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Awash in Confusion

Part of the lure of traveling is the break from the mundane aspects of daily life. Sure, seeing amazing scenery is exciting and experiencing other cultures is fascinating, but the opportunity to leave your bed unmade and slack off on housekeeping is a luxurious treat. However, when you rent a home in another country where they speak a different language, those boring activities of life that we do on autopilot become more challenging and provide an entirely new perspective.  I don’t mind doing laundry if I can toss it in the machine then kayak around a lake. Cooking a simple dinner isn’t nearly as odious when I can watch palm trees and the ocean from the kitchen window.

Last year we traveled to Iceland with our friends Cheerio and Chamomile. To save some money in what is a very expensive destination, we decided to rent a house. The house had a washer and dryer which was extremely helpful since we knew we were going to have to pack a lot of clothes for all sorts of weather and temperatures. Having the option to do laundry allowed us to cut down on some of the packing. It didn’t occur to us that washing our clothes would become part of our adventure.

Posted on the wall in the laundry room were instructions written in English explaining how to operate the washer and dryer. When Chamomile and I put in the first load, we followed the directions to the letter and successfully washed and dried our clothes. After a horseback riding excursion in the rain, we returned home in muddy clothes and rain gear. Clearly we needed to wash these items, but that meant going off script from the English instructions which only detailed one particular setting of the washer.

icelandic washer panel

The Icelandic washing machine panel. We were able to guess a few words. 

Chamomile and I felt we’d be able to figure out how to operate the machine to do a cold water wash. We stared at the panel with strange symbols and foreign words and our confidence began to wane.

“I know what we can do. We can use Google translate to help us read the settings,” I suggested. 

“Great idea,” said Chamomile.

The two of us sat down on the floor in front of the washer and set the Google translate app on our phone to Icelandic. Chamomile would spell one of the lengthy words as I typed it into the app and waited for a response.

“I don’t think this is right,” I said to Chamomile with a note of confusion in my voice.  “The answer doesn’t seem laundry related.”

We tried a few more times before we realized the washing machine was in Danish, not Icelandic. Once that bit was sorted out we were able to set the washer correctly, high fived ourselves for our ingenuity and went off to enjoy our afternoon.

Later in the day when we came back to the clothes, the rain gear was sopping wet. Putting it in the dryer wasn’t an option, so we decided to run it through the spin cycle again. We got out our trusty app, set it to Danish and typed in the word spin.

I called out the letters and Chamomile searched the panel for the word.

“Hmm…it’s not here,” she said, “and there isn’t a word that looks like the one you spelled.”

I looked up from the phone. We pored over every word on the panel, but nothing matched the app.

“Look at this,” Chamomile pointed.  “It looks like a symbol they use on the weather on TV when there is a hurricane. Maybe that is the spin cycle.”

“That sounds logical. It’s worth a shot,” I said turning the knob.  

Noticing our twenty minute absence, Oregano and Cheerio wandered down to the laundry room where they found the two of us sitting on the floor staring into the window of the washing machine.

“You know the TV is upstairs,” Oregano said. “Why are you watching the washer so intently?”

“We’re waiting to see if it starts to spin,” we answered in unison not turning our heads. Moments later the spinning began. Triumphant, we left the washer flinging the clothes around.

This year when planning a two week trip to Scotland, Oregano and I made sure to select accommodations with laundry facilities.

“At least this year, we’ll be in an English speaking country which means the washing machine will be in a language we can read,” I said remembering our Icelandic laundry experience.

I spoke too soon. After 5 days of tromping through wet and muddy glens, moors and hiking paths on the Isle of Skye, we needed to do laundry. The unit in our cottage had a washer/dryer combination machine. I was intrigued by this appliance. I wasn’t really sure how this would work. How does one machine do two completely opposite things? Does it automatically go into dryer mode when it is done washing? How long does this take? I carefully read the manual, despite it being in English, I still wasn’t sure how this was going to work.

washer and dryer in Skye

The first problem we encountered was that this was a tiny washing machine. The instruction manual told us how many kilograms of laundry we could put in the washer at once. It then provided examples of how much typical items weigh. For instance, a sheet is 400-500 grams, a towel is 150 to 250 grams and a bathrobe is a whopping 900 to 1200 grams. Sadly, the approximate weights of the specific items we needed to wash; socks, underwear, t-shirts and jeans weren’t listed. So,the laundry quickly became a math problem from primary school. If Paprika has 4 pair of dirty underwear that weigh 200 grams and Oregano has 4 pair of dirty underwear and two pairs of socks that weight 350 grams, how many pairs of jeans can they add without breaking the washing machine?

After a lengthy discussion of how much our clothes weigh and the acknowledgement of how ill prepared Americans are to deal with the metric system, we tried to calculate how much we could fit in the tiny washer without making it go off balance. Erring on the side of caution, we ended up with 4 different loads.

Now that the laundry piles were established it was time to contend with the actual operation of the washing machine. There were ten different wash cycles and one wash/dry cycle, The dryer had two heat settings: low and high. Based on the temperature of the clothes I pulled out, I would say those settings would be more aptly named: kiln and blast furnace. In addition to the heat settings there were five different dryer settings for time. Could this be any more complicated?

 

For our first load of laundry we used one of the settings based on the fabric of our clothes. It was a 90 minute cycle. Yikes!! This setting did not automatically go into dry mode so I set the dryer for the recommended 40 minutes. At the end of the cycle, I opened the door and was assaulted by a blast of steam that fogged up my glasses. After waiting for my glasses to clear and the steam to dissipate, I reached into the machine for what I thought would be a handful of dry clothes.

“Youch!” I yelled dropping the clothes surprised by how scalding hot they were. Hearing my howl and the sound of a wet plop on the floor, Oregano diverted his eyes from watching the sheep wandering the hillside and looked over at me.

 

“What’s wrong? Are you okay?” he was concerned.

“Do you remember the feeling when we ate in a Chinese restaurant and they came to the table at the end of the meal and used tongs to hand you a hot wash cloth?” I asked.

“Yes. Those towels were really hot and we usually ended up dropping them on the table the minute they touched our fingers, but what’s your point?” he seemed confused.

“Well, taking the clothes out just now reminded me of that experience,” I answered as heat radiated from the pile of clothes at my feet.

