Tag Archives: life

Remember When No One Cared Where Their Food Was From?

When I was a kid I didn’t care where my food was from as long as it wasn’t from off the floor.  Food falling on the floor is one of the worst things that can happen to you in elementary school.  In later years we would learn about the “five second rule,” which I once mixed up with the “five minute rule” and almost got left back for poor attendance.  But in elementary school, if there had been a little more room on those menus magneted to every refrigerator in the land, the description of the lunches would say something like “Not Dropped On the Floor Sloppy Joe.”

At restaurants today it is taken for granted that food is not dropped on the floor, or that if it is, no one will tell you about it.  Instead, the menus emphasize the geographic origin of the ingredients.  Everyone wants to know if the vegetables are locally grown, or if the chickens were raised on local farms, enjoying the fresh local air and tasty local feed, taking in the local theater and shopping at the local boutiques, before their necks were wrung ever so humanely.

Wikipedia describes the local food movement as a “collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies—one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution, and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place.”  There is a Taco Bell five minutes from my home that I’ve often relied upon, parking my car behind the dumpster so that my wife wouldn’t see it while she shops for fresh vegetables and couscous.  But I don’t think that’s what they mean.

My first exposure to the local food movement was when my wife and I attended a farmer’s market near our home.  The vendors had set up tables with their wares, and offered so many free samples of local tomatoes, local cheese, local bread, and local meat, that it was not long before I was looking for the local bathroom.

One table was offering locally made gourmet peanut butter.  The options were far beyond the traditional chunky and smooth.  There was chocolate-pretzel peanut butter, cookie-dough fudge peanut butter, jalapeño peanut butter.  We were impressed.  Then I looked at the price tag, and realized why choosy moms choose Jif.  Panko-crusted animal-cracker peanut butter mixed with goat cheese and leeks may be great for dinner parties, but I had to conserve my cash for the parking attendant.

Local food, however, is about much more than nutrition and economics.  There is controversy about what constitutes “local.”  The United States Congress, in the 2008 Farm Act, defined “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” as less than 400 miles from its origin.  That means that “local” covers an area of 502,655 square miles, or, as Tom Hanks’s character in “Cast Away” would have put it, “twice the size of Texas.”  Under that definition, I could secure a lot more free time by telling my wife I’m going out to run a few local errands.

I’m no member of Congress, but, to me, “local” implies that a chicken could have its head cut off and still be running around in my shopping cart when I’m swiping my frequent shopper card.  Politics is truly the art of compromise.

But these lofty concepts and global disputes rarely affect my daily life.  I eat whatever food I can find in the refrigerator or cupboard, with no thought of the journey it took to my gullet, and whether it paid tolls with E-Z Pass.  The only time the local movement enters my decision-making process is when I’m at a restaurant, and I am given the choice between meats raised on local farms or meats from origins unknown.  It is such a hard decision to make, that I already know I’m going to be reaching for antacids later on that night…antacids that are, fortunately, the most local food of all—right on the nightstand, next to my bed.

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Filed under Eating and Drinking

Remember How You Used to Celebrate Valentine’s Day?

My first Valentine’s Day  involved a second-grade class and a sheet of perforated Valentines.  We had to give them out to every other kid in the class, and I’m pretty sure I gave them out to the boys as well as the girls, and signed “Love, Mark” at the bottom of each one.  Even in the midst of Freud’s latency period I felt a vague uneasiness, but did not see how I could discriminate.

My phrase of choice that year was “Holy Baloney,” which I said every time the teacher told me I answered something wrong, or assigned another project involving construction paper and paste.  One girl in my class laughed out loud every time I said it, and on her Valentine to me wrote “Holy Bologna” just above the salutation.  I was touched by the thought, and figured that I could accept her even if she did not know how to spell.

