This has been a bad month for earthquakes. The Pacific is working things out with its tectonic plates in a spectacularly violent fashion, affecting those near and dear to us in dramatic and terrifying ways. Our hearts, usually occupied by the few square miles around our own lives, become pained by the vision of devastation of those we love far away, and we struggle to make sense of the distances between us, our inability to run at a moment’s notice to the aid of the victims.

I have a love-hate relationship with images. I’ve written about them before, in a more personal context. But every massive quake or tsunami or hurricane in the era of the 24-hour news cycle becomes one more opportunity for me to dip into helpless depression, a feeling of impotence. The horror that we all experienced watching September 11 unfold internationally, I still remember with crystal clarity. I also remember the depressive episode afterward, culminating months later with me jumping in a car alone for a road trip, trying desperately to shake the grip of helplessness that had strangled me since September.

Our own Zara is in the middle of the most devastating event of her life, her world having been literally shaken to its foundation. I can only watch with grim respect as she answers her own need for understanding by writing it down and sending it to the rest of us via the wonder of internet connectivity. And in the face of this most recent earthquake, Japan’s northeastern shore being washed away by an unimaginably horrifying wave, I find myself torn in twain.

My son goes to a Japanese immersion school in Portland. Every day, he goes to school and interacts with his Japanese teachers, and a host of interns who, for one year, elect to uproot themselves from Japan to learn how to be teachers in the United States. The interns are woven into the fiber of our school: we have to do fund-raising, an impossible amount of it, every year to bring our interns here, and every year the community rises up to pull us through the financial gap. They live in our houses, they celebrate holidays with us, come to parties with us, share meals and laughs. They become family.

We’re saying good-bye to this year’s Japanese interns tonight at a party thrown for them. They will perform for us, we will give them awards, there will be Taiko drumming.

But I’m not sure it will be so celebratory.

As the first video of Japan was coming in last night, my husband and I watched the tsunami roll in over a tiny town. It was gripping and slow, the first wave having already flooded the area, the surges behind creeping up to continue the brutal work of the leader. The journalist in the helicopter above must have been dazed: every time he turned the camera to the sea, there was wave after wave, lined up like battalions, ready to smash into the already wracked earth below. On live television we watched as entire neighborhoods were washed up into the interior, cars, planes, houses. At that distance one can imagine that these are but toys, but we know with grim certainty that those cars and houses belong to people who are also being washed away.

I fight internally with myself. My need to be informed about these horrifying events, which touch people I know personally, rubs against my knowledge that if I look too deeply at the crisis, I can be thrown into another bout of useless debilitating depression. I’m not being useful if I just fall into the trap of watching the videos roll in with the same regularity as the tsunami surge to shore. I’m only creating that special fragility in my own psyche where the darkness can enter and take hold.

So my heart goes on being pained and open and broken on behalf of the victims, but I willfully turned off the video this morning when I could feel the chinks in my armor start to give way. The video is too visceral, too overt. And I wonder if we, those of us so far away, are actually experiencing shock–misplaced because the horror is not ours.

I understand the need for the images to get out. It makes our world small, and we reach with tiny hands across the breadth of the ocean. We rally our resources to aid strangers, we donate money and send rescue teams, we wish we could do more, but do whatever we can to bridge the space between. But I feel the media fatigue already. I’m turning off the video storm surge, and going to the party for our Japanese interns tonight instead, to ask them what they need, what we can do, maybe just listening to them talk.

I can do nothing else.

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QUENBY MOONE used to be a graphic designer who wrote once in a while. After her father came down with a touch of Stage IV prostate cancer, she became a writer who did graphic design once in a while.

She's written a book called Living in Twilight (no relation to vampires - unless dying of cancer is a part of Edward's story) in which her design skills came in handy, and includes some of her stories featured on The Nervous Breakdown.

41 responses to “Earthquakes and Storm Surges”

  1. Gloria says:

    Quenby – well said.

    I don’t know what to do. I can’t be an ostrich. But I also can’t deal with the impotence. I’m so sad about what’s been happening (from Haiti, to Chile, to Christchurch, to Japan…) But my sadness serves no one, least of all the people whose lives have been directly affected. I send money when I can. I hug my children more.

