life and beautiful views. We both would have enjoyed having much more time in Barcelona, but that stop was annoyingly short. We were allowed off the ship at 9 am or so after arriving from Palma in the Balearic Islands and we had to be back on the ship at 4:30 pm so we could sail on to St. Tropez in France. We saw Park Guell and the Sagrada Familia in a whirlwind of rush-rush-rush… and that was it. Carole says in addition to the above, she really liked Gibraltar — there was an actual zoo with macaques and lemurs and other interesting things down in the city, and then of course there were the views from atop the Rock and all the Barbary apes.

Least favorite? Well, other than the stop where we caught Covid … 🤒 The one stop neither of us had much good to say about was Lisbon, as we found it a somewhat shabby, rundown city with uncollected trash everywhere — everywhere we were taken on our two-hour “Panoramic Drive through Lisbon” tour took us past slums and rundown buildings. I’m sure there are nice areas, but we didn’t see them on what was meant to be a quick trip to the really cool stuff. (Our Baltic trip taught us the folly of booking nine-hour “See Every Damn Thing There Is To See” city tours; they left us exhausted and mentally wiped out.)

We’ll be sharing some photos and anecdotes, but please don’t feel compelled to pay any attention to them whatsoever. Other than being made to look at someone else’s baby photos (and I grant you that there are even people who enjoy doing that) I think having someone else show you endless snaps of fun places they went while you were at home punching a timeclock is at the top of a lot of people’s “No, thanks” lists. 🌍

P.S. Do not touch the apes.

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Lived Experience

By | December 18, 2022

Two random thoughts that popped into my head today at almost the same time:

1) I have never had to sleep in a bathtub. In movies and sitcoms this sort of thing seems to happen all the time; you have one more person than you have beds and couches and next thing you know the person whose house or apartment it actually IS is bunking down in the bathtub with a throw pillow and an afghan. I feel like I’m missing out.

2) I have had a presumed child molester or serial killer try to lure me into his car. I was walking down Main Street near the Virginia Tech Mall in Blacksburg, Virginia on a sunny afternoon when I was a sophomore in high school. Guy in a sedan pulled up next to me and asked me for directions to something that was literally a mile or two down the street east of us. I informed him of this. He told me he’d gotten lost twice trying to find the place and would I please get into his car and show him? I said “No, I’ve got places to be.” He kept on wheedling, wouldn’t I please get into his car? I said “No” and walked off. To this day, I look back and think — first, I should have gotten his license plate, second, I sort of wonder what he’d have said if I asked “So, quick question — you got a knife in there or a gun?” and third, what if I’d asked “You try this on a lot of kids?” And of course I wonder what did happen subsequently — did he abduct some other kid that day? Had he abducted others, etc.?


I guess, of the two, I’d rather have slept in a bathtub.

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Farewell and goodbye, sister

By | October 15, 2022

I always feel as though I should start every blog entry with “I know hardly anyone will read this and it’ll probably come across as self-indulgent navel-lint-picking, but I’m posting it ANYWAY.” So, that said, if you’re still reading this, I apologize in advance for what will probably be a real downer of an entry.

My sister Elizabeth passed away on August 16 or 17, 2022. Due to the circumstances of her passing, it’s impossible to say exactly when.

She was my oldest sibling, three and a half years my senior. She and I were not especially close, not by a conscious decision on either of our parts. She lived in Florida and I live in Vermont and we only spoke a few times a year.

See, Elizabeth was on disability, suffering from schizophrenia and related disorders as well as the effects of a lifetime of doctors saying “Let’s take you off THAT drug and try you on THIS one.” She was quiet and calm and never seemed to have anything to say. “Hi, Elizabeth, it’s Jay, how are you?” “Oh, I’m fine.” “You doing anything interesting lately?” “I’m taking some art classes.” “Everything going okay?” “Yes.” Etcetera. There was never any news to report, never any questions from her about how I was doing; her statements were responses to my direct questions, offered without elaboration. Every call was like that, try as I might to draw her out and get her to show something other than just blank, flat affect.

I felt guilty as heck for not calling much more often, but each time I did call, no matter what I said or asked or did, the answers were pretty much the same. I am certain that she was more outgoing in person with people she was taking art classes with, or with my cousins who she had dinner with a couple of times a week, or with people from church. I don’t feel like I really knew her any longer — I only knew what I could deduce or infer or see from my calls and occasional face to face encounters. Perhaps she just didn’t feel like opening up to me. I’ll never know.

Elizabeth was adopted. My parents had been married for several years and had tried without success to have children. They adopted Elizabeth in 1964 and, as so often happens, then things started happening. My sister Julie was born a year after Elizabeth, then I was born two and a half years after that, and then finally my brother Rob was born three years after that. Elizabeth got good grades in school, was a Girl Scout, took piano lessons and dance lessons, had friends — an absolutely typical childhood. Then, at some point in late in her high school years, schizophrenia symptoms set in hard. She became a very different person very quickly, not by choice but because her brain was all of a sudden betraying her. I remember many bad nights when Elizabeth was completely out of control, upset and raging, detached from reality and mired in incredibly dark black depression.

Photo of the first time Elizabeth and I met

It did not help that the state of mental health care and treatment in the early 1980s in the state of Virginia was not at all what one would have liked it to be. I made reference above to doctors changing her medications frequently; that’s not an exaggeration. Each time she was passed on to another psychiatrist for a medication evaluation she would come home with a completely new set of prescriptions having been told “I don’t know why they had you on THAT and THAT”. Six months later, she’d get switched again. Over time, she became quieter and quieter and more just sort of … there.

The medications and care helped somewhat, but all thought of her heading off to college (she did graduate from high school) were pretty much abandoned. She had a few boyfriends who were of the “skeevy, no-count” variety. There were at least two times that Dad and I had to drive up to wherever she was currently living and rescue her from whichever abusive boyfriend she was sharing a mobile home with. One time we got a call from her informing us that she and her current guy were in Melbourne, Florida and she needed our help to come home because he’d wrecked her car. And so forth. It was no kind of life and I would give anything to be able to go back and somehow stop all that from happening, somehow. To bring her previous self back and to set her back on the course to have a happy and full life.

