Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Month: October 2011

Halloween Tale 2011: Roger’s Brain

From the writer of such horrific Halloween tales as The Old Parsons Tree in Flushing (2010), The Mommyblogger’s Demon Child (2009), Giving Head (2008), The Werewolf (2007), and The Joy of 666 (2006)!

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About a year and a half ago, I had a mild cold. I went onto Twitter, as was my daily habit, and I wrote this status update:

“I have a cold and I am by myself and nobody seems to care. Boo-hoo.”

And no one responded. It was as if I was invisible to the world. A ghost.

Later that day, I noticed another update that was being retweeted several times. It was a tweet by a male writer/blogger named @RogerF.

The tweet said:

“I have a cold, but no cold will stop me from choping wood to help warm those in need at the senior center. I promised those wonderful seniors and I keep my promise!”

“You are such a mensch” replied @AngellaB on Twitter.

“Make sure you take care of yourself, too,” said @JeanninefromNV.

“I wish I could be there and make you some of my healing chicken oregano soup,” wrote @SaucySandy.

Roger lived in Montana, was a real outdoorsman who kayaked and climbed mountains. He also had a PhD in environmental science from Yale. He was as fine a specimen of the male species as God has ever created, a perfect combination of brains, confidence, and brawn, beloved for his grace, humor, and his writing — oh, his writing! He was branded as the best male writer on the internet, his poetic, witty, and heart-felt prose beloved by everyone from mommybloggers to the geekiest tech blogger. Whenever there was a Top Blogger List, he was always #1.

Roger was like a God — respected and popular — and I was jealous. I possessed a deep, burning envy that blackened my heart.

My hatred for Roger grew and grew. I started to have shameful thoughts. I wished him dead. I would kill him with my bare hands, then bury him in an unmarked grave. No more Roger. I WOULD THEN BE THE KING OF THE INTERNET.

On Yom Kippur, I refused to go to Temple, fearful of facing God with my own wickedness. But I didn’t care. Jealousy had turned me into a madman. I was not a real man compared to Roger, this Adonis of Montana. I knew I had to destroy him.

My life reached a new low when there was an announcement made online: Roger was chosen as a blogging representative by the United Nations and “Starbucks Helps” to travel to Nicaragua and report back on the country’s poverty.

The news made the mainstream media. Roger’s name trended on Twitter, surpassing even Justin Bieber.

Then, two weeks after Roger left for Central America, there was a massive earthquake in Nicaragua. Roger was in the middle of teaching English grammar to a group of impoverished students when the the Nicaraguan flag hanging in the classroom unhinged and fell on his head, crushing his skull. The US Army sent a special airforce jet to wisk him to the top rated brain-injury unit back in the states — Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

As a New Yorker, I knew Mount Sinai quite well. One of my best friends from elementary school was once a top brain specialist at the hospital, even though he has worked as a busboy in the hospital cafeteria since 2009.

(It’s a long story. Aparently, and this was never proven in court, Reefer (Rob’s nickname because of his love of smoking exotic weed during medical school) was caught “feeling up” a busty female patient during her brain surgery, and he was promptly disbarred, although union regulations prohibited the hospital from outright firing him, so they transferred him into the kitchen instead)

I called my old buddy, curious about Roger’s condition.

“Is he going to survive?” I asked my friend.

“As I was busing tables for lunch,” said Reefer,”I heard his doctor say that he is in a coma and will never come out, which is a shame because his brain is still alive, and the perfect specimen of brainhood.”

“Yeah, yeah. Of course.” I replied. “He’s always so perfect.”

“I have an idea,” said Reefer. “Meet me at the diner at 86th Street.”

A few hours later, we were sitting in the fake red leather booths of the coffee shop, eating corn muffins and drinking coffee, and Reefer was telling me the most astounding story that I had ever heard.

“Every since I was disbarred, I’ve been bored out of my mind being a mere cafeteria busboy. To keep my mind occupied, I returned to research, particularly my medical school thesis on neuro-brain transplants.”

“You mean like Frankenstein?!” I asked.

