RV Chronicles #4 – Travel Book

20191116_165526“You can see a war out there, or you can see a friendly place.  Or you can simply see and skip the words.”

-Charles Bowden, Some of the Dead are Still Breathing:  Living in the Future

So, this story is not an RV chronicle, but it is RV adjacent.

We were in New York City for the weekend.  Mark took the kids to an M&M store in Times Square.  I opted to go to a large independent bookstore in Chelsea to be amongst my people.  I love to go to independent bookstores because the staff are not only really friendly, but incredibly knowledgeable.  I wanted to find a travel book based on RV adventures. 

Although I didn’t find one, the person helping me showed me a book of essays entitled, Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing: Living in the Future by Charles Bowden.  I loved the title, so I that was an easy sell.  Then, she showed me some books by French authors traveling around the U.S.  I bought the one that was most critical of America, as I love a little snarky adventure.

When I approached the cashier, he looked at me with disdain.  It was as if he was saying with his eyes, Here she is.  Another middle-aged white lady.  What is the book of the day, ma’am?  Ah, Meditations on Menopause? Good choice.  It is a typical look and I have seen before.  The NYC intellectual look, I call it. I usually wilt when I see this look as I still have an “also-ran” attitude when it comes to NYC.  I am from Cortland, NY, which the New Yorkers view as basically, Canada. Definitely not New York. Although, as I have gotten older, I do not shrink much anymore.  I met his gaze head on.

As he was ringing up my purchases, he grabbed the Bowden book and asked, wide-eyed, “Where did you get this?”.  I looked around, my Catholic guilt showing, and said, “From the travel section?”. My statement was posed as a question because I was stunned by his.  Then he asked, “Who gave you this book?”. This time, I stared him right in the eye and said, “Someone who works here.” In my mind I was thinking, Listen, Skippy.  I don’t know what this is, but don’t try to pull anything on me.  I’m a New Yorker, too. Upstate New Yorker.  

I was relieved when he started gushing about the author.  His love for Bowden’s work made me just happy to be alive.  This kid went from sullen and dark, to sweet and puppy-ish in a matter of seconds.  He said, “Oh, do you want a bag?” and I responded, “Yes, the tote bag that I picked out before.”  He shook his head, apologized and blushed brightly like a Christmas ribbon.

I like to surprise people, and it’s even better when they surprise me.

When I left, I checked my Google Maps app.  It looked like I had a 15 minute walk ahead of me to our hotel.  No big deal. I started walking down Houston and then up 6th Avenue.  It was so great to walk in the city and see real life in front of me – men playing basketball, old couples walking arm in arm, kids in strollers.  Although it was only 33 degrees, I was feeling quite warm basking in the NY glow.  

I had been walking for a good 20 minutes and my face was starting to sting from the cold air.  I decided to double-check the hotel address. 827 6th Avenue, OK, and I am now at…..127. WHATTTTTT!!  So, I misread Google Maps. The directions from before were for driving distance, not walking. I was in for a 60-minute walk.  Ah, no big deal.

I kept an eye on the blocks as they rolled by – 200 block, 300 block….whew!!!

 I got to the hotel feeling pretty good about myself.  I had some cred after that walk, I tell you. I announced to the front desk staff that I just walked there from Little Italy.  I got a lot of accolades and we laughed about my Google Maps guffaw.

I remembered such an important lesson after these two situations.  Even though I am a control freak, I definitely enjoy the unexpected.

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RV Chronicles #3 – Flashlight Letters

20190612_072736“I’d been the recipient of one kindness after another…I had nothing but generosity to report.  The world and its people had opened their arms to me at every turn.”

– Cheryl Strayed, Wild

The RV’s roof leak took a little longer than expected to fix.  My daughter and I decided to head out and the boys would wait at home for the RV.  After a day of sightseeing, Colleen and I headed to our campground in Asheville, North Carolina.  The campground was located at the summit of a mountain, accessed only by a narrow dirt road. The ride was entirely uphill and the road had no shoulder – no buffer between the small road and potentially plummeting over the cliff’s edge.  I was concerned the RV would have trouble on this road in the dark.  

