Shining spotlight on a new local gem

Fishing at the CMOSC.

Fishing at the CMOSC.

Because this blog deals with family travel on a general basis, I usually try to keep the focus as broad as possible. Sometimes, however, I can’t resist writing about local stuff. Especially when I’ve profiled that local stuff in a major metropolitan daily newspaper.

Case in point: the new Children’s Museum of Sonoma County (CMOSC), which I spotlighted in my most recent family travel column for the San Francisco Chronicle.

The playground portion of the facility opened in March and the girls are OBSESSED. In fact, the day after my story about the place was published, we became members. I’m certain we’ll be headed there at least 2-3 times each month.

Things we love: the water play area, which comprises a series of water tables and a river from which kids can pluck plastic fish; the art studio, which hosts a different themed project every day; the organic garden, from which kids (under appropriate supervision) can pluck fruits and veggies; and the giant building blocks, with which kids can build giant Rube Goldberg-type machines.

Personally, I also love that after I called them out about it in my piece, the museum added a shade sail.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s stuff we’d change about the place, too. One of the biggies: The museum has way too many rules. You can only eat in a certain spot. You can’t be barefoot. You can’t play *in* the river (you have to stand on a bridge).

Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly recommend taking the family the CMOSC. Perhaps the best plan is to combine your visit with a trip to the Charles M. Schulz Museum, which is next door. There’s even an In-N-Out Burger down the street for an impromptu lunch. California Wine Country isn’t just for grown-ups anymore.

Fantasy family travel amenities at 30,000 feet

This girl needs a Play-Doh bar.

This girl needs a Play-Doh bar.

I was amused to read (in Conde Nast Traveler) this past week an interview in which Richard Branson quite seriously sounds off about the virtues of a “kid’s class” on planes. He describes the (hypothetical, at this point) zone as being minded by nannies who (presumably give mom and dad a break and) watch kids during a flight. He also pontificates on the roadblocks—namely, what the hell an airline would do in the event of turbulence (or an emergency) when kids must return to their respective seats.

The whole bit got me thinking: If I could design my own on-plane family travel amenities, what would they be? Here are a few items on my list.

Aft water-play area
All kids love water play. Heck, when my kids come upon a water play area at school or a park, they can stay busy for hours. With this in mind, water play at 30,000 feet would be a PERFECT way to keep kids busy on long flights. Tired of watching Frozen, honey? Go to the water table. Feeling grimy and overheated? Go on and splash around. I even know some adults who would like to kill a few hours at an attraction like this one.

Play-Doh bar
Once families are free to move about the cabin, a great diversion would be a bar that serves Play-Doh. Not for eating, of course. For playing with. The bar could offer 6-8 different colors on each flight. And because airlines would require passengers to play with it AT THE BAR, cleaning up the inevitable Play-Doh balls would be a cinch. Hell, my kids would be so into this idea, I’d be willing to play $10 a jar for the stuff. [As a variation on my original theme, I’d also pay a premium for Play-Doh the girls can use in their seats.]

Jelly bean service
In-air dining options are so…pedestrian. It’s always the same old stuff! Especially inside those “Kids packs,” which usually come with a granola bar, some form of applesauce, a Slim Jim and other glorified camping food. Why not have Jelly Belly sponsor a special “Jelly Bean Service” during which flight attendants walk the aisles peddling jelly beans to families and those travelers who are kids at heart? Yes, I recognize it might not be wise to actively give kiddos sugar highs in mid-air. But with well-thought related resources, this could be a win for everyone involved (especially the airline).

Bouncy house
I know, I know, the logistics of engineering a bouncy house on a moving plane probably would vex the greatest minds of our generation. But THINK ABOUT IT—even if an airline limited entry to four kids every five minutes, youngsters could quite literally jump out all of the nervous energy for the duration of the flight. Someone even could discover a way to harness the kinetic energy from all those jumps and use it to power on-board water filters or WiFi or a cookie oven (free cookies!).

Branson, my man, are you listening?

The harsh realities of spotting fish

L, in a quieter (and calmer) moment.

L, in a quieter (and calmer) moment.

There’s a saying in poker that goes like this: “If you can’t spot the fish [a.k.a., the worst player] at the table, it’s probably you.” Something very similar could be said about family travel—when you can’t spot the most poorly behaved child on a plane or at a resort, it’s probably yours.