    I don’t know.

    Very timely discussion piece, Q. Thanks for getting it going.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      I so easily get sucked into the pathos of it all, and want to keep informed about it too. But I realize that at a certain point I’m just abusing myself; my brain cannot actually process any more.

      And I wonder how many of us, not skilled in media criticism or hyper-aware of the saturation, are rendering ourselves completely impotent because we become like the deer in the headlights, stunned and frozen and too stupid to look away and keep walking.

      Ugh. I feel ill.

  2. Alison says:

    As always, thank you for your amazing ability to state so eloquently those thoughts so many of us feel. I, too stayed up way too late consuming these devistating images while trying desperately to call family in Japan. It was too much to digest so late at night. My visceral reaction was complete awe. No tears, no emotion. I couldn’t process all the information. The first thing I did this morning was turn on the news and immediately I was struck with such pain and felt that lump in my throat as I tried not to cry in front of my kids. My armour is totally dented…
    As I read response from friends on facebook, I can’t keep myself composed. We share in such an amazing community and are uplifted by those that want so dearly to share there kindness and love. Let us together embrace the interns and offer our support and love.

    I am assured that my family is safe but await confirmation. I need to stop streaming BBC and compose myself.
    Thank you again.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Alison, you’re killing me! I’m so sorry for so many reasons, and I can’t imagine what you must be going through. Ugh. I’ll see you tonight.

      Turning off the BBC is probably a really good idea.

      Love to you, Q

  3. Greg Olear says:

    Thanks for writing this, Quenby. I think you’ve expressed how many of us feel.

  4. Quenby, this is beautifully written. I was having the same experience this morning watching the footage and reading the coverage of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan – looking at the pictures in utter disbelief that another massive natural disaster has happened again so quickly, and on an even larger scale than the earthquake in New Zealand. It is hard to explain the emotions that come over me when I see and read these things and feel helpless to do anything to aid the victims. I believe you’ve put it down perfectly here. So, thank you.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      It’s stunning. We struggle with these torrents of images and I don’t think they fit into our brains. They make me feel ill. I really don’t know how we’re supposed to deal with it.

      It makes me admire emergency workers, people in crisis zones, war zones, disaster areas. I have no idea how they do what they do without going insane, but they have my undying respect.

      Thanks for the compliment, nevertheless. I just realized I couldn’t handle any more; it’s a relief that I’m not the only one with image fatigue.

  5. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    I think we expect way too much of ourselves as human beings if we think we should be able to integrate the horrors that are happening all over the world, all at once, all available with the click of a remote control or mouse. It’s too much. It’s too much pain and suffering.

    With all due respect to 9/11, Hurricane Katrina was my most direct teacher on how I personally need to manage such things. Although where I live got an edge of it, we lost power for days. I was spared the early videos and photos because we couldn’t use TVs or computers. Then, once the power did come on again, I intentionally avoided images. I knew I couldn’t handle it. (I have ancestral ties to New Orleans and several friends were displaced.)

    Now, when disasters happen, I stay informed, but I do so with words, not pictures.

    Thanks for this compassionate piece.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      I remember Katrina the same way. I don’t have personal roots there, but knew people from there and I realized fairly early that I couldn’t watch the endless coverage there either. 9-11 just blew my tolerance out the window and I have a very low threshold before I feel myself becoming overwhelmed.

      Maybe it’s maturity–recognizing the signs that my mental fabric is beginning to tear–but I wonder how many people don’t know how to switch off and either become inured to the suffering, or fall prey to the same debilitating paralysis I felt in other crises.

      Well. Enough of that. Yes, words are enough. More than enough. Thanks, Ronlyn, as always.

      • Matt says:

        Between New Zealand and Japan my mind is being screwed with big time right now. Been having major flashback dreams about being back in N.O. for Katrina, seeing all the immediate devastation that was wrought. Horrible feelings, made worse by this unshakeable sense that that’s such a selfish perspective on things, to filter them through the lens of my own experience.

        Thanks for phrasing this experience with such clarity. I, so far, have failed to.