I risked a second degree burn to pick them up and put them back in the dryer. Despite being so hot, the clothes were not even close to being dry. Maybe our calculations were incorrect and the load was too large to dry in the allotted time. Surely another 40 minutes would do the trick.  At the end of the second cycle the clothes were on their way to dry, but not there yet. At least I had my answer as to how one machine can be used to wash AND dry clothes…it doesn’t actually dry them. Having more clothes to wash, we took our wee load of hot, damp clothes and draped them over every chair, door knob, hook and radiator we could find.

At the rate of 90 minutes of washing and 90 minutes of drying in the same machine, We’d need to stay here another few days just to finish the laundry. Perhaps one of the shorter wash cycles would be the solution. We turned the knob to the express wash setting… wash and dry a load in 35 minutes. Now, after seeing how the clothes came out of the dryer after 40 minutes, I was more than a bit skeptical that in 35 minutes they would be washed AND dried, but hope springs eternal. Thirty-five minutes later I had clean, hot, wet clothes. Maybe a different dryer setting would be more effective. According to the manual, the symbol of doors meant the clothes would come out dry enough to put directly into the closet . When I turned the knob to that setting, the timer showed 4 hours to dry the load. 4 HOURS!!!! What the hell do I need a dryer for if it is going to take 4 hours?! I might as well just take my chances with room temperature. So, we looked for more places to drape our damp clothes. The inside of our charming cottage looked like a hamper exploded.

On our last full day on the Isle of Skye, before we headed out for our day’s adventure, we threw our last load of clothes into the washer with some trepidation that they might not be dry enough to pack into the suitcase the next morning. Thankfully, the radiators did a better job of drying the clothes than the appliance actually designed for that purpose. In the morning a few t-shirts were still moist, so we used my hair dryer to accelerate the drying process before packing them.

With suitcases full of dry clothes, we loaded up the car and drove 5 hours enjoying the stunning scenery of  the Scottish Highlands, skirting the edge of Loch Ness and through Cairngorms National Park to the tiny town of Aberfeldy on the shores of Loch Tay. 

 

More adventures awaited us. Since we had laundry facilities in this cottage and had learned the quirkiness of a washer/dryer combination machine, we got muddy and wet with wild abandon. On the morning of our last full day in Aberfeldy, we tossed a small load of clothes into the machine then went into town to explore and have lunch before our 2:30 kayak rental reservation. Knowing what a lengthy process the business of drying clothes can be with this type of  machine, when we returned from town I changed into my kayaking clothes and went to turn the dryer on before we went out again.

After a few minutes of staring at the knobs and buttons on the machine, I started to have sinking feeling and called Oregano over.

“Do you see anything that indicates a dry option?” I asked him. “I see a setting marked cotton 95 degrees, but that doesn’t seem hot enough to dry clothes.” 

“That must be a water temperature setting. 95 degrees Celsius makes more sense,” he said.

“Damn metric system again,” I muttered.

Neither one of us could find a dryer setting on the machine.  Maybe the dryer was in a different area than the washer. A thorough search of our two story cottage ensued. After 10 minutes, we were perplexed and needed to leave to get to our kayak reservation.

“Please call the front desk and ask them if there is a dryer hidden somewhere in this cottage?” I asked Oregano.

The woman at the front desk wasn’t sure so she offered to call housekeeping and ring us back with an answer. Five minutes later we learned that the reason we could find no dryer setting and no dryer is because there wasn’t one in this particular cottage.  

If I thought the concept of having a machine that possesses the ability to both wash and dry clothes was strange, the idea of having only a washing machine was far more of a head-scratcher. This is Scotland. The weather changes every 10 minutes. Hanging clothes outside on a line to dry is not an option. Why would you have a washer, but no way to dry to the clothes?

“Is there a laundromat nearby that we can use to dry our clothes?” Oregano asked the woman. There was not.

“We have a small problem,” he admitted sheepishly. “We didn’t realize there was no dryer and now have a load of wet clothes with no way to dry them.”

The woman apologized for any inconvenience and told us bring our wet clothes to the reception desk. She said housekeeping would be happy to dry them for us. Talk about hospitality.

By the time we hung up the phone, the weather had changed again. Gone was the misty rain we’d been contending with for a week; this was a downpour. Undeterred by the fickle Scottish weather, we suited up in our rain gear fully prepared to get soaked while paddling. We gathered our wet laundry, tossed it in a grocery sack then headed to the posh lobby of our resort. The lovely ladies at the front desk asked us if we really intended to go kayaking in this weather tilting their heads toward the foggy loch just outside the rain spattered windows.

“Part of the charm of Scotland. It lends to the ambiance,” we said cheerfully. “And, we won’t have to worry about the midges,”I added.

“That’s the spirit,” they said smiling.

Passing a wrinkled plastic bag full of our wet knickers over the front desk to well dressed strangers was definitely an exercise in trust.

The woman holding the bag peered inside at the contents and asked, “Is this all there is?”

“That’s it,” we answered.

“This will be no problem at all. It’’ll be dry in a jiff,” she said closing the bag and placing it on the floor behind the desk..

As we walked to the edge of the loch to launch our kayaks, we calculated how much underwear we had left in case we weren’t reunited with all of the laundry we had just given away..

Even though there was a steady rain there was no wind. The water was like glass which made for easy paddling.  We were the only idiots out there so it was incredibly peaceful. The fog hovering on the hills surrounding the loch made the scenery even more dramatic. An hour later, we beached our boats then sloshed and squished our way back towards our cottage.

foggy loch tay

“While we are passing reception, do you think we should stop in and see if our laundry is dry?” asked Oregano.

“It’s bad enough we had to hand those women our wet underwear. We don’t need to go into the lobby and leave puddles as we stand there dripping while they fetch our belongings,” I replied.

“Good point,” he conceded.

When we got back to our cottage we showered off the chilly rain and lake water. We had another laundry related dilemma on our hands, the clothes we wore to kayak were drenched. Rather than bring another bag of wet clothes to the front desk, I recalled the lesson I learned during my Icelandic laundry adventure and found the symbol for the spin cycle. As our waterlogged clothes were whirling around in the washer, Oregano grabbed an umbrella and went back to the reception building to collect our clothes that were dried by kind strangers.

When we arrived in our apartment in Edinburgh the next afternoon Oregano pointed out another washer/dryer combination machine.