“Don’t be silly. That is fiction. This is real. I set up a secret lab behind the kitchen, catching the mice that frequently found their way inside looking for food. I then “borrowed” human corpses from the morgue for experimentation regenerating nerve cells in transplanted brains.”

“Did you also steal medical equipment for the work?”

“Of course not. I had the kitchen next door. You’d be surprised what you can do in the brain with a butter knife and soup spoon.”

“So what does this have to do with me?”

“I need a healthy person and a live brain to do the ultimate test. And now we have the opportunity.”

Finally, I understood. Reefer intended to transplant Roger’s superior brain into my head. I would lose much of my own “self,” including my memories and consciousness, but I would obtain all the greatness that was Roger. I would inherit his writing skill, his good humor, his confidence… and his way with women.

There was no reason to think about this matter any further.

“Give me his brain!” I said.

Now, dear reader, here is where I skip over many of the more gruesome details of the operation for those of you with delicate sensibilities, particularly the women. Mind you, it was not pretty, as Reefer used a jagged steak knife to slice open my skull, and a turkey baster to siphon out much of the excessive blood dripping onto the linoleum floor.

Two days later, I woke up with Roger’s brain. The operation was a success. I was thinking, acting, and living just like Roger. My writing improved as did my social skills and IQ score. I was confident about every decision. Women send me flirtatious messages, wanting to cater to my ever whim.

One night, a half-undressed woman showed up in my hotel room during a writing conference.

“What has gotten into you? It’s like you’re a new man!” she said.

“I’m just thinking differently,” I replied.

But as I went into bed with the woman and the blood flowed to my manhood, I suddenly had an incredible headache, so much so that I had to stop the activity and ask the woman to leave.

This painful headache continued throughout the night, and kept on returning at the most inopportune times. What was happening? Had the experiment gone awry?

The answer came soon enough.

It was Reefer on the phone, with the troubling news. He had been looking over Roger’s medical history, and discovered that he had a lifelong issue with severe migraine headaches, a condition that affected many aspects of his personal life, particularly his sex life. Despite the appearance of his perfect life, he avoided sex at all costs. It gave him a migraine. And now I had his brain!

“What the hell…!” I screamed into the phone. “Who needs all this fame and glory? I want my stupid old brain back!”

“I’m so so sorry,” cried Reefer. “Last night, I smoked a little bit too much weed with the head chef, and accidentally left your brain in the kitchen. And since he was a little high as well, he made a mistake and mixed your brain into the chop meat for the meatballs at lunch today!”

I was in tears.

“But on the positive side,” said Reefer, “the meatballs were excellent.”

And that is how I got stuck with Roger’s brain.

And now I have a f**king terrible headache, so I’m stopping this story.

Duran Duran at MSG

When we arrived at Madison Square Garden, we discovered that we were sitting behind a mother and her ten year old daughter.   I found this odd.   Sure, I was only fourteen years old when I saw KISS in concert, but I didn’t go with MY PARENT.  I even remember concert-going as a rather risky experience. I recall a fist-fight in the bathroom, and I can still smell the fragrant scent of marijuana in my hair.

Who brings a ten year old girl to a rock concert?

The opening act was a band called Neon Trees.   The ten year old girl was jumping up and down, as if on a trampoline at a church fair.  And then the lead singer, Tyler Glenn, began to sing their hit song, Animal.  Suddenly, she stood silently, mesmerized, mouthing the lyrics.  This was her Elvis, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen moment.

After the opening act, the mother of the girl offered us their seats.

“You mean you’re leaving?” I asked.

“We just came to hear that one song. My daughter is obsessed with Tyler Glenn.”

“That’s great,” I said, not wanting to admit that I hadn’t even heard of Neon Trees or Tyler Glenn until I walked into the Garden a half hour earlier.

After they left, we talked about how Manhattan parents spoil their kids, willing to pay $200 in tickets so their daughters can hear their favorite song, live in concert.

But hey, what the hell. I bet that little girl will remember this moment for a long long time. Perhaps she will even come back to the Garden in 25 years as a grown woman for the Neon Trees reunion, eager to relive her first concert experience.  There were plenty of women in their late thirties and early forties at this concert, reliving times past, wearing tight jeans and dancing in the aisles, their arms in the air, their asses gyrating, as if drawing imaginary figure eights.  It was pretty sexy.

