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99% vs 1%

What treasures lie in our pre-history -- are there more Machu Picchus?

No, this isn’t a post about economics or Occupy Wall Street.  It’s a post about human history.  I’ve begun to read the book At Home by Bill Bryson, which is a history of “private life,” going through the development of homes, kitchens, food, etc.

He makes a point in the book that gives me pause.   The history that we know as recorded history — starting with the early development of agriculture and cities — is less than 1% of human history.   The first homo sapiens appeared 250,000 years ago, our history is at best 6000 years, though only the last 2500 has reasonably reliable records (albeit only from parts of the planet).    That means that 99% of history is hidden from us.   Humans with the same cognitive abilities have been inhabiting the earth for a long time, but we have few clues as to how they lived.   Humanoids with high levels of intelligence have been around millions of years.

That raises two contradictory puzzles.  First, what the heck happened during that “pre-history”?   Were we simply hunter-gatherers eeking out survival in a world buffeted by ice ages and difficult conditions?  Or were there civilizations and relatively advanced societies that rose and fell?  Second, why did we develop so quickly so fast in the last 5000 years?

There are other oddities.   Apparently the foodstuffs we’ve inherited from those past civilizations, such as corn, required a tremendous amount of genetic engineering.   Not in the lab like the stuff Mansanto does, but through trial and error, cross breeding, and who knows what else.   Corn is not natural, it was a human creation.  This means that past civilizations must have been very good at dealing with crops and foodstuffs.   The fact we cannot “recreate” their processes (Bryson informs that a conference designed to determine the origin of corn disintegrated into acrimony and disagreement) shows that at least in those cases our knowledge may fall short of theirs.

We currently define development and civilization in terms of materialism and consumption.   We’re “civilized” because we have a lot of stuff.  We have high definition TV’s, XBox’s, cars, highways, airplanes, computers, and grocery stores loaded with everything one could possibly imagine eating.   We eat animals, but not in the way of our ancestors.   Rather, we turn animals into objects we construct — genetically engineered and fed a particular way solely to get them to market quicker and with more meat.  A product that just happens to be a biological life form.

We’re so immersed in this materialist/consumption oriented view of progress and civilization that it’s hard to imagine societal development along a different path.   We see 99% of human history as being a waste land where savages roamed the earth eeking out an existence with no meaning – mere animals (and don’t forget how we treat animals!)   Only the last 6000 years have had meaningful existence, and the first 5000 of those are iffy.

We live disconnected from nature and community

On it’s face that’s an absurd way to look at human existence and history, yet unless we take the time to shake ourselves out of the cultural fog that causes us to keep our eyes shut and simply reproduce the world we see around us, it seems natural to look at progress and development in purely material terms.  Once we recognize that our materialist/secular rational western point of view is a cultural construct that programs us to value certain things over others it’s like we’re sleep walking, oblivious to other ways to understand and appreciate life.   We may enjoy a walk through nature and feel a smidgen of something deeper — but how often to thoughts and stresses of the modern world even invade those moments?   As Rousseau once put it: “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”   We just don’t recognize the chains.

So to borrow from Plato, what if we were to wake up, to be led out of cave and see reality — in this case to view the expanse of the human history we do not know because it was not recorded?    The only way we can attempt that is through imagination.

What if a society developed with sophisticated knowledge of plants, animals and nature, but without using the same lens of science that we use?  Rather than breaking things down into chemicals and reducing knowledge to general processes, what if that knowledge was holistic, based on how things interact and what works in the world?    What if all of the world was taken as valuable and not subdivided and treated as disposable, or a means to an end?

Humans might be able to build sophisticated cities with plumbing, comfort and utility without having electricity or a major power source other than water and sun.   Animals would be part of the community.   People would still eat them, but in a way that respects the cycles of life and the animal’s role in nature.  The same with plants – they would be used fully seen as valuable life forms in and of themselves.  Knowledge about them would be prized and humans might know more about agriculture than we now know even with science.

A sense of oneness between humans and nature could have yielded strong civilizations that persisted millennia  without leaving a trace for us to find.   Sophisticated oral histories and other forms of communication may have been developed.   Perhaps they disintegrated, perhaps we don’t understand them.  Imagine if our civilization collapsed — most electronic information would dissipate as the grid went down, if someone happened on a CD or DVD in the future it would be a bizarre shinny metal object, certainly not something bearing knowledge!

In fact, if you think about it the idea that creatures as intelligent and sophisticated in thinking as we are roamed the planet for 247,000 years and then only recently discovered a path out of a primitive state is absurd.  Moreover, our current lifestyle works against who we are — our bodies, nervous system and psychology is not geared for the modern stresses and pressures of the consumption oriented competitive world we’ve created.   Our misguided approach to food is creating massive levels of obesity, diabetes and disease.   We have constructed a world out of synch with the kind of creatures we are, and one that disconnects us from both nature and each other.

Our lifestyle does us harm

Yet we are to believe that we are the pinnacle of civilization, that everything before us was primitive or savage.  I find it more likely to believe that humans have lived in meaningful advanced civilizations throughout much of human history.   As fallible humans in a changing world those civilizations have risen and fallen, and no doubt some were better and more successful than others.  Looked at this way, I can’t help but wonder if the path we’ve chosen in the last one or two thousand years might not be one of destruction and decay rather than progress and development.

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Pizza Success

(Another in my series about pizza and my youth)

I'm "saucing" a pizza (spreading the sauce by moving around the pan), the co-worker on the left is running the oven, on the right the roll out machine. This is from 1978.

My first night back at Village Inn Pizza was memorable.  It was a long 5 to close shift, and I quickly became reacquainted with a store that I worked at briefly in April of 1976, nearly two years earlier.   I was told to learn busing and dish washing, being trained by a guy named Mike.   Mike explained the basics, and having been busing and dish-washing at my last job I caught on quickly.

At one point Warren (the manager) asked me to go sweep up the front kitchen as the workers there were too busy.  I ran to the back and grabbed the broom and swept.   “That’s what I like,” Warren said, “did you see that, he ran to get the broom!”   I got a couple snide looks from workers in the kitchen.   Later one confided with me that they were in quiet revolt.  The last manager had been very popular, but the store wasn’t performing well.    The company decided to fire him and Warren came barking orders and demanding people do everything by the book.