“We won’t be getting wet and muddy in the city. I think we have more than enough clothes to last us for the remainder of the trip and I’m certain we have had enough experience with foreign washing machines,” I said unpacking our suitcases yet again.

Edinburgh street view

Edinburgh

Caught red-handed

Caught red-handed

Going for a pedicure is a relaxing, pampering experience that I enjoy immensely. My cats, however, do not share my enthusiasm when it is time for their pedicures. You wouldn’t think having your nails clipped would be a tragic event worthy of tactics of evasion and defensive maneuvers, but in our house, it is. Because we rescued our three kitties when they were adults, we did not have the opportunity to teach them from a tender age that a pedicure is a painless, necessary and frequent occurrence.

On more than one occasion, we have attempted to accomplish this seemingly simple bit of pet maintenance on our own, but have always failed. Despite being a loving cat dad for 22 years, Oregano has not mastered the ability to scruff a cat. He fears he is hurting them and invariably lets go the instant they begin squirming. By default, this has made me the designated scruffer. Since I’m holding the cat, Oregano must be the operator of the nail clippers. Alas, he can’t do this either. Cats have a blood vessel running through their claws called a quick. No matter how many instructional videos he watches or tutorials from vet techs, he hesitates. Even the most patient and cooperative cat gets fed up with the lengthy grooming process and we don’t have patient or cooperative cats to start with.

Before you start feeling sorry for these cats having to tolerate inept humans, let me defend my species. From a numbers standpoint alone, we are at a disadvantage: two humans, three cats, twelve paws and 54 claws that need to be cut. On the rare occasions we have managed to capture a cat and scruff it into submission, we can only clip one paw’s worth of nails before the whole endeavor goes south. We are left with the only option available…take them to the vet each month for their “peticure.”

While going to the vet’s office cuts down on the amount of antibiotic first aid cream and bandages we need to purchase, catching three cats is a challenge. Actually, it’s more like a workout. When I schedule the appointment I make sure that I leave myself plenty of time for cat wrangling. For more than a year, I have managed this feat single handedly. Oregano has enjoyed being excused from this chore.

In order to be successful, I have a system worked out with the boys. First, I make sure all three cats are downstairs then I causally mosey upstairs and close all the doors as quietly as possible. When I come back downstairs, the cats are eyeing me suspiciously with a body posture that suggests they are ready to take off running at a moment’s notice.  Next, I pretend I am taking out the garbage and go into the garage to fetch the carriers. When I come back in the house I have them tucked carefully under my arm. No matter how quiet I am about this, the cats have scattered by the time I cross the threshold.

Their disappearance does not concern me. I remain calm and begin stalking my first victim, Keebler. He is the most difficult. Catching him requires patience and aerobic endurance.We are convinced that he is part orange tabby and part ninja. This cat has the ability to completely hide himself among furniture and curtains. Once or twice we could have sworn that he was hanging from the underside of a table. The most efficient strategy is to let him run from room to room. Eventually he corners himself. Once there, I place the carrier in front of him and he reluctantly hops in of his own accord.

Linus is less challenging. He hides, but always in the same place. Once I flip over the couch he is using for cover, he freezes. He may not take off running, but what he does do is grab the carpet with every single one of his claws. He is the kitty version of velcro. With my right hand, I scruff this fourteen pounder then maneuver my left hand under his body prying him off the carpet. I have the carrier nearby and slide him right in.

While all this is going on, Otis watches smugly from the nearest vantage point. He even runs from room to room just to get a front row seat to all the action.  It’s as if he thinks he is above all of this evasion and fear. He makes no attempt to run and I am able to easily scoop him up and deposit him in his carrier. His fireworks won’t start until we get to the vet’s office. While he is having his nails trimmed, he screams like he is being run over by a firetruck.

Realizing that he has enjoyed the benefits of my scruffing skills and the fact that once a month I have to be the bad guy, Oregano volunteered, “If you can catch the boys for me, I’ll take all three of them to the vet.”

This sounded like a sweet deal to me. It was an unseasonably cold stretch of weather. I was thrilled that I wouldn’t have to go out in the frigid temperatures and quickly agreed to this division of labor.

The Saturday morning of the nail appointment arrived and I came downstairs at 7:30 a.m. to find all three carriers lined up in the living room. I shook my head. This was going to be trouble.

“Um… when did you bring their carriers in the house?” I asked Oregano as I leaned over to give him a good morning kiss.

“I brought them in from the garage when I got up around 6 a.m. The temperature is in the single digits, so I wanted them to warm up a bit before we put the boys in them,” he replied innocently.

“Your concern is heartwarming, but foolish. A sneak attack is always a better approach. Seeing the carriers makes them freak out which makes them harder to herd,” I replied as a veteran cat wrangler.

“They’re not the least bit fazed by them,” he said pointing towards a napping Otis and a very anxious looking Linus. Keebler was noticeably absent.

An hour and a half later it was time to load up the cats.

“I haven’t seen Keebler since I woke up. Do you know where he is?” I asked Oregano.

“The last time I saw him he was under our bed. You know how he likes to lurk under the dust ruffle and pounce on unsuspecting feet and felines as they pass by.”

“Oy! Under the bed increases the degree of difficulty of this exercise,” I sighed grabbing the carrier and climbing the stairs.

Much like their natural capacity to always land on their feet, cats have an innate ability to find the exact center of a queen size bed and hide directly under that spot. It is always too far for a human arm to reach and just beyond the length of a broom handle. I was really hoping that Keebler was indeed hanging out at the bottom of the bed under the dust ruffle.

I quietly entered the bedroom, closed the door and began to reconnoiter the situation. The tiniest tip of an orange tail was peeking out from under the foot of the bed. There was no telling if he would stay there or move to the elusive middle of the bed.

As I stood still strategizing, the tip of his tail disappeared. I wasn’t sure where he was and the dust ruffle obscured my view. I lifted the fabric hoping that Keebler would shoot out from his no longer secret hiding spot. When that didn’t happen, I reached my hand under the bed trying to ascertain his location.

Instantly, Keebler swatted my hand with the very sharp claws he was going to have cut. To my surprise, when I retracted my hand from beneath the bed, there was dark red blood oozing steadily from a tiny hole. Very quickly a small river began running down the back of my hand and onto my forearm. I dove for the nearest box of tissues causing blood to drip onto the floor and speckle the bed frame.

