Staying changed

So, in my last post, I talked about how I’ve made some changes in my life, and how resuming my old routine didn’t quite “fit” anymore.

I have been waiting for this for the better part of a year. Heck, maybe two.  I’ve known that I needed to rest, to move houses, to recuperate, and at some point, I’d feel like I’d rested enough.  Well, I think I’ve turned that corner. Here are some of the signs I’m noticing:

  • I concede that there may actually be things outside of my own house that are worth my time and attention.
  • I’m wanting to see people.
  • I’m wanting to create things, try new things, learn things, build things.
  • I’m fretting about things that aren’t actually a problem and probably won’t become a problem. For example, money. We have plenty right now, and relatively good job security. We have several very large expenses coming up (residing the house this spring, a new car in a couple years) but given how far inside our means we live, we should be able to save for those things and we might not even need to take out loans for them.  And if we do need to take out loans, we should have no problem getting approved, and we’ll probably pay them off well ahead of schedule. There is nothing here to worry about, but I find myself poking at the numbers repeatedly to see if I can make them more firm or for the savings to happen faster. This tendency to make mountains out of molehills is one I see in myself a lot, and in smart, bored beings in general. SAHM’s with a now-empty nest, people of extraordinary privilege, and zoo animals all show this tendency – they’re problem-solvers with no problems to solve. So we create problems.
  • A friend recently announced a huge life shake-up. It reminded me that things that seem like they’ll always be the same can still change. It also helped me see that I’ve been focusing on smaller and smaller things lately. Instead of “I need to turn my brain off tonight, or I’m going to have a nervous breakdown,” I’m at the “I’m not feeling completely centered at the end of every single day” point. This, my friends, is pretty much the definition of “being well.” It is time for me to move forward again.

Ok, so, clearly, time to move on. But on to what?

That has been surprisingly hard to answer, and I can see that I am reflexively trying to fill that space with whatever’s at hand, or whatever filled that space before. Work. Chores. Concern for my own well-being. Fears related to any number of old bugaboos. Busy-ness. One dog I’m  not letting back on the bed right now is the desire to save/fix/help the world at large. Not sure if that one is going to come back, but it sure needs a lot more energy than I’m willing to give it at the moment. Maybe ever, because I’m more and more thinking it’s too late, anyway. Coping, not fixing are more the order of the days ahead. So – I don’t want to just refill the spaces with the same old junk. At least I can see that I’m trying to do that, and able to say, “Um, no, I don’t think so.”

But what do I want to fill that space with? The answers – and I’m sure there are more than one – are coming slowly.  One thing I did this weekend was to cook some Indian food.  After years of flirting with Ayurveda, occasionally fascinated and occasionally repulsed, I finally bought an Ayurvedic cookbook over break and I’ve been reading through it and dog-earing recipes. Since mindful, nutritious cooking is one of the things I’d like to have more of in my life, when I found myself with a Sunday mostly free for whatever I wanted to do, I decided that instead of stripping the shower tile in prep to re-seal it, I would go ahead and take the time to choose a couple recipes and make a complete meal from this cookbook.  I’ve not done much Indian cooking, and it doesn’t come easily to me.  Add to that the seeming fussiness of Ayurvedic cooking: the actual measurements of seasonings and sometimes over-involved cooking methods – and this adds up to a pot of beans and rice that took almost two hours for me to complete.

But it felt good to take that time: to give a task my attention, to learn, to have the cooking be the activity, to tie food actively to my body and soul. And it was tasty, too. 🙂

So I think I need to make myself a list of specific things I can do when I feel like I have time on my hands, to make it easier to move forward toward my list of “things I want in my life” instead of just bringing the old crap back in.  The specificity helps: instead of just saying “Yoga,” I list “Try a new yoga routine from my Christmas DVDs.” Instead of “make some lunches for the freezer” (an old chore), I list “try a new vata-soothing recipe” (which could also result in leftovers for lunch).

I still don’t know where this path is going, but I do feel like there is now a path, and I am starting to move down it.

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Making changes

So I’ve known for a while that I’ve wanted to change some things about the overall shape of my life. I was fried too much of the time. I was accomplishing a lot but never felt at ease or rested. I had pulled back some from 2011’s two speeds of “dead run” and “asleep,” but I still wasn’t feeling like I could ever get out from under a “must-do list” longer than my lifespan.