Eventually she wound up just living with my mother and father at the house we all grew up in, then at the house in Florida that they retired to in the mid-1990s. Mom and Dad retired to the town Mom grew up in: Brooksville, Florida, a relatively sleepy little town a couple of counties north of Tampa. Elizabeth qualified for Florida Medicaid and continued to get Social Security disability payments. She did take a lot of art classes — she was very fond of painting plates and bowls. She did watercolors and colored pencil drawings and all manner of other things.

And so things went for sixteen years or so. Then Mom passed in 2011 and it was just her and Dad in the house, with my wonderful cousin Anne living across the street and looking in on them and helping out and doing endless errands and meals. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, Dad was a very short-tempered man and had very little patience, empathy, or tact. He endlessly bullied Elizabeth and hectored her every chance he got. “You didn’t go for a walk? Why not?” “When you go for a walk, you need to do more than just walk halfway down the street and back, Elizabeth!” I’ll spare you the whole litany, but essentially, Elizabeth couldn’t do anything right in Dad’s eyes.

When Dad passed in 2016 the house was sold (thanks to an enormous amount of work by Julie and Anne to get the place emptied out and cleaned and into shape where we could actually sell it) and his estate divided among the four kids with a chunk going to Anne. Elizabeth moved to a subsidized apartment and for the first time in decades, was in a position to really make her own decisions. She could drive, she had a car, she had money inherited from Dad (although, to avoid making her ineligible for Medicaid and disability, it was put into a trust and disbursed by a trustee as needed). She continued to take her art classes, had dinner twice a week with Anne and her sisters Cathy and Mary and our aunt Esther, and as far as I knew was doing more or less okay.

I hate that “as far as I knew”. I never once in the six years between Dad’s passing and Elizabeth’s passing went down to Brooksville just to visit her and see how she was doing. I did make at least one trip down after Dad’s death to do a few things relating to the house. That’s something else I feel very guilty about, by the way. I guess at the time I kind of justified leaving a lot of the grunt work of getting the house cleaned and repaired and sold to my sister Julie and my cousin Anne on the grounds that they were willing and available and I had a busy work travel schedule at that time. (I’m an ass.) I should have done much more.

I do know for a fact that I did not show enough gratitude to Julie and Anne for all that, by the way.

At that point in my life I was traveling for work 40+ weeks a year… and had my own major depression to cope with … and kept thinking “I should go down and visit” but years went by and I never did. Those periodic “How are you?” calls were about the extent of things.

Elizabeth and Sarah

Then I got a call from Anne on Wednesday, August 17, out of the blue. She was the bearer of bad news. Elizabeth had passed away.

Elizabeth hadn’t shown up the previous evening for dinner at Anne’s house and, worried, Anne had gone over to check on her. If I understand it correctly, Anne didn’t have a key to get in, and Elizabeth did not answer the door. The police were called to do a health check and the apartment manager had a key so they could get in — and upon entering, they found her on the floor.

There was no sign of foul play. There had been no prior indications that Elizabeth was at risk; everyone knew that Elizabeth had high cholesterol and high blood pressure and rarely exercised and, as we found out subsequently, seemed to live off ice cream and diet soda, but there had been nothing especially unusual in previous weeks that would have made Anne and Mary and Cathy say “Elizabeth, you should see a doctor”. (No autopsy was performed; I believe the coroner’s verdict was a heart attack.)

I flew down to Tampa first thing the following morning and Julie drove down from North Carolina. My brother Rob lives in western Canada and was not in a position to come down. Julie and I met with a funeral director to arrange Elizabeth’s cremation, and then we went to close out Elizabeth’s apartment, clean it up, figure out what could be donated and what would just be tossed out, etcetera. And that’s when I really wanted to cry. Elizabeth’s apartment was an absolute nightmare. Literal mounds of unwashed clothing. Trash everywhere. The apartment was almost impassable. It was, frankly, like one of the episodes of that TV show about hoarders. Elizabeth had been living in absolutely squalid conditions and even now, sitting here two months later in Vermont, I still want to cry just thinking about it. Her dying was bad; her dying without my having seen her in six years because I was always “too busy” was worse, but worst of all was knowing that she’d been living in that state.

I should have been coming down at least once a year to check in on her and see how she was doing and not just rely on her saying “I’m fine” and figuring that if she wasn’t fine someone would tell me. I don’t know how long things had been like that but I hated the thought of her living like that for even a day — and it could have been and probably was years. My cousins are terrific people but they had respected Elizabeth enough to let her make her own choices — I certainly don’t fault them or think that they should have been inspecting Elizabeth’s apartment on a regular basis. I should have been checking in on her. Not just calling, but being there in person like a decent person would have done. I know I couldn’t have been there to clean her apartment for her once a month or something, but I have to think there would have been some way to keep things from getting to that state.

If only I hadn’t been so good at making excuses. Yes, I’m mentally ill. Yes, I’ve got terrible depression that incapacitates me from time to time. Yes, I have a demanding job. Yes, I’ve got my own life to lead. That’s all a bunch of B.S. She was my sister, and I let her down.

The one comforting thing about that trip to Florida to excavate and clean Elizabeth’s apartment (which took days of Julie and me working together and making trip after trip to the nearby dumpster) was that the memorial service we held at Cathy’s house the following Monday was well attended.

