January 30, 2014

Once Upon a Flock--a Review

Once Upon a Flock: Life with My Soulful Chickens
by Lauren Scheuer

Okay, the current chicken-raising craze baffles me, I must admit. Although I was raised in a rural Indiana town, surrounded by cows and corn fields, I have never been a farm girl, not least because I have varying degrees of allergy to nearly every land-dwelling creature. However, I have many friends who are animal lovers and small-scale farmers, and I completely understand and respect the attention they lavish on their livestock. I have a more difficult time comprehending the people who decide to raise chickens in backyard suburbia. And yet, the moment I spotted this wonderfully-illustrated book in the library, I knew somehow that I had to read it, and I devoured it without pause in one sitting. Though I have not achieved Lauren Scheuer's degree of success, I am a fellow blogger, and I really enjoy the brief, pithy tableaux that characterize our infant genre. It is a writing style that Scheuer has certainly mastered.

Once Upon a Flock follows the author's journey with her unusual pets from fluffy, down-laden chicks through the trials of motherhood and chronic illness. (Who knew chickens could develop such diseases?) It definitely isn't all smooth sailing in the coop, but there is delightful humor to ease the dilemmas, and Scheuer managed to make me genuinely care about a group of squawking chickens. When I think of chickens, I normally think of crap everywhere, dust flying up that could be fatal to my lungs, and invasions of the damn mites with which most birds are replete. I couldn't believe a writer inspired me to emotionally invest in a flock of them, but she did it with ease, and I enjoyed this read very much. I can recommend it to readers of all kinds.

January 29, 2014

Homeless 6

I would like to state clearly at the outset that I am well aware how blessed I am. In the saga of my homelessness, I have had not one, but THREE friends take me into their homes, allowing me to space out the time I spend with each and buying me additional time outside a homeless shelter, not to mention one family member who did the same. Throughout this ordeal, I have met people who are truly homeless, in various community centers and offices of government agencies; I have never seen people so thrilled to receive a home-made scarf or pair of mittens, during one of the cruelest winters in living memory. I am eternally grateful to those who have kept me from sleeping in my car or on the streets. I am documenting the issues I've encountered primarily because a friend pointed out to me that there are aspects of this crisis which never occur to those who haven't lived it--they certainly hadn't dawned on me until recently--and that if more people ponder these side-effects of homelessness, the system might undergo some change. I sincerely hope that is true.

Anyone remember when this was called "food stamps,"
and actual pieces of paper changed hands in exchange for
the purchase of food?

Perhaps the single most frustrating aspect of being homeless in this country is the feeling of abject helplessness that comes along with it, the same lack of control over one's own decisions that children often experience. Except I lived through that phase once--I didn't expect to have to do it again when I'm pushing forty, and at this age, it is a helplessness that can often breed far more dangerous hopelessness, as well. This frequently becomes a cycle from which there is seemingly no escape. Choices which are second nature to the average American adult suddenly become severely curtailed for those who are deemed to have failed within the system, and therefore must ask for charity. I cannot simply choose which foods to buy in a grocery store based on what I'm in the mood to eat or what's most convenient that evening; there are rules by which I have to abide, and they have nothing to do with junk food vs. healthy choices, despite the connotations of the graphic above. I can buy all the chips and soft drinks I want, but if it's a hot food, pre-prepared by the government's definition, I've lost the privilege of buying it. Not to mention that basic toiletry items are out of bounds because they're not food.

Flag of the Department of
Health and Human Services,
under whose auspices
Medicaid programs in each state fall.
People on Medicaid don't consult with a physician, receive a diagnosis and recommendation for a course of treatment, and then work together with that health care professional to arrive at informed decisions about our own care. We are informed which procedures that fall under the umbrella term "preventative medicine" Medicaid refuses to cover, and then are told which drastic and far more invasive options are open to those of us who have failed to be faithful producers and consumers.

Image of a root canal, the procedure that could potentially
save my tooth and prevent a gap in my mouth that would lead
straight up into my left sinus cavity.

