SoCS: silent letters

Silent letters are one of the difficulties in learning written English.

There are a lot of them! (There are a lot of other weird features to spelling in English, too. I pity anyone having to learn it as a second, third, or fourth language.)

I realize other languages have them, too. I never studied French but occasionally have to sing in it. I’m always having to cross out letters that aren’t pronounced.

The first opportunity I had to study a second language was in high school. I chose Italian for a number of reasons. My mom’s grandparents spoke it, although in dialect which is not what you learn in school. Also, Italian is used extensively in music markings. In the US, Latin is sung using Italianate pronunciation and I often have call to sing in Latin.

Learning to spell and pronounce words in Italian is much more straightforward than in English. There are almost no silent letters. H is the letter that is sometimes silent and sometimes a signifier of a change to another consonant sound. Once you learn the pure vowel sounds and a few little rules, it is very easy to read a text in Italian. You might not know what you are saying, but it will sound beautiful!
*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “a word with a silent letter.” We could write about it or about silent letters in general. Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/09/09/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-sept-10-2022/

SoCS: meetings

Earlier this year, I joined the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton and was somewhat shocked but definitely honored to be offered a seat on their board.

I’ve never been on a board before, although I’ve been on lots of committees. Even though I don’t think being on committees is my strong suit, I did accept.

I haven’t had enough time to figure out yet if it was a mistake.

It’s not that I don’t have ideas to contribute. It’s more the incredible stress of trying to get them out.

I’m an introvert who finds talking to more than two people at a time really stressful. So a board meeting where I know almost no one is daunting. Add in being thrown into the midst of discussions that had been ongoing and for which I have limited background and the stress level goes up exponentially.

I am, however, determined and dogged and faithful, so I will try to do my best to contribute and be a good board member.

At least, for now.

We are coming up on the one year anniversary of my father’s death. After the months of having to deal with all the paperwork and estate settling, I had been trying to re-prioritize my commitments. I thought that I would be doing mostly solitary activities, other than poetry workshopping. Well, and rehearsing with Madrigal Choir.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Besides Madrigal Choir Board, I’ve been involved with the Creation Care Team at my church, which has now also morphed into involvement with the diocesan creation care task force. Dealing with anything on the diocesan level is fraught for me for more complex reasons than I could possibly tackle in SoC.

For sanity’s sake, I know I should scale back, but will I?

Probably not.

Well, not at the moment, anyway…
*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “board/bored.” Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/08/26/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-aug-27-2022/

Much Ado in the Garden

Why, you may ask, is Joanne wearing a fetching Renaissance costume?

Because tomorrow, Sunday, July 17, 2022, I will be singing madrigals with The Madrigal Choir of Binghamton at the Much Ado in the Garden event, sponsored by Cornell Cooperative Extension-Broome County.

There will be music, dancing, garden tours, Shakespearean scenes, games, food, and more, so come to Cutler Botanic Garden and join us!

Madrigal Choir will be singing at 2:00. At 11:15 AM, I will also be participating in a mini-workshop and reading with the Binghamton Poetry Project, but not in costume.

I’m sure that you want to see my headpiece, so one more costume shot.

My 40th reunion at Smith

Last week, I attended my fortieth reunion at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. For those who may not be familiar, Smith is a women’s liberal arts college, chartered in 1871, one of the traditional Seven Sisters, five of whom remain as women’s colleges.

I came into town a day early in order to meet up with an alumna friend who lives in Northampton and graduated a year before me. Her sister was a member of my class and passed away in fall 2020. I was honored to be able to commemorate her at the Service of Remembrance during our reunion. My ’81 friend and I enjoyed hours of conversation on her front porch, followed by dinner on the porch at Mulino’s, an Italian restaurant that did not exist back in my student days.