The first helpful thing I did was to phrase this in terms of things I wanted – not just things I was running away from. I don’t think I ever wrote this down (though maybe it’s in a journal or on a scrap of paper somewhere), but it was along the lines of:

  • Reclaim my time from the obligations of my job, and the obligations I’ve imposed upon myself
  • Feel tranquility around me and within myself
  • Re-find and occupy my center, so I can move deliberately when I choose to do so

These things were, by and large, things I wanted to feel, not things I wanted to do.  Though I did want to feel like doing certain things, too:

  • Feel like cooking is a pleasure and a conscious act of nourishment, not just “preventing hunger”
  • Feel like I can do things because I want to do them – “leisure activities” instead of “work” (including work at home)
  • Feel like engaging with other people, not just hiding from them because interacting takes so much energy
  • Feel like exercising – not forcing myself, but actually wanting to do it

And there were some things I wanted: this house, fittings for the house, and now gardens and fruit trees. (Can you believe I went an entire year when the idea of putting plants in the ground didn’t excite me? Or even felt like “just another duty”? Yeah, I was that wiped out.) Even just admitting that I wanted things and that it’s ok for me to want things was kind of a leap.

So…I feel like I’ve done a lot of this stuff. I’m “over the hump” at work, and each subsequent hump will be smaller than the ones before. We bought and settled into the house, and over break I was able to draw a line around “enough” in terms of what the house needs to be functional and “done” for now. And then we also finished those things – the smoke detectors, the superfluous but very pretty heat register covers, etc.

Now I’m past the vacation, and going back to work. And the interesting thing is how I am watching myself heading right back to my accustomed way of doing things. Those customs don’t actually fit anymore.  I no longer have to spend disproportionate amounts of my energy at work – but I have to remember how to move more slowly, and with less dire urgency.  As that energy has returned, just coming home, making dinner, and reading all evening doesn’t feel like enough to be doing each night. Before, it was fine, because each evening, I was also trying to replenish my depleted stores of rest and energy. But now, I can tell I’ve got some energy left, and some inclination to use it for…something.  That’s a big change.

And that’s the topic for another post.

Confessions of a garden-aholic

So my main garden goal this year was to eliminate “vegetables of obligation” – those things that I have to nag myself to harvest, clean, and eat.  I stripped down my plant list to things that meet one or more of these criteria:

  • I can “plant it and forget it” until harvest time – then shovel it directly into the root cellar or (at most) do a couple big preservation marathons and have a winter’s supply. Potatoes, dry beans, sweet potatoes, winter squash, kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, onions, and garlic all meet this criteria.
  • I love it so much, you can’t keep me out of the garden and gnawing it down to a stub.  Kale, snow peas, and green beans fall into this category.
  • Misc, including “It’s hard to find at the market,” (rutabagas) “It’s easy to grow for Food Gatherers” (turnips) and “Dammit I will learn how to grow this one of these days!” (carrots)

I’m not growing any vegetables I think I should grow but don’t actually eat (like beets) and, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not growing tomatoes because I wanted to try obtaining them in bulk on one or two days I’ve planned for preserving, instead of being a slave to the nightshades all summer. (Unlike most people, I can take or leave fresh tomatoes. Mostly I like them in salsa.)

This is working out perfectly as planned.  Except for an unexpected glut of green beans due to a succession-planting snafu crossed with a weekend out of town, the garden has not been demanding “Pick me! Eat this! Don’t waste me!”  The potatoes and squash are chugging along and should provide a nice harvest. (I’m robbing a few early potatoes now, but planning to leave the rest in the ground until the root cellar cools down.)  I have not sworn at one single vegetable or threatened to compost any plants simply because they are threatening to drown me in produce.

And you know what? I ponder my current garden and think I’m not really growing anything.  I actually said to myself the other day “there’s nothing to eat out there,” the way that stereotypical looks at her packed closet and says “I don’t have a thing to wear!”  I guess this is because I’m only actively harvesting green beans, kale, and some early potatoes right now.  Oh, and sneaking the baby pink banana squash when the urge takes me.  That just doesn’t seem like much fresh garden produce.