As we checked into the campground, the owner said, “We do have a black bear and her cubs on this mountain. It’s best to stay inside after dark.”  Umm, what?!? Immediately, I became on high alert. What did I learn in Girl Scouts about bear safety? Was it that you talked nicely to a bear? Played dead?  My mind tried to remember the protocol, to no avail. My eyes darted from bushes to trees, looking for the lurking threat. It was dusk at this point and the boys were going to arrive in about 2 hours.  Without a camper, Colleen and I had to wait in the car for them to arrive.  

An hour went by.  As we were watching “Black-ish” on my phone to kill time, there was a knock on the window.  I screamed. 

This very tall, massive man with a long beard smiled at me.  I got out of the car and introduced myself. He motioned to his massive camper parked in the neighboring site and explained he and his wife camped at this site each year.  They were “regulars”. He offered me a flashlight for “safety reasons”, as he encountered a bear when he was retrieving his wife’s shoes one morning from outside of their camper.  “I shined this flashlight into his eyes and begged him or her not to kill me.” Excellent. I knew I was about to die on this mountain with my young daughter.  

He invited us to wait in their camper until my husband and son arrived.  “It’s not that clean, but it’s home.” Although he seemed kind, I am still a New York girl at heart.  I do not trust strangers that easily. I smiled and said, “No, thank you,” and explained we would wait in the car.  “OK, take the flashlight anyway. And, let me know if my wife and I can help you out at all. We’ll be up for a while.” 

The flashlight was extremely bright and industrial-looking.  It was bright enough to illuminate the entire site as well as the woods behind our campsite.  I immediately felt a little safer, being able to see a wide view.

My husband arrived and we had to park and level the RV before settling in for the night.  In the dark. With the bear in close proximity. You see, you have to prop up the tires, called leveling the RV, at every campsite to ensure everything inside the RV works properly, like the refrigerator.  We learned that lesson the hard way. Although I was deathly afraid of being outside in the darkness, I felt like the flashlight kept us safe from impending doom.

The next morning, I walked over to return the man’s flashlight and he told me to keep it.  ”You may need it and I’ll feel better if you all are safe.”

We took our time in the bright sunshine to tour the campground.  The view from the common area was tremendous. It would remind you of the movie, Shadowlands, when Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis talked about the Golden Valley.  There were majestic mountain peaks with a lush, green valley and a river running through it all.  The beauty was almost too much to take.  

The next night, our kids wanted to roast S’mores, so we headed to the campfire at the common area.  A couple from New Jersey were there enjoying a cocktail, after a 12-hour drive and were ready to start their vacation.  The man had lots of stories about being a bus driver, while proudly mentioning his wife was the breadwinner of the family.  She smiled, and was quiet. She seemed happy to give him the spotlight.

As we chatted, he said their son just graduated from Parris Island as a newly minted Marine.  The whole training experience, as grueling as it was, bonded their family in unexpected ways. Before his son left for training, he told them not to write him. Then, the son made up excuses why he wouldn’t be able to write them either – he’d be tired after drills, too busy, etc.  They were crushed as they left their young man for the first time, knowing they would not be in contact with him at all until after his training. I learned that there were no phone calls allowed while at Parris Island, and no e-mail. The only permissible correspondence was letter writing.

After one week of training, they were surprised to receive a letter from their son.  The man said the letter ended with the words, “Write me. Write often.” He said his son’s words made him feel better than “Christmas morning”.  They began to write a series of letters back and forth. “I got to know my son better through writing letters with him than when he lived with us at home, “ he noted and added, “instead of fleeting face-to-face conversations that were few and far between, these letters enabled us to bond.”  He went further to say that the letters were the son’s single most loving gestures he had ever given them. He and his wife were grateful to get to know their son, and the man he was becoming, through letter writing. This revelation sent my English teacher heart soaring, of course!

There is something about camping where humanity is on display and the kindness of people shows through.  We have plenty of examples from our very short tenure as campers: people helping us park the camper, offering us cocktails, sharing snacks and meals.  Our experience has been that the RV lifestyle is one filled with people who are happy to connect with others, while enjoying nature and creating memories with the ones they love.   