As I applied pressure to the injury, I ran down to the kitchen sink to rinse off my hand. Oregano was standing there washing dishes. I hip checked him out of the way and thrust my bloody hand under the running water.  

Oregano stared at the blood soaked tissue. “What the hell happened?”

“Keebler swatted my hand when I reached under the bed. He must have hit me just right to puncture a vein,” I said calmly as I continued to apply pressure to the still oozing wound.

“Why is it swelling so fast?” Oregano asked with a touch of alarm in his voice.

“I’m pretty sure that’s the blood leaking out of the vein into the surrounding tissue,” I replied calmly while marveling at just how quickly my hand was morphing into a mitten.

“Did you catch him at least?” Oregano inquired.

I looked incredulously at my husband of 23 years and said, “Your concern for my well being is really quite touching. Call me selfish, but when I saw how much blood there was, I thought it prudent to stanch the bleeding and clean the wound. Cats carry bacteria on their claws and this puncture needs to be disinfected immediately to prevent a serious infection.”

“Oh, ok,” he said. “I guess you can just take Keebler during the week by yourself. Can you help me catch the other two cats so I can take them today?”

I gave him the look. “Would you mind if I wait until the bleeding stops and I bandage my wound? I would hate to get blood on Linus and Otis when I scruff them.”

“Ok, but our appointment is in 15 minutes. How long do you think that will take?” he asked completely oblivious to my annoyance.

Stunned into silence, I wrapped a paper towel and ice pack around my swollen hand then went about the business of collecting Linus with my one functioning, non-dominant hand.

“I think you are capable of putting Otis in a carrier,” I said as I headed upstairs to bandage my hand and locate the fugitive feline.

Keebler had cornered himself in the office. I shut the door to prevent an escape, placed the carrier in front of him and tried to coax him into it.

Oregano called to me from behind the closed door. “Did you get him yet? I really need to leave.”

I didn’t want to use my remaining uninjured hand to guide Keebler into his carrier, so I said, “Do you think you could get your ass in here and help me? He has his head in the carrier, but I can’t get him in all the way.”

Oregano opened the door sheepishly. He walked towards the carrier that contained the front half of a cat and scooted the remaining portion of Keebler into it and zipped it shut. “That wasn’t as bad as I thought,” he said.

I stared at him with disbelief.

“Do you think you need to go to the doctor? I can take you when I get back,” he offered.

“I’ve stopped the bleeding and I imagine the swelling will eventually subside after some colorful bruising. My only concern is about infection, but that is a wait and see issue. I don’t need to go.” I answered.

“Let me take a picture of your hand to show the vet,” he suggested. “She will know if you need medical care. I’m sure this has happened to her.”

He quickly snapped a picture of my swollen hand before heading out the door with his three crated charges.

Fifteen minutes later, as I sat there with an ice pack on my hand, I received a text from Oregano.”The vet said to make sure you clean the wound with alcohol and keep an eye on it for signs of infection. She also said I shouldn’t have taken the carriers out so early.”  

swollen hand

Thankfully there was no infection, but it wasn’t pretty to look at. 

 

I Can’t Bear Winter

I Can’t Bear Winter

We are smack dab in the middle of another northeast winter regardless of what the prognosticating rodent may say on Groundhog Day. I know this next statement will draw the ire of cryophiles so I’m just going to come out and say it. I hate winter! It is a season that I must endure so that I can be rewarded with the flowers and sunshine of spring. I like to think of it as Mother Nature sending me a bouquet for surviving hibernal hell. I am not a casual hater of all things winter. My dislike of winter has risen to the clinical level. Ten years ago I was diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder. I can actually get a doctor’s note excusing me from winter.

Every year I make a valiant attempt to embrace the season, but the early darkness of winter’s shortened days makes me want to crawl into bed by 5:30 pm. Even the the joy of snow days, snuggly pajamas and hot cups of tea have lost their appeal. I can appreciate the beauty of winter: the hush that comes after a storm when there is a blanket of snow covering everything and the sculptural look of the trees without their leaves. However, that snow quickly becomes dirty and makes driving hazardous and the sculptural trees are perpetually set against a dreary background. I miss the variety of color in nature. I’m tired of the gray, brown and white palette that engulfs me for at least 3 months.

After much contemplation, I have come to the conclusion that I would prefer to be a bear. Other than the destruction of their habitat and the ongoing concern of hunters, there aren’t too many downsides to being a bear. It would eliminate a lot of problems I encounter in my daily life.

Bears are apex hunters. Nothing fucks with a bear except a human with a gun and that doesn’t always end in the human’s favor. As a woman under 5 feet tall, people often discount my presence. In stores, rude people reach over my head to pay the cashier or to get things from shelves. I know I am short, but I am not invisible. People should not be stretching over me to take a case of water off the top shelf in the supermarket. If I was a bear, I would be taller and very few people would have the ability to reach over me. Also, being a bear, people would not want to piss me off.

DSCF0650

Bears spend their summers chowing down to gain weight for the winter. Imagine that! The goal for the season is to actually gain weight. I already possess that skill. Bears have a good excuse though; they eat to pack on the pounds to sustain them through winter. They wander around snacking not worrying about calories – the more the better. Since bears don’t wear clothes, there is no need to worry about the constant fluctuation in weight. Bears are never upset because their fur coats are feeling a bit restrictive and uncomfortable. As the weather turns colder and the hours of daylight dwindle, the bears finish up their gorging and head inside to their dens.

DSCF0552

I’ve been eating all summer. Does this fur coat make me look fat?

This brings me to the most alluring aspect of being a bear… hibernation. The thought of totally avoiding winter is immensely appealing to me. If I was a bear, I could curl up in my house and sleep through the darkest, coldest days. I realize that as a bear I wouldn’t have my heated mattress pad or my cozy pajamas. Everything has its trade-offs. Hibernating would allow me to avoid shoveling, scraping my car windows, driving on black ice, piling on layers of clothes and the inevitable asthma attacks caused by breathing cold air. As if missing out on the misery of winter isn’t enough incentive to being a bear, they go to sleep fat and full and wake up skinny. Sure, they’re hungry and irritable when they wake up in the spring. There are many mornings when I wake up hungry and irritable and I am not any skinnier when I do. Going to sleep with a full belly, missing winter and waking up skinnier… it’s hard to see a downside.