I stayed at the historic Hotel Northampton, which has fun features like a mail slot near the elevators on each floor that connects to a large brass mailbox on the main floor for pick-up by the postal service every morning. I also got to do a bit of shopping at Thorne’s Marketplace, a collection of local shops and restaurants housed in a grand historic building. Thorne’s was a fairly new undertaking back in my undergrad days and I’m glad to see that it continues to thrive. I bought some cards and gifts and books and made two trips to Herrell’s ice cream shop. I got a sampler each time, so I got to enjoy eight – count ’em, eight! – of their delicious homemade flavors. This will surprise no one that knows me. I also got to have lunch at Fitzwilly’s, a restaurant/bar that was also relatively new during my student days. I had mac ‘n cheese that featured fresh asparagus from a farm in nearby Hadley. I love asparagus, which is one of the glories of spring in New England; it reminds me of going with my parents to harvest a patch near my father’s hydro station, a remnant of a garden from an old company-owned house that had been torn down.

On Thursday afternoon, I went up to campus for the duration of reunion. Because of the pandemic, everyone had to have proof of vaccination and boosting to register and many of the meals and events were held outdoors. Indoor events were masked, except while eating and drinking. I immediately met up with some of my ’82 friends and the celebration began!

One of the things about Smith reunions – and Smith alums in general – is that we somehow manage to have meaningful conversations with each other at the drop of a hat. Perhaps because of our shared liberal arts background, we are engaged with a broad range of topics across current affairs, public policy, arts and culture, and on and on. Of course, the deepest conversations happen with our close friends but there is a lot of sharing of ideas with acquaintances, too. In retrospect, I wish I had prepared a succinct answer to the question “What do you do?” Lacking a shorthand reply, like “I’m a lawyer, working for this government agency” or “I teach at such-and-such school”, I found myself stumbling to explain forty years of my life in any brief, comprehensible way.

Unlike the vast majority of my classmates, I’ve done little paid work in my life. I’ve devoted many years to being a caregiver of both elder and younger generations, with more than our share of medical issues. I’ve volunteered in church music and liturgical ministry and facilitated a spiritual book study group. During my daughters’ years in public school I served on curriculum committees and shared decision making teams and helped design the honors program at the high school. I joined NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, in 2000 to advocate for social justice. I was part of the anti-fracking movement in New York which finally achieved an administrative and later legislative ban in our state; this led to ongoing involvement in the fight for climate and environmental justice. There is my writing life, as a blogger and poet.

This does not condense into an easy answer to “What do you do?” but it does constitute the bulk of my adult life, which would not have been as rich and varied were it not for my Smith education. The ideal of a liberal arts education is that you “learn how to learn.” By studying across the spectrum of academic disciplines, one absorbs different approaches to real-life issues, enabling critically sound and creative solutions that promote well-being for ourselves and others and for our environment.

Maybe I should have replied, “Just forty years of being liberal-artsy.”

The other thing that I hadn’t quite prepared myself for was the flood of family memories. Because it was only an hour-ish drive to campus, my parents visited often for concerts and events. They were there for my recitals in Helen Hills Hills Chapel and John M. Greene Hall. They visited at Haven House where I lived all four of my years on campus. There were there, of course, at B and my wedding, a few weeks after commencement with the reception at the Alumnae House. This reunion was the first time since their deaths that I was back on campus and missing them added another layer to the strange mix of familiarity and difference that the passage of forty years brings. For example, I thought about my parents when we were attending the remembrance service, sitting in rows of chairs where the pews had once stood. The pews were removed years ago to allow for more flexible use of the space but their absence felt strangely current when I remembered B and my parents there in the front pews on either side for our wedding.

I also found myself missing my mother in particular among the spring flowers. We were blessed with unusually warm weather for mid-May and the flowers and trees were blooming simultaneously and profusely in response. The scent of the lilacs between the President’s House and the Quad, where we were staying, was so overwhelming I nearly choked. There were lily-of-the valley in bloom, which are Nana’s birth flower. What would have been her 90th birthday was the day after reunion and the third anniversary of her death is a few days from now.

I’m grateful to have been among friends who could support me with this grief aspect. Many of us have lost our parents now, with some still in the phase of dealing with their final years and indeterminate endpoint. As classmates, we were also dealing with the deaths of more of our ’82ers, adding to the list that, sadly, began during our senior year when we lost one classmate in a plane accident and a second to cancer. That’s why I and some friends always make a point to attend the service of remembrance during reunion. We want to honor our departed ones and their importance in our lives, even if they left us long ago. After the service, we visited the memorial tree planted beside the chapel in honor of our classmate Beth. We took a photo which we will send to her mother, who I know finds comfort that we remember her all these decades after her death.