RV Chronicles #2 – Tablecloth

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As I drove home from work, I thought to myself:  We haven’t had much rain lately.  I need to water the flowers and garden before leaving on our trip tomorrow.  If you’re an English teacher, you might call this thought “foreshadowing”.

We left on a bright, sunny Friday afternoon.  The RV was packed to the hilt and the kids were buzzing with excitement.  We were heading on a one-week RV trip, with the first stop being Stone Mountain, North Carolina.  Stone Mountain State Park boasted some pretty amazing hiking with a great mountain feel. We were excited to get into the fresh air, and capture some beautiful sights.  

As we headed north, the sky started to turn cloudy.  I checked The Weather Channel app and it said rain. OK, I thought.  Periods of rain, but there had to be some breaks, right?  I was still so optimistic at this point.

We set up camp at our rather bare bones camp site, a concrete slab with an electric hook-up.  No water. No Wi-Fi. No problem.

It was cloudy, but no rain.  So, I set up the picnic table with our brand new tablecloth.  I fastened the clips to keep it in place and…..CRACK. Lightning very close by.  Kids ran into the RV like the outside world was a house on fire. I took the tablecloth in and waited for the storm to pass. I tried to check to see if the weather was going to be severe or if there were any tornado warnings, but we had no Wi-Fi.

We ate some delicious pizza my husband made and set up dinner on our RV dinette.  We all viewed it as an adventure – seeing the torrential downpour outside, while safe and warm in our home away from home.  We played board games and waved to our neighbors in the campers next to us.  

There was a strong rain throughout the night.  It was hitting the roof of our camper really hard and the wind buffeted the camper.  No matter. We were snug in our beds and I was feeling so grateful for this home we made in our little corner of the forest.

The next day, more rain.  Again, wanted to check the weather forecast because it felt like we were sitting ducks if there was a tornado.  I suggested taking off and heading somewhere that might not have any rain- somewhere further west. Also, wanted to find a campground with Wi-Fi.  It just felt safer to have some tether to society. As you can probably tell, I am not an outdoor girl. No one would accuse me of being Cheryl Strayed or anything.  

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My husband is always up for an adventure and the kids were game, so off we went.  The weather forecast did not look good for anything in western North Carolina. Perhaps Tennessee?  We’d see what we would see.  

We decided to stop in Boone, North Carolina, as it is one of our favorite places.  The campground where we stayed was on top of a mountain and promised beautiful vista views (and Wi-Fi).  As we climbed the mountain, we encountered more rain and fog. Vista views may have to wait until the weather cleared.  Still the rain slowed a bit. Perhaps an al fresco lunch at the campground?  

I took advantage of the break in the rain and the tablecloth came out again.  I have to admit, I was becoming a little hell-bent at this point. We were going to eat outside if it killed us.  Well, not killed us per se. But, you get the picture. We were going on the second day of being in close quarters.  Fresh air was needed. Again, I clipped the tablecloth to the picnic table. We ate outside for a total of 2 minutes.  Really? The first bite out of my sandwich aaaannnnnddd…..DOWNPOUR.  

We stayed in the camper for lunch and dinner that night.  The rain was relentless. As we were hanging out with the kids, my phone made a loud alarm noise.  It was, hold on to your hats, a mudslide alert. Conditions were favorable for severe mudslides in our area.  The alert said look for downed trees, power lines and avoid areas of high elevation.  Umm….would that include mountaintops?  

At this point, I had enough.  The kids were anxious messes as they feared our deaths by mudslide.  Mark and I were beyond tired and disappointed. 

And, there was that damn tablecloth amidst the chaos, folded neatly in the open cupboard and full of promise of happy outdoor eating.  It taunted me from its perch like a smug little shit, if only you could use me, Elizabeth…  

Don’t judge me.  Cabin fever will do this to you, too.