My friend Dan (who suggested I apply) pulled me aside.  “Warren’s sharp, these guys are dead wood, don’t get pulled into their games.”   I had no intention of doing so.  When the “old guard” told me to slow down and not be a brown nose, I just shrugged, “he’s the boss, I’m new, come on, I need this job.”     Over the next two weeks I found myself learning more details about how the restaurant operated.   I made pizza dough, learned how to operate the roll out machine (no tossing the dough in the air!), run the ovens, run the cash register, etc.  I caught on quickly, in part because I had done a short stint there earlier.   I kept up my speed, and got in the habit of sweeping and cleaning up before Warren would ask — something I knew he noticed.

I was not making friends with the old guard, but by that time so many of them had quit and so many new folk had been hired that it didn’t matter.   Just two weeks into the job Warren called me into his office.   “Scott,” he said, “you’ve been very impressive, you clean without being told to clean, and in two weeks have learned all the basics of the operation.”

“Thanks,” I said, noting that the comment about cleaning would shock my mom who complained I never did any cleaning around the house (which was, alas, true).

“How would you like to learn how to do the nightly books?”   He asked.   I replied sure.   “The only people who do the books are supervisors, the assistant manager and myself,” he continued.   “In two weeks I want you trained to be a supervisor.   That means you’ll run night shifts — Kevin (the assistant manager) or I usually leave by 7:00 — and sometimes the day shifts on weekends.   You’ll get a raise — I can’t have my supervisors earning less than the other help.   Right now you’re at $2.40, the highest paid non-superviser is at $3.40, so you’ll be bumped to $3.50 an hour.”

At that point I was feeling really good — my pay was going to go up by almost 50%!   “I would like to ask you to come in some nights and watch as I or Kevin do books.   You and Dan can come in together if you want, he’s going to be a Supervisor as well.   I can’t pay you for that, but I think it’ll be worth while.”   I agreed.   “One more thing,” he added.   “This is going to be really difficult for you.   There are still people here who have been here two years or more and they will resent you being promoted ahead of them.   Most will probably quit — that’s what I hope.  I’ve got enough people trained that I don’t need them around.   Others may ignore you or disregard you.   If you have any problems, let me know.”

I said I would, but added that I thought I could handle it.  “Don’t feel you have to prove anything, if anyone’s a jerk come tell me, this isn’t about your pride, I’m the boss, I should know everything. ”   I nodded.   “Oh, and don’t tell anyone about this yet.  I’m going to announce my changes soon.”    I went back out and continued working.    One of the old guard asked me what Warren wanted to talk to me about.   Before I could answer Warren piped up, “It’s none of your business,” he told the guy.   “I gave him a raise.  He’s proven he’s a hard worker.”     I shrugged my shoulders and the guy looked at me and shook his head.    When Warren was out of range he continued “this is just a part time low paying job, you really shouldn’t jump every time he says jump, the guy’s over the top.”   I ignored that comment.

The next night Dan and I came in to watch Warren do books.   Warren looked surprised, but we reminded him it was his idea.   “OK,” he said, “but now everyone knows you’ll be supervisors.”   Within two weeks I ran my first shift.   I positioned the employees where I wanted them, determined when to send people home, made sure the restaurant was clean, and of course worked.   On slow nights I would run the kitchen with one or two people helping with busing and dishwashing.    On busy nights we might have a crew of 12, meaning I’d have to figure out break schedules and focus more on dealing with customers and making sure everything was running smoothly.

The old guard complained, most did quit, but none of them gave me any trouble.   One time I sent one guy to help the dishwasher catch up and he complained that he always worked in the kitchen and that I should send someone else.   “You’re the fastest,” I said, “show Mike” (the guy who trained me my first night was still only busing and dishwashing) “how to speed it up.”   He didn’t protest.   For the first time in my life I had a job I really loved and I was in charge of the store, not just a busboy like at the First Edition.

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Steaks, Film, then back to Pizza!

This continues my posts about pizza and my life.  I apologize for the self-indulgence, but part of the purpose of this blog is to leave a record for my kids, and stories about my past are part of that.

I left Village Inn Pizza Parlor at age 16 and then worked nearly a year at the First Edition Restaurant and Steak House, and then a summer at a drive in movie theater before returning to the world of pizza.   Each of those experiences were important, and convince me that high school kids do need to work, you learn things on the job that you can’t get in school.

At the First Edition my duties were to bus tables, sometimes run the dish washing machine, and keep the salad bar stocked.   Memories include eating steak off plates that were brought back to be washed (when you’re 16 you chow down anything), sneaking into the walk in cooler to sample some of the ice cream prepared for the bar (which had ice cream drinks), and a grill chef throwing a steak on to the ground before putting it on the grill.   “Well done!?  They want a filet well done?   They may as well go to McDonalds!”   Seeing the shocked expression of a 16 year old bus boy, the chef smiled, “Don’t worry kid, the grill will burn off any gunk from the floor.”   Needless to say, I order my steaks medium rare.

We had the cleanest kitchen in Sioux Falls according to the health inspector, and I recall cleaning grease above the grill, scrubbing down every inch, and coming in on Sunday mornings for intensive cleaning (windows, polishing brass, etc.)   To be sure, not everything was clean.   One day a waiter came back with what looked like clean silver ware.   “They say this has been sitting on the table too long and they want ones freshly cleaned.”  He then licked them.  “There, this should satisfy them.”   I watched as he brought out the “clean” silver ware and the customers thanked him (and likely tipped him well).   Another note to self: don’t send back the silverware for replacement unless it’s clear they are dirty!

I also would grab sugar packets and chug sugar during my shift.   The packets are small, but I thought I didn’t need the extra calories so I decided to try Sweet N’ Lo.   Note to self:  NEVER chug sweet and low!    The restaurant was also a bar, and at closing time if we did a really good job the manager would often let us have a beer.   That was illegal of course, but hey, this was the 70s.   The trouble was, at that point in my life I did not yet like beer.   But I couldn’t admit it (what would the other busboys think?!) — so I’d secretly pour it down the drain and pretend like I drank it.