While the central activity in reunion is visiting friends, there are plenty of other things to keep us busy. Some are long-standing traditions, such as Ivy Day when the alums, wearing white, parade between rows of the graduating seniors, also wearing white and carrying red roses, welcoming them into the community of alumnae. The night before commencement, the central campus is illuminated with Japanese lanterns. People stroll among them with live music in several locations.

There are also a number of lectures, receptions, and concerts. The President gave an update on the state of the college. Everyone is very excited that grants are replacing loans in financial aid packages at Smith, making an education possible without graduating in debt. Smith also highlights its accessibility for students who are the first generation in their family to attend college. That was my situation forty years ago but it was not recognized in the way it is today. I also attended two lectures of interest. One was how the Botanic Gardens are being re-imagined in keeping with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and best practices for preserving species in the face of climate change, all with an eye toward education and social/environmental justice. The other was about the transition of campus to ground-source heating and cooling, which will be a major contributor to Smith being carbon-neutral by 2030 without making extensive use of purchased off-sets. I was particularly interested in this because of the projects we have done at our home to reduce our carbon footprint and because my church is in the process of drawing up a strategic plan to reduce or eliminate our use of fossil fuels.

Besides college activities, we had a few opportunities just for our class. I alluded to one in this post – an open mic event to read something from our college years. I chose a passage from my adult psychology course journal about my experience coming from a tiny town to Smith. A few of us had brought something with us but we had time to do additional sharing which was fun. Our class theme for Reunion was “Writing Our Next Chapter” and I appreciated that our futures also came into that discussion.

We were also honored to have a preview screening of Where I Became, a documentary about South African students who came to Smith during apartheid. Our classmate Jane Dawson Shang is co-producer and shared some of her experiences making the film. When it becomes publicly available, I will surely share that information here at Top of JC’s Mind so everyone can see the remarkable story of these women.

Reunions at Smith are always exhilarating but exhausting. I had originally planned to attend commencement on Sunday morning but opted for quiet conversation with friends. Walking 17-20,ooo steps a day for three days straight in hot. humid weather proved to be a bit much for my feet and ankles, which swelled rather impressively.

It also meant that my reunion experience ended with what is always most important, sharing with friends in a place that was instrumental to our lives. I hope to see some of them and return to campus before our next reunion.

Five years seems too long to wait.

“A Ukrainian Prayer”

Celebrated British composer John Rutter, moved by the plight of the Ukrainian people, set a prayer in Ukrainian and made it available free of charge to choirs around the world, so that they can learn, record, and share it as widely as possible.

I was honored to join in this effort as a member of the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton. (You can find my post about my first concert with them here.) You can view our recording under the direction of Bruce Borton here: https://fb.watch/co_j5FwNUm/. Although the recording is hosted on the Facebook platform, it is available publicly; you do not need to have a Facebook account to access and share the recording.

At this point, there are a number of recordings of this moving piece available online. If you listen to several, you may notice that the rhythm differs. On March 28th, Rutter released a modified version of the score to better align with the Ukrainian language. The Madrigal Choir sang this modified version. Rutter also has provided a singing translation in English. I’ve yet to hear a recording using the English text, but you may run across one at some point. The Ukrainian text is brief and a translation appears at the beginning of our recording.

Whether or not one follows a personal spiritual tradition, this music is a powerful sign of support for the Ukrainian people. I also urge people to send financial support, if they are able. There are many organizations helping in relief efforts. One of my favorites is World Central Kitchen, which is on the ground in crisis situations around the world, including in Ukraine and surrounding countries that are welcoming refugees.

Rutter’s intent for this piece is that it will spread around the world to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people. If you are so moved, share this post, the link to the Madrigal Choir rendition, and/or another recording you may encounter. If you sing in a choir and would like to participate in this effort, you can find details and procedures for downloading the score here: https://johnrutter.com/news-features/prayer-for-ukraine.

Lord, protect Ukraine. Give us strength, faith, and hope, our Father. Amen.