The American public could be saved untold millions of dollars every year if Medicaid and Medicare covered conditions that were still mild and as yet easily treatable, but our governmental guidelines define catching and treating a condition early as simply "elective" procedures. Last week, an oral surgeon informed me that one of my molars has roots that stretch into my sinus cavity; having this tooth pulled will leave me with a hole in my mouth that runs straight up into my sinuses. Several procedures will probably be required to get this gaping maw to close properly, each necessarily paid for by Medicaid, and I face a long, extended period of misery, during which I will probably develop numerous sinus infections, for which taxpayers will also have to foot the bill for treatment. "A root canal is definitely the way to go," the surgeon informed me, and then confirmed that my information was correct--Medicaid doesn't cover root canals. As a matter of principle.

After months of investigation, I can verify that all the local housing authorities either have waiting lists for extremely low-income housing that stretch from 1 to 5 years, or have closed their application process entirely because they are so swamped. Since my feet touched down in Denver, I have searched for housing, so that my daughter and I could be together again, thus far completely fruitlessly. And I recently learned that my ex-in-laws, strongly disapproving of my decision to come out on religious grounds, with whom my daughter has now been staying for three months, will have at least some custodial rights in Colorado courts as soon as she has been with them for six months. I saw my little girl today, as I do one day every week--I don't have gas money to drive to her any more often than that, and my ex-father-in-law has forbidden Grandma to bring my child to see me. There is a vicious and enormous clock ticking in the back of my mind at all times, waking and sleeping, terrifying me every moment that I allow it to do so.

For the three months that I've been in Denver, I've been building a support network of therapists, physicians, pharmacies, local library, and offices of government agencies, in the city of Lakewood, Colorado--now a suburb of Denver proper, like so many other surrounding cities--because that's where I was staying in a friend's basement. All of this was done in order to begin to give my life new order, new stability, in hopes of rebuilding any kind of life at all. But I no longer have control over so simple a matter as the city in which I live. This week, because of circumstances beyond the power of any of my friends and loved ones, I had to move to the home of two other friends, in Westminster, Colorado, some 20 minutes' drive away from all those resources I've been building up. I sometimes find it difficult, because of all the pressures mounting on me and my psychological issues, to get out of bed and drive to the pharmacy a block away from my former residence to pick up the subscriptions necessary for my health and well-being. The thought of this additional drive, let alone of having to switch all of these necessary resources to locations in a different city, exhausts me. Just the idea of it. And without the help of my loyal friends, I don't have the gas money to make that drive, anyway.

I said from the outset of this post that I am so much better off than so many, and believe me, I never forget it. I wrote all of this to help cleanse my mind of painful worries for a while. I also wrote it out in the hope that it would raise awareness a bit. Finally, I wrote it to demonstrate that there are sometimes wrenching, soul-crushing, heart-breaking reasons why the poor in this country make the choices we make, to illustrate some of the frightening things we face every day, and to highlight the reasons why even those of us who are receiving help sometimes break down crying in the middle of a public place.

January 28, 2014

A Puzzlement

Recently, I was catching up on a backlog of reading blog posts from blogs I follow and the blogs of my own followers, when something I saw piqued my interest and gave me a whole new respect for the bravery of the blogger in question. She not only maintains her regular book blog, but also has a poetry blog, where she routinely posts her latest efforts in that genre. As I said, I stand in awe of her courage.

There's something about revealing my poetry that makes me feel particularly naked and vulnerable. Perhaps it is partly based on the length of the average poem; these aren't full-length novels, in which readers may find both aspects that seem implausible or annoying, but still some redeeming qualities that they enjoy and therefore save the work in their estimation. Most poems are short (despite what T.S. Eliot believed to the contrary), and fly or die with the first reading or two. People don't take a week to read and consider a poem, like they would a novel or non-fiction book. Feedback is usually instantaneous, and either glowing or brutal. It's just the nature of the genre.

Still, it's more than just that. If you've ever thought that I am profoundly forthright in my blog, that I do not pull punches even at times when maybe I should've done, and that I sometimes discuss topics best kept out of the public eye, then you really should read my poetry. You would then KNOW that all the above are true of me. For me, poems come from a place so intensely personal and emotions so overwhelming that prose simply will not do to convey them. Life has to be so sublime that I cannot contain it, i.e. I basically have to be in love, or so unbearable that I have to trap the pain outside my body, in order for me to write a poem. I hadn't written much in several years, until my pain and subsequent surgeries last year, and I found myself returning to it again over the summer months of 2013. The poems have been flowing freely lately, and I would love to share them out into the blogosphere, but I cannot decide if I'm that brave. Still, writers write to be read; it is our "precious life blood," to use John Milton's phrase, and unread work gnaws at my brain like a dollar burns a hole in a 5-year-old's pocket.

