Spring is here! We hope it is bringing new hope of better things to come
We are bringing you the Spring edition of the Academy Quarterly Review (AQR) for your enjoyment. In this edition we are introducing our regular sections. The first is What is going on in the Academy: successful workshops, great presentations and Meet a Member. Your nominations for future spotlights in this section will be greatly appreciated.
In this edition, the spotlights are on:
- Pandemics - Past, Present and Future: What Can We Learn? a workshop led by Thea Herman and Yvette Matyas.
- A great double bill of presentations was featured in Contemporary Film A, The Mother of the Blues and A Mossad Adventure, reported by Barrie Wilson.
- Meet a Member, Sheilagh Hickie, interviewed by Karena de Souza.
Our next regular section is Arts and Letters, featuring reviews of books and other media. We will be looking for contributors, so if you read or see something intriguing, please consider sharing your enthusiasm.
In this edition we have Discovering Elif Shafak: A Pandemic Opportunity by Beverly Valentine.
Academy members have plenty of opinions to share, so of course we have an Opinions section. We are always delighted to hear what you have to say.
In this issue we have:
- THE TRUTH IS…THAT TRUTH HAS LOST ITS WAY? By David Imrie.
- PAY IT FORWARD by Adele Robertson.
- SURVEY SAYS: MAJORITY OF THOSE 55 AND OLDER SHOULD BE CALLED…. By Cathy Spark.
The last section is Photographs from the Archives. Matthew Segal offers a delightful selection of Academy photographs in this issue.
Pandemics-Past, Present and Future: What Can We Learn?
When we started thinking about this workshop last spring, little did we imagine that we would still be in lockdown today. As workshop members considered issues related to pandemics -past, present and future - the current pandemic was very much a part of our everyday reality.
We looked at pandemics throughout history, starting with the ancient Greeks, moving through the centuries to the Black Death, smallpox, the 1918 flu pandemic, up to pandemics of the 21st century. What was remarkable was how many of the past pandemics shared characteristics similar to COVID-19: wearing masks, social distancing, quarantines, the different experiences of the rich and the poor, anti-vaccination movements and conspiracy theories. We also took a deeper look at ageism and its impact on older people during this pandemic.
We discussed how artists have responded to pandemics past and present, examining visual art, literature and poetry as we responded to these works of art both emotionally and intellectually, thus deepening our understanding of pandemics. At the same time, we noted that the flowering of art and literature that came out of World War I stands in sharp contrast to the relative silence about the far more deadly flu pandemic of 1918.
We discussed what life will be like after this pandemic: how will it affect work, cities, transportation and the environment. Is it the case that pandemics merely accelerate changes that were already underway (such as working from home or on-line shopping) or do they bring about more profound changes? Are we willing to learn from the pandemic and build a world that addresses the fissures it exposed, such as income and racial inequality, care for the elderly, our problematic relationship with the natural world and climate change? Or, in our desire to return to normal, will we suffer from “societal amnesia” and live as if nothing happened?
In the workshop’s final sessions, we will be discussing ethical issues: Who should get vaccines? If the capacity of hospitals is stretched, who should get treatment? How does one reconcile the tension between public health and individual rights? We will also be exploring the link between COVID-19 and climate change.
We hope to end our workshop on a positive note, exploring what beauty we have discovered during these difficult times.
Thea Herman, Yvette Matyas
A GREAT DOUBLE BILL
Spotlight this quarter highlights two outstanding workshop presentations of general interest. Led by facilitators Sue Kralik and Margaret Morris, the Contemporary Film A workshop focusses on films readily available on Netflix or Kanopy. Participants identify films of interest and then vote on two for viewing before the following session. In early February two diverse presentations made for an excellent group conversation.
The Mother of the Blues
A relative newcomer to the Academy, Elizabeth Waight, gave a presentation on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a 2020 film currently available on Netflix. Ma Rainey was an African-American singer well known in the first three decades of the 1900s. Dubbed “the Mother of the Blues,” she made over 100 recordings in an era when Black artists had little access to recording studios. Her signature song – “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – was recorded in 1927. Elizabeth divided her presentation on the film into three sections: Ma Rainey and her times, film credits and the complex social issues raised by the film.