Julie and I had tried to reach out to as many people Elizabeth knew as we could; folks from her church, people she’d been in art classes with, people from a few groups she’d belonged to, hoping that word would get around to the people we didn’t know to invite, and that somehow we’d get a respectable showing. On Sunday morning, we’d gone to the First United Methodist Church of Brooksville; she’d been a member for many years and had sung in their choir. People there were very sad to hear of her passing. We asked the new pastor at the church, who’d never had an opportunity to meet Elizabeth, if he could come and lead prayers at the memorial service and he was happy to agree. Next thing we knew, it seemed the whole choir was making plans to attend, with an electronic keyboard and everything.

Cathy’s house was absolutely packed and person after person shared stories about their time knowing Elizabeth and saying how much she’d meant to them and how much they would miss her. Some of her favorite songs were sung. The minister led prayers and said a few words. There was plenty of food there as well — no one left hungry. All in all, the memorial really was everything we’d hoped it would be, and more. We hoped that somewhere, Elizabeth was watching.

But that’s the other thing that really saddened me: I’d never seen the side of Elizabeth that everyone talked about. I had tried on so many occasions, while my parents were still alive, and via phone after they were both gone, to draw her out, to get her to really open up to me, and I’d never succeeded. Perhaps I was too much like my father in her eyes. I can understand her not wanting to share with me if I reminded her of the man who had hounded her all those years.

But in the end I’ll never know. All I know is that there was far more to Elizabeth than I was aware of… and that I let her down in so many ways.

In closing, I’m reminded of a quote from Bret Harte:

If, of all words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are, “It might have been,”

More sad are these we daily see:
“It is, but hadn’t ought to be.”

Farewell and goodbye, sister. I’m sorry you’re gone.

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Green Black Walnuts

By | October 5, 2022

When I was a kid growing up in the mountains of Virginia, there was a large black walnut tree directly behind our house, close enough that on windy days you would hear thump! thump! thump! as green walnuts dropped from the tree and onto the flat roof of our house, especially over the room I slept in. Dozens more walnuts could be found on the grass around the tree.

Well, a decade ago I decided that I missed that experience, so I planted some black walnut trees along the edge of our back yard, close enough to the house that in theory they could land on our sloping metal roof or the steps outside the living room and give me that “thunk!” I was longing for.

I’ve never seen any green black walnuts lying around back there, though, and the trees are so tall that it’s not really easy to see if there are lots up there in the branches. I wondered if for some pollination-related reason we just weren’t getting any.

Well, just now I heard that “thunk!” I knew so well. Right on the wooden steps outside the living room, where I happened to be sitting. I looked out the door and sure enough! A green black walnut, right there at the top of the steps. I ran to get my cell phone to snap a photo to commemorate the happy moment and … when I got back that walnut was GONE.

I think I know why we’re not seeing green black walnuts all over our back yard. Our local squirrels don’t get caught napping.

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Death of a kitty

By | September 27, 2022
The post below is not ‘new news’ — it’s something I’ve been meaning to post since early July. It may be ‘new to you’ or it may be something you already know about via Facebook or elsewhere.

Our cat, Marie, passed away on July 6, 2022 after a lengthy battle with cancer.

If you have actually been following me here or on Facebook, you’ll recall multiple posts about poor miss Marie over the last few years. (See here, and here)

Marie started having health issues in mid-2020. She developed a huge bloody tumor on her left side and numerous smaller tumors here and there. We had the biggest tumor surgically removed — twice. Each time it grew back within a few months. It never metastasized internally and she never seemed to really notice it much; she had as much or as little vim and vigor as she’d ever had. However, when you have a tumor that looks like this (see picture) weeping blood, you realize that you’ve got to act.


In late 2021 and early 2022 it became obvious that something more needed to be done, and that’s when she began a program of CCNU oral chemotherapy, given every six weeks or so.

The tumor started to shrink within a week or two of the first dose. Six weeks after the first dose she had her second dose, and the tumor really began to shrink at that point. She also lost a lot of appetite (one presumes due to nausea from the chemo) and we were given mirtazapine in salve form to smear inside her ears to stimulate her appetite. Each time she looked a little droopy, the mirtazapine would have her back to normal pretty quickly.

After five months, the tumor looked like this:

Carole and I were delighted. The oncologist at Peak Veterinary Referral Center in Williston was delighted. There was next to nothing in the veterinary literature about treating feline progressive dendritic histiocytosis, and on at least one celebratory checkup I suggested that perhaps she could get a good paper into some journal or another on the subject.

We agreed to administer one final chemotherapy treatment in mid-June, “just to make sure get all the cancerous cells”.

That’s where we made our big mistake. If we hadn’t done that, she might be alive today.

After two weeks or so, her appetite began to wane again. Unlike the previous occasions, mirtazapine did next to nothing to perk her back up. We told ourselves that it had helped a bit and that she had shown more appetite, but frankly, I suspect we were just seeing what we wanted to see.

After two days of lher ooking like a limp dishrag we hustled her off to Peak again, where we got the news that she had a hematocrit that was lower than anyone (the oncologist or the technicians/nurses) could ever recall seeing in a living cat. It was on the order of eight percent. Her red cells were all but gone. Her white cells were all but gone as well. It was as though she’d just stopped making new blood cells.

I consented/begged for heroic measures because a) I’m an idiot and b) I felt responsible, having cheerfully encouraged that final round of chemotherapy a couple of weeks earlier, that final round that seemed to have blown up on us all catastrophically.

The oncologist warned that going all-out would be … expensive.

I said “I’m opening the checkbook, doc, please save her.”

Carole, for her part, was much less sanguine (see what I did there?) about Marie’s prospects and the value of spending … well, spending as much as we wound up spending. But she knew how soft-hearted I am about cats and other animals and did not want me mad at her later, saying “if you’d agreed to take out a second mortgage to pay for treatment, she’d be alive now!”

They gave Marie meds to stimulate blood cell production and transfused blood into her and she perked up considerably.

For, oh, about 12-14 hours.

Then it all began again. She dwindled. There was another transfusion and more meds. A bit more perking up, but not as much as before.