Duran Duran was fantastic in concert. And I’m not saying that because I got free tickets through #duransocial and promised that I would write this post. The popular UK band was not my favorite band of the 1980’s. They were pop pretty boys. But now that frontman Simon Le Bon, John and Stephen Taylor, and Nick Rhodes are all middle-aged men, their old MTV-driven songs having gained in maturity.  I like them more now than then.

At Tuesday’s concert, they rocked Madison Square Gardnen, and I surprised by how good they sounded, especially Le Bon’s voice.  Duran Duran played a few tracks from their new album, “All You Need is Now,” but was generous in bathing their fans in the warm glow of nostaliga.  They played all their hits that you probably have heard many times in karaoke bars around the world — songs such as Notorious, Hungry Like the Wolf, and The Reflex.

They also played my personal favorite.

What is it about music that creates such a personal connection in the listener? Is it that our heart beat and our blood flows, and this mimics the rhythm and melody? Does music grasp at our memories, holding it down from forgetfulness, like clothes-pinned laundry on a backyard clothesline?

One changing sign of the times was the Twitter hashtag #DD (Duran Duran) displayed on the side of the stage, and the ENCOURAGEMENT of our texting and taking photos during the show.  At one point, John Taylor, who himself is a big user of  Twitter, grabbed the mike and announced that because of us “Duran Duran was trending on Twitter in New York.”

Everything now is social media.  I miss the smell of the marijuana.

Colonel Blimp

My heart is that of a dashing, adventurous, passionate young man.

My head is that of an old fogie who believes in following the rules.

Nothing explains this better than the opening scene of my favorite movie “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” written and directed in the United Kingdom in 1943 by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

The movie follows forty years of the life of an officer in the British army, Clive Wynne-Candy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6z3UNoImE2Y

The film begins during the middle of the Second World War. There are training exercises going on at the British camp, pitting two teams of soldiers against each other.  Major General Wynne-Candy, now a senior officer, is the leader of one squad. He is pot-bellied formal gentleman of the British old guard.  The other squad leader is “Spud” Wilson, a brash young lieutenant.

On the day before the exercises are to begin, Wilson’s team “captures” Wynne-Candy relaxing in a Turkish bath.  Wilson has struck early, breaking all conventions.  He ignores Wynne-Candy’s protests that “War starts at midnight!”

“This is a new type of war with Hitler,” says Wilson.   Wynne-Candy’s old-fashioned gentlemanly methods are to be scorned.  He is called Colonel Blimp.

I first saw this movie at a repetory movie theater with my father.  He loved movies about the Second World War, particularly those made in Great Britain.

The themes of this film have stuck with me for years, particularly the tension between “what is right” and “what is necessary.”

I respect “Spud” Wilson and the way he plays Colonel Blimp for a fool.   He believes that the only way to defeat Hitler is to show Blimp that his ways are irrelevant.   Being a gentleman is weakness.

In my heart, “Spud” Wilson embodies how a modern man should live his life.

But my sympathies lie with old fogie Colonel Blimp.  Without him, there would be no moral center to the story.   There is something noble about being a 19th century born gentleman, even when facing your fiercest enemy.

It is not a surprise that this blog is named “Citizen of the Month.”  I was very turned on by the concept of citizenship and democracy when I was a wee lad in a public school in New York City.

This brings me to an uncomfortable conversation I had with someone online about the the growing Occupy Wall Street movement.   I’ve been reading a lot about it, and frankly find it very exciting.   People are finally getting angry about some of the inequalities of our society.   I told this woman about how I loved her passion (represented by the 100 tweets an hour on the subject she puts on my stream) for social justice.   These are citizens of American enjoying their liberty of free expression.

But when I saw her retweet something factually untrue in one of her tweets, I brought up this up.  Politely, like Colonel Blimp.

Her response:

“It doesn’t have to be all true. We have to get the word out to stop the 1%.”

I found this an odd statement, and didn’t quite jibe with my view of “truth, justice, and the American way,” as spoken by one of our country’s greatest leaders, Superman.