I was very observant and learned a lot about the restaurant business and its demands.   I appreciate what waitstaff go through and still observe restaurants for how they operate.  Yet I grew sour on the job — there was no real chance to move forward.  I couldn’t become a waiter because I wasn’t 21, and thus not able to serve drinks.    I decided to try something else, so I took a job at the drive in movie theater, East Park Drive In.

That was my slackest job.   The place no longer stands — it’s now a K-Mart — but it was fun and I was able to rack up hours, even though the pay was low.   I did a couple dusk to dawns, having to wake up people who fell asleep during the night (usually it was a series of five films).   One time I knocked on a van window and saw a naked man and woman wake up.   “It’s morning, time to go,” I said.   “Thanks man,” was the reply as they covered themselves.   We’d joke and flirt with the concession girls.  They had a machine that you poured the syrup for the soda into the top, and it would mix it with the carbon water.   I started making strong sodas, my favorite being orange soda syrup, and then mix it with 7-Up.   I also recall the manager being amazed at the summer phenomenon at the indoor theaters.  A film called Star Wars was in town all summer, breaking all sorts of records.

I also remember beers after close (by this point I indulged, albeit not as much as my co-workers).   Perhaps the low point was when I loaned my Oldsmobile — a Delmont 88 — to some drunk girls (co-workers).   They took off and my manager said, “Scott, what the hell are you thinking?”   They returned, thankfully, vehicle in tact.  Otherwise we had a running battle with kids trying to watch the movie from the lot beside us, chasing them off and/or flirting with the girls.   Of course, I had one of those flashlights with the orange bit at the top.    At the beginning we’d take tickets, and then every once in awhile I’d see trunks open a couple people pop out.   One co-worker, Orville, would yell at them and make them pay.   I’d usually just smile and look the other way.

My favorite movie of the summer was the original Freaky Friday.   I also recall learning the lines to A Star is Born with Streisand and Kristofferson almost by heart.   That movie played two weeks since one of the weeks was fair week and business that week was always bad so they didn’t bother with a new film.   I also volunteered to work every night so my co-workers could enjoy the fair.   I can’t remember many of the other films we had; I know we showed Stephan King’s Carrie.   But it was a fun summer…a few cars drove away with the speakers, but in all it was a more laid back job.

Alas, drive in movies are seasonal, and I needed to get a job in the fall.    At first I went back to The First Edition, but the job wasn’t as fun or interesting — always the same routine.   I quit to focus on debate for awhile, and then in February decided to head back to Village Inn Pizza.   A friend had gotten a job there and said they were hiring lots of new people.   So I re-applied.  The manager grilled me on why I left a year earlier, and I was honest — I said I thought the pay was better at the other place.   Then the manager, a guy named Warren Andy, looked at me intently.

“You know something, if you want to work, this is the place for you.   $2.35 to $2.45 an hour?  That differences is crap.  It’s shit.  You don’t leave a job for a dime an hour.   You know what — everything is in play here.   The old management has been fired, I’ve been brought in to clean up.   You work hard, you’ll go places, I’m even looking for supervisors, maybe three or four to run shifts.   I’m not going to choose them from the old staff, they’ve been spoiled, I’m going to fill those positions with my people.   I can’t promise anything, but if you really are willing to work, this is the place to be.”

“Yes, I want to work here, and I will work hard,” I replied.   Warren smiled.   “You start Saturday night, tomorrow, five to close.  Is that a problem?”   It was — I had plans.   “No, no problem, I’ll be here!”   He gave me my uniform — a white and red checkered shirt and a bow tie and paper work to fill out.   Little did I know I was about to start not just another job, but a job that I still look back on with pride and fondness.  I did become a supervisor in less than a month, and it was a grand experience.    More to come in future posts…

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Pizza and Me

Despite having a blog devoted to politics, philosophy and the cultural changes taking place in the world today, I’m going to start writing about an important part of my life: pizza.   As I reflect, I realize that I cannot do justice to “pizza and me” in one post.   So interspersed with my other writings I’ll inject a pizza post now and then.  Consider this an introduction.

As a child I did not like pizza.  I didn’t know why, I’d never tasted it, but it just seemed something I wouldn’t like.   Then at Shakey’s Pizza in Sioux Falls at a birthday party my sister Roni had, I decided at age 12 to try a slice of hamburger pizza.   Delicious!  I was hooked.  Since then pizza has played a strong role in my life.

My first job was at Village Inn Pizza in Sioux Falls at age 16.   I left it for a higher paying busboy/DMO position at First Edition Steak House (instead of $2.15 I’d make $2.45 an hour), but returned in less than a year.   DMO stands for Dish Machine Operator, and I was told by the manager Warren that I was the fastest dishwasher he’d ever seen.   Perhaps I had a future in that profession, but I never pursued it.   Within a month after my return to Village Inn I was promoted to Supervisor/Night manager, and continued working there off and on until I was done with college.  My sophomore year in college I got a 30 hour a week job at a law firm, but in summers I combined it with my pizza work to total 60 hours a week.    Before going to grad school I worked at Guido’s pizza in Sioux Falls, an unbaked pizza place that later went out of business.  It was either me or the manager/owner working there, and due to lack of business I spent most of my time studying Italian or playing Donkey Kong.

After a got my MA and did a stint working for a Senator in Washington DC I decided the political games of DC were not for me so I quit and moved to Minneapolis, MN.   There I learned that an MA in International Studies from Johns Hopkins SAIS was impressive, but not really helpful in getting work in that part of the country.  So I became an Assistant Manager at Rocky Rococo’s pizza, starting in Uptown and then opening the store in Brooklyn Park.   My pizza career ended when I started the Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota.

Through grad school I ate pizza almost daily.  I made my own dough, mixed spices with tomato sauce, paste and water to create my own sauce, and topped it with cheese.    Between that and pasta (usually also with a self-made red sauce and some grated Parmesan cheese) I ate cheaply but well.  I mean, pizza and pasta, what could be better?   To this day I still make pizzas often, though I’ve found that my family prefers the cheap store pizza sauce to my own concoction.

