"If it's not fun, why do it?"

African American Experience

Ida B. Wells. Why had I never heard her name? Born a slave in 1862, Ida was a journalist, early feminist, and anti-lynching activist, as well as one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Her name should have been as familiar to me as Carrie Nation or Susan B. Anthony. But it wasn’t.

Slave Ship reality

Slave ship reality. © JustHavingFun

I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture (MAAHC) last week and could have spent a few days there. The experience started with a trip through time, in Africa before the slave trade began, illustrating the culture of tribes, nations, and many notable individuals. Then the story changed to the slavers in about the 16th century, displacing entire nations, devastating entire cultures. A darkened room held artifacts from a slave ship.

A nauseating quotation from Alonzo de Sandoval, a Spanish Jesuit priest, covered one wall. As we walked forward in time, attention focused on the introduction of Africans to the Americas and Caribbean and the subsequent development of the slave economy. Exhibit: a huge cauldron in which sugar was boiled and refined. Statistics: life expectancy for a slave working in a sugar plantation was a mere 7 years. Exhibits illustrating slave life—including two actual homes reconstructed in the museum—moved us closer to the modern day. I felt the bleakness of that existence.

I cannot give justice to the numerous exhibits surrounding the Abolitionists, the Civil War, and Reconstruction and its aftermath. The exhibits shone light on the formation of negative attitudes toward Blacks, and the spread of virulent prejudice against former slaves and their offspring.

Stereotypes: Sambo and Mammy

Stereotypes: Sambo and Mammy. © JustHavingFun

The Jim Crow laws developed as a direct result of these attitudes. If a person of African Descent was not viewed as a human, then why would someone care to treat them as such? I reacted strongly, sickened to my stomach, at the exhibits depicting our nation’s shame. I was especially tormented by the exhibits on segregation. My stomach churned. I grew up in the North where no overt, institutionalized de jure aspects of segregation met my view. I realize that as a child I was not attuned to the de facto social and institutionally segregated segments of society. School integration proceeded calmly at my elementary school in the late 1960s, although there were race riots at my mostly-white high school in the early 1970s. However, enforced segregation didn’t touch me directly. I had friends of color, but we didn’t discuss those matters.

It’s easy to think that everyone had the same experience as me. The museum exhibits showed me tangible evidence that this is not so. I have friends who grew up in Baltimore, and remember seeing signs enforcing separation of the races. That occurred within my lifetime? How can that be? Man’s inhumanity to man stuns me.

I cried after peering at the open coffin of Emmett Till, a solemn line of people passing by it. My stomach clenched as I read the account of his murder. In 1955 this 14-year old Chicago boy who was visiting relatives in Mississippi sustained a brutal beating and mutilation, was shot in the head and sunk in the river—likely because a white woman lied about him making a pass at her. An all-white jury acquitted the murderers. (She recanted her story recently, as told in “The Blood of Emmett Till,” by historian Timothy B. Tyson.) The Jim Crow laws set the stage for this heinous crime. My head swam. This occurred a scant few years before my birth!

The United States prospered upon the backs of immigrants. Some, like my grandparents, were willing newcomers, escaping persecution and dreaming of freedoms and prosperity they lacked in their homelands. Another immigrant group, however, had no choice in coming to America: enslaved Africans, who served as the engines of the Southern economy. Although slavery was abolished in 1865, the residual effects of this grim institution last until today. We live in a color-conscious society where sadly and shamefully, people are not judged solely upon the basis of their works and deeds.

“We were slaves in Egypt,” Jews recite every year at the Passover holiday, and “in each generation each person is obligated to see himself as though he personally came forth from Egypt.” We Jews remember our enslavement—and G-d’s mercy in redeeming us—every day. We were persecuted and murdered. In regard to the Holocaust, we intone, “Never forget. Never again.”

In our country, in our day, another situation must be remembered and not repeated. Museums such as the MAAHC provide vital tools for remembering the heartache and shame of the past. They bear witness and educate. They too intone, “Never forget. Never again.” I want to say that the story the museum illustrated had a shining happy ending, but it didn’t. The exhibits closer to today’s time, after the Civil Rights Act, showed advances in opportunity for African Americans and “normalization” of people of color in our society. I want to say the story has a happy ending, but there is no end to history. That’s why we must continue to learn, strive for equality, and squash hatred born of ignorance.