" 'Tis a puzzlement."

January 27, 2014

Reviewing a Fish Out of His Bowl

Murder Being Once Done
by Ruth Rendell

Why is it that every author who bases a series around a single character eventually feels the need to take him out of his usual sphere and into foreign and supremely uncomfortable territory? I understand the desire to keep the series from becoming formulaic, but I would never have accused Ruth Rendell of that failing, anyway. In this book she puts Chief Inspector Wexford into an awkward position that makes him doubt himself, and thereby just made me slightly miserable with him. She made me identify with her character, but I read partly to escape from that kind of reality.

Wexford has suffered an aneurysm, and is on vacation in order to recover. One problem--the nephew with whom he and his wife are staying is also a policeman, one who even outranks the dear old curmudgeon. Inevitably, Wexford gets drawn into a case, and his vacation quickly comes to a halt, even if he is only "unofficially" involved with someone else's investigation.  Wisely, his wife has the sense to throw up her hands in exasperation and cease trying to make him behave.

The actual mystery involved here is definitely up to Rendell's usual standard, which more than makes up for any seeming deficiencies. Having once pushed past the setting and gotten to the meat of the novel, I was intrigued by the plot and impressed by the variety of devices used to keep me interested (and puzzled). I enjoyed it quite a bit, but sincerely hope we go back with Wexford to Kingsmarkham where he belongs for the next book.

January 22, 2014

Homeless 5

It seems the local Wal-Mart and I are fated to have extraordinary experiences together...

At the very same store that featured in "Homeless 4," where only last week I broke down and sobbed in front of a roomful of strangers, today I met a young woman sitting on a bench, crying into the hot pink metallic cell phone in her hand.

"Walkaway Joe"

Do you know the song "Walkaway Joe," by Trisha Yearwood and Don Henley? If not, I'll give you a minute to go to the YouTube link above and watch the video; it may seem cheezy, but it tells this girl's story almost perfectly.

(Time Ripple Effect)

Get the picture? This young woman, who I would guess was 20 at MOST, got involved with the wrong guy, rented a car and drove here from Wichita, and found out too late that she had known way too little about this man before she came all the way to Colorado with him. It was obvious to me that she was scared of him, and when she handed me the phone to speak to her mom, my suspicions about just how young she was were confirmed. Moreover, I heard the voice of a mother on the other end of the line. It didn't matter that I'd only just met one of these women, and will never meet the other. I have a baby girl. I know what my mom would've wanted to hear from a stranger's helpful voice on the other end of that call; I know what I would want to hear.

There was a homeless shelter right up the street, and I told this poor mother I would send her daughter there, and yes, I would remind her to text her mother as soon as she got to safety. During this conversation, however, another man walked past and overheard our discussion. Without a moment's hesitation, he spit out an address. When the girl asked him to repeat himself, he did, adding, "It's a battered women's shelter. It's right up the street, and they've disguised it very well. You don't even realize it's there unless you've already been told that's what it is. You go there, tell them you've been battered, and they'll take you in."

Photo by Stanislav Traykov

She seemed so comforted by my presence and by the clear fact that I cared about her, that I advised her to take the man's advice. The place I had been about to recommend was only a day center for the homeless; she would obviously be much safer, and likely find more effective help getting home, at a women's shelter. She was just ready to be guided by any maternal voice she heard, and when I told her, "Honey, go NOW, before he gets back!", she said she would, hopped up and headed off to her rental car. I'll never see her again, and I can only hope and pray she gets home safely. If I'm grateful to God for anything about the horrible year I've had, it's that my situation has taught me that I can never again just keep walking. When I see someone in tears, obviously in trouble, the faces of those who stopped to ask me if I needed help in that same Wal-Mart swim back into my mind. I know that I owe them a debt of kindness and human compassion, and events like these are the only way I can ever pay it. I heard my mother's voice come out of me when I stopped and said, "Honey, do you need help?"

January 15, 2014

Sister Fidelma Goes to Whitby

Absolution by Murder
by Peter Tremayne

Honestly, I have very mixed emotions about this little mystery novel. It is set at and during one of the most important events in the history of Christianity in the British Isles, a famous local council known as the Synod of Whitby.

