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Alex Kava: Bestselling mystery author still going strong

November 3, 2015 3 comments

OK, so I’m getting old and I can’t remember so well all the stories I have in the pipeline from even a few months ago.  This feature on best-selling mystery author Alex Kava is one of those I forgot to mention when I posted about stories of mine to look for the last part of 2015.  It’s odd I forgot this one though because I had long wanted to interview and profile Kava and I found her a delightful subject.  Anyway, here is that short feature about her for Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/).  She has a new book out titled Breaking Creed.

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Alex Kava: Bestselling mystery author still going strong

October 30, 2015 by 
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appeared in the Nov.-Dec. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Sure, Alex Kava is a best-selling mystery author, but as an aspiring writer she faced insecurities. Even now, with a six-figure contract from Putnam, there are uncertainties in this brave new world of publishing.

Growing up in rural Silver Creek, Nebraska, her working-class parents considered writing frivolous. Word-struck Alex secretly spun stories from her imagination and committed them to the back pages of used grain co-op calendars, squirreling away the scrawled tales in a shoe box under her bed.

Convinced writing fiction couldn’t support her, she followed an advertising-marketing-public relations career path that, while successful, left her unfulfilled and burned-out. It didn’t help when her first novel-length manuscript received 116 rejection letters.

Kava may never have become the author of the long-running Maggie O’Dell and new Ryder Creed series had she not left her PR job to commit herself to writing at 38.

“There was too many hours, too many meetings. I really was at a crossroads in my life and I decided that while I’m figuring out what it is I want to do with the rest of my life, I’ll try writing. I told myself if I wasn’t published by 40 I would give it up.”

While completing the book, expenses for home and car repairs mounted. She went through her savings. She took a paper route to make ends meet.

She just squeaked under the self-imposed deadline when, three days before her 40th birthday, she signed advance reader copies of her debut novel, A Perfect Evil. Her 2000 portrait of a community traumatized by a serial killer was extrapolated from the actual terror that befell Bellevue and Papillion in the early 1980s when John Joubert murdered two boys there. Kava worked for the Papillion Times at the time.

“What surprised me,” she says in revisiting those events years later, “was that I could remember those feelings of panic that had taken over that community.”

Her stand-alone One False Move was another instance of real-life crime influencing her work. When the 2002 Norfolk, Nebraska, bank robbery gone fatally bad eerily followed a plot she was developing, she used evidence from the actual crimes to inform her novel.

Forensics expert and profiler Maggie O’Dell was among multiple characters on the case in A Perfect Evil, but Kava’s publisher pushed to make O’Dell the subject of a series. Kava resisted. A dozen O’Dell books later, she and Maggie are fixtures in the mystery-thriller genre.

Kava admits she didn’t like O’Dell at first. “We’re both very stubborn and slow to trust.” On the advice of a go-to expert, former Douglas County prosecutor and now district judge Leigh Ann Retelsdorf, Kava gave O’Dell shared interests in dogs and college football.

“Those two little things actually made it easier for me to relate to her,” Kava says. “The series grew, and I grew, and Maggie O’Dell grew. I love that character. She and I have been through so much together.”

Her new protagonist, Ryder Creed, is a K-9 search and rescue dog handler. He teams with investigators like O’Dell to help crack cases.

“I love Ryder Creed because he has this passion for dogs and I can really connect to that.”

Kava says it’s a relief after “so many years writing about something I don’t know—murder,” to write about her four-legged friends. She’s dedicated books to her pets, Molly and Scout, the latter named after Kava’s favorite literary character, Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird.

Kava’s steeped herself in the CSI-law enforcement milieu, even presiding over her own “crime scene dinner club” of attorneys, detectives, and techs who voluntarily plied her with case file details.

“I really do love the research. I’ve never had any problem with people opening up. I’m not sure why they do.”

She admires her expert sources.

“I’ve always looked at law enforcement officers in awe. I could never do what they do and stay sane.”