Valentine’s Day was so simple in the second grade.  No flowers, no dinner reservations.  I even think my mother bought the sheet of perforated Valentines, and instead of chocolates we snacked on those little hard and powdery candy hearts that said “Be Mine,”  “I Luv You,” and  “We Need to Talk About Your Choice of School Bag.”

But Valentine’s Day was not always this romantic.  There were many a year where Valentine’s Day was spent seeing how many beers I could drink before the pile of dirty laundry in the corner of my bedroom looked like a work of modern art.  If was lucky, there would be a friend who was also single, and we would go to the local dive and watch ESPN with the sound off, hoping that with each round we’d forget our loneliness and be able to read Mike Krzyzewski’s lips as he yelled at his players and, sometimes, the referees.

And then one Valentine’s Day I proposed to my now-wife, and my perception of this day of flowers and chocolate changed forever.  I don’t see Valentine’s Day as an obligation.  I see it as an opportunity.  For 364 days of the year (or 365 days in a leap year, like this one), I sit in my house and look at my wife and think to myself, “She’s so beautiful and wonderful.  I’m such a lucky man.  I wonder what she’s annoyed at me for this time.”

I wish there were answers in the back of the book, or a teacher’s edition, but there are not.  I have to make educated guesses of how to make my soul mate view me as less of a parasite who watches football.  Could it be the glass I left on the kitchen counter instead of putting it in the dishwasher?  Could it be that bowl with four floating Cheerios that I left in the sink instead of washing out and putting in the dishwasher?  Could it be that pair of dirty socks that I left on her laptop instead of washing them out and putting them in the dishwasher?  The greatest fear in any relationship is the fear of the unknown, and for a marriage that fear is codified in statute.

But for one day a year I am relieved of that fear, and handed a game plan with three simple steps: bouquet of roses, reservations at a nice restaurant, and then…you know…HGTV.  It is as simple as snap, crackle and pop.  My grandfather used to say that problems that can be solved with money alone are the kind of problems you want to have.  I’m sure that he had Valentine’s Day in mind when he said that.

So fellow husbands and boyfriends, my brethren in arms and credit cards, do not fear Valentine’s Day, but embrace it and its obligations with gusto, and be thankful that for one day you get to enjoy the greatest pleasure you can enjoy in a relationship: not having to think.

And to the ranks of the single who complain that there is no single person’s day, I respond: every day is single person’s day.

Happy Valentine’s Day, especially to the students of Mrs. P’s second grade class.  I meant what I wrote on those perforated cards.

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Remember When Television Screens Weren’t Measured in Acres?

This weekend I am attending the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York.  It is my first conference, so I’m a little nervous about what to do and whether I’ll like the lunch that the conference agenda has promised me.  Is it okay to take notes at a writers conference?  At most times it is considered weird to take notes around other people.  But maybe this will be a conference where everyone will be taking notes…taking notes on people taking notes.

Remember when TV screens weren’t all flat and measured in acres, and people didn’t throw terms like “refresh rate” and “1080p” and “contrast ratio”?

I do.

One day, a long, long time ago, I was in an electronics store, staring at a 32-inch Magnovox TV, with screen-in-screen, sleep timer, and a remote control.  It looked enormous.  The TV’s screen was like a movie screen.  Whatever was being shown on it enveloped me, wrapped me up in it its arms.  I wondered how I, suburban peasant, could ever hope to possess something so magnificent.  I looked at the price tag.  It said $750.  I sighed, lowered my head, and walked away to whichever parent had pulled the shorter straw that morning.

Twenty years later I’m standing in my friend’s backyard.  It is summer, and he is hosting a barbecue to celebrate the day the Americans defeated the British by tossing M-80s and shooting bottle rockets at them.  Katy Perry has decided not to dye her hair avocado, and so there is nothing to talk about except televisions.

“Yeah, just got one myself,” my friend says, straightening his stance and expanding his chest.  He turns aside and gazes through the double glass sliding doors, into his den, to the television that doesn’t so much hang on the wall as be the wall itself.  He gets choked up and looks like he’s about to cry tears of happiness.  He shakes his head and smiles.