I won’t forget Ida nor Emmett.

 

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Cacophony

Just viewing the photo makes my ears ring! The cacophony of car horns, traffic, and the swirl of people on an average day in midtown Manhattan makes me woozy. It’s too much: too much noise, too many people, too much aggression, everyone vying for their place.

NYC at Noon

NYC at Noon. © JustHavingFun

When I lived in New York City I learned to walk with arms akimbo, elbows out, so I could have my own space on the sidewalk and not be run over by some mindless drone looking at his cell phone screen while zooming down the street.

The endless jockeying and competition, the noise pressure, and the thump thump heartbeat of the City are a siren song for some but alas, not for me. When crossing the street became an art form as skilled as ballet, when maintaining my four-square feet of personal space became an obsession, when the subway became my greatest source of entertainment, I knew I had succumbed. I was indeed a New Yorker.

Ya gotta love it! Or hate it! But nobody can stay neutral about it: New York. Everywhere you look something new pops out. One day you may see performers, the next day pigeons, then the glitz of Broadway and Times Square, and the next day homeless people, but something always catches the eye.

But oh, the sounds! The noise. The cacophony of car horns and trucks backing up, scratching against the strains of street performers and buskers. The subway cars that sound like the opening strains of “Somewhere” from West Side Story: There’s a place for us…. Yes, there’s a place for us going uptown.

I took my fingers out of my ears and held up the decibel meter when the train approached the platform. It routinely topped 85 dB. “Mom, you look silly,” my children decried. “Nobody does that.” “I do,” I countered. My hearing and tinnitus thank me for blocking some of the extraneous sound.

Nowadays, out of the New York zone, I swallow fewer headache remedies, don’t need earplugs except when running my blender, and my ears are buffeted by the sound of rain drops hitting the pavement on my porch…

…and fire engine and police sirens of the uneasy urban soundscape which comprises Baltimore’s night.

New Beginning

Last month I started a new career. Finally after a long time searching, I became another full-time busy bee in our economy. I am so very grateful. G-d is putting me in a place where I can help others and strengthen our community. I will have a chance to make a difference in peoples’ lives. And I work with some swell people.

Monarch Butterfly on Zinnia.

Monarch Butterfly on Zinnia. © JustHavingFun

I’m feeling rather enlightened. The non-profit agency I work for does way more than I’d imagined. So many dedicated people pour their hearts and souls into the various programs. Their creativity sparkles. Caring blankets their work. People from various backgrounds pull together for one cause: betterment of peoples’ lives. As I pore through the agency’s historical documents and learn about the ongoing and future programs, I’m proud by association. Look what a small group has been able to accomplish and view the future through expansive eyes as more can be helped.

This boon fell upon me as millions of people suffer: Houston’s victims of Hurricane Harvey; Florida, Cuba, and Caribbean islands from Hurricanes Irma & José; wildfires in the western states; an 8.2 magnitude earthquake in Mexico; and daily murders here in our charming Charm City. It would be easy for anyone to sit back and refrain from doing anything in this troubled time. We feel there is little we can do—even sending dollars to help the needy doesn’t feel like enough. Helpless, overwhelmed, and confused, we watch the news as it informs of another catastrophe.

I have an answer to that feeling: Do Something. Not everyone has the good fortune of working in an agency like mine, but that should not be a deterrent. Maybe she can’t help Puerto Rico, but she can volunteer in her community: driving seniors, reading to the blind, stuffing envelopes, knitting for charity. Perhaps he has skills sufficient to tutor children, repair bicycles, or make phone calls.

If everyone took on one “charitable” project, what a world of difference it would make! Just like the butterfly effect, where the proverbial butterfly flaps its wings in one hemisphere and affects weather in the opposite one, our positive acts can effect worldwide changes.

A single positive action from each one of us can change the world. I’m so fortunate that I get to see positive actions accumulating favorable results every day. Talk about new beginnings!

 

New Fruit

We just celebrated the beginning of the new Jewish year, 5778, Rosh Hashanah, literally “head of the year.” Jews celebrate not with frivolity and booze, but with contemplation and prayer. We are entering the period before the Day of Judgement, Yom Kippur. We want to think about what we’ve accomplished, how we treated others, our relationships with people and G-d.