She’s toured the FBI’s Quantico facility in Virginia, interviewing behavioral science wonks there. She’s turned down opportunities to visit crime scenes and view autopsies. “Some of those things it’s best for me to leave to my imagination.”

Kava, who did a spring book tour for her latest work, Breaking Creed, is grateful for her success. But in this new age of ebooks, publishing mergers, and tenuous contracts, nothing’s guaranteed.

“There’s so much more for readers to choose from, and I think that added choice is great. At the same time it makes it more of a challenge for us as authors to figure out how to get those readers and stay in front of them. I’m now writing two books a year so I can stay in front and say, ‘Here’s the next one, and I’ve got another one coming out, and another one after that.’ You don’t want them to
forget you.”

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Hardy’s one-man “A Christmas Carol” highlights Dickens-themed literary festival

November 3, 2015 4 comments

There’s something appealing about a lone actor assuming dozens of roles in a one-man performance of a multi-character play and John Hardy is bold enough to tackle a much read, seen and loved work, the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol.  He performs his adaptation at this fall’s Joslyn Castle Literary Festival, whose theme “Dickens at the Castle” is celebrating the great author’s work in many other ways as well, including lectures and concerts. But clearly Hardy’s one-man rendition of this work that so many of us are familiar with through theater and film versions is the main attraction.  I profile Hardy and the “Dickens of a time” he has bringing this work to life in the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  By the way, if you’ve never been to the Joslyn Castle, use this as your escuse because it is a must-see place in Omaha that really has no equivalent in the metro.  You should also check out the arts and culture programming that goes on year-round at the Castle.

John Hardy

 

Hardy’s one-man “A Christmas Carol” highlights Dickens-themed literary festival

Actor to bring timeless classic to life by enacting dozens of characters

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol has long haunted actor-writer-director John Hardy. Though ghosts have yet to visit him ala Scrooge, the story’s held an enchanted place in Hardy’s heart ever since he got his Equity card acting in a professional stage version.

Much theater work followed but he soon tired of others dictating his artistic life and took creative matters into his own hands. He’s since developed a pair of one-man shows he now tours nationally, including a solo rendition of Christmas Carol. He will perform his adaptation of Carol at the free Nov. 14-December 13 Joslyn Castle Literary Festival, “Dickens at the Castle.”

Joslyn Castle is located at 3902 Davenport Street.

The festival includes lectures, concerts and other Dickens-themed events. But Hardy’s one-man Carol stands apart. In his energetic show he assumes more than 40 roles across a spectrum of Victorian and Industrial Age archetypes.

The well-traveled Hardy is no stranger to Omaha. He performed his other one-man play, Rattlesnake, here. He directed Othello at this past summer’s Nebraska Shakespeare Festival.

Able to pick and choose his projects, he’s reached a golden period in his performing life. But getting there took years of searching.

This native of Texas grew up in New Jersey and got bitten by the theater bug attending plays in New York City. He studied drama and stagecraft under his muse, Bud Frank, at East Tennessee State University. He no sooner graduated then went off to do the starving acting bit in the Big Apple, making the rounds at casting calls and booking work on stage and screen. A stated desire to create “my own opportunities” led him to Calif., where he co-founded a theater. Then he earned a master of fine arts degree at the University of Alabama, where he started another theater.

He soon established himself a director and acting coach. Once fully committed to following his own creative instincts, his original one-man play, Rattlesnake, emerged.

“You know how it is, you come to things when you come to them,” Hardy says. “Freedom explains all good things I get. Man, there’s nothing like liberation.”

In casting around for another one-man play, he returned to his old friends, Dickens and Christmas Carol.

“As much as I had done it, I always felt like there was something else there. I wasn’t quite sure what it was. But there’s a reason why that play is done and why that book’s become a play and become so many movies. I feel like people were searching for it, just as I was, too.

“The other thing is it had a built-in commercial appeal. People have heard of it, it’s known.”