I visited her on the afternoon of July 5 (Carole had to work) and petted her and told her I loved her and once again, saw hope where there really wasn’t any.

But late that night — around 1:30 am on the 6th — we got a call from Peak, from the oncologist herself. Marie was fading quickly and was, in the words of the oncologist, trying to die. She said they couldn’t keep on endlessly transfusing her because other cats might need the blood as well (and cat blood banks are not as well stocked as human ones; there was only so much to go around) and because it really didn’t seem to be making a difference. I could tell that she didn’t want to be giving us such bad news, but that particular oncologist is a very nice, caring woman and clearly wished she could be saying just about anything else.

I knew what she was looking to hear from me and I said it. “I understand. It’s time to let her go.” Carole was sitting next to me, half asleep (it was 1:30 in the morning) but squeezed my hand. She knew how upset I was and was going to be. The oncologist said they would provide euthanasia so she would not suffer any longer.

Cue the tears.

The next morning I ordered her a headstone from the same company that we’ve gotten headstones for our other four deceased cats, dug a suitably deep hole in the sad patch out by our shed where the others are, and went by the vet to pay and to pick up her body.

We have a strange ritual we do for all our cats when they die. We bury them in their preferred pet bed, with their personal food bowl, with any other items that were especially significant to them, and wrap it all up in a shroud of some kind. In Marie’s case we buried her with a blue bath towel — not an especially large one — but one that had done good service over the years protecting Carole’s lap from Marie’s claws whenever Marie jumped up to get petted. Whenever Marie had seen Carole put that blue towel on her lap, she’d known it was time for petting and would rocket right on up there.


We never would have been able to look at that old blue towel again without thinking of Marie, and we knew that if there was a kitty afterlife, she would probably want it with her.

We are now down to three cats.

One is Jacqueline, the long-haired black cat that I adopted at the same time as Marie, from the same shelter. They had been at the shelter together for months — black cats are not adopted as quickly as other cats — and had actually been together before that at the house that wound up surrendering them to the shelter. As far as I knew, Jacqueline had never known life without Marie around and I didn’t know if she would behave differently or strangely when Marie was no longer there at mealtimes, no longer sharing sunny spots. As far as we can tell, though, she’s taken it in stride. If she’s noticed the loss, it hasn’t changed her behavior.

Our other two cats, Maggie the tortoiseshell kitty and Max the orange tabby, were not as close to Marie as Jacquie had been, although we had certainly seen plenty of times when Max would use Marie as a hassock or pillow, often when they were sharing sunny spots. They don’t seem to be super broken up about Marie’s passing.

But nonetheless, I am. The oncologist said that there were two possible reasons for Marie’s cell count plummeting — one was an immune reaction caused by the chemo, where Marie’s system attacked itself, or, that we had basically nuked Marie’s blood-cell-producing marrow.

I (not a veterinarian) think the second theory is most likely correct. We were probably damaging her marrow with each chemo dose, but it wasn’t until the last one that we finished wiping it out. We will never know if she’d have had many more years of life if we had stopped after the second to last dose, since the tumor was all but invisible at that point; perhaps she could slowly have built back her blood cell production capacity.

I still regret so many things, not least of which is my happy “You could get a great journal article out of this, doc!” comment. You know that old saying, “the operation was a success but the patient died?”

Well. We clobbered that tumor, but at the cost of her life. And all my “we’re opening the checkbook, doc, don’t spare anything that could help, no matter what!” did was prolong her suffering.

I’ll never stop wishing it could have been otherwise.

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“I Could Feel His Hand On My Shoulder…” and All That

By | May 18, 2022

I had a thought this morning:

Let’s say that I happened to wind up in an active shooter/hostage situation of some kind and somehow managed to tackle and disarm the gunman. Unfortunately, in this hypothetical scenario, I do get shot multiple times and wind up clinging to life in the ICU.

I am a white male who attends church on a more-or-less weekly basis. It goes without saying that the conservative/Christian radical right would try to co-opt me as a sign that God is watching His children and keeping them safe and so on — never mind all the times that gunmen killed dozens of people, many of whom also attended church regularly.

If I were prepared to be an absolute cad (and assuming I did survive my wounds), I could probably make a lot of money on the inspirational-speaker circuit, to say nothing of getting invited to be on all the conservative/radical right talk shows and so on. All I’d have to do is say “Jesus saved me, I could feel Jesus by my side while I was tackling that naughty shooter”. Instant $$$.

I grant you that this whole scenario is unlikely to take place, but this morning, I figured out what I should do in the event that it does. The moment I first have a microphone of some kind thrust in my direction — as I leave the hospital, or as I give a press conference from my hospital room, or, you know, whatever — and someone asks me what I credit my heroic measures and my survival to, I’m going to blink, try to look surprised that they even have to ask that question, and then I’m going to say:

“I prayed to Elvis. Elvis saved me.”

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Unpleasant Flashbacks: Bad Employers Edition

By | May 6, 2022


I had a random flashback just now to an unpleasant memory.

From late 1995 to May of 1998, I worked for a franchised computer software training firm in the Triangle region of North Carolina (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill). We offered the kind of instructor-led classroom instruction that you sent your office staff to in order to learn how to do mail merges in Word or learn Excel fundamentals or what have you.

We also had Microsoft certified training courses for higher-end technical people — Windows NT 3.51 and 4.0 stuff, mainly. Each of these courses had an exam that participants could take and if they passed enough of them and in the right combinations they could earn various certifications, MCSE (“Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer”) and so on. The irksome thing, though, is that some of the Microsoft server products we offered certified training on simply didn’t work. They had either been rushed to market, or insufficiently tested, or both.

I once spent the better part of a weekend working from the office, trying to get a Microsoft Systems Management Server install to actually function properly and push software out to workstations on the network. Try as I might, it just didn’t work. I even wiped the server and workstations, reinstalled NT 4.0 from scratch on the server and Windows 95 on the workstations, installed SMS, went through the configuration steps very very very carefully, and … zilch.