This isn’t a platitude, people. It’s not me waxing philosophical. It’s truth. It’s reality. It happens to every traveling family at one time or another. It happened to us. On our vacation to Maui earlier this month.

As amazing and perfect as she is, our Big Girl, L, is incredibly sensitive to disruptions in her sleep schedule. As a result, the poor thing spent portions of our trip being a wildwoman. She hit. She scratched. She screamed. She kicked. She said horrible things about how she wanted a new Daddy. At times she even lashed out at her Mom (this is akin to the Dalai Lama dropping an f-bomb).

In short, my kid had a few bad days—just like every other 5-year-old in the history of 5-year-olds.

For us, managing her during these episodes was trying and exhausting and exasperating and awful. For other guests of the hotel, however—people who don’t know her or us—the scene was full-on hell.

These people gave us eye rolls. They tossed dirty looks. Some shook their heads in disapproval. One night, when L was grunting like a gorilla because she didn’t want to pee before bedtime, a neighbor actually shouted, “Shut the hell up!” from his lanai.

To be honest, I sort of don’t blame the guy.

I also don’t feel bad. Kids are kids. When you travel with them, sometimes it gets ugly. As parents, we can try our best to manage these situations when they arise. But at some point, you just have to deal.

Many parents “deal” by not taking their kids anywhere. That’s not an option for us. And it never will be.

Instead, we simply take things as they come. On good days, those days on which everyone behaves, Powerwoman and I kick back and watch the girls and smile squinty smiles and whisper to each other how lucky we are. And on bad days, those days on which a stranger tells our kid to shut the hell up, my partner and I try our best not to snap at each other, and to remember that, despite the drama at hand, life’s still pretty great.

Sometimes we fail—we’re human, after all. Sometimes it’s so stressful that one or both of us ends up crying in the bathroom. And sometimes we wonder why we even try to travel with such young kids.

Here’s the thing. Sure, we question. Yes, we doubt. But we never waver from our commitment to show our kids the world. Traveling with children can be tough—we’re the first ones to admit it. But even when our kids are the fish at the table, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The best hotel-room diversion of all time

The morning ritual.

The morning ritual.

We just got home from a week in Hawaii—a week that included some early mornings in some pretty fabulous family-friendly hotels (including this one).

We could have passed the time by having the girls draw or paint or play dress-up. Technically, I guess we also could have let them watch TV (though that’s not our style). Instead, we put them in a position to entertain themselves with another diversion: Perler beads.

If you’re not familiar with Perler beads, they’re fusible plastic beads, each about the size of a chocolate chip. You can do a whole bunch of things with the beads—such as string them and weave them and melt them. We usually go for the third option; the girls arrange beads in particular patterns on a variety of different peg-boards, and when the arrangements are finished, we (parents) melt the beads together with a clothes iron (and wax paper in between).

The iron is what makes Perlers such a fun activity for hotels; every hotel room in America has one, and it’s totally free to use. We rolled into Hawaii with 3,000 beads and six peg boards in different shapes. We rolled out of Hawaii with a few hundred beads and more than two dozen original creations in various forms.

It doesn’t really matter what we do with the finished products (though most of them likely will end up as Christmas tree ornaments); what matters is the fun we all have while making them.

L took her designs incredibly seriously, inventing elaborate patterns every time. R crafted hers with more whimsy, frequently spilling her designs back into the master (gallon-sized) Ziploc to start again. In case you’re wondering, I’m big into color-blocking mine. And Powerwoman really likes symmetry.

As a family, we Villanos became so obsessed that Perlers became a morning ritual—the kids would wake up, Powerwoman and I would set them up with Perlers, and the three or four of us would create designs until breakfast (and sometimes beyond). We couldn’t go to the beach until each of us had made a design. And we couldn’t eat lunch until my wife or I had ironed the creations to make them whole.

Trust me: If your kids like art, try the Perlers. You’ll be surprised how addicting and engaging they are.

What are your go-to hotel-room diversions on a family vacation?

The disposable travel toy hall of fame

Destined for the dump.

Destined for the dump.