I still remember my first night at Village Inn.   It was my first “real” job, and I was told to run ovens.   They had a “buy a family size get a single free” coupon out, so my ovens were full.   They were the old fashioned Blodgett ovens where you use a large wooden spatch to get pizzas out — no wimpy conveyor belt.   Here in Farmington both the Farmington House of Pizza and Athena’s have the same kind of oven.   I also had a metal tool I could use to pull the pizzas to the edge (it had a spot to grab the pan with), and then lift the pizza to check the dough.  I also had to pop bubbles.   Bubbles emerge if the pizza hasn’t been “doc’d” (little holes put in the dough), and even if doc’d often pop up as the dough rises.  They can get very large and potentially ruin the pie.  Unless they were small, you had to not only pop them, but cover them with a little cheese to avoid having an ugly pie.

I would later become one of only a few people who could run all four ovens full of pizzas without needing assistance (I also would hold the record for rolling out pizzas, topping pizzas, and dishwashing — I was fast!   Thats a trait I have to this day – slow people annoy me.)    That first night was fun, I was getting constant praise for how well I was doing on ovens and it was cool to bake pizza and then pull them out of the oven, slice them, and call out on the intercom “pick up pizza number 35 please,” and take the order to the counter.  I felt very important, I was the guy handing out the pizzas!

Alas, one negative of those wonderful old Blodgett ovens is the tendency to burn oneself.  Over the years I got burns all over my hands and arms, but the worst was that first night.   I got a bad burn on my hand, and it puffed up bigger and bigger as I kept working, having to put my hand into the oven to retrieve pizzas.   I tried putting ice on it, and ignored a co-worker’s plea that I ask to be relieved of oven duty.  This was fun, I didn’t want to have to go bus tables!

At about midnight that co-worker told the manager about my burn, and he came and looked at it.   I expected sympathy or perhaps praise for fighting through the pain, but instead he got mad.   “This is just a job, you don’t have to be a hero,” he yelled at me, “my God, when did you get the burn?”   When he found out that I got it relatively early in evening his anger grew.   “You can injure yourself badly, the heat from the oven only makes it worse, that’s just plain stupid.”    He then ordered me to go the ER — my first ER visit ever — to treat the burn, and said to make sure I tell them Workman’s Comp should cover it.   “And don’t ever do anything this stupid again.”

The ER experience was interesting.  The manager had called my parents to let them know I’d be late, and I definitely had an interesting first night in the pizza business.   The manager went from anger to playful teasing later on, I think he realized he’d made his point.

Still, that first stint at VIPP (Village Inn Pizza Parlor) was short.   A neighbor owned the First Edition restaurant and talked my parents in to having me apply there.    It would be a year before I’d be back at VIPP and really make pizza a permanent part of my life.   But hey – running ovens, getting a burn, going to the ER…I’d say it was an interesting first night in the working world!

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Godfather’s yes, the Presidency, no

Lately I’ve felt satisfied that the bout of Islamophobia the US suffered a few years ago is over.   With the “Arab spring,” death of Osama Bin Laden, and a lessening of fear, people realize that Muslims are not the enemy, nor is the religion particularly violent and strange.   I integrate bits about Islam and its history in many of my classes, believing all educated students should know more than the caricatured image the media often gives.   Lately I’ve been impressed by how often they come out of high school with that knowledge — kudos to US schools!

But now Republican Presidential contender Herman Cain says that communities should be able to ban mosques when they want to.    His rationale is plain weird.  He says that Muslims combine church and state and use mosques to “infuse their morals into a community.”   A mosque cannot itself combine church and state, last I checked no mosques in the country were involved in government.  They are a place of worship.   Muslim theology traditionally sees church and state together (as did traditional Roman Catholic theology — they fought wars about it!), but mosques in the US are simply serving a community.

I’m not sure what to make of the “infuse morals” comment.   I daresay that Christian churches try to infuse their morals into a community.   Moreover, I suspect there is far more agreement than disagreement between Christians and Muslims about moral issues.  Does  Cain object to people trying to infuse their morals into a community?   If a community of Christians lived in a predominately non-Christian town, would the non-Christians be justified in banning churches from being built?

Cain earlier expressed hesitancy about having Muslims serve in a potential Cain White House (the more he talks, the more purely academic that scenario becomes), hinting that they were more prone to terrorism.    If these broadsides had been hurled a few years ago, back when Tom Tancredo was saying we should bomb Mecca in the case of another terrorist attack, he may have been able to get away with it.    Now he just looks like a bigot.

To be sure, Tancredo’s crazy was a level that Cain has yet to come close to.   To bomb the center of a religion serving billions because a miniscule fraction of people claiming to believe that religion pull off a terror attack would be evil of the sort that would be admired by a Hitler or Stalin.   Cain’s apparent bigotry seems more rooted in ignorance than evil.  It was even too much for Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, who isn’t exactly liberal!

So I’ll give Cain the benefit of the doubt.   He may not be a bigot, he may simply have a very strong belief that Muslims have the wrong faith, and that it is his duty as a Christian to protect our culture from their influence.   I still don’t like it and will argue against it, but that’s within the realm of politically acceptable action.   One can be an advocate for a religion.   He’s no different than Muslims in the Arab world who try to stop Christians from spreading their ideas (and they don’t like missionaries over there); he can make his case in the realm of political discourse.

I believe his opinion makes him inappropriate for the office of the Presidency.   A President must, above all else, be true to the constitution and be President to all Americans.    President Bush recognized this, and proclaimed Islam a “religion of peace” and refused to define Islam as the enemy.   After all, with 10 million Muslim Americans, almost all of them anti-terrorist contributors to their communities, he was their President too.

There is something I like about Herman Cain.  He helped Pillsbury keep Godfather’s Pizza alive.   In the 80s the pizza chain was losing money for Pillsbury and they gave Cain the task of reviving the brand.  He did, and Godfather’s returned to profitability.

For that, I thank Cain.   One of the first Godfather’s opened in Sioux Falls back in 1977.    That was less than four years after the very first Godfather’s opened in neighboring Nebraska, if I recall it was about the 5th or 6th restaurant.   Pillsbury didn’t yet own the company and the owner at the time, William Theisen, came to Sioux Falls to celebrate the new store.  I was doing “a week with the mayor” as part of a mini-course in high school, and Mayor Rick Knobe asked me to say some words.  I praised the new restaurant and even mimicked Marlon Brando’s Godfather character at the end, “come to Godfather’s, please try our pizza, we hope you like the pizza…no, on second thought, you WILL come to Godfather’s, you WILL try the pizza, and you WILL like it!” Miss South Dakota was there too, which is always a treat for a 17 year old boy.