This was before the ubiquity of the Internet. Nowadays if a software company pushed out a piece of crap like that, the Internet would light up with technical articles saying “don’t waste your money on SMS, it doesn’t work.” But back then, we had no such place to look to — and Microsoft, of course, swore up and down that the software worked when they installed it.

So there I was that following Monday trying to teach SMS installation and configuration to five or six IT staff from various local companies, sweating bullets, praying like crazy that when we did the setup exercises in class that it would miraculously work. It didn’t. I looked like a complete fool.

Why didn’t I cancel or reschedule? Why did I wait until the weekend before the training to play around with the software?

My firm was all about the money. Rescheduling was just not done. Giving instructors adequate lead time to prepare for a class? Completely unnecessary. Employing salespeople who would say and do anything to make a buck, even if we couldn’t deliver on what they sold? Par for the course.

Our salespeople would sell ‘season tickets’ to allow a customer to take any and all of our classes for a set period of time for one overall price, a good deal in theory… but they would sell them to people WHO DID NOT OWN COMPUTERS. When the students turned in terrible ratings for the instructors because they (the students) literally had no idea what was going on and could not comprehend what the software was doing, we trainers were the ones held responsible.

The closest I came to being fired was when one of our salespeople sold one of those season passes to his computer-less mother, who, after a day of taking Intermediate PowerPoint (without ever having had Basic PowerPoint, Windows Fundamentals, or ANYTHING), went to him and told him she’d learned nothing.

On another occasion, I was told (on a ‘prep’ day where I wasn’t scheduled to teach) that I had to go into a room full of students RIGHT THEN and train them on QuarkXPress for the Mac. I knew QuarkXPress for the PC and would in any event have just worked my way through the student participant guide one exercise at a time, but that turned out to be irrelevant. Turns out that we had never paid for copies of QuarkXPress for the Mac and it had not been installed on the computers in the classroom. (I had to apologize profusely to the participants and tell them we would refund their money.)

This nonsense was somehow, again, my fault. I finally got through to our owners what had happened and they did a facepalm, but they did not turn around and discipline the training manager for that location, the guy who had so utterly failed to have his act together, scheduling a class we could not actually deliver and allowing the salespeople to sell seats in it. Unfortunately, this sort of idiocy happened much more often than you would expect.

So as for that SMS class — I’d been notified on a Tuesday that I would be teaching it the following Monday. Naively, I assumed that the software would work if I just carefully followed setup instructions and that I would hide my relative unfamiliarity with the product with my usual mix of confidence and BS. (This got me through a lot of nightmares over the years.)

Uh, nope. None of the participants could get theirs to work. Neither could I.

So why did I stay at that company?

Well, I was one of the very few people who could actually cope with the craziness without just running out of the building screaming; I was a good trainer and students did give me high ratings and I actually could go in and deliver classes on software I’d actually never prepped on or used. It helped that I am a very fast reader and could take in the gist of a topic and the exercise steps in the participant guide in a few seconds before turning to the students and saying “Okay, our next topic is…” People never knew I was seeing the software for the first time.

Also, I was paid pretty well. The owner knew I could do things that no one else could do and would do my best to be professional even in the craziest circumstances, and my reimbursement reflected that.

I managed to survive there for almost two and a half years before moving to Vermont and getting a job with a real, actual, professional software firm that wasn’t staffed by a bunch of former used car salesmen. Only one other trainer had lasted as long; with the exception of the two of us, no one else ever lasted more than five or six months.

Dénouement: A couple of years after moving to Vermont — sometime around the year 2000 — I got a voice mail message from the owners of that terrible computer training firm. Either they were looking to open a Vermont branch or they knew some other franchiser who was (it was not entirely clear which), and in any event, they wanted me to come work for them.

That was one phone call I did not return.

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Feline progressive dendritic histiocytosis, follow-up

By | April 28, 2022

In December of 2020 I posted about the aggressive skin cancer — feline progressive dendritic histiocytosis — which was afflicting our large bear-like black cat, Marie. You can read that post here.

Progressive dendritic histiocytosis is unusual in cats. It is more commonly encountered in dogs. Consequently, there is very little material in the veterinary literature about how best to treat it.

In Marie’s case, the surgical removal of the visible large tumors, which took place in November of 2020, had little lasting effect. The site of the largest tumor, now excised, promptly began bulging with a new tumor; one guesses that the excision didn’t get all the cells from that area. By May of 2021, things looked pretty bad again and we took Marie in for a second excision. They checked and there was still no sign of metastasizing to her internal organs, which was one small blessing.

But then, by the mid-to-late fall of 2021, the tumors were back like a bad penny. Red, bulging, oozing and bleeding. Marie’s appetite was undiminished and she showed as much energy as she ever had, which led us to believe that there was again no metastasizing internally. We took her to our local veterinarian who advised us to take her back to the oncologists at Peak Veterinary Referral Center in Williston. The oncologist at Peak said that she did not recommend more surgery; it clearly hadn’t worked. She offered us three options:

  1. Steroid therapy
  2. Chemotherapy using CCNU (chemo capsule every 4 weeks)
  3. Electrochemotherapy: non-surgical way to try to gain local control: may require 2+ treatments for control, can repeat as needed on recurrent or new lesions

We doubted the steroids would work; they hadn’t made any real difference before. Electrochemotherapy — chemo injected into specific locations — seemed unlikely to work because Marie had so many small tumors spread all over. To me, the right option was oral chemotherapy.

Mind you, we had already spent, I don’t know, $4000 or so on all the visits, tests, surgeries, and so on. Most people would probably not spend all that on a cat. I am not most people. As long as Marie’s quality of life was good — eating normally, behaving normally — I saw no reason to consider putting her to sleep. Carole was a lot more cold-blooded about it but I insisted we give it a try. Never mind the expense.

So, we started the oral lomustine (CCNU) in early February.

