Good things come in small packages. I have to believe that because I have a little parrot, and also because I’m 5’4.” I’ve also come to believe it because my work area measures four feet square.
We made the decision about five years ago to choose the path of financial independence. We sat down and worked out a clear strategy, one that is radical but that has also been done successfully by thousands of people. We chose to go car-free, get rid of most of our stuff, and radically downsize our living space so that we could invest as much of our income as possible.
Most married couples balk at the idea of getting rid of their cars. That’s the major sticking point. Living in a quarter of the space is next-hardest. Getting rid of 90% of their physical possessions sounds like fun, until they realize it’s not all their partner’s stuff but their own stuff, too. Oh, I thought you meant just the kids’ toys. Dang it.
We felt like we were prepared, and we had already downsized three times in five years. Then, out of the blue, we got the opportunity, the double-whammy: The dream job in a city by the beach.
It all happened fast at that point. We had done most of the mental and emotional labor together. We had come up with a vision of our end-game, and now it was legitimately our chance to make it happen. Did we really want it as much as we said we did?
We literally did it in two weeks. We scheduled a garage sale, and whatever was left at the end of the weekend went to a conveniently timed rummage sale in several carloads. Then we got a moving van and put all our remaining stuff in storage, boarded our pets, and moved into an AirBnB for a week until we could pick out an apartment.
It never occurred to either of us that this opportunity of the dream job would turn out to be for both of us. Neither of us thought that I’d end up working there, too.
We certainly never thought we’d be living here for Pandemic 2020.
If we’d realized we would be effectively housebound for a year (psst: probably closer to three), we probably would have chosen a larger place?
Now both of us are working from home, on opposite ends of the couch, and our living room doubles as a shared office cubicle.
The comedy factor here is that we share the space with: a parrot. Little griefer who thinks it’s hilarious to whistle every time one of us is on a hot mic. I rue the day she ever recognized one of our friends on Zoom and figured out that all those faces are actual people. Now she is obsessed with getting on camera and making everyone tell her what a pretty red tail she has.
This is what we have for now. This is where we’ve landed.
Having put so much effort into the path that got us to this apartment, it’s easier for us to accept that we’re sentenced to share the equivalent of a hotel suite, all day every day. About 50% bigger than an RV.
Yes, obviously millions of people are having a harder time than us right now. I come from poverty, I get it. This story is about making radical changes to reach financial freedom, and how that can be both fun and empowering.
Every time I tell a story like this, I hope that at least one person will read it and start wondering, Hmm, what if I tried something like this?
Anyone with a romantic partner has the option to turn to that person and say, Hey babe, I was reading this weird story. What would you think if we...?
This is how relationships are saved, when we look at each other and realize that we can trade the default life for something else. We traded the debt and the lawn care and the commute and the errands and the chores of a standard suburban home. We traded them for independence and living by the beach.
And then it sort of bit us in the butt, because this whole work-from-home thing would have been a lot easier in our newlywed rental house, the one with three bedrooms, two baths, a backyard and a garage workshop. The one with the huge pantry and *gasp* the laundry room.
[The one in the county with 1% of the deaths of our current county]
We’re here. We are where we are. We got ourselves here. Now what?
It turns out, and this is the surprising part, it turns out that a person can get quite a lot done in four square feet!
I realized this the other day while I had my work laptop open, with my desktop monitor above, while talking on my phone through my headphones. Somehow I had room for two keyboards, a trackpad, and a notepad.
Then I realized that if I had a standard-sized desk in the building, the extra space would probably be filled with files and a bunch of office equipment like a stapler and a tape dispenser. All the detritus that is only needed when people are still doing things 19th-century style, aka on paper.
We aren’t going back this calendar year, that’s a 99% certainty.
If/when we do go back, what will happen?
I basically know where I would sit. Hubby and I would commute in together. I’d get up an hour earlier so I would have time to constrain my hair. We’d commute home together and immediately start making dinner. We’d spend close to two additional hours a day, times two people, to go back and forth to a building where we would do the same jobs that we are currently doing successfully at home.
Where does the time come from? It comes from our sleep and our workouts, of course.
I think this change is going to be permanent for information workers like us. At least 40% of people can do their jobs completely online right now, and I suspect it’s actually closer to 60% once the numbers come in. Some people aren’t going to like it, but I think the efficiencies for the employer are so obvious that - why fight it?
This four-square-foot space is likely to be my holding tank for the indefinite future. I think I’m actually okay with that.
I got a new job while I was sick with COVID-19, and the reason I share that is to give people hope. It’s hard to imagine a bigger negative for a panel interview than fighting a serious lung infection. Now that I’m working, I thought I’d share some ideas on the pandemic job market.
First off, you have the great good fortune of not having to compete against me for a job, because I’m out of the game. Tee here.
Look, it’s important to treat unemployment with a sense of humor. Why? Because if you get sucked into despair and dread, it will give you a different attitude than if you find a way to project confidence and good cheer. Fake it if you have to, but attitude is a bigger determiner for hiring than your resume is.
Always be emitting rays that express, I can help you solve your biggest problems.
As opposed to: I have big problems.
Which is probably true! But money can probably solve many or most of those problems. I love financial problems because they can be solved with money. Problems that cannot be solved with money - like COVID-19 - are, as they say, “the suck.”
During my divorce, I was plagued with a series of unlikely problems. I had no income because I was in the midst of a workers comp case, then the IRS came after me because someone else’s salary was reported under my Social Security number, then I fell down the stairs and broke my tailbone, then the court dismissed my divorce case three times. It was a really annoying year. A year full of lawyers, a year when I earned $1410 and almost all of it went to legal fees.
I started working for money when I was 10 years old, but that was the year that I really learned how to make something out of nothing and figure out how to get by.
Honestly, of course. No matter how bad things are, committing a crime will make it worse. Either you get busted and you lose everything, or you become known to other criminals.
If you want to become financially comfortable, your reputation is quite literally everything. There is an entire different universe available to people with good credit who can pass a criminal background check and get a security clearance. Keep that in mind if you don’t feel like you have much else going for you - you may be drastically undervaluing your clean record.
There are three huge mistakes that we tend to make when we’re unemployed:
Point one: If you’re going to let pessimism control your search, to the point that you’re willing to take a bad job with bad hours and a horrible commute working for a mean boss, then please at least do me one single favor.