  6. Lorna says:

    “I fight internally with myself. My need to be informed about these horrifying events, which touch people I know personally, rubs against my knowledge that if I look too deeply at the crisis, I can be thrown into another bout of useless debilitating depression. ”

    I feel the same way. As well, I feel a sense of quilt. Guilt to wake up in a warm bed, guilt that I have running water, guilt about turning the key in the ignition of my car and driving on even roadways. I had to turn off the tv this morning because it’s tough enough to see it once, but with the way media covers it and continues to show the destruction over and over again every 15 minutes, it haunts me and I feel so helpless.

    About the only thing I can do that feels somewhat comforting is to hit my knees and pray.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      That’s just it; it’s not enough to show it once, but it’s on over and over, clip after clip. And now, if you don’t have cable, you can watch it on the internet, pick your own clips, and watch them over and over, news footage, amateur video, security cameras in parking lots picking up buckling concrete.

      It’s enough to make one question their sanity.

      Anyway, I don’t feel survivors guilt, but I do feel helpless, frozen. I wish I could do something more active than send money to Mercy Corps, but I don’t know what to do so I send money to Mercy Corps. That’s all I know. That and writing about how paralyzed I feel. How ironic is that?

      Thanks, Lorna, as always.

  7. Zara says:

    Dearest Q,
    How timely and sad your piece is. And on a selfish note- how wonderful to know that we are in your thoughts.
    I too watched the images from Japan last night and was horrified at what I saw. While the images themselves were surreal, the actual tragedy unfolding was all too real for me and I immediately packed my van up and headed away from the beach. At this point in time, for me, it seems entirely possible, no, probable, that another natural disaster could occur at anytime. Nothing seems safe and it is overwhelming.
    For us in Christchurch we were spared much of the image trauma as we had no power for weeks. In some ways it was worse for others who watched the horrible images again and again without relief. I have now got to the point where I cannot bear to look at the television. I did watch some YouTube video of the Christchurch quake the other night and I vomited right after- so I guess I’m still not quite up to reliving it. I think we all feel so helpless when we see such massive devastation and yet cannot do anything concrete to help- but I can tell you that in my own experience the fact that I knew people around the world were caring and thinking of me and my poor city gave me a huge amount of resilience and strength- so the very fact that you have taken time to write this means that you have already helped a lot. Bless you and stay safe. Much love, Z xx

    • Quenby Moone says:

      SO much love, Z! I think it’s safe to say that we here on the Breakdown were having our own breakdowns as we watched with our hearts in our mouths what was happening to your fair city. And there is much relief that you are making your way, even if to higher ground.

      I have a friend who was in the earthquake in San Francisco in 1989, and she had terrible PTSD afterward. Be sure that you’re not just coping–make sure you’re taken care of completely. She was like the walking wounded for over a year; I imagine that you’ll be making your own way delicately and slowly as well. It’s just too damned hard to make solid ground which becomes liquid make sense.

      I hope you’re good–we’re all rooting for you all over the world. And know that you always have places to stay where-ever you might travel. We want to hold you with our arms and eyes once again!

  8. Joe Daly says:

    Quenby, you stated so perfectly what I’ve felt all day- my empathy constantly tested by the exhaustive media coverage.

    For some reason I found myself awake at 2 a.m. and flipped on the tv to scan some sports scores while falling back asleep. Instead I saw the images of the tsunami and next thing I know, I’m awake, alert, and trolling FaceBook to see what friends might be impacted and how much concern, if any, I should have, living so close to the coast.

    The tsunami arrived in my neighborhood in the form of a 2.2 foot set of waves. The only damage done was to the expectation of the surf community and the media, who were camped out along the coast, describing just how bad the effects could be if the waves were 20 feet or so.

    While we’re OK, my heart goes out to the real victims. In the meantime, we can only hope that the media eventually finds the appropriate themes and perspectives to disseminate these events to the world.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      It’s really a test, isn’t it? I can’t believe what we’re expected to endure by the media–and what we ourselves put up with. I really have to fight myself to not go looking for more answers on the internet, because in the end, there aren’t any.

      Not for me anyway; I don’t have family in this crisis so I don’t need to avail myself of the ever-ready media blitz to find lost loved-ones. I’m glad that people can search for each other more quickly now in that respect, but the ever-present images on every screen just kill me.