The film is not a docudrama of Ma Rainey’s long career. Rather it showcases the struggle of Black artists to gain access to a wide audience. Produced by Denzel Washington, it stars Viola Davis, who portrays the incomparable Ma Rainey magnificently. Chadwick Boseman, of the Black Panther film fame, plays one of Ma Rainey’s musicians hoping to step out of her spotlight and into his own. This was unfortunately Chadwick’s last performance before he died in 2019.
In Ma Rainey’s era, Black musicians and talented song writers were taken advantage of by white recording studios. They were either paid a pittance or had their songs performed by white artists. Ma Rainey had her own battles with the studio heads on how her music should be performed, and sometimes, she prevailed. As they prepare to make a recording, her musicians themselves argue with each other about their futures. The conversation is heated and raw as they rail against various injustices. How can Black artists get ahead in a white-dominated industry? This is the question the film poses.
An excellent discussion, one fitting for Black History Month.
A Mossad Adventure
Moving on from the USA to Africa and the Middle East, a long-standing Academy member, Sharon Harris, gave a presentation on The Red Sea Diving Resort. Available on Netflix, this adventure film portrays the ruse by which the Israeli Mossad rescued persecuted Ethiopian Jews.
The funnel for liberation was an actual, operating resort located on the coast of the Red Sea, in the Sudan. Its ostensible purpose was as a resort for recreational diving but, more importantly, it operated as a base through which refugees from Ethiopia could be channelled on to planes that would fly them to Israel. The Ethiopians had first to get from their homes to the coast of Sudan, a trek of many hundreds of miles. Many died along the way. The mission escaped Sudanese detection, however, and over 20,000 Ethiopian Jews were eventually rescued.
Sharon provided useful historical context on Ethiopian Jews (also known as Beta Israel). They constitute an ancient branch of the Jewish family, having had a separate historical existence for many centuries. How ancient is a matter of dispute but at least a thousand years and likely much longer. While their Jewish practices differ somewhat from mainstream Judaism today, they are considered by Israeli rabbinic authorities as authentic Jews who have a right to settle in Israel.
Sharon contrasted the film’s portrayal of the rescue with the actual Mossad operation. How accurate is the film’s version? she asked. Should films that claim to be based on real events be held to a standard of historical accuracy? Or should they just be judged on their own merits, in this case, as an action adventure?
Although written and directed by the well-known and highly regarded Israeli film maker, Gideon Raff, the movie is a formula thriller with a very handsome hero who saves a group of frightened people from peril. There is no discussion of why this group was persecuted and no references to their Jewish practices. It could be any group that needs air-lifting out of danger.
The group agreed that the film provides great action but is fundamentally flawed. None of the refugees has a voice; it’s all adventurism with near misses and rushed jeep rides. Ben Kingsley plays the part of a senior Mossad director dressed in a suit and tie in the desert heat. Even ignoring his pronounced British accent, that’s just ridiculous garb for a Mossad official and it undermines the film’s credibility.
There’s also no attempt in the film to reference the problems the refugees would likely encounter upon their eventual arrival in Israel. How did these refugees fare when confronted with language, social and racial issues? The film leaves us in mid-air.
Karena: I really miss that cold, clanky lunchroom at Knox College, with its bulletin boards, tall ceilings and clunky levered windows with 17 coats of paint. When I commuted to the Academy from Oakville, I would make a day of it. One of my favourite activities was arriving early for my sessions with my Timmies, then running into people. It is what I miss most in this time of Zoom academy events.
When the opportunity arose to write something for the quarterly review, I immediately volunteered for this segment. I want to get to know you! And maybe other members do, too. The Communications Committee recommended Sheilagh Hickie as the perfect candidate for my first interview – and when I sat down with her, it was easy to see why!
Karena: What led you to discover this gem that is the Academy?
Sheilagh: Having recently retired in 1993, I was searching for some exciting ways to keep mentally and physically active. I came across one of the many lecture series offered in Toronto and while the lectures were interesting, a few years later I found myself searching for a more fulfilling experience. It came via a conversation with a friend who was a member of the Academy and through him, I found out that Margaret Robertson had just been named President of the Academy. It turned out that Margaret was an echo from my professional past in Montreal.
Karena: How long have you been with the Academy? And what are the various ways you have volunteered?