Make sure you take that cruddy position in a field that you want to know more about.
My family always wanted me to learn a trade, and by that they meant a blue-collar job such as an electrician. I do have a trade, except the collar is pink instead of blue. With basic secretarial skills, I can get a job in any industry anywhere in the world. If I wanted to, I could use my skills to get an entry-level position in law or accounting or marketing or interior design or whatever I like.
This is why I feel like I am better equipped than a lot of people to give job search advice. I’ve worked in dozens of fields. As an admin, I also dealt with dozens of job applicants. I even worked in an employment agency for a few months.
I’m buds with a couple of astronauts, a couple of professional athletes, and a few people who run their own restaurants. They’re cool people, but none of them has ever had a normal job!
Point two: the person offering you advice may be rich, may be brilliant, and also may know nothing whatsoever about how to get you the job you actually want. You’re better off Googling your field and reading blogs by people who do that type of work.
(And if they’re as broke as you, then why are you listening to them??)
Point three: about the job search. I’m working with a few people who are down on their luck right now, and not once has one of them actually beat me to something I suggested that they do. The default is to take several days to apply for something when someone brings it to their attention, then spend the rest of the time worrying.
Eight hours a day, five days a week is the minimum. That means researching your field and it means going directly to the source (the company where you want to work) and it means writing as many separate, targeted versions of your resume as necessary.
If you raise money for one single thing, let it be to pay a professional to go over your resume with you. Sell stuff if you have to. I paid a consultant to go over mine with me, and it got me almost 50% more than I made at my last job. I also got hired for only the third position I applied for.
This brings up another point, which is: multiple streams of income. This is what poor and rich people have in common, that middle class people do not. Don’t expect to pay all your expenses through a single source.
If you need a thousand dollars, you can do it several ways:
Earn a thousand dollars from one job;
Earn $500 from two sources;
Earn $250 from four sources;
Earn $100 from ten sources;
Any other variation you can think of.
The basic strategies are to work for someone else or work for yourself. If you’re working for someone else, pick something that tends to survive financial downturns and then make yourself indispensable. If you’re working for yourself, are you selling to broke people or rich people? I can sell something that costs $1 to almost anyone. If I’m selling to rich people, I want to charge as much as I can get away with or they’ll think I’m incompetent.
These are the areas where I would be looking, if I were unemployed right now:
COVID-centric jobs. Anything medical. Contact tracing. Insurance and medical billing. Online universities and tutoring services. Collections agencies and repo. Biohazard cleanup. Real estate and auctions. Bankruptcy and payday lending. Mortuaries and funeral homes. This stuff is depressing but it can’t be argued that someone will pay for it to get done.
Side hustles: You probably want to avoid the traditional stuff, like delivery and ride-share, cleaning, babysitting, or dog-walking because you want to avoid physical contact with people, right? I would look to offering services online to people who are housebound. Is there anything at all you can teach, especially to bored kids? Are you good at something like interior design, makeup, or styling? Can you tutor? Do you have something unique you can do on camera, like sock puppets, that someone might pay for you to do to entertain their kids?
Think for the future. Whatever you wind up doing, it’s for the short term. Think about what you want to be doing five years from now. Not what you think you can do with your current resume, but what actually appeals to you. Five years is plenty of time to train for it, whatever that is.
Keep in mind that when times are hard, you have very little to lose. That makes it a much better time to take risks! Scarcity thinking will make you want to contract and pull in your energies and aim lower, but that’s the biggest risk of all. Aim high - there’s less competition up there.
I’m going to do a book club at work, how nuts is that?
More interestingly, I had a fantasy book club idea back before COVID, and I appear to have manifested it into being with my thoughts alone, because I was invited to one of the same description and I didn’t have to organize it myself. Let’s get to that in a minute
What I’ve been thinking about lately is what to do now that the world is upside down, and looks like it will be for quite a while. The natural response to this would be to run down the street screaming in your underwear, and if you’ve been doing that, cheers. Don’t blame you at all.
One of my most common ideation tools, though, is “What would be the opposite of this?” This is my idea of a Zen-like koan, a nonsensical idea, because most things are not binary and thus do not have an opposite. Like, what’s the opposite of a watermelon? The creative part of the mind really seems to like this type of question, and it can spin out endlessly.
Okay, so, what would be the opposite of isolated misery?
Sounds good, let’s go with that!
What kinds of things provide both a feeling of connection and a feeling of contentment?
That’s a sector where I feel like ‘online book club’ would be a natural fit.
The book club I had in mind was a Toastmasters club where all the speeches would be about books. I figured the members could just show up and talk about whatever they were reading, or related topics. Books they loved in the past, books they bought and couldn’t get into, favorite bookstores, new releases they had pre-ordered, TV and movie adaptations of books and how they compare, book podcasts, reading technology, buying new shelves... Anything and everything book-related.
This was my secret plan for a discovery process.
One of my least favorite things about book clubs is that basically all they are is 1. An excuse to get together and drink wine while 2. Confessing that nobody finished the book (except for me) and then 3. Complaining that they didn’t really enjoy it. Since I don’t like wine and I usually enjoyed the book, my presence was more or less an annoyance.
I figured if I made a club where everyone just talked about whatever book they wanted, or a book they had read at any point in their life, then people wouldn’t feel guilty about “not doing their homework.” They wouldn’t have to prepare. We could connect over our shared love of reading, rather than over our feelings of guilt for not measuring up in the social comparison contest.
My goal here was to have a medium-sized group of people share whatever books were exciting them, and then I could take notes and go off and read whatever sounded the best to me.
Before COVID, I had a plan to meet in our one little indie bookstore, two miles up the street from me. They hosted three monthly book clubs, I knew that, and I had it on my calendar to attend one and then pitch the owner. I had already been by to scope out where they held their meetings and how much space there would be. Ah, but then the shutdown happened just in time to cancel the very meeting I was planning to attend.
Imagine my surprise to discover, when I went to their website to check what book they were doing back in March, that - THEY ARE MEETING IN PERSON ALREADY. Whoa, that’s brave. This bookstore is like the size of my apartment. How many people are they planning to cram in there??
Anyway. Not happening. Not sure that holding an open book in front of my face counts as PPE.
I didn’t have a lot of time to fret over my lost book club, the one that never existed, before we had a lot bigger problems on our minds. Everything started happening online almost immediately. That was when I started thinking about doing a virtual book club.