St Hilda, shown holding
her abbey at Whitby
Some of my favorite saints in the early British church were involved in this synod, the subject of which was to determine whether or not the Christians of Britain would fall into line with liturgical and ecclesiastical practices promulgated by Rome. I especially admire St. Hilda of Whitby, abbess of a monastic establishment that housed both men and women; she was an amazing and formidable figure, as were many of the others who participated in the council.

Ruins of the Abbey of Whitby
Photo by Hugh Chappell

Indeed, this whole event is one of my favorites in British history (even though I can easily wax romantically nostalgic about the elements of Celtic Christianity that began to disappear as a direct result), which confirms my Geek status for life. So I loved reading this novel about it, but felt very ambivalent about some aspects of the author's handling of it, and especially his characterizations of some of the historical figures involved.

As a mystery, this book is acceptable, about average, but the starring sleuth, Sister Fidelma of Ireland, is quite an enjoyable character. She is an attorney, of all things, a legal expert recognized in the medieval Irish courts. Who knew that women could do such things in 7th-century Ireland? Sister Fidelma was a lot of fun; the rest of the book was readable, but not exemplary.

A Few Facts About Fibonacci

The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci's Arithmetic Revolution
by Keith Devlin

I will freely admit that before reading this book, the only thing I knew about its subject was the famous "Fibonacci sequence" or "Fibonacci numbers," but for the record, I would like it to be noted that I knew about them LONG before Dan Brown launched The Da Vinci Code against the defenseless public.

Fibonacci's numbers often express themselves
in nature in extraordinary ways.
Photo by Alvesgaspar and modified by RDBury

So I learned a great deal while reading this one, and actually found it very interesting. First off, the man's name was actually Leonardo Pisano filius Bonacci, "Leonardo of Pisa, son of Bonacci," and "Fibonacci" is a contraction of the final phrase.  Obviously, the brain adjusts quickly to the author consistently referring to his subject as "Leonardo," but for the first few pages, I frequently thought, "Who?!", and had to reset my mind.

Secondly, despite what the subtitle might suggest, Devlin is very clear about the fact that Leonardo Pisano did not invent modern arithmetic. In this work, we travel through an overview of the development of our basic numeral system, i.e. 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9, as it evolved in India, Persia, and the Arabic-speaking Middle East. We then encounter Leonardo, the son of a merchant from Pisa, whose father brought him along to a post in Islamic North Africa. There Leonardo first encountered the calculation systems that would evolve into algebra, geometry, and the four basic functions of modern arithmetic. Having finished his apprenticeship in mercantile trade, Leonardo brought these concepts back to Pisa, published them in a book designed to be accessible to other members of the merchant class, and quietly ignited a revolution in the mental structures of medieval Europe.

I felt that Keith Devlin overemphasized the need to prove his assertions about Leonardo a bit, but it was at least a refreshing change to read such a work from a scholar, who felt the need to offer some support for his work, rather than someone who provides enormous, fulsome statements as fact. I didn't understand every word of this book--anyone who knows me can testify that I am certainly no mathematician!--but I certainly came away with a knowledge of how much the Western world owes to one medieval thinker who became the conduit for math to countless generations.

January 13, 2014

Homeless 4

Here's a little piece of my original artwork for you. I call it, This is My Brain on Despair.

Saturday night, my roommate and I returned once again to the famous Lakewood Grill, and though it was far more crowded this week, we were having a lovely time, when I randomly decided to check my phone. Life lesson #107: Never, ever check your phone in a bar when you're having a nice time. I found a text message waiting for me from my ex-mother-in-law; my sweet SuperPreschooler is staying with her grandparents while I continue trying to find a home and financial stability for the two of us. This text message announced to me, 24 hours after the event occurred, that my daughter had to be taken to an emergency clinic with croup, receive a nebulizer treatment and two steroid shots, all without my presence or even my knowledge, and that the COST of this outing had been exorbitant. No apology for not calling me. For well over the 1000th time in my life, I wished I had died on the operating table nearly a year ago. My little girl had needed me, and there was fuck all I could do about it. I hadn't even known.