      It’s funny about the surfers. I’ve heard that lots of surfers were pretty bummed. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry or both. And the media can suck it. Screw their trolling for the next crisis. I’m sick of their shit.

      Thanks, Joe.

  9. It’s strange how close we can feel these days, watching on the internet and TV as the event unfolds. Years ago we would’ve heard rumours of an earthquake months later and probably wouldn’t have felt so helpless… But nowadays the world is so small that we feel like we can reach out and help even from the other side of the world. But we can’t.

    There was a huge earthquake in southern China on Thursday – a place I’m visiting in a couple of months. Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed or seriously damaged and dozens of people were killed. But no one really seems aware of it. It’s further away, I guess. I Googled it today and found that mostly the internet is concerned with the impact of the Japan earthquake on Chinese stocks…

    The internet went down across China for a long time yesterday, too. According to some sources, the government was “switching the internet off and on” to clamp down on reports coming out of the earthquake zone.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      This is fascinating, David! I’m not a complete ostrich, so I’m surprised that I haven’t heard about the Chinese earthquake. It’s one thing when Alaska has one; they often have pretty big tremors but it shakes the halibut, caribou and bears far north. But tens of thousands of buildings is news. I can’t believe we haven’t heard about it.

      Also interesting about the internet. I wonder if you’ll find out the answer to that riddle, too!

      It’s true about the immediacy of today. It took weeks for the British to discover that they were at war with the colonists in America in 1775. Now we “tweet”, a ridiculous term which apparently is with us for the duration, and we learn of people being shot in Libya while they’re being shot. It’s unbelievable. I often feel like we’re living in science fiction, which may just be a mark of old age. But I wonder how all this information, good, bad and indifferent, is over-saturating our brains.

      I always love your comments, David. Thanks!

      • I think that the internet being done is heavily connected to the spread of revolutions… China is terrified by what’s going on in the Middle-East and every year there are huge protests across China that are unreported and brutally suppressed. People are watching China carefully and so they’re controlling everything they can… I doubt they want disaffected refugees from an earthquake rising up because of the inevitable lack of support from an over-stretched, under-caring government.

        Anyway, I probably shouldn’t be saying this under my real name. Damn.

        The Libya thing frustrates people, indeed, because they’re watching and it feels like we’re all on the battlefield with them, except that we’re safely at home. The sad thing is, if these protesters lose they’ll all be tortured or killed and we’ll all have forgotten by next week, washed away with the next media storm.

  10. Simon Smithson says:

    Some friends of mine and I were talking about the earthquake in Japan last night, as we were hearing about it, and one made the point that the changing way information is presented to us – especially when it comes from an urbanised, first world country, like Japan or New Zealand, can make all the difference in how hard it hits. Suddenly its less of a distance to come to terms with it; less of a distance to empathise.

    As, of course, we do.

    Sometimes to the point of paralysis. Because the facts and the situations are overwhelming – seeing the footage of that wall of water simply engulfing everything in its path… how do you feel like you could make a difference to something like that?

    • Quenby Moone says:

      It’s totally paralyzing. That wall of water was enough to make me close up shop, but I came to understand from Lars that it was just the first of the footage to roll in. Lucky me, I had a migraine so I left the footage alone, but Lars was transfixed. He briefly tried to find the clip that made him the most miserable, but then we both realized it was a zero-sum-game. I’m not going to learn anything other than that the tragedy really is as bad as I think it is, and really was as terrifying as I know it was. What’s gained?

      So I bypassed it. I’ve learned a great deal of self-restraint when it comes to massive human tragedy; I know what my limits are and they’re very low. Which doesn’t mean I don’t empathize; it’s impossible not to. But I don’t bathe in the endless show until the next one comes along. That just seems cynical and unholy.

  11. Quenby, I read this earlier today. You capture so many of our emotions and reactions so perfectly here. Well done.

  12. Irene Zion says:

    It really is too much, Quenby, Christ Church and now this in Japan.
    Before we knew things so quickly, people had more time to take things in.
    It’s just too much at the same time,
    too much destruction,
    too many dead,
    floods, fires, earthquakes, tsunamis,
    too much.