Superman would never LIE to defeat his enemy!

I appealed to her reason, bringing up her enemies — the wealthy conservative overlords of the far right.

“But remember how we were all going crazy when conservatives were saying that Obama wasn’t a citizen or that he was, god help us,  A MUSLIM?  They also knew it was untrue, but said it anyway just to create trouble.   Isn’t it the same thing that you are doing?  How can we criticize them if everyone does it?”

“This is different. What we believe in is financial equality, and what they believe is moronic.”

And after this discussion, I thought about my favorite movie, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and how the themes of that story are still reverberating in my head so many years later.

I’d like to be more political, but when people get too emotionally involved in any cause, or read too many Ann Rand books, they start to believe that they are above the law because only their ideas are right.   Lying and manipulation is OK, as long as it supports what you believe.

That’s a sad thought.   And as our world becomes more and more controlled by PR, Marketing, and Media firms, it seems as if this will just become the norm, if it isn’t already. Since real life is too complex for anyone to use as a sound byte, the truth becomes the least important part of any campaign.

Colonel Blimp’s gentlemen is surely dead in a world where the ends justify the means, even in conversation.

Climb

I have so many goals that I want to push through (money! writing! hot babes!), but I lack the confidence to get what I want.

This weekend, I was fascinated watching this kid climb up this fake rock at a street fair. He has confidence.

Should I climb a mountain?

What gives you your confidence?

(I know this post seems like one of those self-help inspirational posts that I usually mock, so you should understand that it took a bit of confidence to publish this).

Steve Jobs, My Father, and Yom Kippur

Steve Jobs, the legendary co-founder of Apple passed away this week, and the internet exploded with admirers reflecting on how his vision impacted their lives.

Some talked about their first Mac, iPod, or iPhone, and how it transformed the way they communicated or listened to music.

Others sought meaning in Jobs’ passing, musing on death, accomplishment, originality, and vision. I poked a little fun at this hero worship on Twitter, writing:

“There is something odd seeing so many quotes about “being original” and “not living the life of others” being re-tweeted 1000x on Twitter.”

One short post about Jobs struck a nerve with me, written by a blogging friend, “Stay at Home Babe,” and titled “Why I Would Want to Die Young.”

I’ve already heard so much talk about how sad it is that Steve Jobs died at such a young age. I won’t argue with the sentiment, but it certainly got me thinking.

I don’t necessarily want to live until I’m as old as humanly possible. I don’t think I have to hang on until my hips are both replaced and I’m on a hundred medications and my brain has turned to mush.

I want to live a life worth admiring. In whatever capacity that is, for however long that is. I don’t want to waste it. I don’t want to find myself unexpectedly on my death bed, knowing that I didn’t do what I wanted or did less than the best I could with the time I had.

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It is customary during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for Jews to visit family members at the cemetery. My mother and I took the Long Island Railroad to visit the final resting place of my father at a Jewish cemetery in Nassau County.

It was two days before the death of Steve Jobs in California.

It was nice visiting my father on a crisp fall day. I was wearing a red sweatshirt. When I first saw my father’s tombstone I laughed, because as long-time readers of this blog might remember, I “crowdsourced” the epitaph on his stone after he passed away in 2005, until we collectively convinced my mother to include his favorite saying, “Be of Good Cheer” on the stone. My father might go down in history as the first person to have the saying on his tombstone voted upon by the Internet.

Another Jewish custom is to place a stone on the top of the tombstone; it signifies that “you were there.” I picked out two shapely and clean gray stones from the gravel road, and my mother and I placed them on top of the marble slat that marked my father’s final resting place.

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I think about my father. I wonder about the dreams and goals that he had as a younger man. Did he do what he wanted? Did he do less than the best he did with the time he had on Earth?

I have no idea.

He worked as a physical therapist at a New York City hospital. He liked his job, but he complained about it during dinner time, especially about the internal politics of a city-run hospital. I think he might have preferred a cushier job at a private hospital, although he probably had more of an impact on the lives of the less-privileged by working at Queens General Hospital.