Tried and true is fine, but Hardy imagined a fresh take on the classic.

“I’ve seen one-man versions, but they’re nothing like the one I do. The one I do is not storytelling, it’s not described. Mine is dramatic theater, It’s characters fully involved in this world, this existence from moment to moment. I’ve never seen that in a one-man Christmas Carol. In the others, there’s always a separation – it’s storytelling with a hint of characterization here and there. Whereas mine is moment to moment characters living through this world, which makes it distinctly different.”

The more Hardy dug into the book and play, the more he discovered.

A Christmas Carol must have a universal thing in it because it never dies and therefore there must be some very human thing that most of us can see in it and relate to in it.”

He believes Dickens possessed insights rare even among great authors or dramatists in exploring the experiences that shape us, such as the transformative powers of forgiveness, humility and gratitude.

“It’s a thrill to have anything to do with Dickens or talk about him. Dickens is just one of those people like Shakespeare that seems to have a window into the human experience that few people have. The more we get to know about ourselves through his work then the closer we get to not killing ourselves and I would like to participate in that endeavor,” he says.

“The psychology of the human being – that seems to be what he has an insight into in a way that is almost never if ever spoken. In other words, what he does is allow characters to engage in living from moment to moment and doesn’t necessarily draw conclusions about it. He doesn’t explain their behavior, he allows them to live.”

That approach works well for Hardy, who abides by the axiom that “you only really come to know a character when they’re engaged in doing something – forget about someone describing them or they describing themselves.” And therein lies the key I think to A Christmas Carol,” he adds.. “It’s not an accident this story has been made into a play and a movie again and again because it’s so active. Somebody’s engaged in doing something. It’s on its way somewhere a hundred percent of the time. It’s never static. It’s not reflective. It moves past a moment into the next moment and you can’t stop and think about it.”

“Even as a book it doesn’t have that page-long description of reaching for a door handle and turning it and that kind of thing. It’s in the room, it’s taking in the room, it’s dealing with what’s in the room and going into the next room. It never stops moving forward. It really doesn’t take a breath. It lends itself to the dramatic universe as opposed to the prosaic. It’s a series of actions characters do – and that reveals them.”

In his one-man show Hardy is our avatar embedded in the story. He embodies the entire gallery of characters immersed in this fable of redemption. As he moves from one characterization to the next, he seductively pulls us inside to intimately experience with him-them the despair, tragedy, fright, frivolity, inspiration and joy.

“Seeing a person move through that whole thing is even more human,” he says. ‘We see ourselves passing through it as this one human being passing through it. Maybe we are everyone in A Christmas Carol –Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit – and Scrooge is everyone, too.”

Because this is Hardy’s vision of Carol, he can play the omnipresent God who let’s us see and hear things not in the original text.

“I get to do things the book and the plays don’t get to do. For instance, in the book I think Tiny Tim says one thing – ‘God bless us everyone.’ He says it a couple of times. Well, I get to have Tiny Tim say whatever I want him to say. In the book Bob Cratchit explains to his wife what Tiny Tim said when he was carrying him home from church on Christmas morning but I get to have Tiny Tim actually say that. I get to have him actually experience these things and you get to see him live a little more. That’s the kind of thing I can do.”

Hardy’s well aware he’s doing the show in a place with a special relationship to the Dickens drama. The Omaha Community Playhouse production of Charles Jones’ musical adaptation is a perennial sell-out here and in cities across America where the Nebraska Theatre Caravan tours it. Hardy auditioned for the Caravan himself one year.

“It seems like half of everyone I know in the business has had something to do with the Nebraska Theatre Caravan or with the Playhouse or A Christmas Carol. It’s kind of like six degrees of separation – you’re not far away from knowing someone who knows someone who was in that.”

As for his own relationship to Carol, he says, “I’ve been with that story for a long time.”

His one-man homage kicks off “Dickens at the Castle” on November 14 at 6:30 p.m. A pre-show panel of local theater artists, plus Hardy, will discuss adapting the novel. For dates-times of Hardy’s other performances of Carol during the fest and for more event details, visit http://joslyncastle.com/.