Sheilagh: Very soon after joining, I was asked by Margaret to head the Communications Committee. This committee produced the newsletter. That is all we did. And I never had an actual committee! I had people who gave me articles; I had people who proofread it for me; but I did the rest. From the dateline, you will realize that the Academy, like the rest of the world, was just joining the wider world through the Internet. I had to learn how to use the computer because I never had to use one at work. I learned how to do desktop publishing to do the job. And that worked fine. Now, of course, that is the way we work!
Karena: What is a memorable workshop or session that you have attended over the years?
Sheilagh: I facilitated a workshop on Irish History – my grandfather on my father’s side is Irish and not long after that, I picked up my copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I started to read it and hit the traditional wall at chapter two. I was about to put it away as unreadable when I thought, “This could be an interesting topic for the Academy.” I started asking other members if they too had tried to read it and never gotten anywhere. We decided to study it as a group and try to understand it better. We had a huge group. It was so successful that it ran a second time. It is a great book – and I hope to read it one more time! This interest in literature led to my current facilitation of the Giller Prize Winners workshop.
Karena: Tell me about the challenges and joys of facilitating a workshop.
Sheilagh: The secret to the Giller Prize workshop was getting good people. All we had to do as facilitators was to organize the books in order. A class that discusses literature is much easier to organize and engender good discussion than some of the more complex ones. One of the most attractive parts of belonging to the Academy is the opportunity to participate fully and share ideas.
Karena: One of the reasons I love meeting members of the Academy is to discover the richness of their lives before they came to it. Please share your story.
Sheilagh: I was born in Montreal. My parents are both British-born and I had one brother. I had a partner, a wonderful Hungarian engineer, for about 30 years, but he died some years ago. I didn’t go to university right after high school and instead. went to secretarial school. I became a secretary and hated every moment of it. I could write better than the men who dictated their letters to me and I’m not very good at taking orders!
But I used my secretarial skills to travel - Vancouver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York. When I tired of travelling, I returned to Montreal knowing that I did not want to be a secretary. I went to Concordia University (then Sir George Williams). It took me 10 years, but I got my BA. I wanted to put it to use so started writing for the Town of Mount Royal Weekly Post where I covered council meetings, high school theatre and local concerts. I heard about an opportunity at a newspaper called En Ville (in effect a mini Financial Post), a business and political newspaper just for Montreal. The publication was not well funded and I was offered a reporter’s position on condition that I would help by selling advertising. I didn’t want to, but I also did not want to go back to covering small-town events.
I started sales and realized I really loved it. When you are a journalist, you have to wait for the “dopamine rush.” The only people you usually hear from are those who complain about something you’ve written. But sales was different. When you make a sale, the satisfaction is immediate. I soon realized I was pretty good at selling. Then I came to Toronto. I worked for Southam Business Publications and then moved to the Financial Post. I left to start my own business but came back for another stint and retired from there.
Between Financial Post jobs, I bought a quick-copy printing business. I did not know anything about the technology, but I was good at knocking on doors and saying, “I’m so-and-so and I can handle all kinds of printing jobs for you.” One day I realized, while walking down a street searching for potential new clients, that “This is mine. This is my business.” And that was a very good feeling.
Karena: You mentioned that you were instrumental in creating the Third Age Network.
Sheilagh: I was asked to be Vice-President of the Academy. In that role, I chaired a long-range planning committee. Our role was to look ahead five years to see what we could be doing. We decided to share our very good newsletter with some of the other Toronto learning organizations and actually had an initial meeting with about five other groups, and this was the genesis of the Third Age Network. TAN has now grown to 33 member communities across Ontario. Cathy Spark, our webmaster, is now the President of the Network.
By the way, the Academy is very different. There are very few organizations that operate on this model of peer learning; most offer lecture series.
Now that we are spending as much time retired as our work years, organizations such as the Academy offer a unique opportunity to stay engaged and to grow holistically. Because it is not only what you can do with your brain. The agreement to make a presentation as part of your workshop forces you to keep up with technology. And the people you meet around a table (or now using Zoom) become your friends. Both the socialization and the learning contribute so much to keeping everyone engaged in life.