New Fruits for the New Year. (c) JustHavingFun

New Fruits for the New Year. (c) JustHavingFun

Many include a “new” fruit as part of their new year celebration. This beautiful custom entails eating a fruit that one has not eaten in a while or one that has not been encountered before. After making a blessing on the fruit, there is a blessing thanking G-d for bringing us to this season. Then the fruit is eaten.

Our local kosher supermarket, Seven Mile Market, stocked numerous “exotic” options to choose from: lychees, fresh figs on the stem, golden berries, jackfruit, and prickly pear to name a few. This year I bought lychees. (I chickened out from buying a slice of jackfruit.) I can’t remember if I ever ate fresh ones before! It was a delightful experience.

New beginnings are the theme of this season, returning our thoughts to our core values and making use of the ability to turn ourselves away from directions we may have taken that stray from the true path. I have the opportunity to make amends, to look inside and see where I’ve erred. G-d allows me to start over again, freshly invigorated and reoriented if I’ve gone astray.

I feel doubly blessed this new year having started a new position and new career after a long job search. It’s a new beginning in many ways, working for a non-profit organization that strengthens our community by helping neighbors acquire and maintain housing… among other benefits. It’s a chance for me to give back in Gratitude for the many kindnesses bestowed on me.

I’m sending all wishes for a good, healthy new year in 5778.

Time Sense

I have been waiting too long. They said they’d be here between 11 and 11:30 am and it’s after 12:30 pm. They’re not here. It’s a 2½ hour drive to our destination and I don’t want to encounter traffic or come back too late. I know these people run late and thought I accounted for that when I asked them to pick me up before noon. They run on a different time sense, however.

I distracted myself by uploading photos of these cute baby hats I’ve been making for charity to my Ravelry account. I searched for a book I misplaced. I watched 2 episodes of 30 Rock. I took out the trash. I watered the outdoor planter. I drank some water.

I finally called the more responsible person of the group I was waiting for and said I could not go with them. She said to me, “I can’t go with just the others.” I knew what she meant, capitulated and said OK, I’d go. So here I’m waiting still.

Image: Late by Evan Sharboneau (via Flickr, CC BY-ND)

-/-/-/-/-

They came not much after I wrote the above paragraphs and we were finally on our way. I drove; the trip was uneventful. We avoided three fights in the car by me keeping my mouth shut. We arrived at our destination, did our thing, then headed back. I hate driving west around sunset. We stopped so they could eat. I ate my bag of lettuce in the car, tipped the seat back, and rested my eyes while they dined—the restaurant was not kosher so I came prepared. By the time they finished their dinner the sun had set and night fell. I drove the unfamiliar back roads homeward rather than taking the highway. We played a quiz game someone found on Facebook and laughed at the answers everyone provided.

-/-/-/-/-

I like being on time. On time to me means arriving before, or at the time I agreed to be somewhere. Depending upon community mores, this could be 10 or 20 minutes later than the published time, but it requires a sense of what time means to that specific group. For instance, in my crowd, a New York wedding called for 8:00 pm may not start until 9:30 pm, but a Pittsburgh wedding will start no later than 8:20 pm. It’s something “everybody knows.” There’s the story of the New Yorkers who went to Pittsburgh for a wedding and showed up at NYC time… and missed the ceremony. They just didn’t understand Pittsburgh time.

I’m normally not punctilious to a fault, but compared to these people I was with today, I am an imperious arbiter, running the trains with an iron fist. My more rigid time sense imposes on their free-form, loose and flowing time sense. And therein lies the problem: they will never see my way, and I will never see theirs. This is a no-compromise zone.

So usually I compromise and tell these people to meet me at a time one hour earlier than necessary so that when they arrive “tardy,” it will be the real time I want to meet at. Has my method has been found out? How much longer can I perpetuate this charade?

It’s not that I’m impatient. To the contrary, usually it’s exactly the opposite. I am very “chill,” waiting in line, passing time, being agreeable. I don’t rush, but plan ahead to avoid needing to rush. This talent has grown over the last decade. I got tired of being late, arriving on the brink, thinking of excuses. I changed myself and got discipline. I feel proud of this achievement and it has saved me much aggravations.