  13. Quenby Moone says:

    Too, too much. Hold those you love a little tighter, including your own Lenore. Pinch Duke for me, too, just because.

    • Irene Zion says:


      I’ll hug Lenore for you, carefully, but pinching Duke?
      Have you ever seen Duke in real life?
      He’s young, muscle-bound and eight feet tall.
      Even if he likes me, he might react instinctively and crush me like a cockroach.
      I might tell him you send a pinch.
      How’s that?

  14. zoe zolbrod says:

    It’s so hard as a far-off bystander to know where to turn or what to do. Tonight when we were watching some footage online, my two-year old came up and thought it was funny. “Look at those funny cars!” “Those are real cars, sweetie. There might be people in them.” “Those funny little cars!”

    It broke my heart, the tussle between wanting to bear solemn witness and wanting to be with her in her laughter. It reminded me of 9/11, when my son was an infant in an unusually good mood, and the weather was so beautiful, and we went to the lake with a friend to absorb the tragedy and felt confused by the mixture of horror and a baby’s joy.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      It was strange–a relative gave birth September 12, and it’s really hard to square the circle! Joy! Misery! Joy! Horror!

      It makes the point in a horribly overt way that no matter the magnitude of an event, life goes on. 9-11 was so strange because nationally the weather was perfect. Not a cloud in the sky, temperate, balmy. And the footage pouring in was this stark miserable contrast. It was really surreal.

      Well, nothing you didn’t experience yourself. Ah, well. In some ways it’s encouraging that our kids just go through it with a laugh. It would be too heartbreaking to explain the enormity of events like this.

  15. Judy Walker says:

    Quenby, it was a pleasure to meet you and your husband officially this evening at Richmond. (Jen is my daughter.) This post gives me an inkling as to why Jen speaks so highly of you; I had to turn off the news feed, too, today, but you gave eloquent voice to the miasma swirling inside. Thank you! I’m looking forward to getting to know you throughout this next year — and several thereafter.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Thanks so much, Judy! Lovely to meet you, and I’m sure we’ll see you through many years of intern events! And outside of school as well, I hope.

      Yes, miasma is a perfect description. I’m keeping myself informed, but trying to not feed the temptation to get sucked into the the miasma. So far, so good. I’m donating money to Mercy Corps, keeping in touch with friends…and hoping I’ll know how to keep being sane.

  16. dwoz says:

    There’s something about geological-seismic displacement/activity that just stops you in your tracks. I mean, even a world war is something that occurs on a human scale, but when the earth moves and adjusts itself it’s bigger than anything we can wrap our arms around.

    I had an earthquake right under my feet here in NH a couple days ago. Like, epicenter exactly under my animal barn. It was a very small one, but the animals were certainly freaking over it.

    And yes, it seems that seismic activity is on the rise. Or, the other possibility is that the earth just keeps on keeping on, but because of the reach of the media, all global pain becomes local pain.

    There’s a lot of people dying, all day, every single day…something close to a million people a week cash in their ticket, globally, with perhaps 1 percent of them being untimely… but today the difference is that they all die in your living room, instead of some unfathomable distance away.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Wow! You don’t think of New Hampshire as earthquake country, but I guess anywhere is earthquake country! I’ll bet the animals were freaking out!

      I had an application on my desktop for a while that showed seismic activity in the world all the time. In many ways it was reassuring because there are earthquakes everywhere, all the time. The Pacific Rim is one gigantic event that keeps unfolding to greater or lesser degree; most of the time we’re unaware of it. But every now and then, the earth makes one giant chiropractic adjustment and we realize how small we are.

      The small deaths–a million individuals dying every week–versus the big death. Both can rock people to their foundations. I was rocked by my father last year, but it’s one tiny blip in the ocean. This has the capacity to rock individuals beyond reason, and it’s where our compassion and empathy shines, but also makes us vulnerable to extreme, if misplaced, grief. I can’t have it unfold in my living room anymore. It’s just too much.

  17. Don Mitchell says:

    You raise many interesting (and sad) points, Quenby.

    My guess is that going to the party and listening to the interns talk about their homeland to their hosts in another country will be helpful to them.