Three months later, I got an invitation. My local Mensa group was hosting an online book club. Guess how it was going to be organized??
Since the first meeting was held right before my birthday, I took it as a sign that my desire had been met. I put the thought out there into the collective imagination cloud, and it rained down on me, in perhaps a better format than the one I would have made.
The only issue so far has been that I’ve already read about 80% of the recommended books. Another way to look at that is that this club is right on my wavelength, and that we will all probably enjoy one another’s suggestions.
After meeting twice, we decided to hold meetings twice a month. One meeting would be a free-for-all, and the other would be a theme, where we could either read a suggested book that we all voted on, or something related to the theme. We’re doing ‘time travel’ and ‘history of Southern California’ for our first topics if you want to do a sympathy read with us.
BTW I love Perry Mason how about you???
Safe-at-home is probably the best time in history to host a book club. You could wind up with people who share your reading tastes but live on another continent, several time zones away.
This is probably why I keep getting requests at work for a recommended reading list. I gave a talk about ideation a few weeks ago and people are still buzzing about it. I figured, what the heck, rather than post a reading list that is three pages long, why not just host it as a non-time-dimension discussion group. We’ll do a book a month, with specific chapters each week, and everyone can read them together. If there were ever a time when we could use more creative ideas on how to solve problems, that time is now.
How about you? Do you think it’s time to start a new book club?
The numbers freaked me out today. Maybe it’s my academic focus, I dunno, but I see things on a trend line. What keeps standing out to me is how every time there’s a prediction about the coronavirus, reality exceeds it. Whatever you think about numbers or public policy or “love over fear,” surely you can remember that sort of thing over only a six-month period?
When my husband and I decided to “prep for the coronavirus” back in February, we felt really smart about buying a month’s worth of freeze-dried food, an extra 6-pack of toilet paper, and extra shampoo and cleansers.
We assured each other we weren’t being too crazy, that it was okay if we had go-bags and a month of prepper food, we weren’t having a paranoid meltdown.
...and that was true
Not three weeks later, I was exposed. Our employer sent everyone home on the Friday and I contracted COVID-19 on the Sunday morning, not even 48 hours later. All of that was before anyone in the US shut anything down, if you can remember back that far.
This is why I went to work for them, because they have continued to have a better and more effective action plan than any entity in the country besides Apple. That’s my gauge for when it’s safe to come out: when the Apple Store opens at our local mall and our company calls everyone back in to work at our desks.
Everyone else, including me and my own household? We keep getting it wrong, shrugging, and getting it wrong again.
April 8: coronavirus death projection revised down to 60,000 [passed that on 4/30]
April 17: “Experts think 50,000 by the end of April” [actually 4/24]
May 15: “pass 100,000 by June 1” [actually 5/28]
...but then, strangely, it seems like death projections aren’t really in the headlines anymore? Hmm, I wonder why?
When I got sick, I was like “it’s airborne, I got it from someone who was sitting 10 feet away.” Of course in April 2020 that made me sound like I was either exaggerating or had no idea what I was talking about. How does it sound now?
When I got sick, I was like, “I know what day I was exposed and I didn’t start getting sick until the 16th day.” My doctor was like, “yeah, whatevs” until another week of symptoms, at which point he graciously apologized.
When I got sick, nothing I had was on The Official Symptoms List (tm). I kept having to tell people that my symptoms started with sneezing fits and itchy eyes, just so they would know not to talk themselves out of it.
My attitude is always going to be, whatever the mainstream idea is of something, I will be more cautious than that. I drive the speed limit (or at least, I used to before I canceled driving in my life). We save half our income. Ever since I dropped my keys down the elevator shaft I’ve been just that little bit extra careful.
(Except, that is, for the day I decided to go to brunch after prepping for what I recognized as a dangerous pandemic and then immediately contracted a deadly illness THE ONE TIME I WENT OUT).
That is the only reckless thing I’ve really ever done besides remarrying after a nasty divorce. But that was a risk that paid off.
Okay, so, by Jessica’s Rules everyone should assume “allergy symptoms” might actually be COVID, distance a minimum of 10 feet, and quarantine three weeks, not two. Not impossible. Not insane. Just - cautious enough not to get the dang thing the way I did.
For whatever reason, everyone else’s baseline assumptions seem to be to keep assuming that cautious people are overreacting and that their worst guesses can’t possibly happen. Even though all those estimates keep proving to be excessively optimistic.
Now, let’s talk about optimism for a minute.
I am an incurable optimist. I mean, seriously. I believe that pessimism is profoundly lazy, an abdication of the power to just keep on troubleshooting and persist in reframing for more options. Humans were born to solve problems and invent things. That is why we can use tools and recognize patterns.
On the other hand, as an historian I have to admit that default mode for humans is an endless tidal wave of BS. One problem followed by another problem followed by a double-up of problems, just to keep it interesting.
Optimism doesn’t mean we pretend that bad things aren’t going to happen, and a wicked lot of them. It means we believe that we can find a way to get past those bad things. We handle them. We figure out how to deal. We don’t ignore things, we confront them and wrestle them down.
Possibility thinking works best when we consider the widest possible array of potential issues, as well as good outcomes. Facing up to the worst risks, not just the most likely ones, can sometimes reveal much nicer solutions. And then we collectively feel that much more impressed with one another because we’ve done something on a larger scale.
This is part of how to make a strong marriage, by the way. Shared adversity. It works with family too, and that’s why every time I visit with my family we laugh so hard we fall over sideways.
We could be doing that together, as a nation. Or at least as a neighborhood. Here in Corona Cove CA I keep being less and less impressed with my neighbors every single day. A crisis is no time to be coughing and spitting on people and shouting at people while they’re just trying to do their jobs. Pull your socks up, geez.
This is what I think, as a futurist. I think that the rest of this year is going to be very, very bad for the United States. For whatever reason, a lot of people are very busy trying to deny how this thing has been working out so far. They’re going to be awfully depressed when they finally clue in to reality and the three-week lag time on the data.
Once we finally snap out of our collective delusion and start getting pragmatic, we can put our famed Yankee ingenuity into effect.
In World War II, we increased our production of airplanes by two orders of magnitude in only five years. 265 planes and a cargo ship every day. We know how to make things! We know how to make things fast!
When we feel like it, that is.