Certain situations—and people—push my buttons, though. Repeatedly. This has been going on for a long time. It’s them, not me. I feel I can’t avoid them and their warped molasses sense of time. For now, at least.

Some day I will simply refuse to do anything with that crowd. Or go without me, I’ll tell them. Until then, I will need to breathe deeply, take a few steps away from the cliff, and realize that some old dogs cannot learn new tricks… or how to read a clock.

 

Possibilities

Today I’m focusing on what is possible. We control an amazing force—the potential to do something! In physics, an object’s potential energy relates to its proximity to other objects. How will it act? What will it be capable of doing? What factors act upon it?

Possible Sunflower

Possible Sunflower. © JustHavingFun

As we age, we find ourselves conveyed into increasingly narrow channels. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. We become specialized. Certain decisions will collapse other options. If you turn right, you obviate the choice of turning left. If you choose fish for dinner, you will not have eaten beef. And so on.

Here’s a career choice example. You start school as a blank sheet of paper. Then you take a full slate of classes—biology, art, sociology, and computers—and one will pique your interest more than the others. In college a course in developmental biology seems fascinating. You end up working for a professor who studies chick embryo neural tube development mutations, which leads to your Ph.D. research in genetic defects that cause spina bifida. You didn’t start out to become a research scientist. You simply liked biology class and decided to pursue that area of study. At some point, access to time and resources for delving deeper into art history, organizational hierarchies, or computer natural language development, say, becomes less available. Few people have the wherewithal to pursue a second field with the same verve as their first. Or, they wait until later in life and take it on as a second career—or not at all.

But the potential still exists. Possibilities don’t vanish completely as long as intellectual curiosity propels us forward.

Every choice we make hones us and refines us in ways we can’t imagine. That doesn’t have to make us narrow people. The rhythm by which we live is not a steady, monotonous drumbeat. The rhymes we repeat to ourselves don’t all end with the same syllable. The songs we sing have more than one stanza.

Possibility opens us to different ways of looking at things: a ball of yarn becomes a sweater, a calendar photo becomes a vacation, an appeal for charity becomes a passion. Our personal potential becomes expressed because of the choices we’ve made, the roads we travel down. But the other roads still exist.

Stem cells are plenipotent; they have the capability of becoming any type of cell in the body when they mature. So, too, are humans. We are born plenipotent, able to become any type of person and fit any career, following manifold interests. The beauty of humankind though, is that once we do fit ourselves to some mold, we can branch out. We can explore our possibilities. We can expand our world to include aspects outside of our immediate circle of knowledge. We can let other aspects into our consciousness, work on them, enjoy their possibilities.

The sunflower has no choice but being a sunflower. Its fate is predetermined and set. We, however, can enjoy the variety of knowledge, reflect upon the various possibilities that the world presents us. Just because we research spina bifida doesn’t mean we’re excluded from writing songs. Our rhymes are not squelched; rather, they are enhanced by the bits and pieces that total the world of possibilities.

For today, it is possible for me to break out of my mold, to incorporate various possibilities into my life song.

 

 

Knitting Pride

Are you proud of your handwork?

I recently shared this essay on a Ravelry forum. I got some insights on how I tick. Pride, enjoyment, accomplishment, completion. Are these interchangeable?

Substitute your hobby, craft, or avocation with my word “knitting.” I will share later some of the responses and reactions to what I wrote. Meanwhile I just started purple baby hat #6.

* / * / * / *

Am I proud of my knitting/crocheting?

I finished a baby blanket/throw after starting it over 18 months ago just “for something to do” while waiting with Mom in the emergency room. I pieced it with some odd lots of unloved acrylic yarn left over after my sister died. I forgot about it for a while and recently completed it to get it out of the way.

Valentines Day Baby Blanket Massacre, © JustHavingFun

Valentines Day Baby Blanket Massacre, © JustHavingFun

I suffer from chronic depression and have a hard time starting things and following through. As a sign of trying to overcome this, I showed this item and a baby hat I just started to my therapist and she loved them! As an artist she complimented the color blocking. As a non-knitter, she marveled at the stitch work. She asked, “Are you proud?”