    For me, it was difficult to be up at 3 AM in Hilo listening to the radio, trying to get news from the internet, wondering whether the tsunami scheduled to hit us would be medium-sized or small. No one was suggesting it would be a major one. And earlier that night we had an earthquake (small).

    I was watching the clips from Japan and reading about their troubles and I felt as though I had almost no right to be worrying about Hawaiian minor-league consequences from the major-league earthquake in Japan. Their tsunami killed thousands. Ours, even in the worst predicted case, might perhaps kill a careless or stupid onlooker or two. Our earthquake wasn’t even worth mentioning.

    Intellectually I accepted this but emotionally I felt as though I needed to give Hilo my full worrying-force while at the same time feeling as though I shouldn’t.

    In the end, not much happened here. Certainly nothing that could be called disastrous, although a small number of people in Kona lost their houses along a bay where the surge and the bay worked against them.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Of course, Don. The necessity for you there in the middle of the Pacific watching the tsunami unleash its energy toward you–it’s strange. You know it’s not nearly as severe, but of course you have to be sensible, too. It’s so difficult to make sense of these things. We’re just torn. I feel torn.

      The interns were amazing that night. Funny, performing a silly play for the kids, just awesome. I can’t imagine how they’re dealing with it, many of them getting ready to fly home in a couple of weeks. What meets them across the ocean must be daunting, too, even if their families are no-where near the northeast. It must feel much like it did after WWII, just ravaged.

      I don’t have any answers at all, which I think as humans is a difficult thing. We have come to expect our brains to be able to work things out. How can this be worked out? Time, I guess.

  18. Very eloquent post, Q. I’ve been struggling with this for days, feeling helpless because I can’t do anything for these people right now, except to give money. While struggling with horrible guilt if I turn off the tele and go outside and enjoy anything.

    Thanks for writing what so many of us are feeling.

    I would say more but I broke my hand and one handed typing doesn’t work very well.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Your hand! Oh no! How does a writer write with one hand? Or do anything??? That’s really a bummer. So sorry, Meg.

      It’s weird. We feel as though we should experience it by being saturated by it, because to not share in the misery makes us bad people. But it just wrecks me, and then I’m useless to everyone, especially my family. It’s really a bizarre conflict, playing out internally in people all over the world.

      I don’t know what to do about the reactors. I know I have to pay attention, because, wow. But it just freaks me out and I start to panic. What am I serving? Nothing. Which makes me feel…etc.

      Thanks, Meg. Hope to see you soon, with a whole hand.

  19. Quenby, thank you for your eloquent words. In the face of tragedy we are all left trying to figure it out, to place in context the horror and where it fits in our lives. In that moment we are forced to take notice. And so we turn to the people we love, we hold tight to our children, we do what we can and hope it is enough, that it somehow makes a difference.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Wow. Sooo late in responding. Thanks, Robin. It didn’t feel eloquent when I wrote it; it was more like trying to channel the helplessness in the face of horror by looking for purchase anywhere I could. I still feel like that I guess.

      I always look at my surroundings in light of the unfolding tragedy and it becomes too much to bear. And we do hold each other tighter, and hope it helps. But it’s so large this time.

      Ugh. Anyway, thanks.

  20. Meg Worden says:

    Im not sure I have anything new to add that hasn’t already been perfectly said. Firstly by you and then by the other commenters.
    It is a feeling of being between the worlds to be so closely connected to these things through the media, yet not actually be there. It renders our suffering strange and distant, yet real, and often paralytic nonetheless.
    It can be confusing.
    And compounded by a kind of survivor’s guilt.
    You really have put into clear and vivid words this feeling, Quenby.

    And so we keep breathing, moving forward, kissing our babies and counting our blessings.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Meg, SOOOO sorry it took me so long to reply!

      It’s very surreal feeling so many emotions about something so far away. It’s alienating and strange. I still have a sense of panic (heh, I mean, yeah I do, what with the meltdown and all) about it, and I follow the news with one eye closed. It’s too vividly colorful; it looks like a stage set with upturned boats and buildings in the bright sunlight.

      I can’t imagine the eeriness of Japan at night now. It must be a nightmare.

      Look. There, I’m doing it again. Now I have to go watch my son playing with Legos for a while….

      Thanks, Meg.

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