Or maybe I’ve defined “normal” or “enough” as the amount I can just barely keep up with? Wow, a therapist would have a field day with that. Because of course, I do that with my job, too.  (Does that restless shuffling I hear mean that you all do that, too?)

Here’s the really weird part: I don’t actually know that I even want those other vegetables.  Yes, I am sad there aren’t any cucumbers this year, because I’ve learned my gramma has a fondness for my lactofermented pickles, and I wanted to make her several varieties for Christmas.  Buying them is expensive, but worth it for a gift, so no worries there.  I will be buying sweet corn soon, but I never grow that, anyway.  Though I like them, I just didn’t cook beets and parsnips last year – I composted more than I care to admit.  I mostly hate summer squash, peppers make me burp, and fresh tomatoes are fine but not thrilling. When I think I should take advantage of the summer’s variety of produce, what do I actually buy? Maybe a few cherries.  Mostly, I don’t even go to the market because nothing is tempting enough to actually buy it.

So if I’m not growing vegetables I don’t want, and have more time on my hands, why does my garden feel so empty right now?

How long does it take to can a year’s worth of jam?

The short answer:

If you want 8 pints of strawberry jam in a year, and have two reasonably adept cooks in the kitchen, making a year’s worth of jam takes about 2.5 hours from buying the berries to a clean kitchen.  So in the time it takes to go to a theater and take in a movie – and for about the same price as two tickets and some snacks – you can make enough jam to last you quite a while.

Keep reading for all the caveats and “your mileage may vary.”

The long answer

The #1 reason I hear from people why they find home food preservation intimidating is “it takes too much time.”  Believe me – I understand being busy and I’m not conceited enough to presume to tell people that they do, in fact, have time to preserve their own food – but I thought folks might like some raw data so they can decide that more easily for themselves.

Here’s what I found today as my sweetie and I made strawberry jam.  We took 8 quarts of berries (a flat; about 12 lb) and ended up with just short of 8 pints of jam.    The first lesson is that having two people working really compacts the time needed, because as one person is cooking the jam down, the other can keep prepping berries and/or start cleaning the kitchen.

Gathering supplies – < 1/2 hour

  • Strawberries: 15 minutes tacked on to a trip we were already taking – picked up a flat of 8 quarts of berries.*
  • Getting the canner, jars, etc. out of storage and setting up the kitchen – 10 minutes
  • We had sugar and lemon juice because I knew we’d be canning and bought them when sugar was on sale a month ago.

Preparing the berries – 30-45 minutes

This time is pretty variable depending on how fast you can cut the berries.

  • Wash, hull, and cut the first 4 quarts of strawberries: about an hour.  At this point, Scott started cooking the first 2 batches of jam and I kept cutting up the last strawberries.
  • If we’d been doing raspberry or blueberry jam, we’d just rinse them and proceed – maybe 10 minutes, total.
  • During this time, your jars are heating in the canner on the stove.

Cooking the jam and cleaning the kitchen – about an hour

This is a little more complicated to explain, because of the “multiple batches” necessary.  You can only cook up so much jam at once, because it will foam up and run over the pot, and if you do too big a batch, it might not set. (This is especially true if you use added pectin and like a very firm jam.) We found today we can do 3 quarts of berries in a , keep it in the pot, and come up with a perfectly acceptable jam. It’s a little soft, but not runny – just how we like it.

So at this point, Scott took the canner off the stove and set it aside. He then had room to put two pans on the stove – each with 2 quarts of berries, two cups of sugar and 1/4 c of lemon juice.  He was able to tend both of them for long enough for me to cut up the last few quarts of berries – then we each took a spoon and stirred and stirred until the jam was cooked down.

Then we put all the jam in one pan and he started cooking the third batch in the freshly-emptied pan (don’t bother washing it; just put the lemon juice and a tiny bit of water in the bottom of the pan to keep the berries from sticking).  I put the first batches of jam in the jars, and put the jars into the canner – it was still plenty warm though it had been off the stove for 30-45 mins at that point.  We put the canner back onto the stove now that a burner had opened up and starting bringing it up to boiling. Scott kept cooking and started cleaning the kitchen.  By the time the third batch was ready to jar, the kitchen was clean and I’d had a snack.