Karena: Thank you Sheilagh. Reader, I wish you could have joined us for the full interesting and engaging conversation. Meanwhile, I hope this leads you to reach out and say hi to Sheilagh and have your own interesting conversation with her.
Karena de Souza
Discovering Elif Shafak: A Pandemic Opportunity
Technology made it possible to participate in the renowned Hay Festival at Hay on Wye in Wales last May. Discovering Elif Shafak, a Turkish/British writer, was an exhilarating experience. As a Turk, her upbringing in an unconventional matriarchal family shaped her identity. This upbringing, combined with a peripatetic life in Europe and subsequent academic achievements, provided the inspiration evident in her 11 novels and 5 non-fiction works. “Through books we see the world, listen to voices we have never known, understand others and, ultimately, discover ourselves.” Shafak says she has no attachment to things, yet she carries a satchel, light as a feather, not subject to customs: the art of storytelling.
At a TED talk on the politics of fiction, she made the distinction between information, knowledge and wisdom. “Knowledge that takes you not beyond yourself is far worse than ignorance.” The New York Times said that she has a genius for depicting the backstreets of Istanbul where myriad cultures of the Ottoman Empire are still evident in families. Istanbul/Turkey are ever present culturally and metaphorically in her work. After years of academia, Shafak decided to devote her time to writing. Her style is fluid as she moves from city to city, country to country, interweaving personal experiences as she develops the storyline and the characters. As the web of circumstances evolves, she injects her areas of vital concern through her fictional characters. Her writing is influenced by diverse literary traditions and cultures.
Her first novel, Pinhan, won the Great Rumi award in 1998 and was noted as one of the best works in mystical literature. Her next novel, Mahrem, won the Best Novel-Turkish Writers’ Union prize. In 2004, The Saint of Incipient Insanities was pivotal as she began to write in English. The Bastard of Istanbul was one of the first novels to deal with the Armenian genocide, for which she was charged with insulting the Turkish government. Delving into her many works affirms her place in contemporary fiction.
In 2007, Black Milk, non-fiction, reflected on motherhood, creativity and their conflicting demands. Her conclusion was that we all have these internal conflicting selves and finding harmony is what makes us ourselves. Forty Rules of Love won the Impact Dublin award. The BBC said it is one of 100 books that shaped our world. Honour focuses on the custom of honour killings. The Architect’s Apprentice is an exuberant tale of the white elephant and his mahout set in 16th century Istanbul. This story reveals many truths about the human experience. Three Daughters of Eve reveals competing visions of Islam in a desperately topical novel of ideas. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was nominated for the Booker prize. The humanity of the characters is powerful.
The author claims that we have two families, our blood family and our “water” family. The water family are the friends who journey with us through life. “How we see God reflects how we see ourselves. If God brings fear and blame to mind, this means we have too much fear and blame welled inside us. If we see God as full of compassion and love, so are we.” This all transfers to Elif Shafak’s philosophy of humanity and its oneness. To be human means to live with an orchestra of conflicting voices and emotions.
THE TRUTH IS…THAT TRUTH HAS LOST ITS WAY?
QAnon promotes the truth that there is a worldwide cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who rule the world, and control… everything. The cabal controls politicians and the media. The cabal would continue ruling the world were it not for the election of President Donald Trump who is viewed as a messiah, sent by God to rid the world of these “evil doers."
The church in the Middle Ages promoted as truth the false allegation of Blood Libel, later adopted by the Nazis, that Jews used the blood of non-Jewish, usually Christian, children for ritual purposes.
Donald Trump averaged 50 lies per day, 20,000 over his Presidency, yet maintained the support of 40% of the United States population, who regard his word as TRUTH!
Truth has always been in short supply….Fake News has always held sway.
Fake news from the church led to the horrors of the Inquisition.
Fake news, propaganda, from the Nazis, led to the gas chambers and a world war.
Fake news led to the Capitol insurrection.
Where will fake news, lies and conspiracy theories lead the American Republic…or our world? The origin of the virus, the plight of the Uighurs in China, the poisoning politicians in Russia, the “Election Steal” in the USA: the most powerful countries in the world propagate and sustain non-truths, falsehoods to promote their agendas.
People want to believe in our leaders and our politicians because believing confirms that we made the correct decision to support them. When we believe our leaders to be unfaithful and unjust, it reflects badly on our own judgment. So we are willing to be deceived by them.