We’ve done a lot of underestimating this year. We’ve underestimated the nature of the enemy over and over again. (If you need reminding, “the enemy” is a vicious little human-hating virus that looks like a dog toy from hell). We’ve underestimated the sheer rudeness of people under stress. We’ve underestimated people’s emotional commitment and willingness to die (and kill) to preserve their notion of personal autonomy.
I think we’ve also underestimated our ability to pull together and work as a community. I think we’ve underestimated our ability to harness patriotism to fight this thing. I think we’ve underestimated our centuries-old core of inventiveness. We kick butt at a lot of things, and logistics, supply chain management, and R&D are a few of them.
If we can get Hot Cheetos to every convenience store in the land, if we can have 24-hour drive-thrus, then surely we can get swabs and vials. If we can teach each other to play Candy Crush and Angry Birds practically overnight, then we can teach each other how to avoid an airborne virus.
I believe in the American ability to get things done, and I believe in our ability to scale up testing, continue to test more and better treatments, and most especially, invent better-quality masks and filtration systems. If we’re going to win this battle, we’ve got to do it the same way we won WWII, with industry and with hustle and with innovation.
Long-winded, some might say. I was always a person who could go on and on, talking into the space until it was full. I think I’ve demonstrated that I can talk continuously for 24 hours, and if you’ve ever been on a road trip with me then you’re probably nodding right now.
Not long-winded anymore.
A couple years ago, when I was working on public speaking, I had a real issue with talking too fast. My big goal was to work on pausing. Every evaluator I had would suggest the same thing, so I knew it would be valuable. I just couldn’t train myself to do it.
Since COVID and pneumonia, guess what?
Now I can pause.
I mean, I have to. But also I can.
One of the many weird after-effects of this year, which has been so tough on my body, is that it seems to have lowered the register of my voice. It sounds deeper to me. I also notice that I speak more slowly and that I pause all the time.
What was a virus that is no longer detectable in my body - two negative tests so far - has wreaked permanent havoc. I do wonder, though, whether all of the changes are negative.
What if this experience has given me the gravitas I always wanted?
I was always small for my age, always looked younger, and I thought I would always have a high, small voice. This undoubtedly held me back in my career. Now I’m 45 and I probably do look my age. I no longer sound like a teenage girl. Maybe this will be good for me.
Of course there’s the undeniable gravitas of facing death, of living through an experience that many people find... qualifying.
(It turns out that most transformative experiences don’t actually impress people. Either they don’t care, they think you’re whining, they don’t believe you at all, or they don’t understand enough of your situation to realize it matters).
I had a minor nature encounter, back during my first marriage. I smelled and heard a little bobcat while walking in the woods in the pitch dark. It screamed and then I screamed. Activated my limbic system in a big way. I told the story during a safety presentation at work, and I realized partway in that every single person in the room thought I was totally full of it.
Now, a bobcat weighs less than 20 pounds, like a medium-sized dog, and there are around three million of them in Oregon.
For a person like myself who is comfortable in the backwoods, this was a fairly casual anecdote. I wasn’t claiming I raised one from a cub, or that it attacked me and scarred up my throat. I wasn’t even claiming I had seen it! The point of my story was that I was scared senseless, which I thought made me sound like a loser, or at least appropriately humble. Instead, it appeared I had made myself look like a BS artist.
It’s probably going to wind up being the same thing with COVID. Most people who get it will either never know (that they spread it to someone who died) or will be super sick for a few days. Maybe only about 20% will be in my tranche, of people who felt like they were dying but managed to stay out of the hospital.
What, no ventilator? No coma? No amputations? No seizures? Pfft. And you call yourself an invalid.
That’s pronounced INvalid, not inVALid...
I took out the trash just now, and when I came back, I flopped back into the couch, huffing and puffing like a pregnant walrus. My husband looked up from his book. “You made it!”
Then he checked my pulse.
The truth is that I’m still struggling. Most of my lingering symptoms are super dumb, petty annoyances that really don't count in the grand scheme of things. Yet I wonder if, cumulatively, they might add up to a list of things that a young person might find repulsive enough to avoid?
The twitching eyelid - my left eyelid has been twitching for weeks. Will it ever stop? Dunno.
The breakouts - the return of my teenage bad skin. It hasn’t been this bad in 25 years. Compared to the heart palpitations, this is truly nothing, but a 20-year-old might actually care about the boil on my chin or the chest acne. Put your mask on honey. This, you don’t want to happen to you.
The weight gain - yeah, everyone else gained weight eating all that nice sourdough bread during the first months of staying home. I can barely get my pants to zip. Now a ten-minute trip to the parking garage to take out the trash is my new “distance day.” I sincerely have no idea whether I’ll ever be able to work out again. I’ve barely moved in four months and all my boxing muscle has withered away.
The constant sneezing, runny nose, coughing - goodbye romantic life. It’s hard to imagine anything less sexy than a dripping nose, am I right?
The way I’ve become a crashing bore - every topic and every conversation seems to turn back to being ill, or the pandemic, or symptoms, or something COVID- or pneumonia-related. This is why young people avoid elderly people, and it’s also what makes someone “elderly.”
Not that long ago, I was a person who would run up the stairs two at a time. I would do box jumps at the park. You have no idea how many hula hoop tricks I know. In my heart and mind, I am still young and interesting, only now my body is ravaged and lumpy and full of boring things.
I’d say I can’t bear it, but I can. I have to. I’ve been bearing it so far.
COVID ruined my life. Ruined it.
Everything I think of as what makes me myself is not really an option. Can’t travel, can’t go backpacking, can’t go for a run, can’t throw dinner parties, can’t be with my family - most of this applies to everyone - but I also can’t fuss around cleaning my apartment for more than a few minutes a day. Haven’t yet figured out how to make a path for writing or public speaking the way I had planned. Not sleeping well. Can’t even “take a deep breath and relax” because I can’t do the first part anymore and rediscovering that each day is not relaxing whatsoever.
What’s needed is to come up with a new story. Maybe not a long-winded story, not one that is full of detail, but something. A story in a nutshell. A thumbnail sketch. A haiku of a story.
We can’t always talk our way out of things, but maybe we can at least imagine our way out.
I rearranged our few books today, and what I found shocked and surprised me. We haven’t quite been here a year, but there was a thick layer of dust on the back of each shelf!
Actually this shouldn’t surprise me at all, since we live with a parrot, and African Grays are little whistling dust factories. The shelves in question are only a few feet from where she plays all day, being her dusty self and merrily shredding cardboard.