Godfather’s quickly became one of my favorite pizzerias, second only to Village Inn Pizza, where I worked.   We don’t have them in Maine, so whenever I get back home, I make a point to have some Godfather’s.   It’s good pizza still (though I think it was better back in the late seventies).  I have fond memories of meals and dates there, as it was just three blocks from Augustana College, where I got my BA.

So, Herman Cain, you’re obviously a good businessman.   And if you want to be politically active to promote your own religion and warn us of “false” faiths, go ahead, the Constitution gives you that right.   But if you want to be President, you need to understand that our Constitution recognizes the right of people of all faiths to worship and be treated with respect.   Moreover, you need to learn about the reality of Islam, not the pamphlets and biased polemics put out by the Christian right.    The only people who benefit when the extremists here show anti-Muslim sentiment are the extremists there who want there to be some kind of ‘clash of civilizations.’  Let’s not help the extremists.

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When in Rome…

Some of the Pompei group today, sporting sun burns

Today most of the students headed to Pompei, where Sarah holds a seminar on the art and archeology there, a highlight of the trip for many students.   I had to stay in Rome to try to arrange an inexpensive bus trip to the airport on Monday (I succeeded).   Steve remained behind too, as Luann and Sarah led the group to Pompei.  I did go last time we went, and did a short blog entry on that in 2009.

Steve and I took a walk through Rome to plan an assessment of this trip, involving both current students and alumni from the five previous trips abroad we led.    We also scouted around for a place for the second student seminar (perhaps Circo Massimo) and plotted the final two days of the course, going over the lessons learned so far.   At about 3:00 we were very, very hot and decided to take a two hour break and meet at 5:30 to continue.

From the window of the bread/pastry shop. Expensive but excellent!

We had planned a nice long calorie burning walk, but once we reached an area that appeared to be the university section we got seduced into having pastries and Cafe Macchiato at this wonderful bakery.   They had a wide variety of breads and pastries  and we enjoyed a delicious treat.

Then, not more than 20 steps away, we found a pizzeria.   We ordered pizza and wine and chatted two hours.   It was productive — we now have an assessment plan for this course (not just this one but the series of travel courses) and need to get IRB approval.   We really believe we’re accomplishing something very difficult here, bringing together a truly interdisciplinary experience with whole life lessons that we hope students will take into their futures.   It’s exciting, invigorating, and far more than just travel in Italy.   Our next goal is to demonstrate that by assessing the experience.

Pizzeria in Rome

So after a leisurely meal on a warm but pleasant Roman evening, we got up to head towards the station to meet the Pompei folk on their return.   En route we had another pastry and cafe.   So much for the calorie burning walk!  Still, we’re in Rome, and tonight we enjoyed the evening in a Roman manner with food and drink.

The train from Napoli was on time, and the students on board.  They were sunburned, enthusiastic and very hungry.   They’d taken the “slow” train for 21 Euro round trip (2.5 hours from Napoli to Roma — the high speed train does it in half the time — but 90 Euros round trip), and had been rushing to catch the train.

Two more full days in Rome then we head home.

Back from Pompei!

What a day!

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Child of Vision

“You tried to be a hero, commit the perfect crime
but the dollar got you dancing and you’re running out of time.
You’re messin’ up the water, You’re rolling in the wine
You’re poisoning your body, You’re poisoning your mind
You gave me coca-cola, You said it tasted good
You watch the television, It tells you that you should.

How can you live in this way?  You must have something to say.
There must be more to this life.  It’s time we did something right.
Child of Vision, won’t you listen?
Find yourself a new ambition.”

(From “Child of Vision,” Supertramp LP “Breakfast in America”)

I’m in the process of reading All the Devil Are Here by McLean and Nocera, giving a detailed story of the financial crisis 30 years in the making.   They don’t cover all our problems, obviously — the housing bubble and mortgage backed securities fiasco was only part of the debt driven hyper-consumption societal imbalance we experienced, or perhaps are still experiencing.   But it details the unholy link between big money and big government, and how neither political party can blame the other for situations they each championed.

I also watched the documentary Food, Inc. last night.  It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know, but it clarified the way in which big agri-business is creating an inhumane food chain that mass produces unhealthy and potentially unsafe food, while generating huge profits.   The farmers who produce the food are not the romantic farmers of my great grandparent’s years, but workers treated more like fast food or even sweat shop employees than individuals of value.    Companies like Monsanto and ADM achieved their dominance the same way Goldman Sachs and Fannie Mae did – government connections and the brute power of massive financial resources.   If you can lobby Congress, sue critics, and buy off competitors, you can control the market.   Their power is near dictatorial, yet they claim it’s just success in a free market.

And, of course, in both cases ideological capitalists, blind to the poisonous power of such mega-conglomerates, defend business and call any effort to regulate and break up such massive empires “socialist.”   Many on the right have been fooled by ideological bait and switch — it’s either big government or big business, if you don’t like socialism then champion those businesses that claim free market principles.   In reality the two are lock step together, and it’s big money that calls the shots.   If government weakens, big money strengthens.   We’re in a country where large corporations shape our life style through advertising, lobbying, governmental influence, and power over the market place.   From the WTO to the Chamber of Commerce, big money cynically claims free market principles while doing everything they can to use their power to stack the deck in their favor.   Fooled by the “fair and balanced you decide” dualist mentality of US pundits (it’s either business or government, you gotta choose one!), Americans harmed by this abuse of power laud and defend these companies.   Neither party stands up to them.

I was doing my morning step machine work out, listening to Supertramp, and had these issues in mind as I pondered the final song of on the Breakfast in America LP, penned by Roger Hodgson.   America is a child of vision.  The founders had in mind a democratic country, “conceived in liberty and dedicated the proposition that all men are created equal.”  Respecting each others inalienable rights, we were to build a new society, a “shining city on a hill” where the benefits of  liberty would call others to join us.

We were still shaped by the European biases that would lead to the slaughter of native tribes.   We had to work to overcome the inequalities suffered by blacks, who were slaves for nearly 80 years after the country was founded, and women, who couldn’t vote for the first 130 years.  Yet even as the past is full of  moral failure, the vision is pure.   As Anne Marie Slaughter put it in her book The Idea that is America, the values of liberty, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, democracy and faith have guided the building of the US.   America is an aspiration more than a place.   We’ve worked hard to try to get closer to those ideals and we have a long way to go, but the only failure would be to lose sight of that vision.