“How big is yours?” he asks me when he’s recollected himself.

“What?”

“How big is your TV?”

“Oh, my TV.  Uh, 32 inches, I think.”

“Really?”  He looks embarrassed for me. He pats me on the shoulder and walks away.  I decide that maybe it is time for me to get a new tube.

Except televisions aren’t made with tubes anymore.  I learned this during the six months of studying televisions and television technology, a mandatory course for all television purchases in my state (exemptions for veterans and celebrities).

This past weekend, my moment arrived.  The local electronics behemoth was running a special on TVs for $750, the lowest price I’d ever seen for something that still distorted the space-time continuum.  I ran to the store and announced to the first salesperson I found, “I want to buy a television!”  I thought these were magic words.  I thought I was going to be welcomed with open arms and champagne.  But instead he pointed to a long line of humans—a line of disappointed humans—and said I had to wait on that line if I wanted to ask any questions before making a purchase.

As I waited on the line I had a lot of time to look at the televisions on display.  All the TVs looked the same to me.  Only some were bigger than others, or came with a family living inside.

A salesperson caught me looking at a 46-inch LCD.  “That’s a nice picture,” he said.  “Yes,” I agreed, “it is a nice picture.”  I didn’t really care about the picture.  I was transfixed by a school of fluorescent fish that was airing on this fish channel, which apparently broadcast to this TV alone.

“It’s nothing compared to the LED,” he said.

I replied that I did not know there was a difference.

“Oh yeah, man, there’s like a HUGE difference.  I mean, I don’t want to talk you out of something if you’ve made up your mind.  But just check out those two TVs side-by-side.  The one on the left is an LED.  The one on the right is an LCD.  Now look, see that that cat there?”  We were watching a commercial for cat litter on both TVs simultaneously.  “See the black splotches in that cat’s fur when she scratches in the box?  See the difference?”

Not wishing to fight, I squinted like I was squishing around a glass of fine wine, and said that I did see the difference.  But then, I really did start to see the difference.  The LED had brighter colors, sharper images, darker darks, wrinklier wrinkles.  My mind was made up.  I would get an LED.  There was just one last thing I wanted to know.

“How come the LED is $100 more than the LCD?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said, “but I’m not allowed to answer questions.  If you have questions, you’ll have to wait on that line over there.”

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Remember When You Could Buy Things Without Being Asked to Write a Review?

The other day I used a smart phone to buy movie tickets through Fandango.  I have never found it so convenient to buy the tickets and pick them up in plenty of time to sit through the half-hour of coming attractions, commercials, celebrity pleas for charity, and animated robot warning moviegoers to turn off their cell phones or trade them in for a small popcorn from the lobby.  And the movie I saw, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Special Effects and Marketing, was really quite good, and I thought I might even see it again once my ears stopped ringing.

But upon arriving home and sitting down to a hearty meal of cookies in the shape of Christmas trees, and sprinkled with coarse green sugar granules, a text message appeared on my smart phone, which occupied the other place setting at the table.  It was a message from the Fandango application:

“How did you like Sherlock Holmes?  Click here to go to Fandango and be your own reviewer!”

I politely declined the invitation to write a review for this Fandango, feigning a prior commitment to review movies on another website.  But the following morning, I was greeted with yet another text message from Fandango:

“It has been 12 hours since you saw Sherlock Holmes.  Surely by now you’ve formed an opinion.  Click here to write your own review!”

Again, I opted not to write a review, and figured that Fandango would get the hint.  But I figured wrong, for two days later there was yet another text message from Fandango, reminding me that it had been three days since I saw Sherlock Holmes, and that if I did not write a review soon the movie would no longer be fresh in my mind and I would risk being influenced by the review of others.