Important note: you can’t hurry up the cooking phase.  I wouldn’t try cooking more than 3 quarts of berries in one pot.  Use extra burners, if needed (those portable electric or butane burners are amazingly handy) but don’t just put it all one one pot.

Canning the jam and finishing cleaning – 15 minutes

Now, with all 8 pints of jam in the canner, the jars just had to process for 15 minutes.  We used that time to finish cleaning the last pot and a few utensils.

So, all told, we were finished after about 2 hours kitchen time and we’ll say 1/2 hour of outside the kitchen prep for gathering supplies.

Caveats

  • I have a lot of canning experience, and Scott’s got two seasons under his belt now.  Our rhythm of working together is pretty good.
  • There are no small people in the house demanding our attention while we cook.
  • Eight pints might not be a year’s worth of jam for you.  Until we started making yogurt and putting jam in it (fruit on the bottom!), we ate maybe one pint of jam a year.  Now it’s about one pint every 3 weeks.  So we usually need 2-3 jam sessions each year.  Still – that’s fairly pleasant afternoons with my sweetie.  Better than weeding…
  • Doing this alone would have added an hour or 90 minutes to the total time, I think.
  • It’s sometimes hard to extrapolate time vs. quantity of jam because what’s most important is the number of batches you have too cook down and process.  If you cook 2 quarts in a batch instead of 3, you don’t save much time (maybe 15 mins of prep and a few minutes cooking) – so go ahead and make your pots as full as is practical.
  • Finally remember that other berries have a lot less prep than strawberries.  We could have done raspberry jam (with the seeds left in) in about half the time, I think.

So – your results may vary, especially if you’re new to canning, but this is at least some sense of the time it takes to put up strawberry jam.

——–

* We found buying strawberries to be nearly the same price as picking our own.  These berries were $28 for a flat ($3.50/quart). Picking our own would have cost $19 in berries and $7.50 in gas (two gallons). So seriously – paying someone else $1.50 to pick the berries and bring them 25 miles closer to my house seems like a bargain, and also saved about three hours of time.

Lower energy towels

Though we probably do less laundry than most households, we do wash a fair number of towels.  My husband is a champion exerciser, and a clean towel is a must every three days or so. The towels we bought shortly after college are starting to wear out, and several of our newer towels have a bit of lingering mankiness to them due to poor ventilation in the bathroom – they sometimes just don’t dry out completely from one use to the next.  We also find we have to dry them in the dryer – probably 2/3 of all our dryer loads are towels, because all shirts and pants get hung up to dry. Not great for our kwh tally…

A while back, I bought some flour sack towels from Lehman’s.  I’m completely sold on them for dishes – terry towels just seem to push the water around.  So one day, I thought, “These things are huge. Would they work on me?” Turns out, the answer is “Yes.” My sweetie likes them, too.  We both have very short hair – if you have longer hair, you might need a second one just for you hair.  We’ve also found it’s best if you crumple the towel up a bit before patting yourself dry – one flat thickness of cloth gets soaked through instantly.  The beauty is that they take up a fraction of the washer space of an equivalent number of terry towels, and they can be air-dried even in our setup (indoors with relatively low air circulation).

Towels

Five terry towels (left) compared to five flour sack towels (left). This should reduce laundry by quite a bit around here.

And of course, it’s probably not actually saving any energy to go out and buy these if your existing towels are still good (though they seem pretty low-impact…so maybe it would be a net savings).  I bet you could also hem up a couple sections of old cotton bed sheets to similar effect.  Considering that all our fitted sheets also seem to be biting the dust at the same time, that could be a good next use for them.  But hey, we had these already, so I think we’ll be using them instead of buying more terry towels.  They’re a whole heck of a lot cheaper, too – $2 each instead of $10+ each, which is what you pay around here for towels that don’t evaporate into a puff of lint the first time you wash them.

Moving toward local eating: Summary

Choosing vegetablesPart of the “Moving toward local eating” series

Which of these is the most important? For me, awareness, followed closely by enough experience to know what I can and can’t do as far as a local diet goes.  Figuring out what is and is not essential.  For me…I love me some avocados, and they will be the last thing I stop buying from afar.  For my sweetie, it’s probably raisins.  Carrots are also critical, but I can’t grow them worth a darn and they are actually very difficult to find locally – and when you do find them, they are tiny and outrageously expensive.  I’m not even very good at storing them yet, but I need to find a way to do so, because we eat carrots every single day and I’ve not yet found something to replace them in all their uses.