My name is Matt Villano, and I’m a travel toy waster. Sometimes on family vacations I buy toys with the express intention of throwing them out when the kids are finished. And I don’t really care how wasteful that sounds.

I know, y’all—I’m a certifiable lunatic for doing this. And I’m certain all of this waste is not great for the environment. But I’m willing to bet hundreds of thousands of parents do the same thing, too.

Especially at the beach.

For us, perhaps the most egregiously disposable toys have been the sand-toy sets that we purchase during our annual Hawaii trip (which we’re on right now). The sets are pretty elaborate—each has a bucket and a variety of shovels and other digging implements. Still, because the toys get so sandy and because they’re bulky as all hell, we never actually take them on the plane with us back to the mainland.

It’s not like we just throw them out; on most visits, we find another family with young children and had it over to them.

Still, we buy them. And we don’t use them once our vacation is over. We are wasters.

The sand toy sets aren’t the only demonstration of this bad example; we’ve had other “vacation toys” that we have disposed of during previous vacation, too. Across the board, these have been toys that—for whatever reason—“have decided” to “stay” in our destinations when we’re ready to leave. Among them: A die-cast airplane set to pass a rain delay at SFO; a deck of San Francisco landmark playing cards, a redwood seedling from Disneyland, and little pocket-sized packets for markers and other writing implements.

I’m sure this list will grow exponentially with my experiences as a parent. In the scheme of vices, I guess this issue could be a lot worse.

What are some of your favorite disposable travel toys?

Free at last

Little R, mid-flight, on her first diaper-free plane trip.

Little R, mid-flight, on her first diaper-free plane trip.

If Powerwoman and I seem more unencumbered than usual during our annual Hawaii trip this week, it’s because the journey itself was easier than usual: It was the first time ever that we made the journey without diapers.

Those of you with kids ages 8 and under understand WHAT A BIG DEAL THIS REALLY IS. The two of us have traveled with diapers on every single family airplane trip since L was born in 2009. That stretch has included five trips to Hawaii—all of which played out with at least a sleeve of 24 diapers sitting at the bottom my suitcase.

This new era is liberating. It’s effortless. And it frees up a ton of space in our bags.

Diaper-free travel also a ton easier on the girls. Gone are the days of diaper changes in the public parks, only patronizing those restaurants that have bathrooms with changing tables, and the seemingly never-ending quest for supermarkets that carry the right size of diaper for our girls’ buns. (When I went food-shopping in the Lahaina Safeway this week, I almost jumped for joy when I did *not* have to walk down the baby aisle.)

Now, on the ground, all we need are some undies and we’re good to go. And at the pool or the ocean, having two girls who wear nothing but bathing suits makes swimming a cinch.

A good family travel friend says that we parents haven’t truly arrived as travel gurus until we can take a trip without diapers. If that is in fact the case, consider this my coming-out party, people. We Villanos are free of diapers, and unless another baby joins this family down soon, we’re never traveling with them again.

Where did you take your family on your first diaper-free vacation?

Pool safety during summer family travel

The pool at Aulani, one of our favorite resorts.

The pool at Aulani, one of our favorite resorts.

It’s no secret that summer is prime time for family vacations, and many wandering pods build their trips around resort hotels with pools. This makes pool safety an important part of the family travel experience. Sure, many resorts employ their own lifeguards to keep visitors from putting themselves in danger. Still, the responsibility to keep kids safe falls almost squarely on us moms and dads.

To get a better idea of how parents can promote pool safety when they travel with kids, I chatted recently with Dr. Kristie Rivers, a Bundoo pediatrician who also serves assistant medical director of the pediatric hospitalist program at Chris Evert Children’s Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Rivers specializes in child safety. Here are some of her most salient tips.

The resort is not responsible for your kids. “As parents you have to always be on guard, whether you’re at home or at a water park or public pool,” Rivers says. She notes that just because a lifeguard is present doesn’t mean your kids will avoid injury.

No running. “Those signs are up for a reason—running around pools usually leads to slipping, and slipping can create all sorts of injuries,” says Rivers. “I tell my own kids that when they’re near a pool they need to walk at all times. That way it is second nature, and they’re never tempted to do anything else.”