Forsaken of Man

Yesterday, for the first time since the Smith College Alumnae Chorus concerts in Slovenia in July 2019, I sang in a choral concert. This ends the longest drought in choral performances since I was a teenager. While the pandemic was a major factor in this break, the other complication was that the Binghamton University Chorus, which I joined in fall of 1982 after moving to the area, may have been permanently disbanded, something that I suspected at our last concert in May, 2019.

Last fall, I attended the first in-person concert since the onset of the pandemic by The Madrigal Choir of Binghamton. I have long had friends who sang with Madrigal Choir, but always assumed that I would not be the most qualified person they could find to fill a rare opening in the soprano section. At the concert, they announced, though, that they were looking for new members in all voice parts. Bolstered by the fact that Bruce Borton, professor emeritus from Binghamton University under whose direction I sang with University Chorus throughout his tenure, is now the director of Madrigal Choir, I inquired about joining and was accepted. Due to our family trip to London for the holidays and the omicron spike, the concert yesterday was my first opportunity to perform as a member of Madrigal Choir.

We joined with the choir of Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church to present Leo Sowerby’s Lenten cantata, Forsaken of Man, under the direction of Trinity’s music director Timothy Smith. While I had been familiar with some of Sowerby’s work, I had not previously heard this powerful and dramatic piece. With passages from the gospels, including some of Jesus’s hopeful teachings, and additional text by Edward Borgers, Forsaken of Man concentrates on the betrayal and abandonment of Jesus in his final days.

As often happens in Passion settings, the story is proclaimed by The Evangelist, for us tenor Kevin Bryant. Brian Mummert portrayed Jesus and bass John Shelhart chillingly sang the roles of Caiaphas, Judas, and Peter. They were all magnificent as were the other soloists with smaller parts, including Dr. Borton as Pilate.

What I appreciate as a member of the chorus is the role that Sowerby chose for us. Sometimes, we were participants in the narrative, becoming the disciples, or the crowd calling for crucifixion, or the soldiers mocking Jesus. At other times, we set the scene or offer commentary, as in the choral prologue and epilogue.

Unlike many Passion settings, the soloists and chorus unfold the story in a series of four parts, rather than a succession of short solo arias and choral movements. This is part of the drama of the piece, as there are many sudden shifts in mood, voicing, and tempo.

Another major driver of the dramatic expression of the story is the incredibly demanding organ part, played masterfully by the William K. Trafka on Trinity’s Casavant organ, which was expanded in 2018. Sowerby was himself an organist, as is evident from the complexity and expressive nuance of the score. It was a thrill for me to be singing in the chancel at Trinity. I had served there as an assistant back in the mid-’80s and this concert brought back many memories of that time, including some choir members who are still serving.

The sad news is that this is the last public performance of the season for the Madrigal Choir but I am looking forward to the announcement of the next season. I’m grateful to have a new choral home! Stay tuned for more about Madrigal Choir in the fall when we resume – or perhaps before…

Review: Encanto

When we went to the UK to visit our family for the holidays, four-year-old granddaughter ABC watched the Disney film Encanto frequently. I was impressed with it but hadn’t realized how popular it had become until after we returned to the US and it seems that I run into commentary on it several times a week, including news that the soundtrack and individual songs from Encanto have been appearing in high positions in the Billboard charts.

For the few of you who may not know, Encanto tells the story of the Madrigal family from Columbia who use their magical gifts to help their community. Granddaughter Mirabel appears not to have been given a magical gift but her strong love for her family and their home powers the story.

Much of the commentary that I’ve seen concentrates on how important it is to have this portrayal of a Latinx family and story, along with inclusion of Spanish in the dialogue and songs. I agree with this point but want to note some other ways that this film feels inclusive to me. As someone whose family is racially diverse, I appreciate that the Madrigals have Indigenous and Black roots, as well as (presumably) European. As someone who wore glasses from a young age, I love that Mirabel wears glasses. I could get all metaphorical about clarity of vision, but I won’t. It’s just nice to see a positive portrayal of a girl who wears glasses in an animated movie.