I assume that “Stay at Home Babe” was being honest in her views about dying young, but I suspect that she is in her late twenties, so she feels that she has plenty of time to accomplish everything in her iPhone scheduler. I think once you reach 35, you are pretty happy if you reached 1/3 of the goals you had in college.

Should we just kill ourselves if we don’t become multi-milionaires by 40?

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It is easy to read the obituary of Steve Jobs and see it as a referendum on individuality, focus, and a life-well lived, but I think it is a mistake to think that success in life involves having a specific goal in mind and reaching it. Under that criteria, most of us end up miserable failures. The reality is that our real impact on others is not always easily noticed, or even appreciated. Not every worthwhile life is built upon achieving personal goals. We are all interrelated in so many different ways, that you can never be sure how your actions are affecting others.

On paper, my father will never match the accomplishments of Steve Jobs. Perhaps he didn’t achieve exactly what he wanted in life. But he had an impact on me. And his family. On his patients. In the way that he treated his friends and neighbors.

In social media, we speak a lot about influence. We consider someone with many followers as “influential.” But I have heard stories of strangers talking down someone on Twitter from committing suicide that night. No one remembers the names of those people. But that is real influence!

On Yom Kippur, in temple, a special prayer is added to the Shemoneh Esrei (Amidah), in which the community confesses their sins. All the sins are confessed in the plural (we have done this, we have done that), emphasizing communal responsibility for sinning. So even if you haven’t murdered anyone this year, you still say “We have murdered.”

When I was younger, I used to think this Yom Kippur tradition was bizarre and unfair, but now I appreciate the sentiment. The point is not to diminish personal responsibility, but to remind ourselves that human sins are frequently a by-product of the social bond gone sour. We are all at fault.

But this communal responsibility also has a positive side. We can all take pride when things turn out well.

Did you read Steve Jobs’ obituary? Did you come away thinking only about Steve Jobs? Read the obituary again, this time focusing on the community who helped mold him.

Steve Jobs was adopted:

Steven Paul Jobs was born in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 1955, and surrendered for adoption by his biological parents, Joanne Carole Schieble and Abdulfattah Jandali, a graduate student from Syria who became a political science professor. He was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs.

Steve Jobs was mentored by a nameless neighbor:

Mr. Jobs developed an early interest in electronics. He was mentored by a neighbor, an electronics hobbyist, who built Heathkit do-it-yourself electronics projects.

Steve Wozniak’s mother brings her son and Steve Jobs together as business partners.

The spark that ignited their partnership was provided by Mr. Wozniak’s mother. Mr. Wozniak had graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, when she sent him an article from the October 1971 issue of Esquire magazine. The article, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” by Ron Rosenbaum, detailed an underground hobbyist culture of young men known as phone phreaks who were illicitly exploring the nation’s phone system.

A mysterious hacker teaches Steve Jobs his tricks.

Captain Crunch was John Draper, a former Air Force electronic technician, and finding him took several weeks. Learning that the two young hobbyists were searching for him, Mr. Draper had arranged to come to Mr. Wozniak’s Berkeley dormitory room.

An Intel executive backs Apple with $250,000.

In early 1976, he and Mr. Wozniak, using their own money, began Apple with an initial investment of $1,300; they later gained the backing of a former Intel executive, A. C. Markkula, who lent them $250,000.

Did any of these individuals achieve their own personal goals? We don’t know. But there is reason to believe that without these people crossing the paths of Steve Jobs, that he wouldn’t have achieved HIS goals. Again, we don’t know for sure, but would you now want to tell that dorky hobbyist neighbor who mentored Steve Jobs that he would have been better off dead since he didn’t achieve his goal of building a spaceship for NASA? You never know when your action can have an earth-shattering effect on another. It is quite possible that a friendly hello in a supermarket can change the life of the other person. You just don’t know.

Not everything is about YOUR goals.

My father was a loved man. He didn’t make that much money. I’m sure he wished he did better financially. He didn’t get any obituaries written about him in the newspaper. But I know he helped many people with disabilities to walk, and perhaps they went on to do great things spurred on by the care that they received from my father.