Yet perhaps we are.   Perhaps we’ve met one challenge that is hard to overcome, and which can lead us to stray from our values: prosperity.   Prosperity seems to be a good thing, every politician wants to promise it, and right now the public is demanding that politicians “fix” the economy so we can go back to the hyper-consumption of a few years ago.  Yet we are “poisoning our body” with mass produced and engineered food, which has led to an obesity epidemic and unbelievable growth of diabetes cases.  We’re “poisoning our mind” as advertisers and propagandists manipulate through emotion, leading to a belief that consumption creates meaning, and success in life is based on what we own.   Political pundits manipulate emotion to create a left vs. right jihadist mentality, in which the real issues and problems take a backseat to the desire to see one “team” beat the other.

By “rolling in the wine,” we become blind to the damage being done.  We’re high on consumption, and become addicted to “something for nothing,” available through cheap credit and get rich quick schemes like stock bubbles and flipping real estate.   Meanwhile we are poisoning our water, and our planet, setting up environmental disasters for the future.  But of course the same big money that shoots down critics of agri-business or financial institutions obfuscates on the environment, accuses scientists of being too “political” and manages to manipulate the debate and use ideology to prevent action from being taken.   Profit today, who cares about tomorrow?   We consume because advertisers tell us that we should, consumption has become the measure of who we are, our identity.

But the dollar got you dancing, and you’re running out of time…

The current recession is real and deep.  There are threats to our environment, and as noted yesterday, the days of cheap oil may be nearing an end.   As a society we’re becoming unhealthy, eating poorly, and driving up medical costs.  Psychologically the consumerist mentality eats away at our sense of well being and contentment; it induces stress, anxiety and depression.   We are running out of time.

How can you live in this way?  You must have something to say.
There must be more to this life.  It’s time we did something right.
Child of Vision, won’t you listen?
Find yourself a new ambition.

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Eating in America

Last February I was dismayed when my scale read “222.”  2 is my favorite number, but at 6 ft 0 inches, that’s too much.  So I went on a diet, started an exercise routine, and by May 16th — the day we left for the Germany travel course — I was at 190.  That was a good 32 pounds lost in three months.

The good news is that I have kept up my exercise routines, now with 5:45 AM step machine workouts, and evening bowflex work outs three times a week.  I feel good.   The bad news is that my weight has climbed back up to about 196.  Moreover, it’s done that despite the fact I am still trying to eat in a healthy manner, limiting both snacks and eating out. Those last belly pounds remain resilient.

Part of it is the amount of weight I already lost this year.  You lose more than 10% of your body weight (for me that was about 22 pounds) and your body goes into “starvation mode.”  It assumes that some kind of calamity has hit the food supply.   The pounds are dropping fast, clearly something must be wrong!   And in a state of nature where you struggle for your food rather than struggling to avoid the allure of KFC chicken or Sbarros stuffed pizzas, that was a good thing.  In fact, my current weight is back very close to that 10% level (and 222 was a high last February, before that I was stable at about 218 — 196 is exactly 10% less).    So I may be at that 10% plateau below which weight loss becomes very difficult.

Yet I want to get down to about 185, or if I can put on some muscle perhaps 190.   And I’m not going back to getting half my calories from soyburgers like I did last spring.   A month of intense of calorie deprivation like I engaged in last spring could get me there, but I don’t want to do that.   I want to find a healthy mode of slow but consistent weight lose and develop habits that will keep me where I want to be.

My problem?   I love sweets, I love fatty food, and I find eating vegetables to be a chore.  I’ll eat them, but they don’t satisfy me so they can’t replace the foods I like.   But when my snacks are ice cream, Ritter Sport candy bars, bread and butter with salami, the calories add up quickly.   Worse, I want to eat like the television tells me I should.

Big yummy pieces of pizza full of pepperoni and sausage, stacks of pancakes next to eggs and bacon, a big juicy steak beside a loaded baked potato with a dinner roll.   Pasta — pasta with creamy sauces, stuffed with cheese, and preferably three helpings.   I want gelato daily, to eat bagels and cream cheese, and to supersize my fries.   I want milkshakes.   I want delicious breads, well crafted pastries, and lots and lots of butter.    I don’t want these things in small quantities at special times, I want them in large quantities multiple times a day!

I see these things on the TV all the time, being eaten by young people with beautiful bodies, showing me how cool pasta in an edible bread bowl really is.   The restaurants entice me, telling me that “I deserve a treat,” and of course, I do.  Always.  That statement is true every time it is made, I deserve something special!   I work hard, I help people out, I deserve a treat.  A pizza.  A DQ blizzard.   A Tim Horton’s vanilla cream donut.

At night as I unwind I deserve a drink, maybe two.  I deserve to feel relaxed and a bit buzzed as I watch Jon Stewart mock the political class.  (And if I have to watch Sarah Palin, then I deserve four or five. )   I also need to snack on popcorn with butter, potato chips, or a little salami sandwich while I unwind.  It was a rough day balancing work, kids, grading, etc…I deserve it.

Of course, if I did all that I’d soon be pushing 300 pounds.   Eating in America is hard — and hard in a perverse way.  It used to be that health was more likely endangered by malnutrition or under-eating.   Eating was hard because you had to either grow or trade to ensure a variety of foods, raising animals and then preparing, preserving and rationing your foods as winter came.   Bland food is delicious when you’re struggling to survive (I think I understand that judging by how good my Boca soy burgers tasted when I was in my intense diet last spring!)

Now it’s so easy to grab something tasty — often it is also cheap, and often we underestimate the damage it does.   Many meat and pasta dishes at common restaurants chime in at 1200 calories or higher.   Add drinks, desert, and the complementary bread and butter and it’s easy to walk out of a restaurant 2000 calories richer.   If you weigh 150 pounds or less, that’s all you’re allowed for the day without risking weight gain!

There are always temptations — snack foods, breads, cakes…easy to pick up at the store, and easy to munch on over the course of the day.  A donut at work, coffee with cream and sugar…it adds up!