Since when did it become customary to ask someone to review something they just bought?  Fandango is not the only one.  It seems like every time I buy something online I am immediately asked to rate it, participate in a survey, or post my own review.  Not only do I have to pay money for the product and transmit my credit card information into the ether, but I have homework on top.  Isn’t the fact that I bought the darn thing enough to show that I liked it?  And if I really like the product, I will buy from the same vendor again.  That is, if I’m not too busy taking a survey.

I know what the answer will be: to obtain marketing research.  But why do the evil corporations need me to participate in a survey to obtain marketing research?  Isn’t that why they implanted that chip in my brain while I was getting my wisdom teeth pulled?

Before long, all purchases will be followed by offers to rate, survey, and review.  We will buy milk and be asked to rate the milk on the milk-producer’s website, or to like the milk’s Facebook page.  “Follow your 1% Non-Homogenized Milk on Twitter, and don’t miss any news!”

One might be able to support the reviewability of products if the reviews were helpful.  But the reviews leave me more confused than I was in the beginning.  I’ll look at the Amazon reviews for a digital camera.  One review will give the camera five out of five stars, and proclaim that it is “the best camera for pictures of people holding drinks in their hands.”  And another review, of the same camera, will give it only one star, and state that it is “the worst camera I’ve ever used; my family looks just as ugly as before.”  One reviewer will hate the camera because the viewfinder shakes too much.  Another will say, “Love that shaking!”

I suppose that some people like the reviews and surveys and ratings.  They like being a part of the collective consciousness of a Blu-Ray player or restaurant or toilet plunger.  Perhaps it is more than just market research.  Perhaps this new source of information—the consumer—is a new branch of literature, and will give us the same insight into the human condition as novels, poetry, and that song where you take someone’s name and add those “bo-banana-rama” lyrics to it.  Perhaps I’ve gotten this all wrong.

But this discussion will have to be tabled for another day.  For there is a man at my door, wearing a Fandango shirt, and holding a baseball bat.  And he does not look happy.

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Remember When People Were Quiet in Libraries?

Courtesy of adm/flickr

The first rule I ever learned about the library is that it is not pronounced “lie-berry.”  The second rule I ever learned about the library is that you’re supposed to be quiet.  This second rule was enforced by popular culture.  For example, the apparition in the library at the beginning of Ghostbusters does not say “Boo” or “Ebenezer Scrooge,” but “Shh,” holding its translucent index finger to its translucent lips.

And that has been my approach to libraries throughout my life.  No talking loudly, unless you want to get attacked by a ghost.  True, rules of society change.  At weddings, instead of throwing rice, people blow bubbles.  “You’re welcome” becomes “No problem.”  What was once a highlight-worthy tackle becomes a 15-yard penalty.  But I always thought that the library, the sanctuary of reason, would remain a quiet place.

But evidently that rule, too, is under assault by the rules committee.

Just this past Saturday, I visit my local library branch to see if the copy of Harry Potter and the Fire Breathing Insurance Adjuster that I reserved has arrived.  It turns out I have to wait a few more weeks, so I take a seat in the club chair by the window with a copy of The Collected Clifford Books that I’m re-reading for my adult education class, “International Politics and Large Cartoon Dogs.”

I am not, however, alone in my nook.  The young man at the desk adjacent to my chair is wearing a red hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers.  All young men these days wear hooded sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers.  His black fleece jacket and backpack are lounging on a chair next to his desk.  The backpack has black mesh outer pockets through which I can see pencils, pens, and an iPod suspended in a nest of thin white wires.

Something on his person vibrates and he answers his cell phone in a loud, clear voice.  “Hi…Yeah, I’m just trying to get this homework done…I don’t care about the grade anymore.  I just want to be done….”

I’m wishing he just wanted to be done with this telephone conversation.  I clear my throat loudly a few times but he does not turn around. A lot of people are sick these days, and perhaps he thinks that I am just another library patron who is a little under the weather.  I consider peeking out over the top of the desk, but in law school I was trained to be confrontational only for money.