On the other hand, I go around dusting when I’m on the phone, or listening to an audio book, or tense about something, or generally annoyed that there is visible dust somewhere. I am not a casual housekeeper.
I wish I were sometimes. I wish I could be a bit more casual about my apartment, in the same way I can be casual about going around barefoot, but it just isn’t in me. Even as I’m recovering from pneumonia and my bout with COVID-19, still only a few months ago.
What I noticed while I was wiping up this distressingly thick layer of dust was... just what was getting dusty.
Books I haven’t read, partly because I haven’t read much of anything since I started my new job.
This is another area where I have no chill whatsoever. Not sure why.
I took a job that was well within my abilities because I was looking for something to do. I figure we will be working from home for at least the next two years because I have a solidly pragmatic regard for the pandemic. Our employer acted before the governor did in sending everyone home, and I can tell you as a matter of simple fact that they still have a more clearly defined and carefully followed binder o’ guidelines for this crisis. It makes sense to me to be doing this for the duration, for a place I trust and respect.
Yet I can’t seem to escape this lingering sense that I’m constantly going to “get in trouble” for something.
I’ve talked it over with my husband, my best friend - who has done professional projects with me - and even my work partner. All of them are like, “Yeah, that’s weird. Where is that coming from?”
I’ve been proactively trying to figure it out, to work through my dissonant feelings about my job, and the way I always do that is to clean everything in sight. Sometimes, even things that are not in sight, like the backs of the bookshelves.
I recall that I went through similar paces with my leadership roles in Toastmasters. I won a contested election by the highest margin of any candidate that year, and all I did was beat myself up miserably all weekend. The entire year, I constantly felt behind and scattered and disorganized - and then I won two trophies for my performance in the role.
I’m looking at them right now and they still make me think, “What?!”
Sometimes it feels like the harder I work, the better I do, and the worse I feel about it.
I could have chosen to keep doing what I was doing, which was to work on side projects and writing my book proposal. We were already saving half our income and doing fine. I keep reminding myself that I am not trapped, that I chose something I really wanted, that I fought to get to where I am because it is so interesting.
Which it is!
Sometimes I catch myself thinking, Whoa, I can’t believe I’m actually in this meeting right now.
But then another wave comes up telling me that I’m colossally screwing up and everyone is going to find out.
It isn’t the same as impostor syndrome, I don’t think. The tasks I’m doing are all things I could do just as competently 15 years ago. I don’t really have moments where I do not know what to do or how to approach a task.
I actually wonder if something weird happened to my brain while I was ill?
If there’s some part of the brain that just makes someone feel racked with guilt and shame and dread for no reason?
It’s important to talk about this kind of thing, because I think most people feel very alone and isolated with these types of emotions. “I’m the only one and nobody must know.” I totally know that I’m not the only one.
The last six months have very much been a struggle of putting one foot in front of the other. I keep telling myself, “Just get through this day.” This included our dog dying of terminal cancer, and my husband nearly being blinded, as well as my getting COVID and trying to recover my baseline energy level. Again, I know I’m not the only one who feels this way, just being overwhelmed by life and one legit crisis after another.
This is when I remind myself, I would probably feel the same exact types of emotions whether I had this job or not, whether I had a different job or not. It’s not a function of the role, or the company, or the people, or the culture. It’s me and whatever is haunting me.
Working is a million times better than sitting around staring at the walls and feeling this way.
When we internalize these dark feelings, it’s so easy to forget that there are external influences at work too. Probably my emotional waves of “you’re going to get busted” are just my feeble brain’s way of dealing with the foreign, confusing, outlandish reality of life under quarantine. (Yeah, technically my hubby and I are still quarantined - by both medical and business guidelines - because I’m still coughing a little).
Do any of us really know how we’re “supposed” to feel during this strange historical moment?
What I’d like to do is to dust myself off. I’d like to blow off these feelings that are so unhelpful and unnecessary. What should I replace them with? The task is to come up with some unique, interesting, and plausible feelings, like earning someone’s regard, or satisfaction in a job well done.
We can remind ourselves that our mission is simply to live up to our own standards and be consistent with our own values. One day after the next.
This is not a black swan event, and everybody needs to stop claiming that it is.
History doesn’t repeat itself, not exactly, but it does rhyme. What we’re seeing right now is all stuff that we’ve seen before. Not only that, but it’s stuff we were actively warned about over and over again.
Let’s pause and talk about what a black swan event is, and then we can get into the action.
The phrase was popularized by Nassim Taleb, who first began writing about it in 2001. His 2007 book The Black Swan made him famous because he anticipated the financial crash of 2008. A “black swan” was a proverbial example of “something that does not exist” for something like 14 centuries - but then explorers found real live black swans paddling around in Australia.
It would be a little like people saying “when pigs fly” and then someone actually finds a flying pig. Or, “when Hell freezes over,” and... let’s not explore that one because there is too much left of the year 2020 for my comfort.
For something to qualify as a black swan, it has to meet three criteria. 1. It has to be a huge surprise; 2. It has to have a major effect; and 3. In hindsight, everyone sees signs and believes the event could have been predicted.
That’s the tricky part here. The third point is where it would be really easy to get hung up.
Let’s talk about some other surprising historical events and whether they qualify as black swans or not.
The first one that comes to mind for me is the JFK assassination. I think we can all agree that people were pretty darn surprised by that. Anyone who was alive at the time will tell you that it felt like a major watershed, that it changed everything. They can still remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when it happened.
A couple of other events of that magnitude were the Challenger explosion and 9/11.
Notice any differences between them?
There are tons of conspiracy theories about both the JFK assassination and 9/11, but Challenger? Not so much.
I asked my husband about this, assuming correctly that they studied the Challenger explosion in his aerospace engineering classes. “Nothing about space should qualify as a black swan. It is inherently dangerous. We have an expected fatality rate of 1 in 500 launches.”
Everyone knows space is hard; we won’t be able to recognize patterns or predict events in space news for decades, maybe centuries, so it doesn’t mess with our heads as much.
In engineering, there’s a process called ‘root cause analysis’ which should be followed by ‘corrective action.’ You dig down to find out what went wrong, and then try to fix it so it won’t happen again. This is part of why, say, commercial air travel keeps getting safer. It’s also why relatively few people die in structure fires, which were extremely common in the 19th century.