To try to keep weight off  I have to recognize and keep reminding myself that the food cornucopia that advertisers say I should be able to enjoy is, in fact, an illusion.   They’re selling a product, often enhanced by artificial flavors and dyes.   The idea that healthy fit people can constantly enjoy these foods while staying fit is not true.  I cannot let myself be seduced by the images and temptations on TV, on Main Street, in the mall, or at the grocery store.   They are poisonous,  filling my taste buds with delight while destroying my health and fitness.

I need to take control.  Yes, I like pizza.  I like ice cream.   And yeah, I’m in this world of plenty and not being an ascetic, I’ll enjoy.   But I’ll not enjoy at the ravenous quantity of intake my advertising manipulated emotions cause me to want (or think I deserve).   I’ll figure out what I can afford to enjoy, and plan it for maximum pleasure.   I’ll savor it, rather than pounding down pizza slice after pizza slice.   My superego has to snatch the donut from my id.

Yet even as I type that, I have to fight the Homer Simpson inside who is suddenly thinking “Mmmmm, Pizza and donuts, mmm *drool*…”

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Diet progress

Back in February I noted that I had hit a record weight of 220 (and that was first thing in the morning).    I vowed to go on a diet and get back to my “ideal” weight of 186.    I had gotten to the point that even my ‘fat pants’ were getting tight, and I heard myself grunt a bit while lifting my body off the ground, especially after playing on the floor with the kids.   I have finally lost 22 of the 34 pounds I need to lose, so I’m making progress — just over two pounds a week.

In Mid-May I’ll be blogging from Vienna, Munich and Berlin while teaching a travel course (much like my blogs from Italy last year), assuming we’re not grounded by volcano ash.  If I reach my goal of 186 (or am at least close), I’ll allow myself to go wild with Kuchen, Torten, Bier and restaurant dining.   Since we walk so much on those trips, I doubt I’ll gain any back.    That goal is one which keeps me going on this diet.

So let me share my dieting secrets.  Up front, know that this is not the kind of diet a doctor would recommend, and the harder thing for me to do will be to create healthy eating habits once the diet is over.   For me losing weight is all about a strict, disciplined regime of eating as little as possible, while exercising daily.   Screw all the stuff about balanced diets, lifestyle changes, and point counting.   I want to lose it as quick as I can, and the key is discipline.   That means when I’m out for dinner at a friends’ or at a party, I’ll eat small portions, and take only one small helping.   At home I’ll wait until I feel out of energy, and my main snack is a Boca vegan soy burger with ketchup.   70 calories, all but five of them from protein.   The ketchup adds a few more.

Now, if you’ve had Boca burgers before, you might say “yuck, I couldn’t eat 25-30 a week, with no bun and just ketchup.  Some days I eat as many as six.   But first of all, it’s soy so it’s really healthy and sticks with you.   But most importantly, when you’re really hungry almost anything tastes good!

Second, mostly boring meals.   I love pizza.  I make my own dough, so I can control the portions and have perfected the 300 calorie cheese pizza.   A delicious break from the boca burgers.   Add maybe a few M&Ms (and only a few), some soup now and then, or some Hormel prepared dinners (you can store them at room temperature — 230 calories or so) and small sized portions of Chef Boy R Dee beefaroni or spaghetti — about 210 calories each, and that’s about all I eat.

That does mean I eat more often than usual — maybe two soy burgers for breakfast (170 calories, counting ketchup), a prepared dinner from the microwave at work mid-morning (230), two more soy burgers early mid-afternoon (another 170), a late afternoon beefaroni (210), and a cheese pizza for dinner (300), and I hit 1180.   Add maybe 150 for small snacks and I reach 1330.   The one luxury I allow myself is a drink at the end of the night before bed.  It’s useful because the alcohol hits me quick when I’m eating so little, and I actually then can fall asleep without thinking I’m hungry.   Also, it’s a reward — if I can avoid eating too much, I know I have the luxury of a Rum and Diet Coke while watching Jon Stewart.  Add 100 calories for that, and it’s 1430.   I’d say most days I end up having to have small snacks, or maybe some toast in the evening, and it probably ends up hitting 1600 calories or so.   Still, that’s reasonable.

Then, there’s the exercise.  For that I either walk, or use my step machine.  It tells me I burn 500 – 560 calories per work out (as I have been losing the number of calories burned goes down unless I increase the pace).   Put my head phones on, and push myself through the workouts.   It’s really hard early on, but I tend to do seven or eight days in a row, then a day off because of some social event.   Discipline.  (I’ve done 16 days in a row in this stretch).

Once I’m in this routine, it’s not that hard to stay disciplined.   One key is no exceptions. We were at a community fund raising “mystery theater” the other day, where teams try to solve a murder mystery, talking with people who play characters in the mystery.   They had lovely donated cookies, and rich Gifford’s ice cream that all indulged in.  I had nothing.   I could not do that in my normal routine, only when I’ve disciplined myself to this diet.   We had a big communal Russian feast at our place a couple weeks ago, and a friend cooked us Indian food — my favorite — last weekend.  Each time I kept my intake low, trying everything, eating slowly, and cutting foods earlier in the day to make sure I stay at a reasonable calorie count.  Since February 12th, I’m sure I’ve not gone above 2000 calories once, except maybe at the Russian feast thanks to vodka and wine (alcohol does provide empty calories).

So, how can one get disciplined?   It’s actually not hard once the routine is established.  You see yourself dropping pounds, feel better, and your body gets used to getting by on less (unfortunately the body also burns less calories, working against the diet, but c’est la vie).   But having many failed attempts where I vow to start a diet, and then can’t get going, it’s sort of like a hard to start lawn mower, where you have to pull the chord over and over before it finally works.  A few things help:

1.  Goals.  I’m going to a conference in Chicago later this week.   My goal is to fit into a suit I bought back when I was in very good shape.   I don’t think if I’ll make it, but that keeps me especially disciplined now.   I mentioned the Vienna-Munich-Berlin trip.  I want to be very much in shape during that travel course (gotta keep up with the students!)

2.   A sense of certainty.   When I started this diet, I was certain I could keep it.   It just seemed like ‘this time it will work.’   Other times I think I’m only half in it, I didn’t see it as a major part of my life.  It just isn’t optional this time.