Tonight, I was in Wal-Mart, buying some groceries with my food stamp card, and praying that the $7 in my pocket would be enough to purchase the non-food items. The government will allow me to buy $100 worth of candy bars if I want, but won't let me use food stamps to buy toilet paper, some plastic forks, and a $.94 bottle of painkiller to nurse myself through a toothache. When the clerk rang up the final tally, I counted out the coins in my wallet with growing trepidation, discovered there weren't enough, and simply announced, "Shit."

I had just reached for the plastic forks to have them taken off the bill, when a complete stranger stepped out of the crowd and said, "How much are you short?"

I looked up with some amazement. The man standing before me in ragged clothes looked like he was in worse shape than I was! I answered honestly, "About a quarter," and he fished the coin out of his pocket and handed it to me. All I could say was, "Thank you, man! God bless you!"

He replied with some irony in his tone, "God bless you, too! I been there. This ain't my first rodeo."

Photo by
Robbert van der Steeg

My eyes welled up, and by the time I was almost out the front door, I was sobbing. I just stopped in an alcove near the entryway, and let some of the tears fall, so I could pull myself together enough to exit the store. A lady walked up and hugged me; I had my glasses off, and never actually saw her, so I would never know her if I saw her on the street. A college-aged boy asked if he could help me, and I answered in the negative, but still thanked him profusely. My tears were in gratitude to God that He has not abandoned me, that He can still inspire a stranger to kindness. However, they were also a very LOUD reminder to Him that the clock is ticking on both my sanity, and my survival...

January 08, 2014

The Wicked Saloon

After yesterday's quite somber post, I thought it might be nice to tell you how I spent a very enjoyable Saturday night just passed. It is part of the on-going saga of how I'm recovering from having been a hard-core religious fundamentalist for the first 25 years of my life. I was an insufferable person before I learned a little charity and compassion for myself and my fellow creatures.

I walked into a bar for the first time when I was in my mid-20's, to hear a very dear friend perform during an open-mic night. I was so terrified that my friend was extremely kind and didn't even drink while we were there; it's a long process of baby steps, entering the outside world when you've been so sheltered.

I've been in a bar a handful of times in the decade since, but last Saturday night was the first time that anyone ever said to me, "Let's go spend an evening out!" and I accepted the offer. We went to a local bar/restaurant/karaoke venue, and spent several hours there. I had one drink, having volunteered as the designated driver. My wonderful roommate and I sang and listened to a lot of karaoke--and I still can't decide if we should thank the Japanese or slap them, but we had a great time. At one time, I imagined all bars to be roughly

with full-on chicken wire, beer bottles flying, bar fights every ten minutes as if there were some sort of violence roster posted, and at least three drunk women dancing on tables at all times.

Yeah. I turned to my friend at one point in the evening and said, "So, this is what y'all do in these wicked bars, huh?" She just laughed at me. Nobody hit anybody. No clothing went missing. No objects flew across the room at anyone else. Some songs got roughed up and sent home weeping, but as one girl sitting near me said, we gave everyone an " 'A' for effort" and a polite round of applause, regardless. I was treated to some awesome, freshly-cooked salt and vinegar chips. Met some decent people unwinding on a Saturday night. Felt like an utter fool for all the nightmarish visions I had once bought into. I had a nice time, and drove home as agreed. Thank you, everyone, for welcoming me into the real world with the normal people. Amen.

January 07, 2014

PTSD and Fumbling, or Homeless 3

Well, gang, I just finished my first 2-hour volunteer shift at the Lakewood Branch of the Jefferson County Public Library. I know the accompanying picture hardly seems appropriate to many of you, but to me, coming here today was terrifying, overwhelming, though it was a piece of cake once I signed in and got started. Let's break this whole thing down a little.


I know that I've mentioned Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder often on this blog, and some of you may be wondering what that actually works out to be in everyday life. (I've covered this material before, but I thought an update might be helpful.) We've all heard of it, of course, ever since WWI when it was first discovered and labeled "shell shock," and most of us still associate it with warfare. "Oh, yeah. That's what the Vietnam vets all came back with, right? Some kind of mental problems because of everything they saw and lived through over there? Poor guys. It's not surprising that would mess somebody up!" But men and women who have seen combat are not the only people who can develop PTSD by any means; even children suffer from this condition, if they have lived through something so horrifying that it permanently scars their psyches. Prolonged verbal, emotional, physical or sexual abuse often cause children to develop PTSD, and rape victims, witnesses to violent crime or suicide, and survivors of terrorist attacks commonly suffer from this disorder, as well.