I didn’t feel proud. I just felt null. I mean:

  • I can knit–no biggie there.
  • I can follow a pattern or instructions how to make a stitch.
  • I can even improvise.
  • It was just some oddball yarn I didn’t love.
  • It wasn’t brain surgery.
  • I’m not keeping the thing for myself.

I haven’t made all that many projects that are complicated. Maybe that’s the factor that stimulates a bit more excitement/pride from me. Yeah, maybe I felt a bit proud when I finished my first socks, the first stranded pattern, or when I completed the mint-green vest that is too huge. They were more complex.

Purple baby hats #1 & #2. © JustHavingFun

But overall, I’m not too impressed with myself. These little baby hats are patterned on a basic stranded pattern, but I have no excitement about the yarn or the pattern. It just zips along quickly. People who see me knitting (doctor’s waiting room, waiting to pick up a prescription, etc.) ooh and aah, but I think that’s because they have never seen anyone knit, and I’m happy to describe what I’m doing.

So I asked my community on Ravelry to see if they have pride in their handwork… all of the time? Or do they just do it sometimes “for something to do”?

Purple baby hat #5, © JustHavingFun

I tend to see the imperfections but am trying to let that go because we humans are not perfect. I haven’t started a project with my beautiful Icelandic wool because I’m not sure my skills are good enough yet. Besides, I can’t decide on a pattern.

Proud? It’s something to aspire to.

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

Hospital Wait

I wish I had my knitting with me.

I’m at a local hospital Emergency Department. My blood sugar has been wonky and I’m out of medication. [While this could become a screed about the state of medical insurance in the United States, I will refrain from explaining how it happens that I cannot get my meds.] I need to see a doc.

Emergency Department

Emergency Department. © JustHavingFun

There are many service units here: Registration, Triage, Laboratory, Urgent care, Intermediate Care, Rapid Evaluation, etc. Monitors on the wall let you know what place you’re in. After my blood was drawn they estimated it would be 3 hours to see a doc. Well, they do need to analyze the samples….

I’m OK waiting. There’s wi-fi, and I have a phone charger so my weak battery problems won’t frustrate me in the absence of my knitting. I’m hungry, though, but they don’t want me to eat or drink. Writing is fine. So is listening to podcasts.

Waiting List

Waiting List. © JustHavingFun

Dang it! Why don’t l take my knitting with me everywhere, every time?

Fortunately I borrowed a phone charger so I don’t have to sit like a lump or watch a half-heard television show I have no interest in watching. Some people are doing nothing at all. How can people do that?

There’s an odd cross-section of humanity here. I am hot, but many patients sit wrapped in blankets. A two-year-old child runs into the Triage area and her father corrals her. She’s laughing now, but was shrieking a little while ago. Someone who looks like an older sister is braiding an African-American girl’s hair. The couple seated next to me pass a phone between them, playing a video game together.

Did I mention I potentially have a 3-hour wait?

I wish I had my knitting with me.

Postscript – Indeed it was a 3-hour wait, but there was also a 3-hour treatment & observation phase! Wouldn’t have been able to knit because an O2 sensor was attached to my index finger. Glad I found the Game Show Network and spent some time with Cash Cab, and Family Feud (oooh, love that Steve Harvey). “Survey says” … I’m tired and need to go to the pharmacy to get my prescription filled.

With all the noise and clatter of today’s world, the incessant advertisements and social pressures, the still small voice of the authentic self—our souls—can be easily drowned out. We are sensual beings, experiencing the world through our skins.

Red Maple. © JustHavingFun

Listening to birdsong can lift my heart if I allow myself to pause, and recognize the miracle that it is. Birdsong is a gift. How can it be? A creature the size of my fist has the power to fill the air with song! Birds have a syrinx, a special organ to produce that multi-note trilling. We don’t have them. Do we lack?

What about the cricket song symphony of a summer’s afternoon? How is it that stridulations of an insect’s limb or wing, multiplied by a thousand, can blanket the air with sound? If I stop what I’m doing, I realize they are singing. It’s only in my silence that I hear their songs.

What message do the lightning bugs encode in their evening travels? I’ve watched them shape the dark with Morse code-like flashes. Their travels define a unit of space, their paths as distinct as a fingerprint; their flashes stutter a secret pattern as they fly through the night. To think as a child I trapped them in jars, quieting their dialogues forever.