Until I master the ability to transfigure myself, I’ll just have to find some other way to cope with winter to make it bearable. DSCF0546

Hold Your Horses

Hold Your Horses

Being flexible when traveling is a key component to enjoying your trip. Things aren’t going to go exactly as you planned them and the sooner you learn to roll with the punches (or in this case, the changing weather) the more fun and less stress you’ll have on your vacation.

During a recent trip to Iceland, on the day we were scheduled to take a whale watching trip, we woke up to rain and howling winds. From our bedroom window we could see the waves kicking up on the fjord.  Over breakfast, I confessed to my traveling companions that there wasn’t enough Dramamine on the planet to make the whale watch enjoyable in these conditions and I hoped it would be rescheduled. Everyone sighed with relief. Apparently we had all been thinking the same thing, but no one wanted to disappoint anyone else. A quick call to the whale watching company confirmed that the boats would not be going out and we booked a trip for the next afternoon.

“We have an unexpected free day. What should we do?” Chamomile asked.

When we were in the early planning stages of the trip, I considered a tour where we would get to ride Icelandic horses. These horses are shorter and have patient, cheerful dispositions which make them an excellent option for inexperienced riders. Short and patient is my specialty, so I truly appreciate those qualities in an animal I’m going to rely on to squire me around.

Other adventures took priority so horseback riding didn’t make the final cut. Now that we had time, I suggested it. Everyone loved the idea. After some research on TripAdvisor, we called a nearby farm that offered tours of the surrounding countryside.  Cheerio told them we had never ridden horses and they recommended their two hour tour.

When we arrived at the farm, there were five horses saddled up and waiting along with our guide.

As we approached the horses I leaned over to Oregano, “These horses aren’t as small as I thought they’d be.”

“They are smaller than regular horses. They just look big to you because you are so short.”

We were outfitted with gloves and a helmet then our guide gave us a quick tutorial on how to hold and use the reins. People have been riding horses for thousands of years. I thought I could manage this feat for the next two hours.

Our guide then brought each horse over one at a time and explained how to correctly mount them. Cheerio was the first up and looked comfortable in the saddle as his horse patiently waited for the rest of us. Oregano was up next and did equally well. Then it was my turn. The guide walked my horse, Clara, over and introduced her to me.

with Clara

Here I am with my ride, Clara.

For a person with no horseback riding experience, getting onto a horse is no small endeavor. When the person with no experience is less than five feet tall, getting onto a horse is a small miracle. The guide held my horse steady and I put my foot in the stirrup. This meant that my left foot was now resting on a small piece of metal with my knee slightly higher than my hip. I was supposed to push down on the stirrup with my left leg while flinging my right leg over the saddle.  I’m no expert in the laws of human physiology, but there was no way I was going to be able to hoist myself onto the horse from this position. Frankly, I was impressed that I could lift my foot as high up as I did to get it into the stirrup. This little expedition was my suggestion so I was going to give this my best effort.

I pushed down mightily on my leg in the stirrup and pushed off the ground with my other leg. With all of that exertion, I managed to get my right foot 6 inches off the muddy ground.

“Try again on the other side. Use your right leg this time. It’s stronger,” everyone encouraged me.

Try again?! I was surprised I wasn’t hanging upside down with my left leg caught in the stirrup. Don’t I get any credit for not falling off completely and landing in a pile of horseshit?

I switched sides and tried again, but got the same result. Clara was very patient while this uncoordinated human attempted to climb onto her back.

Sensing this exercise was not going to end with me in the saddle, the guide disappeared for a minute and came back with a milk crate.

“Step on that to help you,” she instructed.

The crate did the trick, but the guide still needed to shove my ass to help me up and over the back of the horse. A more unglamorous mounting of a horse would be hard to imagine.

Sitting astride the horse, reins lightly in my hands, I took a moment to congratulate myself for successfully getting into the saddle. Just then, the horse jerked her head forward pulling the reins and me along with them.

“Yikes!” I cried out. “Why did she just do that?” I asked the guide.

“Clara is excited to go for a walk. Once we are going, she won’t do that.”

As Chamomile got on her ride, I sat there desperately trying not to be yanked over my horse’s head. Just sitting still on horseback was proving to be a challenge for me. I was not liking my chances of staying on this creature for the duration of our tour.

When we started moving forward, I was downright terrified, but I tried to project an outward calm so as not to worry my companions. My anxiety is my own problem and I try not to visit it on anyone else.

“You look good up there,” Chamomile said. Oregano looked over at me and could see the nervous smile plastered across my face.

“That’s her scared smile,” Oregano noted to our friends who weren’t familiar with my particular hybrid of grimace and smile.

After a few more steps, my horse started shaking her neck and back. This was probably just her moving, but she may as well have been a bucking bronco. We hadn’t even gotten to the entrance of the farm yet. My nerves were completely jangled and I was ready to bail.

“You know what?” I calmly called out to the group, “I think I’ll wait in the car.”

“You’re not going to wait in the car,” Oregano said. “We’ll be gone for a long time and you’ll miss out on this experience.”

“This has already been an experience. I have my book. I can absolutely wait in the car. Go ahead without me. I’ll be fine here,” I said as the horse pulled her head forward again.

The guide realized I was not doing well and asked me to come up next to her so she could help me. I attempted to move, but couldn’t seem to get the horse to go where I wanted. The guide gave me a few suggestions which I employed to no avail. Despite the beautiful Icelandic landscape splayed out in front of us, I desperately wanted to get off this horse.

As I was fantasizing about the comfort and safety of the back seat of our rental car, the guide sidled up next to me and hitched my horse to hers.

“Clara seems a little fussy today, but having her next to my horse will keep her in line,” she said.

We started walking again. My horse seemed to calm down. I wondered if the guide could hook something up to me to calm me down, too. Why hadn’t I thought to take a tranquilizer before doing this?

Our parade of horses walked along the trail in the stunning Icelandic countryside. The rain and wind had started up again, but it just lent more beauty to the setting. We were surrounded by a heather covered meadow where sheep wandered around grazing as a stream meandered past. The only sounds we heard were the horses’ hooves on the ground, the babbling water and the bleating of the sheep. It was surreal scenery.