The biggest point of inclusivity for me is the complexities of the family relationship. The most popular song in the soundtrack, the ensemble piece “We Don’t Talk about Bruno”, reminds me that my own family had an uncle that was seldom mentioned for mysterious reasons. We see Mirabel and her non-magical father struggle with finding their place within the family, which is a familiar issue in many families, for example, when a very sports-oriented family has a member who would rather be singing in the chorus than out on the field with a ball.

We also see the double-edged sword of trying to live up to family expectations. While it’s admirable that members of the family want to use their gifts to serve the family and the community, it’s all too easy to see each only for that one gift and not for the complex being that they are. This leads to feeling that it is only that gift that makes you valuable or loved. The clearest expression of this is “Surface Pressure”, the song that Mirabel’s sister Luisa sings. Luisa’s gift is that she is very strong, so she is much in demand at home and in the village. The song shows how difficult it is to deal with the pressure of those demands and her own worries and insecurities. She sings, “Under the surface/I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service.” Ouch. How often in our families do we pigeonhole someone in a specific role, overlooking other attributes and gifts they bring? How often do we take for granted the work that someone does or make it seem that they are only valuable in what they can do, not in who they are as a person?

To me, among Mirabel’s gifts are love, thoughtfulness, insight, curiosity, caring, and truthfulness. None of them are “magical” but the results of them can be miraculous.

They can be for our own families and communities, too, if we honor those gifts and each other as Mirabel does.
*****
Join us for Linda’s Just Jot It January! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/01/21/daily-prompt-jusjojan-the-21st-2022/

making up for lost time

As I wrote about here, we are visiting the London branch of our family for the holidays.

The last time we were here was a bit over two years ago, shortly after E’s spousal visa came through and she and then-two-year-old ABC were able to locate from our home in the US to rejoin spouse L in London. During that visit, we were happy to learn that E was newly pregnant and started planning for spring and summer visits.

Then, the pandemic arrived.

We couldn’t travel to the UK for spring birthdays or the arrival of granddaughter JG in August. Our plan to come for the month of November 2020 was cancelled at the last minute when the UK went into full lockdown. Quarantine and travel restrictions made it impossible for us to go to the UK, but E, L, ABC, and JG were able to visit us in the US in August. We were all thrilled to meet JG in person and blessed that they were able to visit Paco just before the last, steep period of illness before his death.

I titled this post “making up for lost time” which is an impossibility, but I do feel as though a few things that I had missed with our granddaughters are being re-captured. JG was an early walker, so I hadn’t really had babe-in-arms cuddle time with her. When they visited us in the States, she was too much on the move and too unsettled by the new surroundings to want to cuddle with the grandparents she had just met. Here, in her familiar home, she has become comfortable enough to sleep nestled in my arms – at least when her mother is unavailable.

We’ve played games with ABC. It’s been endearing watching her play hide-and-seek with Auntie T with requisite giggling and improvised singing, a skill that both ABC and T share. We’ve also been able to read to ABC with the added pleasure of having her read to us. She is learning a lot of phonics in Reception this year (for US folks, think the UK equivalent of kindergarten but with predominantly four- instead of five-year-olds) and is already able to read primer books.

Last night, ABC slept over at our Airbnb. This morning, B made us all pancakes, one of ABC’s favorite foods. She also helped her grandpa bake some gingerbread cookies.

2021 has certainly been a challenging year, but I’m grateful that it is ending on a high note.

40+ years of “A Christmas Carol”

On Sunday, T and I went to see a production of A Christmas Carol at Cider Mill Stage. This particular staging of the Charles Dickens classic was first conceived and produced in 1979 by Binghamton University professor John Bielenberg and the original cast as a play within a play, with the actors performing the story in the bedroom of a child who is recovering from an illness and must avoid crowds, something that seems even more ominous in our current pandemic days. Fortunately for the actors, there is an adjacent (and oddly well-stocked) attic that affords costumes and props for the impromptu performance, although one of the charms of the show has always been seeing a few caps and scarves and capes re-purposed to accommodate a range of characters and uses. A scarf is not just a piece of clothing but can also be a leash for a dog or the reins for a shaggy pony.