3.  Daily weigh ins.   Every morning and night I weigh myself.  Now, the body loses weight unevenly.  So my morning weight chart may be: 208.3, 207.4, 206.9, 208.1, 207.7, 207.4, 206.3, 205.2, 205.4, 206.2, 204.8, 205.1…you get the picture.   The key is that the trend is down.  It can be depressing when you “plateau” at a certain weight for awhile, but sticking to the diet, it always goes down.

4.  A sense of control.  I can have the body I want to have, have the health growing old that allows me to be active and not worry about heart attacks and high blood pressure, and be confident.  I don’t care what people say, but when I weigh 186 I’m a lot more confident and self-assured than when I weigh 220 (which I have hit).

Alas, I love food and I know the diet will end when I reach a certain point, and while I have been able to maintain a good weight level for a year or so, I usually start inching upward.  The challenge this time will be not to.  Otherwise, sometime maybe in 2013 or 2014, this blog will be reporting another diet, Boca burger sales will increase (I wonder if they notice it at the grocery store?)   So, now I’m under 200 and still losing!

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Food Culture

Saturday night we dined with friends.   It was a superb meal.   The hosts prepared the menu, assigned each participant a dish to prepare, and then starting about 6:30 PM when we began with a sparkling wine toast and the salad, continuing to about 10:15 when we ended with dessert.  The food was delicious, there was lots of laughter, and a sense of community.

Americans have lost the art of fine dining.  Oh, I know — everyone reading this experiences something like I described now and then.   In general, though, our lives are so hurried and our food culture so focused on quantity and speed that we lose a sense of community and joy.

Consider:  In Italy, as in much of Europe, you go to a restaurant and you expect to spend hours there.  Unless you’re at a real touristy place frequented by Americans, there is a professionalism and sense of dignity with the wait staff.   They take your order, make recommendations if appropriate, and serve the food.  In many cases you order multiple courses, and they assure that there is the proper spacing between when you end one course and start another.  They do not come and ask if you are enjoying your meal.   It’s assumed that you are, otherwise you’d say something.   They also don’t zip to your table as soon as your wine bottle is empty or your finish the last swallow of beer.   Whereas in America it feels like waitstaff are vultures, ready to pounce when your glass is empty, in Europe the expectation is that if you want more, you’ll ask for it.

It’s not difficult.  You look at the waiter, look at the empty wine bottle, and sometimes the waiter will just gesture to the bottle and nod, a non-verbal form of communication asking if you want another.  You nod back, the waiter smiles briefly, and soon you have another bottle.  Or you gesture the waiter over and say if you want something different.   Then, when the food is consumed, nobody rushes a bill to you in order to increase the table turnover rate.   You can sit there as long as you wish.   I’ve known Americans who have been frustrated in Italy or Germany, wondering why they weren’t getting the bill.   They have to signify to the waiter that they are ready to go; it would be rude for the wait staff to do anything to insinuate customers should hurry!

Moreover, portions here in the US are huge — and tend to be weighted down with fat, butter, cheese, or whatever pleases the palate at a relatively inexpensive cost.   We don’t do well balanced textured sauces and exquisite flavors.  We’re for the big bacon cheese burger, or portions of heavy dishes that are often upward of 1500 calories.   In the US one leaves a restaurant often feeling nauseatingly overfilled, especially as the fast eating pace we tend to embrace means that we can eat a lot in the 20 minutes between getting full and having the brain register that we’re full.   Our deserts are huge masses of chocolate, cream, or some rich gooey cake full of fat and sugar.

One can eat a lot of calories in Europe, but usually over a longer period of time, with portions smaller, focused less on the brute force of fat and sugar than fine well crafted sauces and preparation methods, designed to bring out the flavor of spices, mixing and matching interesting tastes.  One consumes and savors them, rather than gobbling them up, and then relaxes between courses.

Our coffees also show the difference.  Whether northern European strong coffees with cream and sugar, or the flavorful burst of espresso in Italy, the focus is on coffee.  The cream and sugar augment the coffee, as with a cafe latte (coffee and hot milk) in Italy.   Here one can get that kind of experience, but more often than not its flavored coffees, iced coffees with loads of cream and sugar, or others weighted down with extras that seem to want to overpower our taste buds rather than serve them.

All that wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t in such a hurry.   If the meal takes more than fifteen minutes to arrive, we look around, “what’s keeping them?”   We expect everything at once, and everyone is supposed to be served at once, and start eating together.  When we eat, conversation stops as we zip through the food, almost hurrying to finish the last bite before our stomachs scream at us to stop.   It is rare that Americans at a typical restaurant spend more than 40 or 45 minutes “dining.”  And if we linger, the wait staff does everything it can to let us know that we need to move on so the next group can be seating.

It’s not that the differences are night and day.   A German can grab a Bratwurst and beer at a kiosk in downtown Frankfurt and scarf that down in three minutes.   An Italian at a cafe eats breakfast standing — usually a pastry and cappuccino, and may end up getting a panino (sandwich) or pizza slice at a snack bar for lunch, eating that quickly.  We, of course, have our very fine restaurants where we do spend time enjoying the meal.   Everyone eats fast sometimes, and slow and willfully others.  It’s just that we seem to do the fast and heavy route most of the time.

Some people might think this whole idea misplaced — those who eat 95% of the time at home with family often have very meaningful and well established family traditions.   Not everyone is caught up in the fast and heavy food culture in the US.   But more families than ever are eating on the fly, often at different times, and the rates of eating out in the US have sky rocketed in recent years.   We seem to be uniquely willing to give up our food culture in order to play harder in the rat race of modern life.

And therein lies the problem.   Our food culture reflects problems in the culture at large.   Our scattered, shallow, high quantity low quality food culture represents a disconnected, materialist, and often meaningless culture at large.   We are in to things, not experiences; stuff, not people.   Community matters less than how much we can accumulate.   Maybe the best way to start to counter that in our own lives is to think about what we eat and how we eat it.   Perhaps we should move towards organic and naturally raised crops and meats, rather than the cheap mass produced products that seem to treat animals inhumanely, and give us less healthy diets.   Most importantly, maybe we should treat meal time as a time for communing and sharing, rather than gulping and gorging.   That might start us on a better path.

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