Every time a disaster happens, there is an opportunity to take notes and try to plan around avoiding it the next time around.
It isn’t really possible to avoid black swan events. They arise from whatever conditions existed at the time, but they aren’t necessarily caused by those conditions.
This is the opposite of a persistent problem like traffic fatalities. People die in car crashes every day, and nobody is surprised at all, because awareness of this fatal flaw is built into our system. Under automobile supremacy, people and animals will be routinely killed by cars and everyone will shrug and accept it. The first time an unsupervised autonomous vehicle does it, everyone will get upset.
There are other areas where we acknowledge and accept consistent amounts of property damage and/or loss of life, such as continuing to rebuild homes in a floodplain, and these disasters are influenced more by higher-level policy decisions than we usually realize. I don’t know all that much about floods, but I can guess that there are potential policy changes in zoning, insurance, building codes, and mortgage lending that could have a significant effect on whose house is destroyed in a flood 40 years from now.
This is where we start getting around to talking about public health, and pandemics, and economics, and science denial. Note, sometimes when a disaster happens, like a fire in a nightclub* in 1942, society reacts with major, rapid, and systemic infrastructure updates. Other times, like with seatbelts or cigarette smoking, those changes are gradual and take a long time to reach begrudging consensus approval.
How we react, as individuals and as a society, depends on what disaster we’re facing and what decisions we’ve made about how predictable or acceptable it is.
What we’re facing right now, the situation that everyone keeps referring to as a black swan, is really a “gray rhino.” It’s highly probable, high impact, and you can see it coming a long way away. That is 100% true about COVID-19, and it’s 100% true about the economic crisis that is barely getting started, and it’s probably 98% true about the mask refusal as well.
The last time we went though a very serious pandemic, H1N1, people blamed it on lightbulbs. (Now they’re blaming COVID-19 on 5G). There were public protests about mask mandates, and one dude even got shot. Quarantines literally always result in people violating them and/or running for the hills, carrying the disease to other cities. That’s the entire plot line of the Decameron. All of this has been going on for a long time, far more than the century that has passed since our last reminder.
COVID-19 is so not a black swan that even the specific virus family coming from the specific animal was predicted as a pandemic risk back in 2013. A SARS vaccine that might have worked against COVID-19 was in development back in 2003, but the team ran out of funding. A crisis simulation in October 2019 ran the scenario of a pandemic killing over half a million people. (We passed that number on July 18).
WE WERE TOLD
“Hey, we should make a vaccine against SARS.” (Ignored for 17 years)
“Hey, horseshoe bats grow coronaviruses that can infect human lung cells, so we should probably stop hunting and eating bats in China.” (Ignored for 7 years)
“Hey, we should probably plan around a deadly pandemic.” (3 months’ notice)
There actually was a pandemic preparedness plan, circa 2005, direct result of SARS and how scary that was. We had a playbook. This is where I stop talking, because whenever people sense material that challenges their political beliefs, they lock down.
Viruses do not care about human affairs.
The question is how much we care about human affairs. It is a huge mystery why our attention is captured by certain things, like the debunked idea that vaccines cause autism, but why we are totally bored by other things, like tuberculosis or malaria killing over a million people a year.
What is being revealed about group psychology is that people consider certain things inevitable and unavoidable. It becomes a kind of Stoicism, this idea that we just have to endure pain and suffering - from some sources but not others.
This is why it’s important to talk about black swans, gray rhinos, and strategic forecasting in general. The more we can get these ideas into pop culture, the more likely we are to reach the threshold where we refuse to tolerate predictable and preventable risks. Human ingenuity is definitely powerful enough to build fixes around these obstacles.
* Cocoanut Grove - the reaction to that nightclub fire in 1942 led directly to innovations like EXIT signs, doors with crash bars, fire codes, smoke detectors, fire drills, and evacuation floor plans. Those legal standards have probably saved millions of lives and prevented billions of dollars in property damage. Nobody argues with fire so there don’t tend to be mass protests against fire extinguishers.
Who got scammed and how, I’m still not entirely sure, so this situation is haunting me. I’m writing it up for the benefit of anyone else who has something similar happen.
We ordered a meal from our favorite local restaurant. We’ve used the same app to order from the same place maybe half a dozen times since COVID. This time, it was because my hubby won a prize at work and he had to submit the receipt for reimbursement.
I watched the app as the order was accepted, the food was prepared, and the driver was sent to pick it up. That’s when things started to get weird.
The driver was changed, which happens all the time with rideshare too, so I didn’t think anything of it.
Then the order looked like it was hanging. It kept saying the food was going to be delivered in one minute, then two, then five.
Then suddenly it said that I had canceled the order!
Me?? The one waiting for the food?? I think not!
I poked at the app several times, thinking maybe it had crashed.
Then I thought, what if the restaurant was closed or something unexpected happened, and there wasn’t any food in the first place? I called and got a busy signal four times in a row. I checked their website to see if they had gone under.
I had my husband look them up and try to call, in case I had somehow found a cached obsolete number. He got the hostess, and I could hear her over his phone saying that something was “very weird.”
Okay. So Driver 1 showed up, asked for the order under my name, and left with it. Then Driver 2 came and asked for my order, and they had to explain that a different DoorDash driver had already picked it up.
The hostess suggested that we reorder our food. When I tried to do that, the app responded “You do not have permission to perform this action.” Huh? Am I blocked now, as well as not getting my nice dinner?
Fast forward: my hubby installed the app, duplicated the order, paid for it, and another driver brought it, so we finally got to eat two hours after we had planned.
Now I’m trying to figure out what happened, because the food went somewhere and the money did not.
My first guess would have been that there was a glitch in the app. Something like this happened with a Grubhub order last year, where the driver lost connectivity and wasn’t able to access our address. When she finally got through, she contacted me and was very apologetic. I got a refund and my friend and I didn’t get to eat until almost 10 pm, due to an event conflict, but it was okay. The mystery was resolved.
But then... why would the app think I canceled my order? Who did cancel it? The first driver or the second driver?
Where did the second driver come from?
When this happens on rideshare, the app cancels the first driver and gives the message that someone closer was available. (Except for the time that our driver blew past us in the rain and then canceled the fare).
Is there a way for the first driver to simultaneously pick up the food and then act like they were unavailable for some reason, initiating the switch to the second driver?