Fairytale Wonder: A Regal Residence in Legacy Villas

November 3, 2015 2 comments

When I posted about stories I have written that are in the pipeline for the remainder of 2015 a few slipped my mind, including this piece for Omaha Home Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/omaha-home/) about a couple’s castle-like residence.

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Fairytale Wonder

A Regal Residence in Legacy Villas

Steve and Bari McCormick’s Euro-influenced home in the gated Legacy Villas development draws much attention for its enchanted kingdom appearance.

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The French country-style house stands apart from conventional residences for its distinctive features. Start with the decorative 30-foot-high turret. Add the projections, peaks, gables, eyebrow windows, stone-stucco-brick finish, carriage-style garage doors, and sweeping flow of the home on a raised and curved lot.

Castle-like embellishments include lions-head door-knockers.

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There’s a secluded courtyard in front and a wrap-around deck and landscaped patio with water feature in back.

Inside are arches, alcoves, recesses, high ceilings, massive solid wood beams, two large fireplaces, built-in bookcases, and a spiral staircase.

This Princess Bride look comes from the Storybook Collection of Missouri-based Ron Hill’s Euro World Designs. The couple worked closely with Hill in conceiving the home. Steve owned his own full-service realty company and developed many properties and spec homes. Bari’s always taken an active role with him to get things just right in their own homes. They both have a good eye and know enough to tell designers and builders how things should be done.

“We just know how we wanted it,” Bari says of their Legacy place. “It’s not an intimidating thing to either one of us. We like the process and we like to see it completed. It’s fun.”

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They fell in love with Hill’s work after touring homes he designed at the lake near Branson where they have their second home.

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Steve served as the project’s general contractor. He built the courtyard and water feature himself.

Ever since the home began taking shape in 2011 it’s provoked interest.

“It still does,” Bari says. “People come by this house weekly—stop, take pictures, come to the door and ask, ‘where did you get this?’ or ‘what color is that?’ We have a lot of people comment on it, I think, because it’s such a unique style.

“Now, did we ever think we would end up with this home? No. We’ve kind of been all over the place in terms of styles—we’ve had a two-story Tudor and a ranch—but every step moved us towards this.”

The McCormicks met at then-Kearney State College and lived in Kearney, Nebraska, almost all their married lives. He ran his business; she taught public school and later taught physical education at the college, along with running its intramural sports program.

After retiring they moved to Omaha to be close to their three adult sons and four granddaughters.

They’ve always done special things with their residences.

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“We did kind of trick them out,” Steve says. “But this is probably the craziest we’ve gone. I wanted to do the things that kind of went over the top, not to the point of being showy, but just neat features.”

A playground feature is the attached, double-high garage. It is Steve’s man cave, rec space, and trophy room. He’s added hydraulic lifts to facilitate storing his collection of classic Ford vehicles. He’s decorated the space with racing posters, motor oil signs, a vintage gas pump, a parking meter, and all things combustible engine-related.

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Just off the downstairs family room is a home movie theater that seats 10 in plush, fully reclinable chairs. A whimsical touch is a faux box office with a mannequin ticket-taker.

The family room includes a small bar backed by a distressed wall. Next to the bar is a tiny wine cellar fronted by an iron gate.

The McCormicks worked closely with subcontractors Dick Grace Construction, Timberlane Construction, and others to create certain touches.

Steve says visitors often “use the word ‘detail’ when they’re at our house—and that’s a compliment.”

The home’s two bedrooms are located on the lower level. The guest bedroom is outfitted with furniture and keepsakes the couple inherited from their respective families.

As large as the home appears on the outside, it’s 2,200 square feet, just 400 feet less than today’s average size.

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“I find it a very comforting home, a very warm home,” Bari says.

A color scheme of earth and jewel tones offers subtle contrasts to the dark woodwork, pale plaster walls, and hickory floor.