But truth is not just in short supply with our leaders. We need to acknowledge that the problem is not only with our leaders, but with OURSELVES. Almost all people say they want the truth. Yet studies indicate we are lied to, on average, 200 times a day. In many studies, the average person admits to lying 2-3 times daily. We accept the oxymorons “half truths” and “white lies” as necessary contradictions for smooth social interactions.
What is truth? Why do we value lies? Truth is dictionary-defined as “that which is in accordance with fact or reality…a fact or belief that is accepted as true.” What is fact? What is real? Is truth absolute or relative, or ”our" truth? Is truth merely a social construct?
Seeking Truth in our Physical World Through Science
The ancient philosophers who tried to define reality were supplanted several centuries ago by scientists seeking truth using the scientific method. The universally accepted truth that the earth was the centre of the universe, challenged by Galileo at the risk of death, has been supplanted by modern truth that everything began with an ultimate singularity, followed by the Big Bang. Can it be the truth that there was nothing before the Big Bang and that expansion continues relentlessly into a void of nothingness?
Newton discovered and defined with great precision gravity, only to have that “truth” supplanted by the truth of relativity and space-time revealed by Einstein. Yet the truth proved by science in Newton’s world and then replaced by Einstein in the macro world cannot be reconciled with the micro world as described by quantum mechanics, as scientists continue their quest for the Theory of Everything.
Are not our truths about the physical world limited by our senses and the fantastic scientific tools of discovery like the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN Centre? Yet our senses and tools seem unable to find truth in the many other dimensions postulated by scientists to exist! And animals view the world differently, with senses far more advanced and acute than our own, for example olfactory sensation in dogs. Are our scientific truths only relative “truths,” limited by our senses and means of enquiry? Are they therefore ultimately unknowable?
Our thoughts and beliefs define who we are and how we behave, but are they based on truth? Our thoughts are unknowable, unverifiable and subject to manipulation by lies and deception.
Rare is the individual who seeks truth through education, experimentation and meditation. Our thoughts are primarily a reflection of the beliefs of others. Most accept truth as defined by their social affiliations… family, club, community…as communicated through the various media. Thoughts are categorized: freedom fighter or terrorist; socialist or capitalist; communist or fascist; Catholic or Protestant; theist or atheist? We regard our beliefs as true and all others as false. The multitude of beliefs is testament that there is no absolute truth but rather only relative truth, accepted and based on social affiliations.
People believe what they want to believe, but do they believe the truth?
The truth hurts: our emotional self is fragile. The human brain doesn't enjoy receiving information that threatens our self-esteem, shatters our preexisting beliefs, makes our daily lives more difficult or threatens our status. Admitting that we're wrong about something isn't easy, even when it's for our own good. When the truth hurts, we want to protect ourselves from the pain and so we find a way to shut down, stop listening or otherwise resist.
The Moral Dimensions of Truth: Good or Evil?
The dangerous situation in the United States is that the country is no longer united. It is made up of two major “truth camps,” with each believing widely different truths sustained by social media, which offers every person a platform to proclaim their own truths. Truth matters, both to us as individuals and to society as a whole. A society’s truth about good and evil is captured in its laws and criminal system.
As individuals, being truthful means that we trust a moral platform, a reference point, from which we can grow and mature and learn from our mistakes. For society, truthfulness makes stronger social bonds, and lying and hypocrisy break them down. Relative truth, a social and a personal construct, is the best we can hope to attain and it makes the world go ‘round.
My reflection on the subject of truth is that relative truth is the best we humans can hope for and experience and that there can be no absolute truth in any dimension without a universal order, ultimate code, pure love, intrinsic good…the Alpha and the Omega…universal energy, knowledge and love…GOD.
PAY IT FORWARD
Over the last decade it is very certain that all of us have discovered new phrases, catchy slogans, or, impossible to grasp words like “algorithms”. Who knew that as we aged we would have to keep consulting another snappy word, “google” to decipher what our grandchildren (or social media) were talking about.