How would that make sense, though? If this was an attempt to scam free food, there would be a record that the driver was assigned to that pickup, right? If there were a way for them to pick it up and then claim that I had canceled the order, then where did the second driver come from?
If the first driver got the food and then there was a glitch, then still - where did the second driver come from? And why would the email that I got claim that I canceled my own order?
I want to share that I have experienced years of food insecurity, and what I perceive in this system is someone being hungry enough to steal. In a culture that throws away literally hundreds of billions of pounds of food, where over 30% of our food production is wasted, this is both unnecessary and unacceptable. There is no reason why anyone should starve here!
So before I continue, I want to acknowledge my privilege and state that millions (or billions) more people should have that same privilege.
These are the things that bother me:
At least I hope someone ate it. If you’re curious, it was: nachos, chips and guacamole, two slices of lemon cake, and a nice vegan Cobb salad. I mean, at least I hope someone ate the salad and didn’t just throw it out. Clearly almost anyone would eat nachos and cake.
If there is a way for a driver to scam DoorDash and get free food, that gives me several thoughts, the first of which is that that person has intelligence to spare. Food delivery is probably far below what they are intellectually capable of doing, which means that all of society loses out on that talent.
My next thought is that I’m not being charged enough, which is okay - charge me what it actually costs to make sure that the driver gets a living wage. I’m a good tipper. I even would have tipped Driver 2 for his troubles, enough to get himself a snack at least?
Then I wonder, in the case of the missing lemon cake, where did that food go and who ultimately pays for it? Not me, since I already got my refund. I only paid in terms of hassle and eating two hours late.
Who paid, my favorite restaurant? Is this sort of thing going to drive them out of business? In which case - we all pay.
Did DoorDash pay? If their app has a glitch or a security flaw, then that’s a risk of their business model and they should be bearing the cost.
Did Driver 1 pay? Was it her fault that this happened, or not? I don’t really want a system where a gig economy worker can wind up working all day for free, with no benefits or paid time off. If this kind of thing happens a lot it also raises the question of how many soggy fries and rancid wings are piling up in their back seats.
Who pays Driver 2? Does he at least get a courtesy $5? I hope he made his quota and that he doesn’t have to go home to 7 roommates empty-handed.
Ultimately this whole experience makes me question my contribution, both negative and positive. Am I an economic parasite? We rarely order in because it’s a hassle to go down five floors and wait for a driver who sometimes has to park a block away. But then aren’t a lot of people depending on these jobs to make ends meet? How else are we going to help?
I dunno. All I know is that there’s a lot of shadow labor being performed here, extra work for almost all parties involved that does not lead to economic credit for any of us.
I’m gonna go donate to my food bank and figure out what to cook tomorrow night.
Why not? Today I’m just going to talk about my sweet little bird and her cardboard box fort.
We might have figured it out sooner. For years now, whenever anything would come in a box, Noelle would take a keen interest in it. You can always tell when she really wants something because she turns her head sideways and stares at it with one eye. You can practically see the cartoon arrows pointing directly from her pupil to the object of her desire.
Every now and then, we’d get a big empty box and put her in it. She would scrabble around in there, chewing holes in it and scratching at it with her feet. She does this thing we call “starting the Harley” where she repeatedly kicks one leg backward. There’s a bit of force to it, which you’ll find if you ever put your hand back there while she’s digging.
One day, Noelie was making a bit of a racket while my hubby was trying to work. (I checked my photo album and, coincidentally, it was just a couple days before I realized I had COVID). He had the bright idea to give her a box to play in, except that we didn’t have any big boxes. The one he gave her was barely big enough for her to fit in, an A1 size.
She loved it!
She stood in this little box that only just fit her from beak to tail, and she peeked out over the flap quite cheerfully - for three hours.
Every now and then we would look over at her and crack up laughing. What are you even doing in there??
It didn’t take long to realize that she felt safe in the box. Her perch looks out the sliding glass window into the top of a palm tree where several bird families live. She likes the house finch family and the sparrow family and the hummingbirds and the pair of doves. She is not, however, a fan of the three crows that hang out there.
Birds, by the way, don’t really understand the concept of glass. Their eyes are different than ours and I don’t think they can really tell anything is there.
In the window, she feels exposed to predators - including the gulls and pelicans that she can see sometimes. In her little cardboard box on the top of the bookshelf, she felt cozy and safe. We kept the box and put her back in it the next day. And the next, and the next.
When she wants to go over there, she leans forward and stares intently. If we don’t notice her right away, she starts vocalizing and getting pretty insistent. Then when she needs a break, she does the reverse, staring at her perch and calling for a ride.
Entropy happened and a month later the little A1 box was starting to look pretty chewed up. We needed a replacement, but we didn’t have any more boxes in that size. I managed to scrounge one a little bigger, an A3, and that was when I had my idea.
“I’m going to make her a fort.”
I put the little box vertically in the bigger box, a L shape. I figured we’d lose the first day, because birds are notoriously freaked out by changes in their personal space, even like a new toy or a snack sometimes. But I hadn’t even finished setting it up before Cardbird was over there leaning forward and shifting her weight from foot to foot.
So she stood there in the “box fort” for several hours a day, with occasional breaks.
A week later I got hold of a third box in about the right size and put it over the top. Once again, she figured out that this was a value-add right away and wanted to check it out immediately. She had a roof.
That was when she started taking naps in there.
A week later, I figured out how to add a side compartment and give her a split-level. It took her, like, minutes to climb up into it and explore. She started going up there and peeking at us around the wall.
Two weeks later, I had another box and I built her a compartment on the opposite side. That was the arrangement that allowed her to get up onto the roof, an accomplishment she obviously found very satisfying indeed.
Cardboard doesn’t last forever, though. Also, my husband is an engineer.
What happened next was probably inevitable. A month later, when the existing structure had started to collapse because she gnaws from the base, my husband rebuilt the entire thing.
This was when the “box fort” became what it is now, which is basically a three-story Bauhaus modernist bird mansion with a porch and a ladder.
At this point, we realized that Noelle Noodle is probably the only parrot in the galaxy who has her own box fort. That should change, right?
The fort has transformed the experience of having a parrot at home with two busy office professionals who are on the phone all the time. She knows she is allowed to do whatever she wants in there, tearing and shredding and kicking bits of cardboard over her shoulder. She can climb between levels and compartments safely, with juuuuust enough challenge to make her feel like she’s really earned the fresh view. She naps out in there all the time.