I announced (well, really growled)  that everyone was going to bed. Enough of this day!  We’d figure out a plan tomorrow.  I went back to our bed and flopped on the mattress.  I tend to be a bit dramatic at times, I know. As my arms fell, I noticed a damp spot at the head of our bed.  “Who drank something in our bedroom!?” I yelled, accusing the kids of spilling something. No one confessed. However, upon further investigation, the window and wall were wet as well.  There was a leak in the camper.  

Mark and I got towels and stuffed them into where we thought the leak was.  We went to bed in a camper that felt like a sinking ship. For real. I had the wetness to prove it.

We had to head home the following morning due to the leak and everyone was relieved.  I looked at the weather and noticed this major storm would blow over in a few days. We would try to resume our trip later in the week.

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RV Chronicles #1: The Lifestyle

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“Home is where the heart begins, but not where the heart stays.

The heart scatters across states….escape is vital, in some cases, as a survival tool.”

Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

 

 

It all started when Mark came home from work talking about RVs, or showing me RV Trader listings and dealer videos on YouTube.  I listened to him, but these conversations were like listening to a distant melody.  Nice topic, but not something right in front of me.

The casual conversations became an everyday topic.  My growing apprehension of RVs was all logistics- they are expensive and a depreciating investment, what would the upkeep be?….all of those worries.  We arrived at the idea of renting an RV to see if we liked it or not.  Renting was a no-brainer and we were all very excited to see what “The Lifestyle” was going to be about.

“The Lifestyle” was a term coined by our dear friend.  We shared this RV odyssey with our closest friends and one friend said, “So, you’re looking into the lifestyle?”  Little did we know, he was very interested in RVs and was enthusiastic about our expedition. Since then, we started calling everything associated with the RV, “The Lifestyle”.  I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what this lifestyle entailed.

Soon, I was warming up to the idea of RV vacations.  The man wore me down.  After all, I always dreamed of having a camper ever since I had a Barbie Dream Camper when I was little.  It was my favorite toy, but I never thought my amusement would become reality.  I had myself convinced that this RV thing was meant to be.  Until, I heard Mark’s voice as he was driving the rental to our house.

“What’s wrong?” I asked when I heard the lack of enthusiasm in his voice.  He seemed, well, nonplussed, to say the least.  Was he afraid to drive it?  Is it too big?  Aww.  Now that I was on board, he was wavering.  Man!

After peppering him with a million questions, it turned out he was just really worried that somehow the kids and I would not like the RV – would it be too loud, too cold, too wobbly?…  In our family, sometimes the smallest issue can turn into a big problem.  His worries were justified based on past experiences.  I mean, we’ve had entire vacations messed up because of bugs.

When the kids got home from school that day and saw the RV, Mark and I were relieved to find he had nothing to fear.  As soon as the kids set foot in the RV, they were completely hooked!  John promptly leapt into his perch above the cab and shouted, “I’m king of the world!!!”  Colleen, ever the domestic goddess, started setting up her cozy nook in the dining table area.  She even unpacked John’s clothes for him!  It was amazing to see how our sensitive kids were adapting to our temporary home on wheels.

After getting situated in the RV, we were off!  Yes, the ride was loud, but the kids managed beautifully with the help of headphones and calming music.  When we arrived at the campsite, we found our spot was under a thick canopy of trees that gave just the right amount of shade under which to read and write, at least that was my plan.  Even though we were only 1.5 hours away from home, we felt miles away.  I had no idea how much I was going to love outdoor living, and how much it would pay dividends for my mindset.  It was a tonic to sit outside with the night sky winking its bright stars at me with approval.

It was as if nature said to us, “You made the right choice.  Welcome to the lifestyle.”

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Drawer

20181127_152912(0)Recently, my family and I decorated our Christmas tree.  As we were hanging the decorations – relics from family vacations, kids’ crafts, fancy bulbs from my childhood made from beads – I held each one and lovingly remembered all of the experiences each decoration represented.

As I was adrift in memories, I realized something.  Gratitude comes in many packages. I was grateful for the little hopeful faces that gave me their creations, the parents/grandparents who went to great pains to make these bulbs and the many fun adventures we were able to take with our family.  