Four weeks later, the largest tumor had shrunk in size a little but was bulging and bleeding even more. We took her in for another treatment in early March and got her checked out; her white cell count was a little lower than they would have liked so they had us wait two more weeks. She got more chemo at that subsequent visit and the oncologist noted that the tumor had flattened out, though still occasionally bleeding, and that a lot of the small lesions here and there on her body had diminished to the point that we couldn’t feel them. We were worried about the bleeding but we had to trust and hope.

As April went by, we noticed the tumor had entirely flattened out and that skin was starting to grow over the site, a millimeter at a time. The sporadic weeping/oozing/bleeding had basically stopped. That was a very hopeful sign.

Yesterday, when we took her in for her third dose, it really looked a lot better. The oncologist at Peak seemed genuinely surprised by how well it was working — as before, there’s not much out there in the literature to use as a guide and we’d had no idea if this particular chemotherapy regimen was actually going to accomplish anything. But working it was, and there were smiles all around as I left Peak with Marie in her travel carrier.

And that’s where we stand now. She’s scheduled for three more doses of lomustin (CCNU) over the next four months at which time, if all continues to go well, the tumors will be entirely gone and hopefully all the remaining cancer cells will have been obliterated. I imagine that we will need to have her checked pretty frequently afterwards — but “checked” basically means palpating her all over and looking for anything that feels raised or unusual over the skin. All that fur gets in the way of early detection.


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Six Months Ago I Had A Heart Attack, and Other Worries

By | March 13, 2022


Six months ago to the day (Sunday, 9/13/2021 — my 24th wedding anniversary, actually, and a week before my 54th birthday), I had a heart attack. I probably had it while diving in Lake Champlain, after overexerting myself lugging all our tanks and gear down to the lake. I know I felt my heart racing like crazy while underwater and something just felt wrong. I didn’t really start feeling symptoms until the middle of the night that night, when I woke up to find my left arm hurting like hell and suffering from “bad heartburn”. I remember distinctly getting up twice to slug down Alka-Seltzer and being confused about why it wasn’t helping.

That Monday was confusing and weird. I didn’t feel right but rather than go to the emergency room I just slept a lot of the day. People encouraged me to go ahead and hit the ER but I had the typical worry that I’d get there, spend a lot of time waiting, and get told that it was all nothing and to take some additional ibuprofen. Or something. Maybe I was afraid they’d smack me around with a wiffle bat. Either way, I didn’t go.

Finally, someone (probably Carole) found links demonstrating that “painful left arm and ‘bad heartburn'” are classic symptoms of a heart attack. That Tuesday I finally sucked it up, grabbed a book to read while waiting, and headed to the ER at the University of Vermont Medical Center, expecting to have a long wait before being seen — I was sure I’d find a waiting room full of Covid patients.

Turns out that the waiting area was maybe 1/3 full — and moreover, almost before I’d given them my name and date of birth, they had me back in the exam area getting an EKG, x-rays, ultrasound, blood tests, bam, bam, bam. Unless things are really bad in an ER, words that hint at heart attack or stroke are taken very seriously. (Carole came over to spend the evening with me and was very kind and gentle. For once, she knew better than to harp on what an idiot I’d been.)

One test led to another and then another, and next thing you know I’d been admitted and was scheduled for a heart cath procedure the next day. If certain tests had come out a little differently, I would have been catheterized that night. Next day, the cath showed that I had some pretty serious blockages, not in the main arteries, but in the subsidiary arteries that feed the heart itself. They found a LOT more plaque in there than they expected in a man my age and consequently I wound up with four stents and prescriptions for blood thinners and more blood pressure meds, not to mention a strict ban on eating salt, saturated fat, and cholesterol. I was sort of hoping for some kind of prize, a big stuffed carnival bear or something, but apparently you only get those if you’re a kid.

I asked the docs, and they said that my diet was actually probably not the primary cause of the heart attack. My heredity is just awful — father who had multiple heart attacks and heart procedurs, and mother who had blood pressure that was just off the charts most of the time. I drew the short straw on both fronts.

All in all, it was not a bad heart attack — I had not done any significant lasting damage to my heart. But it was serious enough to need that catheterization — and without said procedure, no one would have ever known how bad the blockages were. In a sense, I was real damn fortunate to have had my little cardiac infarction when I did; otherwise, when my heart attack finally did come a year or two in the future, it probably would have been a lot worse.

Call me Mister Lucky.

I was sent home one day later, my blood troponin levels having started to diminish at last, and everyone we spoke to assumed that I’d need weeks of recuperative time. Doctors, nurses, Carole, my managers, my co-workers, people from church — they heard “heart attack” and figured I was going to be out of commission for quite some time.

They had not factored in what a complete idiot I am.

What came next?

Friday of that week was the first day of my at-home rehabilitation. I got really bored sitting around the house that morning, so I logged in to my work laptop and spent the afternoon reading and replying to email. Along about four p.m. that day I got an instant message from my boss going “WTF?”

Later that day, around 5 o’clock, I went for a two mile walk — just out my front door, down to the bridge over the Winooski, and back again. Just to see how I felt during and afterwards. I felt a little more tired than I’d expected, but not too bad.

So, of course, two days later I went for a nine mile walk.

The funniest part about that was that I was toddling on down Snipe Ireland Road (yes, that’s a real road) when a car slowed to a stop and the driver said “Jay???” in wild incredulity. It turns out it was a member of our church, Kath, whose husband Ernie had helped ferry my car home from the hospital (since obviously I wasn’t going to be driving it home myself). So she knew I’d just had a heart attack, and here I was walking down a long dirt road, not a care in the world, metaphorically whistling a merry tune (disclaimer: I cannot actually whistle).