I am super-impressed by the vision of Steve Jobs and what he achieved in his short life. But I am just as impressed with someone who lives life, perhaps NOT achieving every single one of their dreams, but loves life itself, and sees it as special. Being kind to others may not get you a mention in the New York Times, but it is a quality that is as essential to the well-being of the community as an iPad. And that it something I try to remember as I live my own life. Thanks, Dad, for teaching me that lesson.

About Jennifer S.

I don’t remember how I first found her blog (I have a feeling it was through Kyran Pittman), but the first post of Jennifer’s that I read was about her love of the painted mountains of Arizona and her unrequited crush on the hunky cowboys of the rugged West. It was clear, right from that moment, that she and I had absolutely nothing in common, which as we all know from every story ever written, was a clear sign of impending friendship. I commented on her post, mocking her cowboys, and she commented on my post, handing it right back.  Before you know it, we were emailing each other, recommending books for the other to read.   We have been great blogging friends for years.

If you’ve been following me on Twitter recently, you might have seen me mention her present situation, and asking you for help.   The last two years have been tough on her.   When her life with the father of her children proved to be far different than she believed (the sort of man-lives-a-double-life story you would hear on the news), she moved with her two children to Maryland to start her life all over again, a new environment for the kids.

Last spring, I visited Jennifer and her kids.  She gave me a tour of the beautiful Maryland coast, and I annoyed her daughter by guessing the final puzzle of Wheel of Fortune before she had a chance.   Jennifer and the kids were happy in their new home.   She had traded in the desert for the sea and she liked it.   She was also starting to get freelance work for more clients, using her writing and calligraphy skills.

During the summer, her children’s father picked the two kids up to spend time with him in Arizona, promising it would be a two week visit.  What he did next was one of any parent’s worst fears:  he refused to bring them back to Maryland.   On the day they were to return home, he enrolled them in a local Arizona school without Jennifer’s knowledge or permission.  Before that, he hadn’t seen the children for a year.

The legal issues are complicated, but it comes down to this: In order to make it easier on her kids, who are now in school, Jennifer needs to move back to Arizona.  Her kids ask for her every day.

Jennifer is hurting for money, and not getting the support from the father of her kids, despite a court order.   In December, she and the kids had just settled into their home in Maryland. Now she needs to pack up again, pay for moving expenses to return to Arizona, obtain a lawyer, and fight for her rights.  She is heartbroken to be away from her children.

If you would like to know more about her situation, you can read Sarah’s beautiful post about Jennifer, or would like to donate, even a small amount — you can do it here.

The Authenticity of Queens

I have an acquaintance who is not very fond of Americans, seeing them as insular and parochial.  He is American himself, born in Ohio, and currently lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

This acquaintance travels a great deal for his work and has visited exotic locales.  Recently, he was in South America, and given the opportunity to visit this small village.

When he returned to NY, he could not stop praising the uniqueness of the residents of this village, and the talent of the local folk artists.

During coffee one afternoon near his apartment, he told me that he learned more about the meaning of life from speaking with one simpler villager than he did from four years at an expensive university.

“You should come to Queens,” I said. “There is this restaurant from that country in Jackson Heights.”

“Nah,” he replied. “It’s not going to be authentic.”

On the way home, I pondered his response. Why wouldn’t this restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens be authentic?  Isn’t it possible that the chef could be using the same exact ingredients he might use back in the old country?  Perhaps he even comes from the village that the acquaintance visited.

And taking this idea of authenticity one step further, would the amazingly wise villager that this acquaintance met in Central America lose all her unique wisdom if she moved to Queens?   Or is she simply more interesting living thousands of miles away in a remote foreign village than she is a mere fifteen minute subway ride away?

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This is the view out of my bedroom window. A few weeks ago, the owner of the supermarket placed these flags up as decoration.  My friend jokingly calls it “Ghetto UN,” because you’ll notice that outside of Old Glory, none of the traditional power countries are represented, bigwigs such as Great Britain, France, Germany.   Instead, the display is an oddball mish-mash representing residents who now live in the area — from Iran, Pakistan, Israel, Korea, the Ukraine, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and other troubled spots in the world.

I’m not sure it is old authenticity.   It is a new authenticity.

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