It occurred to me that gratitude is like these decorations.  You have to pull it out of the drawer, dust it off and let it breathe.  Acts for which we are grateful are abound, yet we don’t acknowledge them so often.  Rather, we may choose to focus on the not-so-happy aspects of daily life.

For example, Christmas has become a complicated holiday for my family and me.  My mother died at Christmastime two years ago. Sometimes when I see our outdoor lights shining through the window against our dining room wall, I think about the people who came to our door to deliver meals to our home while she was in the hospital.  When the cold air of December blows in my face, I think of how it did the same thing walking to the car after days and nights in the ICU.

It’s not our fault.  Our minds tend to go to the negative – what we haven’t given, what we haven’t gotten, how much we have missed, how much we have to overcome, etc.  Critical analysis is part of our everyday experience.

But, I realize that I cannot live in that space – the place of regret, loss, guilt, negativity.  It leaves a dark imprint on everything in my life. My kids get very anxious when they hear me complaining too much.  They are like little mirrors, showing you the result of when you allow negativity to permeate your lives.

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Gratitude is everywhere, impelling its way into everyday life.  My husband came home the other day and told me about a story he heard on talk radio about a reluctant and crabby person who was forced into keeping a list of things for which he was grateful.  He begrudgingly wrote down some half-baked ideas, “glad I got up this morning”, “glad I’m breathing”, etc. Then, he started to get into keeping this list and got more creative. The radio announcer said this hesitant observer now has thousands and thousands of items on his gratitude list now and he is not stopping.  He remains excited about recognizing the gifts of living.

Gratitude seems like exercise – you have to remind yourself to do it, and do it often. The benefits will not happen unless you perform those moves of mindful reflection on a consistent basis.  So, like getting on the treadmill to remain healthy over the holidays, or reluctantly going to the gym in the rain or snow, try gratitude training.  In the words of George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, you could be flexing your muscular kindness.

Trees

20180824_154353“Places remember what people forget.”

Richard Powers, The Overstory

I recently saw a documentary about sentinel trees.  Sentinel trees have witnessed major events in history.  For example, they were examining the trees in Gettysburg, PA who saw the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

It got me thinking of all that trees observe.  In the White Mountains of California, there are Great Basin bristle cone pine trees that are thousands of years old.  What have they seen in their lifetimes?  Pioneers in covered wagons searching for prosperity in the new west?  Curious and inventive citizens have certainly sampled their bark for medicinal purposes.

I thought of all of the trees in my own history.  Like that mammoth oak that had the tire swing in my friend’s backyard growing up.  I was afraid of that tire swing because the tree was the size of a building!  The tire swing was high above the ground. The yard had a steep slope, so it would swing right over her mother’s garden.  One day, I twisted up my courage and attempted to master the tire swing.  I did not ride in the middle of the tire like most kids.  I decided to straddle the top of the thing and ride away!  Little did I know I would get frightened mid-flight, let go and landed directly in her mother’s vegetable garden—just a foot or two away from the tomato stakes.  I could have been impaled!  Yet, I looked up and saw the tree.  Its green canopy above signified that I was OK.

There was also another tree in my backyard.  It provided shade for the whole yard. I believe it was another mighty oak, perhaps maple.  I used to collect the large leaves in the fall and pretend they were dollar bills.  My dolls were the richest toys in all of Cortland, New York.  They had many leaves with which to buy their jewels, cars and houses.

My brother was a fan of our crab apple trees on the side of our house.  He and his friends would pick them and hurl them at each other in vicious apple fights.  I remember being scared of even touching the crab apples because our mom warned us not to eat wild fruit.  I don’t know if my brother cared.  He just wanted to engage in battle.

Trees are silent witnesses to so many events.  They not only see the mischief of everyday life, but have been bystanders to pivotal moments in history.  There are trees still alive in Dallas, Texas that observed the assassination of President Kennedy.  There are also trees around Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts that had a front row seat to Louisa May Alcott’s family history she so lovingly recounted in classics such as Little Women and Little Men.