So I move to another portion of the library.  There is a seating area on the second floor, over by the children’s reading room, where I can relax with my book and admire samples of finger painting from local artists.  I am once again engrossed in my reading when I am disturbed by three-year-old child who is lying face down on the floor, kicking and screaming into the carpet.  A woman I presume is the child’s mother is standing next to him, telling him that this is no way to protest the BCS ranking system.  I wish she would take the child away and channel its energetic fury into something productive, like a blog, but she makes no move.  I’m glad when I hear the child start to run out of breath, but then a librarian calls a number, and a new child steps up from the front of a long line of children, hands a small piece of paper to the librarian, and replaces the out-of-breath child on the floor and commences kicking and screaming with a fresh pair of lungs.

I make another lap around the library, searching for a quiet place.  At the back of the library there are some people talking as if they are contestants on a game show.  In the foyer there is someone playing Angry Birds with the sound on.  In every corner of the library I am assaulted by the noise of patrons who seem to have forgotten that one is supposed to be quiet in the library. 

I finally get up the nerve to complain to the head librarian.  And she tells me, in a voice better suited to the floor of the Senate, that the library has a “no shushing” policy.  Guess I missed that initiative in the last budget vote.

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Remember When You Couldn’t Buy Things Online?

When I send my mental archivist for some good ol’ Christmas memories from my childhood, she brings me back not caroling or egg nog or chestnuts warming on a hot plate that we picked up from QVC for three easy payments of $19.95, but rather images of long lines at Macy’s and Sears and a store called “A&S,” which I think stood for Aimless & Shameless.

My mother would drag my brother and I throughout the mall for the annual drag-a-thon, lugging a 30-gallon paper shopping bag with twisted rope handles that held our winter coats.  All that shopping, and the only shopping bag I remember is the bag with the coats.

And even more than waiting in line, I remember the carpets of those legendary department stores, beige and not too rough when you lay your face upon it, being mindful of the fallen staples and people walking around with sugar plum fairies and God knows what else dancing in their heads.  For following your mother around while she did her Christmas shopping was exhausting, particularly when we were not being energized by our usual line-up of televised cartoons and sit-coms.

One of the perks of being a kid is that you can lay down on the carpet of a department store and no one calls the security guard.  But it’s only department stores that seem to share this understanding.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art…not so much.

But waiting in long mega-lines that wrap around Saturn is, of course, part of my memories of shopping in physical stores with my physical legs and physical wallet.  I remember arriving at Macy’s one time with the intention of getting only a gift-card.  It was late afternoon and the tension level was at least a Code Orange.  I asked a security guard where the gift cards were, and he pointed to the register.  The gift cards were indeed at the register, and leading up to the register was one of the aforementioned mega-lines.  I asked the same security guard if it was really okay that I just step in front of all these people who had been waiting not-so-patiently, and he again pointed at the register, which I interpreted as a “yes.”

So I walked up to the register and grabbed a card, and started to address the cashier, and the man at the front of the line, holding four very large shopping bags bursting at the seams, said something to me that I cannot print here.

“No, it’s okay,” I said, waiving him off, “I’m just getting a gift card.”

When I got out the hospital I decided that it was perhaps time to do my shopping online.

My early forays into online consumerism were not success stories.  I ordered a black faux-leather swivel desk chair so I could pretend I was Dr. Evil.  But they sent me a burgundy chair instead.  I’m doubt you’ve tried it, but it is very hard to look evil in a burgundy chair.  So  I called up the online merchant and they said to put the chair outside my apartment and that it would be picked-up and replaced with the chair I ordered.

I did what they said and they sent me a new chair.  Unfortunately, the new chair was burgundy, too, and they had forgotten to pick up the old one.  So now I had had two burgundy chairs in my apartment, neither one of which I could use.  It looked like I was running a furniture store.

I’ve become much more adept and sophisticated since then.  Last year, I ordered for my wife a digital camera.  I typed in “digital camera” and the search engine returned so many results that I had to order more RAM for my computer to hold all the results.  Luckily for me, that too was available online.