It’s also been important for me to learn when to back off.  Buying instead of growing my tomatoes, especially for pizza sauce, is a great option.  Salsa is still expensive enough that I’ll make my own, but good tomatoes are so readily available, I’m happy to buy them rather than to grow and process my own.  Sandwich bread is another one of those things.  I’ve made a hundred loaves of bread in the last few years, and I don’t think we’ve ever finished one. Ever.  They always get moldy or stale because something gets in the way of eating it.  And at this point, I don’t really care.  I buy Aunt Millie’s, which is baked in Jackson, probably from high plains wheat, but I’m not even sure about that.  I can make an OK loaf of sandwich bread, but the main sandwich-eater really just likes his pre-sliced loaf.  Which is fine by me; one less thing I have to make at home.  I also don’t worry too much about rice being our main grain at home at this point.  We’re eating a lot more potatoes now that I’m growing them, but rice is another thing I’m content to buy in big bags shipped across the country as long as I may.

If I have any advice through all this, it’s simply to start somewhere, push yourself a little bit, and don’t kill yourself doing it.  Sourcing at least part of your food locally is vitally important, to keep your neighbors employed and to ensure there’s some food supply you can get your hands on without the need for a bazillion gallons of oil and three international treaties.  “Some” is better than “none,” and “a lot” is better than “some.” Just keep in mind that you have to sustain your sustainability, and keep enjoying a nip of chocolate if that’s what keeps you happy. 🙂

Moving toward local eating: Deprivation and delight

Choosing vegetablesPart of the “Moving toward local eating” series

Let’s face it.  You can only combine rice, beans, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, beets, kale, onions, and beef or pork so many ways.  The vegetables, especially, really get to me, because there are only so many things that store well through a Michigan winter.  I’m not about to expand my repertoire to include canned green beans. *blech*

Dealing with repetition take a lot of adjustment.  We are accustomed to change – new restaurants, new ingredients, 40,000 different items at the grocery store.  So stripping that back is a mental challenge, and I do worry a little about nutrition.  Especially when I’m sick and my appetite’s off anyway.  My first reaction to deprivation was just to buy one of the other 39,970 items at the grocery store, which works quite nicely (helloooooo chocolate coconut-milk ice cream!).

But I also realized the benefit of spices and of canning items I had previously thought of as “frivolous” – a variety of fruits, jams, chutneys, pickles, and such.  A variety of condiments can really make a difference.  What’s the difference between pea soup  and mung daal? Turmeric and garam masala.   And nothing – nothing – feels like summer love in a jar more than home-canned peaches.  More of a treat than ice cream, they are to me.

So now I feel like I’m at the point – three or four years after I started my serious “locavore” pus – where I’m feeling pretty comfortable sourcing the bulk of our staple foods from very close by.  And now the “treats,” like peaches and such, don’t seem optional – they seem just as necessary as the staple goods.

See, I don’t believe that eating locally is all about restriction and deprivation.  It’s not just about making sure we can survive when the rising price of oil literally takes the food off the shelves.  It’s about thriving, right here, right now.  Food is a major delight for me, and I don’t want to get to the point where I perceive all the “fun” food as coming from far away, and possibly cut by forces outside of my control.  So this year, I’m going to be paying a lot more attention to regionally-sourced treats.

What’s your favorite local treat food?

Moving toward local eating: Tropical blindness

Choosing vegetablesPart of the “Moving toward local eating” series

At some point, I got so used to buying things that are produced nearby, I forgot that things like bananas and avocados even exist.  Ok, maybe I never forgot about avocados, but there are lots of things that I quit buying because they are shipped from too far away and then found I didn’t miss them too much.

Mostly, I count this as a mercy.  Though I would occasionally find myself in the middle of February feeling run-down and seriously bored with my food.  I’d be standing in the middle of piles of fruit and greens and other goodies thinking “there’s nothing here to eat” because I just glossed over anything that didn’t have  “local” tag on it.  When I got to that point, I sort of had to shake myself awake and remember not to sacrifice my health for the sake of food miles.