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Most of the interior wood is stained alder, including the kitchen cabinets and doors. The kitchen, formal dining room, and living room walls are done in Venetian plaster. The kitchen island, countertops, and backsplashes feature granite.

The beams transecting the vaulted living room ceiling naturally split, lending them even
more character.

“I like the fact that the beams come down and cozy it up,” Bari says. “They are massive, but that’s a lot of space so it needed some weight up there to kind of balance the room.”

Like Cary Grant and Myrna Loy in the old movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, the couple spent more than they originally planned, but who can put a price on storybook and heart?

Steve says, “My attitude is why not enjoy it?” Besides, Bari adds, “It’s our last roundup.”

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Down and out but not done in Omaha: Documentary surveys the poverty landscape

November 3, 2015 4 comments

Omaha famously ranks high in best places to live, do business and raise a family lists and it infamously ranks just as high in per capita poverty, STD and gun violence rates, particularly among African-Americans.  The economic dichotomy is an especially glaring scar on the Pleasantville face Omaha likes to project.  When it comes to poverty, Omaha goes out of its way to remove traces of struggle amiid the city’s high concentration of millionaires, white collar professionals, and high employment figures.  But if you look close and hard enough, the cracks in the picture emerge and the reality of poverty and homelessness, though often unseen, becomes quite real. More and more folks live paycheck to paycheck and are just one emergency or crisis or even bump in the road away from needing a food pantry or a shelter.  A new documentary commissioned by the helping organization Together and directed by filmmaker Jason Fischer, Out of Frame: Unseen Poverty in the Heartland, tries to paint a picture of the poverty landscape in Omaha.  It has a premiere screening November 12 at Aksarben Cinema. This is my story about the project and its subject in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

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Down and out but not done in Omaha: Documentary surveys the poverty landscape

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Muddying Omaha’s high quality of life rankings are pockets of chronic poverty and growing new poor populations.

Identifiable impoverished sections, homeless communities and shelters exist, but most poverty here is insidious and invisible. It’s even in the suburbs. Thus, the title of a new documentary, Out of Frame: Unseen Poverty in the Heartland. It premieres November 12 at 6:30 p.m. at Aksarben Cinema. A panel discussion follows.

Surreal Media Lab owner Jason Fischer made the film for Together, a nonprofit that assists people out of poverty, hunger and homelessness into self-sufficiency and sustainable living. The project resonates with Fischer, who grew up in a poor, single-parent household.

“My mom never made a big deal about it,” he says. “I didn’t know how poor we were until I started thinking back, Oh, that’s why we ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches or pancakes for dinner. We shopped at Goodwilll, That’s what you did. You learn those survival skills. It was a mindset my mom had that she never let it be known we’re doing so bad. That was her superpower.”

Interviewing clients and caseworkers for the film, Fischer’s learned the local poverty landscape.

“It doesn’t feel like there’s a huge homeless sector here but the line between poverty and homelessness is fairly thin. That’s what you hear – that having a roof over your head and not having a roof over your head might just be a matter of days. It’s the working poor who are most vulnerable – the folks barely cutting it and living paycheck to paycheck.”

It’s someone like Rodgers, whose lack of living wage job skills puts him in precarious straits with advancing age and no nest egg or safety net.

Or someone like Air Force veteran Vernon Louis Muhammad, who suffered a severe work-related injury that prevented him from holding a job. His health issues and lost income, combined with a divorce, began a cascade that resulted in him losing his home and nearly everything else. As he recovers a semblance of his old life he helps other disabled and homeless vets find their footing, too.

Takina Humphrey lost her children to foster care when she went into treatment for meth addiction but since getting sober she’s reunited with them and working hard to make ends meet.