I confused the folks at church as well that Sunday by showing up at all — they, like most people, sort of visualized me lying in bed with a visiting nurse attaching IV lines to me and looking concerned. People don’t just have heart attacks and then immediately go about their normal daily routine. And here I was saying “Wotcha, how ya doing?” like I’d just gotten back from a day trip to Poughkeepsie.

I refused to take any time off and got right back to work immediately. Over and over during the following days I got messages from people going “What the hell are you doing logged and sending emails?”


I started cardiac rehab about two weeks later. First thing was a stress test, where they stick you on a treadmill and keep increasing the speed and incline until you vomit or you tap out. I didn’t do terribly but I didn’t do well, either. I don’t know how well I would have done before the heart attack — I’d done a lot of walking over the past few years, but very little real cardio.

I was told to get on, and stay on, the “Mediterranean diet” — avoiding saturated fat, salt, cholesterol, red meat, cheese, and Uranium-235 and instead eating as many vegetables and fruits as I could choke down, plus lots of fish (and the occasional chicken). I can’t stand fish so that part was out.

The part I did find rather strange, though, about the Med diet was the insistence that I get as much olive oil in me as I could — and when I say the goal was for me to consume a lot of olive oil, I mean they wanted me to consume a LOT of olive oil — like, over a cup a day, more if I could manage it. I was happy to sauté every vegetable in sight in olive oil and to use olive oil in place of butter in things like mashed potatoes. I think they were in favor of my shampooing with it. All hail olive oil, the universal remedy!

The sort-of hard part was doing completely without salt. I’d cooked a pretty low-salt diet for years and years already; my mom had blood pressure that was up in the stratosphere somewhere, so she almost entirely stopped using salt in cooking when I was around 8 or so. As I tried it in 2021, I found that cutting it out entirely — not using it on potatoes. meats, etcetera — made for some very flavorless meals. At least, until, I found out about the seventeen different flavor varieties of “Dash” (née “Mrs Dash”). I found and purchased salt-free ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, and so on, and so on.

The hardest part was abstaining entirely from cheese. I love cheese. Which, now that I mention it, might help us understand why my blood vessels were so choked with fat and cholesterol.

Rehab went well. I showed up three mornings a week at a building located in a scenic complex right next to I-89 in South Burlington. The rehab center had about ten treadmills, three rowing machines, a set of Nautilus-style weight machines, quite a few exercise bikes of both the recumbent and upright variety, a couple of ellipticals, and one thing they simply referred to as “the Iron Maiden.” I did a half hour intense treadmill session followed by 2000 meters on a rowing machine (trying to get under 10 minutes each time) each day. I did a good bit of walking on my own outside the rehab time, in evenings and on weekends. Then too, that November I walked the entire 60-mile route of the 2021 San Diego Susan G Komen 3-Day.

Back in September at the hospital, they’d changed out pretty much all my meds — my cholesterol drugs, my blood pressure drugs, and so on. My body responded very well to the new regime — my blood pressure went from 155 over 110 (and similar scary numbers) to a routine reading of 110 over 70.

Score 10 for the home team, there. I was ecstatic.

For a decade I had tried every drug in the book and the best we’d been able to do is get my BP below 150 now and then. (I know you’re probably thinking, “maybe the catheterization opened things up and lowered your blood pressure?” I asked, and they said no, the vessels they opened up were not major vessels that would have had a big impact on my blood pressure.) I don’t know why all of a sudden everything clicked with the new regimen, but I was most certainly not complaining.

Between the rehab, my completely overhauled diet, and my revised meds, everything was coming up roses. I lost — and I am not kidding here — 30 pounds. My blood pressure got to absolutely ideal levels. A lipid (cholesterol and triglycerides) test came back with literally the best numbers I have ever had.

This frightened and confused the staff at the UVM Cardiac Rehab department. They noticed that Jay was, week by week, becoming less of Jay. Apparently this was not common among their patients, many of whom took kind of perfunctory interest in pushing themselves on the exercise machines and perhaps cut back from two pizzas a day to just one.

Yes, that’s kind of a mean thing to say, but …

One day the UVM staff actually stopped me and said “You’ve lost a lot of weight and you’re doing really well on the machines, what gives?”

I replied, with some perplexity, “I … did what you told me to do?”

They looked at each other as though I’d just announced the second coming of Lyndon B Johnson and that LBJ would arrive shortly in a UFO pulled by twin unicorns. Apparently, someone actually doing everything they’d been told to do and consequently markedly improving their health as a result was just not something that happened every day, if at all.

I finished rehab on February 1st. Since then I’ve tried to do pretty intense home treadmill sessions on my own and have kept to the diet. I’m now tipping the bathroom scale at 197 — the least I’ve weighed in over ten years, and down from the mid-230s around the time of my heart attack. (Disclosure: I am 6’2″ tall.) If I can lose a couple more pounds I will, per the BMI index, no longer be considered overweight! (I know the BMI is a terrible way of measuring health and weight, but it’s one a lot of people more or less comprehend.)

My goal is the low 180s — and to stay there this time.

Long story short

To make a long story short, I rule. To make it a little less short — I’m doing pretty damn well, proof positive that heart disease can be a manageable, chronic condition if you have the time and inclination to make the hard choices and to realize that actions have consequences. Provided I keep to my diet, keep exercising, and keep checking in with my PCP and cardiologist, there’s theoretically no reason I can’t expect to live a couple more decades, at least.

Now, off on a wild tangent

For 14 years, I’ve taken part in 60-mile, three-day fundraising walks on behalf of Susan G. Komen. I’ve raised something like $60,000 in the course of doing all those events.


Well, it’s not because I have cancer, or because my wife has cancer, or because a close relative has cancer, or because a co-worker has cancer. I have gotten to know, and seen waste away and die, several beautiful women who I met through the Komen walks.