I am on my back porch now looking at the pines in our backyard and think about all they have seen while we have lived here.  These pines have witnessed the growth of our two kids, my reading and writing back here, the kids and I whistling at the birds in their branches and many, many family celebrations filled with food, wine, bubbles, sprinklers and songs.  Our daughter finds solace in the small wooded area in our backyard.  She used to build wooden sculptures out of downed limbs.  It was looking like the Blair Witch Project in our backyard for a while.

As writers, we have a lot to learn from sentinel trees, these silent spectators.  Observe.  Take it all in.  Be in the background for a while.  Just watch. See what unfolds.

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Garden

20180614_171002“What is called genius is the abundance of life or health, so that whatever addresses the senses, as the flavor of these berries, or the lowing of that cow, which sounds as if it echoed along a cool mountain-side just before night, where odiferous dews perfume the air and there is everlasting vigor, serenity, and expectation of perpetual untarnished morning,—each sight and sound and scent and flavor,—intoxicates with a healthy intoxication.”

Henry David Thoreau’s journal entry, 11 July 1852

There is a healthy intoxication in North Carolina during these sweltering days of summer.  Farm stands abound with fresh produce and it is the time to try out new recipes. Each summer, my daughter and I plant a small garden in our backyard full of herbs and tomatoes.

I have been researching foods that help reduce inflammation associated with RA.  My sister gave me an excellent resource, The Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Action Plans by Dorothy Calimeris and Sondi Bruner.  I have found that some of my favorite foods/herbs (basil, strawberries, spinach, pineapple, cherries) might help with inflammation.  My go-to fruit lately has been cherries, much to the delight of my Michigander husband.

I have been trying some of the recipes from my new cookbook and wanted to share some of them with you.  I have been making a lot of smoothies lately. With temperatures rising to 100 degrees, something cold really hits the spot.  This smoothie is my current obsession:

Cherry Smoothie, serves 1

1 cup of frozen, no sugar added, pitted cherries

¼ cup frozen raspberries

¾ cup coconut water

1 tbsp of raw honey (try to get local honey for the pollen, which helps with allergies)

1 tsp chia seeds

1 tsp hemp seeds

Drop of vanilla extract

Ice (optional)

In a blender, combine all ingredients until smooth.

So, I made this smoothie for my husband before one of my son’s soccer games.  As he tasted it, he said, “is this alcoholic?” Umm… no? FYI…Watch how much vanilla extract you put in this smoothie.  I misread the recipe and added a teaspoon of vanilla extract, not the drop that the recipe called for. It does taste alcoholic when you do that.  Not bad, but definitely not the drink to have at a Saturday morning soccer game. Lesson learned.

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The next recipe is an unusual entree, but I promise you it is delectable!  Again, I’m a little obsessed with cherries lately. They are just so sweet and fresh!  I found this recipe for Chicken Breast with Cherry Sauce and my husband made it for me.  It is unbelievably good, healthy and celebrates the abundance of the season:

Chicken Breast with Cherry Sauce, serves 4

1 tbsp coconut oil

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 scallions, sliced

¾ cup chicken broth

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

½ cup dried cherries (I used fresh cherries.  They made for a little more liquid. See step #5 below.)

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees fahrenheit
  2. In a large, ovenproof skillet over medium high heat, melt the coconut oil.
  3. Season the chicken with salt and pepper.  Place the chicken in the pan and brown it on both sides, about 3 minutes per side.
  4. Add the scallions, chicken broth, balsamic vinegar and cherries.  Cover with an ovenproof lid or aluminum foil and place the pan in the preheated oven.  Bake for 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
  5. If you are using fresh or frozen cherries, transfer the sauce into a saucepan to reduce the liquid – making the sauce thicker before transferring back to chicken.

Exploring new recipes makes this transition exciting.  I am able to find better ways to eat clean and preserve my health.  Oh, and I also made Lavender and Honey homemade ice cream from the lavender in our garden.  I won’t add that recipe. It was unbelievable, but definitely not anti-inflammatory or healthy.  Sometimes you just have to indulge. And I was still honoring the abundance of our garden.

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