Any bird family might be interested to learn that she’s made it four months completely streak-free. She considers the box fort her “nest” and she has kept it 100% immaculate from the start. She won’t even take toys in there - I’ve tried to offer her a couple and she pitches them out onto the floor.
Our groomer advised that if she started acting aggressive, we should take the fort away from her. She is a remarkably sweet bird and it hasn’t been a problem, but maybe partly because it’s at least a foot lower than her usual perch.
That’s the story of Noelie and her box fort. It began as a random, casual idea and gradually, over a period of three months, morphed into a real plan. This is an allegory for any creative spark, you get that, right? Also, it’s a bit of a manifesto. Even a kid can tape together some empty cardboard boxes and make something sturdy enough for a pet bird to climb on. Every household pet absolutely needs a private personal space to chillax - and they also all need at least 12 hours of sleep, something that is tougher for birds to get, which can make them a little crazy.
True for us all. We all need quiet time, personal space, some playtime, and a little imagination. Maybe some of us could use box forts of our own.
Just what you’ve all been waiting for, it’s... more COVID updates! Who better to hear them from than someone who has had it, talked to real live doctors about it, and lives in an uncontrolled hot zone?
Yep, it’s true, I’ve been complaining about my sloppy lackadaisical neighbors here in [redacted] [never mind, let’s just call my town Corona Cove] for months now, and predictably we have moved from 7th in number of deaths to 3rd. We’ve already reached first place in total number of cases.
California has the highest population of any state in the US - or at least, we do for now, she said darkly - so it will make perfect sense when we eventually find ourselves at the top of the chart. *shakes head sadly*
It’s hard to accept that so many people prefer pseudoscience to protecting their own caboose, but there you have it.
I’m a Mensan, right? We have an online book club. One of the members went off about how she believes in conspiracy theories. Would you like to know why? Because a Dan Brown novel published in 2013 about a pandemic has a fictional organization in it, and supposedly a paycheck protection program launched in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has the same name. Proof! That is proof to her that “something is going on” and that “someone planned this.”
As a COVID survivor, I’d like to know: why would it matter anyway?
Why do people insist on believing that humans are very very good at developing viruses into biological weapons, and yet the exact same people refuse to believe that a human could develop an effective vaccine? Why believe in a supervillain scientist but not one motivated by altruism?
I’m sprawled out here under two afghans, still trying to recover, and I’ll tell you what. It wouldn’t matter to me whether I got COVID from space aliens, Lex Luthor, biological weapons, an armadillo, or sniffing deep into the spine of a Stephen King novel. Why? Because I’d still be just as ill no matter where it came from!
All I would want to know in any of those scenarios was: 1. Are there any treatments and 2. Is there any way for anyone else to avoid it?
People, and by “people” I mean “dimwits,” are saying that you don’t need to wear a mask because there are effective treatments. I hope you’re not reading this aloud to your minor children because I’m about to say something NSFW, but to me this analogy is like saying that you don’t need to wear condoms because there are treatments for syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and herpes. Uh, wouldn’t you rather avoid the outcome than treat the outcome??
Let’s talk realistically about this whole thing for a minute. We have only successfully eradicated two viruses in the entire history of humanity. One was smallpox and the other was a cattle disease, rinderpest. Of course I hope our track record will improve, and the last I heard, there aren’t any “virus rights” anti-extinction groups out there, but, our track record isn’t super impressive thus far.
Next issue. The fastest vaccine ever developed took around four years. That was for mumps, which I can assure you is a real illness because my granddad got it when he was in the Army, and that first vaccine didn’t last all that long. The one we have now works much better, and yet people still refuse to get it because evidently as a species we prefer to be devastated by pestilence than to avoid it through human ingenuity. “Avoid it like the plague,” I think not.
I guess where I’m going with that is, if we do get an effective vaccine, then 1. It will take a while and 2. It might not last very long and 3. 40% of people will throw a fit and refuse to take it because they’d rather be violently ill than not be violently ill.
Me: You do not want this
Them: YEAH I DO you don’t know my life
We have a friend who used to go on a lot of business trips with my husband. They went to dinner one night. My husband took a roll from the bread basket, bit into it, and said, “Man, this bread is terrible.” Our friend said, “I guess I’d better eat some then,” took a roll, bit into it, and said, “this tastes terrible.” “I just told you that.” “I thought you were just saying that so you could have all the bread.”
If this sort of trend keeps going, it’s going to be a great year for rattlesnakes and sharks because humans aren’t going to take each other seriously anymore.
Okay, let’s go over some interesting developments in coronavirus research.
Indications that tall people are more likely to get sick with COVID? If true, this would reinforce the speculation that coronavirus is airborne, which I have thought since April, because that is the most likely way that I contracted it myself.
COVID-19 can cause blood clots that may lead to amputations.
COVID-19 may also lead to hearing loss, which we could have guessed because there are a lot of viruses that act this way, and deafness can be caused by high fevers.
Nearly 90% of patients hospitalized with severe COVID-19 had underlying conditions, which US papers will tell you, and apparently obesity increases risk of death from COVID by 90%, which I saw in the British press. If we’re really almost twice as likely to die from COVID-19 due to a risk factor as common as obesity is in the US, but it’s not being widely reported here, would that not constitute a sort of conspiracy?
Something I’d rather talk about than that: Getting the flu shot lowers Alzheimer’s risk, which is fabulous news to me because Alzheimer’s is the only thing that scares me almost as much as getting COVID again. This is a companion to the news that having had the MMR vaccine may be protective against severe COVID symptoms.
Also interesting, tattoos could boost the immune system, which would be one really good explanation for why they became popular in so many cultures throughout history.
Some speculation, since I am a futurist and that’s what we do: I don’t think a vaccine is going to pop up and miraculously allow us all to start going to stadium glam rock concerts before Halloween. I plan to stay indoors until, say, spring of 2023. Subject to updates based on current events.
What I do think will happen is that several innovators will release various designs of helmets with filtration systems that test well against airborne pathogens. I think that could happen a lot faster; is probably in development in multiple countries right now; can be tested much more quickly; would also protect against influenza, the common cold, and maybe even pollen/hay fever... and would be something I personally would buy right away.
Bye from Corona Cove, and as the conspiracy theorist said to COVID-19, “Catch ya later!”
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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