However, there need not be any violence or abuse for a person to develop PTSD. Any event that is so horrifying and traumatic that the brain is forever marked by it can trigger the condition. These include natural disasters, and enduring prolonged illness oneself or watching a loved one slowly die of a terminal disease. In my case, the combination was a flood in English, Indiana, in 1991, where my family was living at the time, my mother's diagnosis with lupus, and a heart attack which left my father with only 20% of his heart muscle still functioning, after which my parents finally died by slow stages in 2011 and 2007, respectively.


The symptoms of PTSD vary and manifest themselves differently in people, but I'll give you the run-down on my own situation at present, since I'm the one doing the blogging here.

Sleep Interruptions

This is exactly what it sounds like; I may have trouble falling asleep, and when I get there, I wake up several times a night, feeling as if something isn't quite right with the world, and lie there trying to fall back to sleep, sometimes for several hours. As you  might imagine, this can have a negative affect on efforts to hold down a job.


When I do sleep, I will likely dream about my parents, their illnesses, their absence, the gaping holes it left in my life when each of them died, and how desperately I still wish I could talk things over with them sometimes. Not often, but occasionally, I dream about the flood, as well.


During my waking hours, any or all of these may visit me, the difference between the three being (1) totally unnecessary but very real feelings of absolute terror, as if a lion is staring me down with a very hungry look in his eye and I can't decide if running would help; (2) just generally feeling nervous, as if something terrible but completely undefinable is wrong with my world, which may not sound too bad until you do it for hours at a time; (3) the inability to care about the most basic things, like making sure I've eaten something in the past 24 hours, coupled with a debilitating sense of exhaustion and feeling absolutely overwhelmed by the thought of doing pretty much anything.


I don't suffer with this one as often as I do the others, but it has been disturbing me lately, probably because of my fears about my impending homelessness if I don't find some place to stay before my deadline of January 17th. My dear friend and current roommate pointed out to me the other evening that I was jumpy and responding more strongly than necessary to noises that happened in other rooms of the house or of the bar we were in. This is hypervigilance--constantly, and unnecessarily, being on the alert, a sense that at any moment, I may be called upon to leap into action to deal with a crisis. When I was an undergraduate, I once got a phone call in the middle of a Hebrew exam because my father had been taken to the hospital, AGAIN. It took me years to cease being terrified every time I heard a phone ring or an ambulance siren drive by anywhere near me.

     as I contend with all of that, is it any wonder that the thought of re-entering the workforce is overwhelming to me? Hence, the volunteering at the library. It's a "job" in the sense that I am expected to be at a certain place, at a certain time, to remain there for a set period of hours, and to engage in assigned tasks while there. This is a baby step, sort of practice for getting my mind used to working again, since I can simply walk out of a volunteer position if I suddenly develop a panic attack or what have you. Therapists call this "desensitization" or "exposure," allowing the mind to get used to an experience, see that nothing bad happens, and stop producing disturbing thoughts or fears just because I enter a "job" situation.

The Washington Township Public Library
in Salem, Indiana, where I had my first paid job.
(from the "Salem, Indiana" Flickr group)
I'm doing library work here. I got my first paid job ever at my hometown public library when I was 16. I've worked in the largest library on the campus of Indiana University, both in collection maintenance and for the Middle Eastern Studies librarian. I could do library work in my sleep, and on occasion, when I pulled an all-nighter getting a paper written, have at least been among the walking dead while working in the stacks. As soon as I stepped into this peaceful, cerebral environment today, allowed my beautiful books to envelop me and began shelf-reading (making sure books were in the right order), the world made sense again, and I belonged. That didn't stop me from being terrified on the drive here.

     despite initial terror, I completed my two hours without incident, during which time I shelf-read one side of an entire row of non-fiction. For the uninitiated, I can assure you that is pretty quick work, and I felt quite pleased with myself to know I've "still got it." It was a minuscule step toward wellness, toward working again, toward getting established and back on my feet and not being homeless any more, but it WAS such a step, and it scared me, and I did it anyway. And dammit, I'm proud of myself.
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