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I was grateful to have the opportunity to see so much natural beauty and I was focusing on it to distract myself from the fact that I was sitting on the back of a very large animal.  When we arrived at a one-horse wide bridge, our guide dismounted, unhooked my horse from hers and handed me the reins.

“You’re doing a great job. You can handle the horse across the bridge,” she said.

As soon as I had the reins in my hands again, the horse jerked her head forward.

“Here we go again,” I murmured as I contemplated the temperature of the water in the stream into which this horse would surely pitch me.

I watched as my friends smoothly navigated their horses across the wooden bridge. I’d been sitting on my horse for 45 minutes and I hadn’t fallen off. That was quite an accomplishment. I could do this! Alas, my horse did not seem to share my positive attitude. She refused to move.

Our guide once again grabbed a tether for my horse and led her across the bridge closely following behind her horse.

Once safely across the bridge, Clara remained attached to the guide’s horse and we continued through the meadow walking closely side by side. As we were walking, I realized that my right leg was often brushing up against the buttocks of the guide’s horse. The tail was gently brushing over my leg. It was at this moment that a new worry presented itself. What if this horse crapped on me? I considered looking down at my own foot, but didn’t dare shift my gaze for fear of falling off.

I could always just ask my husband and friends if I had horseshit on my leg. Surely they would have said something if this was the case. Then again, they all knew I was uncomfortable. Telling me I had been shat upon wouldn’t make me feel any better and there was nothing I could do about it anyway.  Did I really want to know? My anxiety was already in overdrive. In this case, I decided that ignorance was bliss.

I kept my eyes on the horizon trying to pick out the barn in the distance. I thought we were heading back when the guide took us across the road and up a hill. As I held on to the saddle and tried not to roll backwards off the horse, I marveled at how well she handled walking uphill on loose rocks.

When we reached the top, the guide announced that we would be taking a short break. Really? Can’t we just get this over with? I kept these thoughts to myself, but when the guide suggested we dismount the horses, I spoke up.

“As much as I would love to get off the horse, I won’t be able to get back on.”  I was already contemplating the idea of being back on my own two feet and hiking to the farm. Despite the long walk, the thought made me giddy with relief.

“There are lots of tall rocks,” she gestured to our immediate surroundings. “You can stand on one of those instead of the crate.”

I actually laughed at this suggestion. This young girl didn’t know my proclivity for clumsiness. Attempting to get onto a horse from atop a wet, moss covered rock, all but guaranteed that our next tour in Iceland would be of an emergency room.

Everyone else climbed out of their saddles and was walking around. Realizing that I most likely did not have the physical coordination or the emotional fortitude required to get back onto this animal, my friends convinced the guide that the best course of action was to leave me right where I was.

After 10 minutes, everyone else nimbly remounted their horses. They wanted a group picture and lined up around me before we headed off down the hillside. As we rounded a bend, the barn appeared. The end was literally in sight. I just had to hang on for a few more minutes.

When we arrived at the stables, Chamomile climbed down from her horse and announced, “That was a once in a lifetime experience!”

“It absolutely was! I am never getting on another horse in my lifetime,” I replied as I ungracefully slid off the horse and my feet landed in a puddle.

the 4 caballeros

 

 

 

 

Be Afraid of the Braid

Be Afraid of the Braid

Summer in the northeast means meteorologists’ forecasts will revolve around the dreaded 3 H’s: hazy, hot and humid. The haziness doesn’t bother me, but there are days when the air is so hot and moist it clings to you like a sweaty t-shirt after a workout.

Over the past year, I have been letting my hair grow. It’s the longest it has ever been and this is my first summer contending with long hair and high humidity.  Back in the spring, before the great outdoors became a sauna, I decided to let my hair return to its naturally wavy state.  It was a philosophical approach to hair styling; hair as a metaphor for life. Let nature take its course and every day will be a little bit different. Some days will be out of control, but there is still beauty in that.

I thought letting my hair do its own thing would be liberating. I thought it would make my morning routine easier.  I was wrong. Most days have been a battle. As it turns out, it takes a lot of effort and hair products to make the natural look look natural and not like I styled my hair with a whisk.  I accept that this new hair philosophy means I won’t get the same result every day, but when the humidity hit, my hair took on a life of its own.  The gentle waves I left the house with in the morning turned to a frizzy mop by the time I arrived at work. As the day progressed, my hair seemed to grow larger and larger. Every time I saw a reflection of myself in a mirror or computer screen, I was stunned to see how much my hair had changed since my last glimpse. Upon recommendations from my friends and hair stylist, I tried a myriad of hair care products designed to cut down on frizz, make my natural waves wavier and keep my hair from doubling in size over the course of the day. So far, the only product that has consistently worked to tame my hair is a pony tail holder.

New hair philosophy or not, I was growing weary of losing the daily styling struggle going on in front of my bathroom mirror and the monotony of wearing my hair in a pony tail. The only other viable option I could think of was a climate-controlled space helmet like the astronauts wear.  As much as that would solve my hair problems, it was a bit impractical and probably difficult to obtain. By the end of May, I considered cutting my hair to a more manageable chin-length style.  Both Oregano and my hair stylist offered a list of the pros and cons of shorter hair. After much contemplation, I left the salon with all the hair I had when I entered.

Several weeks later on a particularly steamy day, I mentioned my hair frustrations to my friend, Pimento. She too urged me to keep it long.

“Why don’t you just braid your hair?” she asked.

“Braid my hair? I have no idea how to braid hair.”

“It’s easy,” she responded. “I’ll do it for you. If you like it, I can teach you how to do it yourself,” She sounded optimistic. I was worried I’d wind up looking like I’d run away from herding sheep in the Alps.

“Once you learn how to do it, you can braid your hair while it is wet. When you remove the braid, you’ll have great curls,” she added.

Later that afternoon, Pimento braided my hair. As expected, I looked like Heidi, but I have to admit, it was cooler, not frizzy and a nice change from my humdrum pony tail.Heidi hair 2

“This is great, but it’s the end of the day. It won’t last until tomorrow,” I said forlornly.

“Before you go to sleep, take a cotton bandana and tie it around your head like Aunt Jemima,” she recommended. “You need the knot to be on the top so it doesn’t rub against the braids at the bottom. The braids should keep just fine. If they come undone, you can remove them and you’ll still have nice curls.”