Be aware. Rivers notes that it’s critical for every family to establish pool rules and enforce them without fail. “No playing around the drains—if a child’s hair gets caught, that child could drown,” she says. Rivers advises that families should prohibit breath-holding games, and only should allow children to jump or dive into deep ends (with at least 5 feet of water), provided they know how to swim.

Avoid the ickies. “Parents may not realize that the chlorine in a pool doesn’t kill germs instantly,” Rivers says. “E. coli, norovirus, and giardia all can be found in pool water that’s heavily chlorinated, and if kids swallow even just a little bit of the water that’s contaminated, they can get sick.” She also adds that the potential germs carried by diarrhea in resort pools can be just as problematic, and recommends that if parents or children see “floaters,” they should report them to a lifeguard or other staff member immediately. “If your child has had diarrhea at any point in the last two weeks, he or she should not go into a pool,” she declares.

Mind the nappies. There’s a reason diaper companies make swimmy diapers—regular diapers aren’t designed to hold in poop and pee when they get wet. Rivers notes that parents ALWAYS should put their children in swimmy diapers, even if it means making a special trip to the store to buy them. “It’s common courtesy,” she quips. “Even babies can spread germs.” She adds that parents should check swimmy diapers every 30-60 minutes, and change them immediately when the diapers become soiled.

Practice sun safety. Even the sunscreens that say they’re waterproof really aren’t. The lesson, according to Rivers, is to reapply on the kids every hour. “Once you reapply, give the sunscreen a few minutes to work,” she says. “The last thing you want is to be diligent about reapplying, then have it all come off because you didn’t follow simple instructions on the bottle.”

Just say ‘no’ to floaties. Here’s a shocker: the American Association of Pediatrics does not recommend floaties for your kids. “Floaties give them a false sense of buoyancy,” explains Rivers. “Also, they can deflate without warning and might put your child in danger.” She notes that floaties even can lull parents into a false sense of security. To avoid this, just say no.

Regulate temperature. Believe it or not, pools often are not warm enough for infants. In fact, Rivers says that infants under six months old probably shouldn’t be in the pool for more than ten minutes at a time. “It sounds crazy, but they could develop hypothermia,” she reveals.  “At the first sign of shivering, get your baby out of the water right away and wrap him up in a warm towel.”

Pulling the plug on a family trip

A quieter moment, before the storm.

A quieter moment, before the storm.

If you’re a parent with kids under the age of 7, you know that public tantrums don’t discriminate. Kids can have them in any place, at any time. In the morning. At night. Heck, most little ones can go psycho mere moments after telling you they love you.

Kids even can have public tantrums on family trips.

Maybe it’s the new surroundings. Maybe it’s the challenge of grappling with different sleep schedules. Maybe it’s a different diet. Whatever the reason, it can happen. And it sucks.

We know this because we’ve suffered through them. L had some epic meltdowns during our spring trip to Yosemite—meltdowns that left us wondering if park staffers were going to report us to rangers for harboring a wild beast. R had a doozy during last month’s trip to Lake Tahoe—an episode during which she locked herself in an empty hotel room and we had to call security to get her out.

When such dramas occur, we parents are left with three basic choices: a) Ignore the bad behavior, b) Discipline the behavior accordingly, or c) Pull out of the public situation and retreat to a more private spot.

Powerwoman and I have tried all three of these options. Lately, however, we’ve opted for Choice C.

I know, I know—every kid is different. Perhaps your son or daughter will respond positively to choices A or B. Perhaps he or she might be scarred for life if Mom and Dad leave that kick-ass aquarium just because of a “few little slaps.”

The point of my post is this: In the event of a tantrum on a family trip, sometimes you just have to pull the plug. And it’s totally OK to do so.

Here are some signs a pull-out may be necessary:

The tantrum has gone on for at least 10 minutes. Most tantrums end on their own after a few minutes of hell. If your kid keeps going after that, it might be time to get outta there, for his sake, for your sake, and for the sake of the other people around you.

The tantrum is putting people in danger. Everyone’s child goes bag-of-bones during temper tantrums. That condition (no matter how biologically peculiar) can’t hurt anyone, except maybe your kid. But if your child starts flailing or throwing objects, it’s time to abort the mission immediately.

Others are getting agitated. Normally my opinion about others in relation to parenting is, “Who cares?” In this case, however, especially if you’re in a place with its own security guards, when other grownups get agitated, it is high time to hightail it home.