When T and I arrived, we were surprised and pleased to find a poster listing all the known cast and crew members of A Christmas Carol over the decades. This included T and her sister E who played the sick child, which also involves portraying Tiny Tim, for nineteen performances each in the late 1990s-early 2000s. E was in the cast the last year that John Bielenberg played Scrooge before his retirement. T’s Scrooge was Bill Gorman, who was also a member of the original 1979 cast. Their productions were directed by Tom Kremer and Carol Hanscom, also original cast members.

Because of our familiarity and past experience, the Cider Mill production of A Christmas Carol has continued to be close to our hearts but the performance Sunday was even more emotional. Tom Kremer, who is now portraying Scrooge, came out before the play began to dedicate the performance to Claus Evans, original and long-time cast member who had recently passed away. Claus had played the Ghost of Christmas Present, Mr. Fezziwig, and other ensemble characters for most of the first forty years. He had a commanding stage presence and a powerful voice, especially when singing. This version of A Christmas Carol, while not a musical in the traditional sense, does involve a fair amount of incidental music, both traditional pieces and new music composed by original cast member Susan J. Peters and current cast member Ken Martinak. I admit that I teared up during the Fezziwig party scene, remembering the brio with which Claus sang “Wassail! Wassail! All Over the Town”.

While not able to match Claus’s singing prowess, Brad Morgan did a fine job with Fezziwig and Ghost of Christmas Present. His first year in the cast was the year that E was in the production when he was quite a young man. I remember him struggling in rehearsal to accurately deliver the Dickensian language of the ghost of Jacob Marley. I was particularly impressed with his portrayal now, which has a chilling depth and pathos. Brad also deserves a lot of credit for keeping the production alive during some years of upheaval at the Cider Mill after the original Cider Mill Playhouse closed. Thankfully, the play is now back in the space for which it was designed under the name Cider Mill Stage. And yes, there is a cider mill in the front of the building, active in the late summer through early fall. The theater area was originally a storage space for apples.

I hope that A Christmas Carol will continue to grace the Cider Mill and the Binghamton area for decades to come, spreading its message of the importance for caring for one another, regardless of the season of the year.

“And, as Tiny Tim observed, ‘God bless us, every one!'”

Sondheim

Because of the recent death of Stephen Sondheim, we have been graced with a lot of his music, lyrics, and interviews, which have been poignant, searing, and heart-breaking, in turns. He was instrumental in opening the possibilities into what musicals could be. For example, Lin-Manuel Miranda has acknowledged that there would not have been Hamilton had it not been for Sondheim paving the way.

I remember singing a choral medley from Sondheim’s Company when I was in high school and seeing a community theater production of it, which was pretty amazing for a small-town girl. Even then, I could appreciate his incredible way of melding lyrics, melody, and story.

Most of my Sondheim memories, though, are in relation to my daughters E and T.

E’s favorite Sondheim musical as a child was Into the Woods. She especially enjoyed singing Little Red’s songs. When T, who is four years younger, got to be old enough to watch, we initially only let her watch the first act, which follows the fairy tales up to the “happily ever after” bit. We thought that the second act, which gets pretty grim, would be too much for her, but E, ever the big sister, told her what happened, so, soon, she too was watching the whole play. E and T later got to see a revival of Into the Woods on Broadway, courtesy of their NYC aunt.

T’s favorite Sondheim musical was Sunday in the Park with George. She used to sing along – and then sing parts of the score a cappella around the house. If you know the work at all, you know that it is incredibly difficult to sing, but no one told T that, so she just went along and did it.

My most poignant personal memory of a Sondheim song, though, involves a musical which is too disturbing for me to cope with, Sweeney Todd. In the summer of 2001, then teenaged daughter E sang “Not While I’m Around” during a summer theater workshop performance. A few weeks later, after the 9/11 attacks, I found it strangely comforting to remember her singing,

No one’s gonna hurt you
No one’s gonna dare
Others can desert you
Not to worry, whistle I’ll be there
Demons’ll charm you with a smile
For a while
But in time
Nothing’s gonna harm you
Not while I’m around

It wasn’t that I felt personally under threat from terrorists, but, somehow, a young voice singing protection from evil was comforting and hopeful in a way that rational thought was not.

It’s part of the power of music.

Thank you, Stephen Sondheim, for all the music and story and power and pathos and humanity you gave us over the decades. We will continue learning from you for many years to come.

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