I was skeptical this was going to end with luscious curls, but that night, as directed, I tied a shmata around my head. I snapped a selfie and texted it to Pimento, “So, do I look like Aunt Jemima?”

“More like Rosie the Riveter!” was her response.

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Pimento had a point. There is a resemblance.

When I got into bed with my braids trussed up in the bandana, Oregano glanced at me. “This is new. I’m not even going to ask,” he chuckled and turned out the light.

I drifted off to sleep thinking about how much easier it would be to get ready for work the next morning. It was predicted to be another steamy day and I was eager to not spend my morning fighting what the frizz fairy had left behind.

As I’m sure you’ve surmised by now, things didn’t turn out as expected. I don’t usually write about situations that go swimmingly. There’s more humor when things go wrong and in this case, they went very wrong.

I woke up with such hope and great expectations. I leapt out of bed and bounded into the bathroom to remove the protective bandana and see how the braids had held up in the night. Much to my chagrin, but not entirely unexpectedly, the top of the braid was intact, but the bottom had started to fray. I contemplated undoing then redoing just the bottom part of the braid, but that seemed like pulling on a loose string on a sweater that then causes the whole sweater to unravel. I took a moment to consider my options. I only had 30 minutes before I had to leave for work. There wasn’t a lot of time to make alternate plans or to fix things if they went awry.

Pimento did say that if the braid came undone, I could take the whole thing out and be left with waves. Still hopeful, I began to carefully unbraid my hair. With each twist I took out, that hope died just a little bit more. The image slowly emerging in the mirror was worse than I could have imagined. When I was done, there was nothing to do but laugh at my Einsteinesque reflection.

Oregano walked into the bathroom and stopped short in his tracks. “Yikes! Please tell me that is not the look you were going for,” he said gently touching the giant poof of hair standing out straight from my head in all directions.

I stared back at the rat’s nest that had once been my hair then snapped a quick selfie of the coiffure catastrophe before I set about trying to rectify the damage. No pony tail was going to save this mess. This was a job that only a full shampoo could fix.

My dreams of an expedited morning routine were dashed as I quickly washed my hair slathered anti-frizz serum through it and ran out the door only a few minutes behind schedule.

Pimento caught up to me in the parking lot at work. “How did it go this morning?” she asked eyeballing my damp hair.

“It wasn’t quite what I expected,” I said diplomatically as I pulled my phone out of my purse.

“The braids frayed while you were sleeping?” she asked as I scrolled through my photo gallery.

“That was only the beginning.  The braids did fray, but the real problem revealed itself when I took the braids out,” I said thrusting the scary hair selfie towards her.

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My hair and Einstein’s face…it was definitely a better look for him.  (Photo credit goes to my friend, Cheerio, and his amazing photoshopping skills.)

Pimento burst out laughing louder than I ever heard her laugh before. “That wasn’t supposed to happen,” she said when she finally caught her breath.

Trying to be optimistic, I said, “Well, this certainly makes my other bad hair days seem not quite so bad.”

Newt on the Lam

My father grew up on a farm in Israel and it would seem that when he moved to suburban New Jersey, he tried to recreate that experience.  Growing up we didn’t just have pets, we had a menagerie. Our household critters represented nearly every link in the food chain: fish, newts, parakeets, a parrot, 2 cats and 2 big dogs. Every animal was a natural enemy of the other. If left to their own devices, I’m sure there would have been problems, but regular feedings, attention and love were enough to maintain the delicate balance required to avoid a massacre.

Every once in a while we had a close call. On one memorable occasion, a parakeet flew the coop when we were cleaning his cage. Thrilled with his newfound freedom, he took off flying through the house. The cats chased the bird; the dogs chased the cats; two hysterical children chased the dogs; while the zookeeper, my mother, frantically followed behind hoping to prevent a tragedy. As birds are known to do, the parakeet eventually flew into the kitchen window, knocked himself unconscious and hit the floor with a thud. Before any of the humans could intervene, the nearest cat picked him up and ran under a bed. With some coaxing, the cat released the bird which came flying out from under the bed. My mom recaptured the parakeet from a curtain rod and put him back in his cage. Order was once again restored.

After that incident, I was very aware of the fragile nature of the ecosystem we had created in our home. Sometimes it was necessary to segregate the animals while we were playing with them. This was always the case when I wanted to play with my newts: Peanut and Dottie. Peanut was black with red marks on his or her belly. (I never did know the gender of my newts.) Dottie was green with three little red dots in a line on her back. Newts are not the cuddliest creatures in the animal kingdom, but they are amusing to play with. I would borrow my mom’s biggest Pyrex bowl, fill it with water then set it down on the floor. After shooing the cats and dogs from the room, I would remove Peanut and Dottie from their tank and put them in the bowl of water where they would swim and frolic. As I watched television, I would lift each of them out of the bowl and let them crawl around on my hands and legs. When I thought they might be drying out, I’d dunk them back in the bowl and let them swim around some more.

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I don’t actually have a photo of Peanut, but this is what he looked like. Who wouldn’t love that face?

Peanut and Dottie lived luxuriously by salamander standards. They had a large tank with all the creature comforts a newt could want. I made a styrofoam raft for them to laze around on when they weren’t busy swimming in the water or crawling around on the rocks. They had regular meals and their tank was always clean. It was an ideal life for a newt, but Peanut had an adventurous spirit. One day when I woke up, Dottie was relaxing on the raft, but Peanut was missing. I got very upset and called for my parents. A search party was organized and we began looking for Peanut. In a two story house with wall to wall carpet, it was like looking for a needle in a shag covered haystack. Peanut couldn’t survive too long without being back in the water. Add to that the other animals that would have been happy to “play” with him and his chances of survival were grim.  After a few hours, we abandoned our search and held a memorial service for my beloved newt. I tried not to think about how Peanut might have died. It was just too upsetting.

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Dottie was the less adventurous of my 2 newts. 

Several months later I was with a friend in our playroom downstairs. We were setting up a farm. I was making a corral while my friend sorted through a bucket of plastic animals separating farm animals from zoo animals. She pulled one out of the container and said, “This one is really cool! It looks like an alligator.”