There are no signs of listening whatsoever. Kids are great at tuning us out, but there usually are at least a few indications their ears are still functioning. During doozy-level temper tantrums, those few indications disappear. Be aware of this situation and act swiftly and accordingly to rectify.

Most important, follow your gut. If you’re just feeling like it’s time to leave, leave. Yes, this strategy usually means curtailing some sort of vacation-y activity such as hiking a trail or having a nice meal or checking out a museum. And, yes, the logistics of retreating can become difficult; especially if there are crowds involved (see my previous comment about those park rangers reporting us to Child Protective Services).

Still, we have found that with our kids, bailing in the event of tantrum helps snap them out of the horrid behavior more quickly, which ushers back normalcy and puts us in the best position to get on with our vacation more quickly and painlessly every time.

How do you deal with your child’s temper tantrums when you’re traveling as a family?

Five signs of a kid-friendly hotel

Our Big Girl tries her hand(s) at foosball.

Our Big Girl tries her hand(s) at foosball.

We have stayed at dozens of kid-friendly hotels over the years, but I’m not sure any of them has been as fun for kids as the place we stayed during our recent family trip: The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe.

Yes, this is a luxury hotel. Yes, the rooms are uber-fancy. And, yes, if you’re traveling on a budget, it might be out of your price range (though off-season and shoulder-season rates are more affordable than you might think). But, to be blunt, the hotel is PERFECT for traveling families. Here are five reasons why.

Games galore
I don’t have enough fingers to count the number of games we played at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe. All of them belonged to the resort. Outside, next to the expansive pool area, the four of us spent copious amounts of time trying out the bocce court, two cornhole courts, oversized Jenga blocks (which the girls used to build castles), and Ladder Toss (with which I am now obsessed). Out near a small lawn, there also was a giant tub of Frisbees (for the Frisbee golf course), badminton equipment and soccer balls. Inside, when R napped, L and I raided the arcade, which had two grabby-claw games, two pinball machines, foosball (which both kids tried and disliked), air hockey (which L tried and LOVED and really was good at) and a variation on Pop-A-Shot (for the record, I notched a 229, which apparently was the second-highest score ever. #notsohumblebrag).

Ongoing kid activities
In addition to these at-your-leisure games, the resort offered a handful of organized games, too. One of our favorites: “Where is the Bear?” The rules of this game were pretty simple. Every morning, members of the hotel’s concierge staff hid a stuffed bear in secret places throughout the Living Room (which is what they call the upstairs lobby). Our objective: To find it. We spent three days trying to find that sucker, but we came up empty every time. Apparently, if L or R *had* spotted the furry little dude, they would have received prizes. Thankfully, for them, the fun of searching endlessly (and screaming, “Where are you, Bear?!?!”) was prize enough. Naturally, the other ongoing kid-oriented program that my little sweet-tooths loved was the daily “Marshmology,” during which hotel staffers doled out house-made marshmallows, Hershey’s chocolate bars and graham crackers for guests (of all ages) to make s’mores. On our first day, both kids burned their marshmallows. By our last day, they had perfected the science of getting those buggers golden brown.

Child-specific amenities
It would be easy for a hotel like The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe to take itself too seriously—during ski season, this is one of the swankiest resorts in the entire area. The reality, however, is that a handful of amenities kept the atmosphere light and welcoming for little ones. I’ve blogged previously about the “Just for Kids Indoor Campout” through which kids can spend their stays in indoor tents. We signed up for this program and the girls LOVED it—so much so that they have requested weekly “tent nights” here at home. The girls also enjoyed the Ritz Kids program; though we didn’t sign up for any of the guided programs designed by Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Future Society, we did duck inside the designated Ritz Kids clubhouse (next to the arcade) for some arts-and-crafts time. (Of course I also have blogged about how much L loved the excursion with Tahoe Star Tours, as well as about how much we all enjoyed the gem-panning attraction in Northstar Village.)