And flowers, oh the abundance of flowers! Colors, textures, scents, foliage. From early spring to the beginning of winter, these bursts of color elicit deep sensations.

Hydrangeas

Hydrangeas. © JustHavingFun

When I desist from my busyness and resist the lure of my phone, screen, kitchen, and bed, I turn to the sky. The moon in her brilliance, the clouds in their majesty, the rustling of the wind in the trees gain my attention. My soul gets nourished by nature’s caress. My authentic self can breathe a bit deeper and savor the sensations.

Happiness doesn’t come from things. Rather, it’s events, experiences we share—or not. I relish simple pleasures like breathing deeply in fresh air, feeling heat prickles when I enter my car in summer,  the sound and feeling of snow crunching underfoot, the breeze ruffling the fine hair on my arms—things I notice when I’m not distracted.

I recall the scent of peonies and the fuzz on that juicy peach tickling my nose. The sounds of trains rattling down nearby tracks stitch through the night’s darkness. And the succulent sourness of a fresh-cut lemon puckers my lips. These pleasures have been described in ancient literature and we can still relate to them. They rely on nothing save our senses taking in the beauty of the world. They  speak to my soul, refreshing it, and bringing it back safe to this body for another day.

Simple pleasures? Yes.

Universal? Yes, oh yes!

Can’t Go Back Home

This odd sculpture on the side of an otherwise nondescript apartment building.

“Bacchus/Dionysus” Apartments, Regent Square. © Just Having Fun

Back home. All memories seem bright until you get there:

Pittsburgh, my home, isn’t home anymore. Buildings are shabbier, streets more narrow, stores smaller, pavements more broken up, lawns weedier, properties needier. Store facades lack pizzazz, fashions seem grayer, people walk bent over, and hairstyles belong to the 1980s. Indeed, mullets haven’t died out there, and jagoffs still crowd the Parkway.

I don’t live there anymore. Home livens my dreams, though. I spent so much of my life there; it formed subterranean parts of me. But now I live in another place, sipping another culture, another state of mind.

“Home” speaks my vernacular. Home wears the gown of happy memory. Home sidewalks remember my skinned knees. Home parks have water fountains where I slurped away my thirst. Home benches remember nights I sat there looking across the river at the shining city. Home playgrounds hold my childhood.

Duquesne Incline from Carson Street

Duquesne Incline from Carson Street. Image: Dan Buczynski, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Away: We’re away from the inevitable aging, concrete crumbling, roadways growing potholes. We forget the annoyances of overflowing sewers, flooding, and road closures. Traffic cones move from site to site, an ever present landscape feature, but we lose our way among the newly created maze—new to our minds at least. “Remember where that big pothole was that they didn’t fix for a couple’a years?” We dodged it every time, and now just ride over the smooth street, the pothole a trouble only in the past.

Local politics, local concerns, don’t interest me because I’m not a part of it anymore. The hallmarks of the community, saying “yinz” and wearing shirts emblazoned with Steelers or Pirates logos, color the culture. Familiar local landmarks take on an importance they never shone with when I lived there. Pointing to repurposed buildings we remember aloud, “That’s where Isaly’s used to be;” or looking toward South Side, “J&L used to cover that entire shore of the river, before the Cheesecake Factory.”

Taylor Allderdice High School, Aerial View, circa 1930-1945 approx.

Taylor Allderdice High School, Aerial View, circa 1930-1945 approx. Image: Boston Public Library collection, CC BY-NC/2.0

I can’t go back home. The people aren’t there anymore. The “kids” I hung out with are spread across the map. They’re getting ready for retirement and buying condos in Florida. My high school’s awe-inspiring facade hides behind a blocky addition; my university has new buildings across campus. Downtown features newer, brighter buildings. Even the subway stretches to new distances, under the Allegheny River to the North Side and the stadium.

This is not MY Home anymore, but it is an extension of it—another dimension, say. If I lived there still, I would not notice the changes in the ways I do now. I would be a part of the rerouted traffic, commuting to my job without comment, or grumbing about PennDOT like everyone else. Local problems would not seem so exotic or notable the hundredth time we encountered them.

I can’t go back home, but I can look at it again like a many-faceted jewel—preserved in a museum showcase, or worn proudly on my finger—and see the lights glinting from within.

 

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