I looked up from the work of setting up the farm and saw my friend holding what indeed did look like a small, black alligator. My eyes opened really wide and I grabbed the animal from her hands. I flipped it over onto its back and saw red spots on its belly. “That’s Peanut!” I shouted.

Clutching the dessicated, shriveled salamander, I ran to my parents to show them. “Look! We found Peanut!” I said thrusting my hand towards them. They took Peanut from me and did a cursory autopsy looking for bite marks or other obvious signs of trauma. There were none.

“Where did you find him?” they asked completely shocked and just a bit disgusted.

“He was in the toy box in a bucket of plastic animals. Maybe he thought those were his friends,” I said by way of an explanation.

“How on Earth did he evade the dogs and cats, make it down the stairs then scale the side of your toy box?” they wondered.

“If we put him back in the water, will that bring him back to life?” I asked hopefully, but I already knew the answer.

We solemnly walked to the bathroom to put Peanut back in the water and give him the proper burial at sea that he deserved.

$h!t and Run

$h!t and Run

Sled dog teams and their mushers recently crossed the Iditarod finish line in Nome completing a nearly 1000 mile journey across Alaska. Being pulled by running dogs with my hair flying in the breeze has been a dream of mine since the age of 8 when I thought it was a good idea to take our old English sheepdog out for a walk while wearing roller skates. For the record, it was not a good idea. Since that failed attempt to harness the power of a running dog, I thought a less injurious way to get that same sensation would be to try dog sledding. On our trip to Alaska, it was time to make that dream come true.

After researching various options for dog sledding, I quickly came to realize that during the summer, most dog sledding excursions use a wheeled sled. In my own crude way, I had already experienced the “joy” of being pulled along on wheels. I wanted the authentic experience of dog sledding on snow. The only way to do that in August would be to take a helicopter up to a glacier.

As soon as the helicopter cleared the ridge of the mountain, we were instantly transported to winter. The fact that it was foggy, drizzling and cold helped set the mood. During the summer months, the dogs are kept on the glacier so that they can continue their training. With 60 plastic, igloo-shaped dog houses clustered together, the glacier looked like doggy summer camp. Oregano and I expected the auditory assault of collective barking as soon as we landed, but the only sound we heard was from the rotors of the helicopter. Once it flew away, it was eerily quiet. 

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Doggy summer camp on the glacier

The mushers introduced themselves then gave us the history of dog sledding in Alaska. They explained the different breeds of dogs used, how the dogs must be fed and cared for during training and during a race.  Because they run such long distances when racing, the mushers must put booties on each dog’s paws to protect them. If you’ve ever tried to put socks on a wriggling toddler you have some appreciation for what these mushers must do. Now imagine trying to accomplish this task on sixteen four-legged, wriggling toddlers while your hands are freezing cold. We had no idea how much was involved in running a dog sled race. It was fascinating.  

As the mushers patiently answered all of our questions, their assistants got the sleds out. Instantly, the calm erupted into a canine cacophony.

“The dogs LOVE to run,“  the musher yelled so we could hear him over the barking. “They know what the sound of the sleds means.”

Some of the dogs were standing on top of their igloos barking and howling. Their behavior reminded me of students in class yelling, “Pick me! Pick me!” Very quickly, the assistants selected the lucky winners who would get to go for a run and hooked them into position.

While the dogs were being harnessed, Mike the musher showed us the sleds. They are very light aluminum. The Flexible Flyer I used to sled down hills on the golf course after a snowstorm seemed a whole lot sturdier than the sleds they use to traverse Alaskan terrain.  At the back of the sled are narrow rails on which the musher must stand to balance himself and control the sled. Between those rails is a  flap of plastic they push down on the snow to cause drag and slow the sled. There is a small metal anchor that acts as a brake.  DSCF0134

Mike got us situated on the sled. I sat on a seat at the front. If I’m being honest, seat is a generous term for what I was actually sitting on. It was more like a butt-sized plank with a tiny bit of cushioning and handles on either side. Oregano stood behind me. The musher got on the rails all the way at the back and the assistant lifted the brake. Without the anchor holding them back, the dogs that had been straining against their harnesses began running. It was like being shot out of a cannon. I had always imagined it would be more of a gentle increase in speed. Not so.

From a distance, the dog sled looks like it glides smoothly. As we bounced and bumped over the uneven snow and ice with the sled sometimes listing to one side,  I was disabused of that romantic notion. I grabbed onto the handles on the sides of my tiny seat and held on tight.

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This was soooooo much more fun than being pulled by my dog while wearing roller skates.

Mike mushed us around to the far side of the glacier and threw the brake in the snow. He complimented us for not flying off the sled. Apparently, many dog sledding newbies are easily tossed from the sleds when they first leave the camp. He snapped a few commemorative photos then he told us it was our turn to drive. He showed us the proper stance, how to steer and had us put our feet on the narrow metal runners. Braver than me, Oregano opted to drive first. As we were flying over the snow, I noticed cylindrical brown projectiles hurtling past me to the left and right. I  thought it was another unexpected hazard of dog sledding; rocks being kicked up by the dogs. As I looked around the mountain and the pristine snow of the glacier taking a moment to absorb where I was and what I was doing, it dawned on me that there aren’t rocks on top of the snow on a glacier. It wasn’t until I saw the “rocks” falling out of the business ends of the dogs in front of me that I realized it was flying feces. To my amazement, the dogs were shitting as they ran at full speed. There was no stopping to sniff around to select the perfect location. There was no spinning in place until just the right moment in time. These pups didn’t even break stride to poop. As a member of a species that sits and remains stationary to defecate, I was truly impressed by the dogs’ stamina and agility. The most I’ve ever accomplished while pooping was finishing a chapter of a book.

Oregano was driving at the back of the sled presumably trying not to fall off. I doubt he noticed the miracle of nature I was witnessing from my front row seat. Since the real musher was standing just behind me, I tilted my head back towards him, “Are those dogs really shitting while they’re running?” He could hear the awe in my voice.

“Yep,” the musher laughed at me. “We have 16 dogs on the team. We can’t stop running the race because one of them needs to pee or poop. We’d never get anywhere.”

As I bounced along the glacier with dung being flung past either side of my seat, I had a much deeper understanding of the axiom, “It’s good to be the lead dog.”

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The reason it is good to be the lead dog…

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