Kid-friendly restaurants
For me to describe a restaurant as welcoming to pint-sized customers, it must offer young diners a) special children’s menus and b) crayons and paper, and must bring orders quickly (so the natives don’t get restless). Many restaurants that self-identify as family-friendly come up short on at least one of these requirements. Thankfully, none of the eateries at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe disappointed us at all. All of the restaurants had unique (and healthy!) kids’ menus. All of the restaurants offered crayons. And all of the restaurants brought food to L and R quickly. On the night we took the girls to Manzanita, the hotel’s fancy eatery, the wait staff was so attentive that the girls lasted a whopping 90 minutes at the table (trust me, this is unprecedented). Still, our favorite on-site restaurant was the Backyard Bar & BBQ, which served up kid-friendly dishes such as cheese pizza, hot dogs and cornbread, and afforded us the chance to sit outside and watch clouds as we ate.

Customer service
Let’s be frank: Sometimes it’s not easy dealing with customers under the age of 6. They can be fussy. They’re often impolite. And even the most neurotic of them leave a trail of messes. For all of these reasons, I’m always aware of how rank-and-file employees at hotels treat me and my kids. And, on this point, the people at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe simply blew me away. Bellmen quizzed the girls about stuff we saw on our daily hikes. The concierge playfully teased them about their inability to find that bear. Perhaps the most notable interactions we had with a staff member were the morning visits with Jennifer, the woman who delivered our room-service breakfast every day of our stay. The girls informed her of their fairy names for each day. Jennifer, in turn, regaled them with stories about her daughter, who apparently had just graduated high school. When we checked out, we found two gift bags behind the front desk with a card from Jennifer. For that kindness alone, we most definitely will be back.

What are some of the amenities you look for in a kid-friendly hotel?

Embracing tourist traps on family trips

L, panning for gems.

L, panning for gems.

As a native New Yorker, I like to consider myself a pretty discerning human being. I can smell a poseur from a mile away. I know when food isn’t fresh. And when it comes to vacation destinations, I’m usually the first in a crowd to call, “tourist-trap,” when such a distinction is warranted.

One might think that traveling with L and R has softened me a bit on this last point, but, in reality, the opposite has happened: Lest I expose them to something cheesy, I’m more of a skeptic than ever before.

For this reason, when we travel, we end up rejecting group/tour options and doing a lot on our own.

With this in mind, you can only imagine the conundrum I faced during our recent trip to Lake Tahoe, when the girls spotted an advertisement for a (totally contrived) gem-panning attraction and insisted we go. This is the very sort of thing from which I strive to protect the kids. Yet from their perspective, it involved gems, which meant it was non-negotiable. We simply had to go.

So we did. And they got their bags of dirt. And we walked up some stairs to a makeshift aqueduct, where we also found “pans” to sift the dirt. So the girls sifted. And they found gems. Dozens and dozens (and dozens) of gems. And they squealed with happiness. A lot.

At first, I was miserable. Sure, I pretended to be excited for their behalf, but inside, I silently screamed, “I CANNOT BELIEVE WE ARE ACTUALLY SPENDING OUR VACATION DOING THIS.”

After the fourth piece of squeal-inducing quartz, however, it hit me: The kids were having lots of fun.

Then, a miraculous phenomenon occurred: I started having fun, too. I found myself breathing heavily as I tried to unearth a shark tooth from wet sand in the pan. L showed me a sparkly green gem and I legitimately was impressed. R decided to name one of her agate crystals, “Princess Purpleflower,” and I laughed so hard I cried.

The four of us panned for gems for nearly an hour, and we could have done it for three. At one point, I looked up to see about six other people watching us, smirking. I didn’t care.

On the drive home from Tahoe, I asked L to rank her favorite parts of the trip and gem-panning held strong in her top three (star-gazing also was on the list). To be completely honest, I’d put the panning in my top three, too. And I’m not even ashamed to admit that here.

No, I’m not encouraging everybody to accept entire vacations full of shlock.

I am, however, arguing that, especially on family trips, it’s perfectly acceptable to suspend disbelief every once in a while. As Elsa sings in Frozen, let it go.

Remember, just because you think some place is a tourist trap doesn’t mean your kids will. Everything you encounter on a family trip is new to them—even places that are totally contrived. Once you fight your own skepticism about these experiences, once you see the place through their eyes, you might actually enjoy yourself. I know I did. And if it means finding another quartz crystal named Purpleflower, I’m open to trying again.

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