And then when I was thinking clearly again, I’d start plotting how to get what I need locally.  Which is tomorrow’s installment…

Random stuff

First, Mel and family over at Elsmo Four have finished their month of vegetarianism (fueled, in part, by my Vegetarian Recipes for a Month).  Her wrap-up is here.

Great news for Michigan bakers!  Almost all the flour at the Ann Arbor Food Co-op is now grown and ground in Michigan! Currently, the only exceptions are plain white all-purpose flour and high-gluten white flour – but all the “interesting” flours come from Ferris Family Organic Farm near Eaton Rapids.

And, according to the bulk buyer at the co-op, Michigan sugar will not be GMO next year.  Apparently there was enough of an uproar from the general public that the sugar beet commission has rescinded its mandate that all commercial growers use GMO sugar beets.  I’d like more details on what this means – if it will really not be genetically modified, or if farmers have the choice of GMO or not, but what comes through the elevator will be a mix.  But it’s a big step in the right direction, and it’s a result of letters and citizen demand.

And finally, I have a common-sense answer to the question “Why do people always buy milk, bread, and eggs just before a storm?” No, they aren’t making French toast – these are foods that most people use up quickly, and don’t store well.  So if you’re looking at not being able to get to the store for 2-3 days, there’s a very good chance you will run out.  And besides; a PB&J and a glass of milk is a nice no-cook meal when you’re snowed in at home.

I was at Meijer last night, and it was quite shocking to see the empty shelves.  The produce section was literally bare over about 60% of its area.  What were we stocking up on before the storm?  Bread, raisins, raisin bread, and water softener salt.  All the actual essentials – heat, water, easy-cook food, back up cooking surfaces – are always ready at home now, so the sum total of my “preparing” for the storm was:

  1. charge the battery lanterns and the gizmo that will charge phones and run the fireplace fan
  2. put three 1.5 gallon buckets of water outside to freeze, to use in the fridge whether or not the power goes out
  3. clean out fuzzy things from the fridge
  4. wash dishes
  5. put a yardstick in the existing snow so we can see how much more we get
  6. make pecan waffles, cuz yum

Things I didn’t do:

  1. panic
  2. stress out
  3. wonder where we’ll stay if the power goes out
  4. wonder what we’ll eat or how we’ll cook it

I like this!  Now I can be my usual weather-geek self without worrying about the potential scary downsides of the storm.

 

Moving toward local eating: Storage

Choosing vegetablesPart of the “Moving toward local eating” series

Storing food is its own adventure.  No matter what climate you live in, different foods are harvested at different times of the year, and chances are you will want to store some food for the “off” season. It takes some space, especially if you start trying to, say, can a year’s worth of salsa in September.

I started buying in bulk a couple years ago and have kept great records, and now I know what we go through quickly (brown rice, peanut butter) and what languishes (cornmeal). I’ve also learned important lessons about where to store food in my house.  The basement, for example, is too damp for dry goods.  Cardboard boxes get wrinkled and moldy (I think I’m the only person in the world to have to throw out salt due to spoilage). The barley started smelling beery. Metal cans started to rust.  So I’ve moved that stuff to dryer locations upstairs.  All my canned goods are now in an actual antique jelly cupboard, which delights me so much every time I walk by it, I can’t believe a woman so normally uninterested in “stuff” can get so giddy about a thing.  (But it’s a really wonderful amazing beautiful practical perfect thing.  Really.  And it symbolizes so much about me and my work and my hopes and my values.  Yeah. It’s good.) Ahem. Back to this blog post, Emily…

I also am learning about storing different types of stuff:

  • dry goods, like wheat and beans
  • home-canned foods, like salsa
  • store-bought canned goods (yep, we still eat them)
  • pickled foods, like kraut
  • fresh vegetables, like potatoes
  • “live” produce in the greenhouse and on the windowsill.  (Craving greens in January? Put a beet in a flowerpot in a window and wait a few days….)

Each type of food storage was a bit of an adventure in itself, and you could start with any one of them.

And, of course, there’s learning to use the foods you’ve stored.  One surprising thing I’ve learned is that we can’t finish a loaf of homemade bread before it gets moldy or rock-hard.  And I’m allergic to most beans.  So my estimates of how many pounds of wheat berries and beans to buy were waaaaaaay off.  But, better to find that out now than when it really matters!

 

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