The phrase, “pay it forward” became known to me about two years back. Having brunch with my niece at the favourite neighbourhood spot, Emma’s Kitchen, when the server came on request for our bill, she said, “no charge, someone near your table (of which there were very few) already paid for you.” We were quite taken aback and could not fathom who provided this unexpected gift. Exiting the small café, we saw an out of province car and then realised that the man seated next to us likely was the mystery benefactor. My niece (much more in tune than I) said “he must be paying it forward”. What a delightful concept, what a grand gesture that any of us can make towards making this challenging world, a gentler place.
A few years ago, my friend, fellow Democrat, expat American, Liz Guccione, yet again “paid it forward” on my behalf. Liz (who many years back, had invited me to join her Democrats and Donuts discussion/book club) was waxing on about The Academy for Lifelong Learning. She extolled the entire concept of peer to peer learning; the terrifically high caliber of the workshop offerings; the climate of openness and fellowship that was consistent within the membership. Having been in the process of winding down my consultancy business, and looking for opportunities to stay mentally engaged, I joined up.
Becoming a member of the Academy has been one of the best decisions I have made over the last few years. Although I had put a toe in the water with another Toronto lifelong learning organization, I honestly found it very unsatisfying because the experience was one of passive learning. Many of us thrive on doing research, on having a specific goal to achieve, in participating and being an integral part of group discovery and new learnings.
The Academy provides all of this and, much more. Since the organization is 100% volunteer driven, all members have the opportunity, if desired, to become more involved in committee work to ensure that the social and learning aspects of the Academy remain robust.
My experience has been one of great pleasure; every workshop unfolds with new mental challenges and as well, meeting people with common interests yet very different backgrounds.
This year has brought enormous challenges to every person but, particularly, to the older adult population. Thankfully the Academy has helped many of us keep mentally and socially engaged, albeit virtually.
So, readers, do PAY IT FORWARD and think about telling your friends about the wonderful opportunity of Academy for Lifelong Learning Toronto membership for the coming year.
It will be a gift to them, as Liz gave to me.
Survey Says: Majority of Those 55 And Older Should Be Called….
Geezers, golden agers (popular in the 1950s), codgers, old farts and old fogeys. Over the decades many terms have been used for those over 65 – some in jest and some not.
Things have changed now, of course, but we still struggle to find a term for adults 55 and older that is broadly acceptable.
Do we need a special term? Not surprisingly, one collective noun cannot effectively represent a group that covers 40+ years in age and a wide range of characteristics and interests. There can be a great difference between a newly retired 58-year-old and someone in their 80s or 90s. Good health, a curious mind, an active lifestyle, and a rewarding social life can apply at any age – as can its opposite. When does ‘old age’ begin, anyway? We are not all the same in our approach to aging – and approaches are changing with each successive generation.
But whether we are referring to ourselves, or others referring to our demographic, there are times when a collective term is required, and the medical community, gerontologists, and marketing firms have spent a great deal of time listening to seniors’ (the term I will use in this piece) focus groups, surveys by seniors’ organizations, and conversations among peers to find a term that is not only respectful but also representative of our current lifestyles.
However, despite all of this research and discussion, no mutually agreeable term(s) have been identified. In North America, terms such as seniors, older adults, silvers, elders, and third agers have been met with some approval, but “seniors” are also high school students, and indigenous groups feel that “elders” portrays an additional cultural level of position and respect. Commonly used terms like “Baby Boomers” and “retired people” are now dated. “Elderly”, “old” and “senior citizen” are now perceived to connote frailness, illness and irrelevance. The organization Journalists on Aging has currently settled on “older adults” as a respectful, neutral, flexible term, but that, too may change with time. The fact that there seems to be little agreement about even one or two of the currently favoured descriptors is representative of the varied nature of our demographic.
Some new terms are appearing now – some tongue-in-cheek, but some being used more broadly – J.A.L.O.s (just a little older); NQYs (not quite young); EWs (experienced and wise); YAHs (young at heart); superadult; and senager. My personal favourite is “perennials”, a term developed by Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Centre on Longevity at Stanford to represent new life, strength and resistance.
Whether or not we find a term that can be broadly accepted remains to be seen. But it is important that it represent the next phase of our lives – whatever shape that may take - rather than be anchored in our past. One of the participants in a working group on the topic – a lively 90-year-old – perhaps said it best with an old adage “Call me anything so long as you don’t call me late to dinner.” Sums it up nicely, I think.
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