I did all those walks because, at the age of 40, I realized that I was basically just a drone who worked, ate, slept, and otherwise made almost no impact on the world. Certainly no good impact. And moreover, because I know enough about cancer and what an utter bitch it is, I don’t actually want anyone to experience it. I don’t want anyone having to get up in the morning and look in their mirror and wonder how many more of their children’s birthdays they’re going to get to take part in. I don’t want people wondering if they’ll make it to their next anniversary. I don’t like the idea of people spending eight damn hours a day, day after day, in infusion chairs — with all their hair fallen out, and each evening vomiting up their internal organs.

Yes, the morbidity and mortality rates associated with cancer have improved over the last 25 years but we’re still looking at 40,000+ deaths from breast cancer each year, along with hundreds of thousands of new cases. One in eight women will get breast cancer during her life.

And you know what really sucks? I mean, other than the chemo and the loss of taste and the loss of hair and all the vomiting and losing half or more of your body weight and and and … and all that other stuff. But what really sucks is the knowledge that you can do everything your doctors tell you to do — I mean everything — and it may not mean a damn thing at all. In lots of cases, sure, it can and does help. But in other cases, all it really seems to do is put off the inevitable for a few months.

I am very lucky to have drawn “heart disease” in the Bad Luck Sweepstakes. Like I said, if I keep doing everything my doctors tell me to do, I have every expectation of being around for quite a while. Far more people die of heart disease than breast cancer, but of those, at least 1 in 3 are deemed “preventable”. Okay, I don’t particularly want anyone to have severe heart disease either… and my logic and reasoning here may make no sense at all. You don’t buy seafood from a guy selling it off the back of a truck in a vacant lot and you don’t take medical advice from Jay Furr.

But I’m going someplace with this. Humor me for just a little bit longer.

Until recently, I haven’t had a loved one with cancer. Haven’t had a loved one with cancer that gets treated and goes away and then comes back and gets treated again and goes away and then comes back again and then refuses to respond to treatment.

Now I have.

I have had to learn first hand how powerless a family member feels, wanting to make everything better and knowing they can’t. I’ve had to go through at least three of the five stages of grief — I’ve spent a lot of time in denial and bargaining and depression.

I hate cancer and I want like anything to be able to say “It will get better. I promise.” But I can’t. I don’t know that it will. Wanting it to and having it happen are two entirely different things.

I feel absolutely powerless.

Who’s the family member?

Meet Marie.

No, I’m not joking. I’m posting about my cat.

That’s Marie before the giant tumor showed up on her side. She has a form of skin cancer that is very rare in cats. It has not metastasized inside, not yet anyway. But it looks just God-awful and no, I’m not going to post a photo of the tumor.

Today I got to spend time — twice — mopping up blood off the floor as a result of the tumor opening up and bleeding. Not gouts and rivers of blood — but steady large droplets of blood all across our floors. (We asked the urgent care vet today how to bandage a furry cat and were told that rather than do a half-assed job and wind up creating a nice warm moist environment under a bandage for bacteria to thrive in, we would be better off leaving the tumor open and uncovered. She’s got an appointment with the oncologist in three days anyway.)

Marie has had surgery and medication to reduce the tumor twice now — and each time, it has come back larger. She has smaller tumors here and there that have not so far bulged out of control but the really huge one on her side is flat-out scary to behold.

She’s getting chemotherapy and anti-inflammatories. She still has appetite and still hops up in laps, but we don’t know what each coming week will bring. I lie awake at night talking to myself, saying “I wonder what options we might have if we told the doctors that there was no limit on what we were willing to spend.” Bargaining. Denial.

Are we being abusive by keeping a cat alive just to watch her suffer because we’re not willing to do what’s right? I ask myself that every day. She still seems to have good quality of life. As I said, she still loves her chow and she still begs for lap-time from Carole every single morning and a lot of evenings — and that’s an otherwise standoffish cat asking for love.

I have promised myself that if Marie does begin to suffer and lose a lot of weight…, if the doctors say “We understand that you love your cat, but there comes a point…”, and so on, I will make the hard decision. We’ve had to make that decision three times with other cats, and it’s never been easy, but they were suffering and didn’t understand what was happening and looked to us to make it all go away and we couldn’t.

With Marie, there’s still a chance. There is still a chance that the chemotherapy may make an impact. That the tumor might shrink. Since this is such a rare form of cancer in cats, no one really knows what the prognosis is.

If it’s this upsetting fighting cancer in a cat, I can only imagine how bad it must be to be a family member of a human with cancer, knowing what is happening to them and knowing the odds. Knowing that there’s a chance — a chance — that the cancer might go into and stay in remission… but also knowing that maybe it won’t. I don’t want to be the voice of utter gloom here — survivorship odds go up each year.

I feel so terrible, gloating about how well I’m recovering from a heart attack, knowing that there are people out there willing to work ten times as hard as I have, but who know it may not make a difference at all.

If I thought I hated cancer before, I really, really, really, really HATE cancer now. Every time I see that awful tumor and feel my heart and stomach wrench — I just think unprintable thoughts and wish the black cloud hanging over us would just.



In closing

It may seem like the non-sequitur to crown all non-sequiturs, but I’d really appreciate it you’d sponsor me in the 2022 New England Komen 3-Day. I like to think that the money we all raise will alleviate suffering and bring hope — and that’s something that’s priceless.

If you wish to sponsor me, you can do so at this link:

God be with you. Be well.

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Well, There’s A Cheerful Note

By | October 1, 2021

I was a little disconcerted when I found out from a cardiologist today how utterly blocked some of the arteries that wrap around my heart are. Not talking about the aorta here — I’m talking about the arteries that supply the heart itself with oxygen. One of them is completely, 100% blocked. One is 80% blocked.

I asked “then how on earth am I not in serious trouble”? The cardiologist said “fortunately, you seem to have a lot of redundancy here. That one there is blocked, but this other one over here is still able to supply that area.”

Diet and exercise are not likely to ever open those up; it’s a case of trying to keep it from getting worse. I may have had a mild heart attack with few lingering symptoms, but I still have a time bomb in my chest.

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