Fischer says he’s struck by “the variations and gradations of all the situations,” adding, “I want to give a face and add humanity to the complexities of poverty and homelessness, It’s not what you imagine. It’s not about the person who just gave up. It’s not just black and white. It’s not just the people down by the river and the railroad tracks. It may be a neighbor or a person at your church or someone at the grocery store. That’s the unseen part of it, even though it might be in plain view. And when we do see it, we avert our eyes.”

Together executive director Mike Hornacek says the problem in Omaha “is definitely not unemployment – we have one of the country’s lowest unemployment rates – it’s underemployment.” He adds, “We have a huge socio-economic divide in our community. We have tons of white collar professionals doing extremely well and then another huge blue collar, service-oriented population making $8 or $9 an hour. We’re missing that large segment of $16 to $18 an hour skilled trade sector jobs. So we’re seeing a trickle down effect of all kinds of people asking for help and services that never had to ask before.”

For example, he says nearly half of Millard public schools students are on free and reduced lunch – an indicator that struggles are not confined to the inner city. In this era of excessive cost of living and flat wages and salaries, he says one unforeseen disruptive event or major expense finds many families “suddenly teetering on the edge of working poor and needing to use a food pantry.”

 

 

Together Omaha

Mike Hornacek

 

 

 

Clients exhibit a gamut of causes and needs.

“Walking through our door on a daily basis is really a sliding scale of severity. On the minor side it’s somebody who needs to use a pantry for the first time. It may just be once. Maybe hings got tight at the end of the month with a high heating bill and the family couldn’t afford groceries. Not a lot of support services need to be involved.

“In the middle range is a single mom working two jobs, making minimum wage or more, doing the best she can, living paycheck to paycheck. Then her car needs repairing so she can continue going to work to support her family. She uses the rent money for the car and it turns into a snowball that sees her evicted. She comes to Together and we pay the back rent, supply one month to move forward and discuss budget. We cover basic skills to make sure she and her family are sustainable after we provide the help.

“On the extreme end, in a very severe crisis, you have somebody literally homeless or really close to homeless. maybe with PTSD syndrome and needing serious intervention just to be able to regain housing and sustain that on their own. They might need six to 12 months of intense case management to stabilize that living situation and ensure they are mentally stable and getting the right supports.

“The more near you get to homeless and the more years you live in poverty for generations a lot of times the root cause has to do with mental illness and behavioral health.”

Fischer’s discovered that just as many things trigger poverty “different variables go into creating stability.” “Stability comes through support groups, caring and community. No one organization does everything by itself. Several working interdependently, each doing its part, is really the key. That’s how Together came to be and true to its name it works collaboratively. That’s the strength of it.”

Hornacek says,”In a lot of those more medium to severe situations we can provide resources until we’re blue in the face but we’re not going to create any significant or lasting change unless we address those underlying issues and that comes through case management and connecting people to support services that help with mental health, medical needs, substance abuse and things like that.

“It is very complex. It is not one silver bullet that fixes the problem. And the person or family you’re trying to help has to want the help.”

But it’s first things first.

“It’s really unrealistic for us to expect individuals to just make those radical changes unless their basic needs are taken care of. Once past that threshold money doesn’t fix the problem…Then it’s all about education, guidance, mentoring and helping somebody work a plan to get where they want to go.”

Fischer is grateful to those who shared their struggles on film.

“They’re very courageous people for sharing their stories. I was surprised they were as open as they were. When you can see someone that hasn’t given up and is still pushing and still believes, and the hope they have, that’s inspiring. If that person’s still trying, then I have no excuses .”

Hornacek says he commissioned the film as an “advocacy tool.” He adds, “I hope people walk away with a better understanding that we do have some significant, pervasive issues in the greater Omaha area. We need to address families living in poverty and the economic divide. These things have repercussions,” including educational deficits, health problems, criminal activities,

“If we don’t get a handle on it, its going to get dramatically worse.”

Then the problem won’t remain hidden anymore.

The November 12 screening is part of Together’s gala fundraiser. Tickets are $35 per person or $60 for two. Visit http://www.AksarbenCinema.com or http://togetheromaha.org/.

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