When I was finally able to view the results I saw that I didn’t know very much about digital cameras.  Before I started my online search, I had thought that the only choice I had to make was the color.  Apparently the color is the last choice you have to make.

The choices come in layers.  First, what kind of a camera did I want?  There was a “Point & Shoot,” a “Compact System,” and a “Digital SLR.”  I looked around for a “Takes Pictures” kind of digital camera but I guess they had that one on backorder.

The second layer of choice is whether you want a standard, long-zoom, touch-screen, or waterproof camera.  I was hoping to find one that could be dropped from the viewing gallery of any of the world’s great museums and still work…but again that option was not listed.

Then the third and, at least for me and my eyeballs, final layer of choices were the specifications.  Megapixels, optical zoom, digital zoom, auto flash.  There was even something called “burst shooting” which I had thought was available only with machine guns.

I downloaded all of the specifications of the different cameras into a spreadsheet and compared them.  For days and nights I pored over the spreadsheets like an economist, trying to find the digital camera that would give my beloved the most Pareto-efficient picture possible along with a cute carrying case.  Most of the data fit neatly into linear models, except for the option that allowed a photograph to be directly uploaded to Facebook without exercise of judgment.

Soon it was December 20, the last day for guaranteed Christmas Eve delivery while still getting the Super Savings shipping discount.  My hands were shaking too much to type so I called up the store directly.  And when I was I asked what I wanted to buy, I said, “A digital camera.”

“Oh, great, sir.  We have plenty of those.  What kind of digital camera would you like?”

This was it.  The moment of truth.  The moment when I put to use the superior knowledge that could be gained only from online shopping.  I took a deep breath.

“Um, a pink one,” I said.

Happy Online Shopping, Everyone!

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Remember Old Fashioned Hand Dryers?

People debate evolution as it pertains to life on Earth, but there is no questioning evolution as it pertains to the hand dryers found in the restrooms of schools, restaurants, and rest areas off the New Jersey Turnpike.  Hanging on the wall of some biology classroom there is a chart showing a slimy amphibious hand dryer crawling out of the primordial soup, a few matzoh balls still clinging to its metal chassis, and its fins and crank evolving into feet and a blower.

Yes, kids, the hand dryers that populate my sepia-toned memories of public school boys’ rooms in the 1980s have unadorned metal cranks that rolled out brown paper towel that could do anything except dry one’s hands.  We would wet the paper towels and wrap them around our foreheads in imitation of the pop starlets of the day.  One time my grandfather asked me why I was doing this, and I told him it was because the paper towels were not good for drying.

“Ah, you kids today are so spoiled,” he said.  “I remember when we had to dry our hands on dried animal skins.  Sometimes our hands would come away filthier than before, with grime and dried blood.  Have you ever gone out to dinner at a five-star restaurant with the parents of the girl you’re dating, and come back from the restroom with dried animal blood on your hands?”

Mixed in with the lavatory tin lizzies were electric hand dryers.  This marvelous invention was a white fixture with a stunted chrome proboscis and circular button by which one could trigger the stream of lukewarm air.  The circular button looked at if it had once looked magnificent dressed in a shiny chrome finish.  But that finish had been worn off by thousands of wet hands, forearms, elbows, and even feet banging the button.  Did anyone ever gently push that circular once-chrome button instead of banging it?  It was an unspoken that only real washroom users made a fist and pounded it into the button to start the dryer, like the Fonz starting the jukebox at Arnold’s.

The really funny thing about those old hand dryers is the word “dryer.”  I don’t remember ever getting my hands dry on the first time through, or even the second.  I would have to stand there for a good ten minutes, banging away the last flecks of chrome off that poor battered circular button while a line of irate men with wet hands formed behind me.

That would never happen today.  Those hand dryers from the Industrial Revolution have been replaced by turbo-speed hand dryers that blow the skin right off your hands.  And you don’t have to bang any buttons, either.  The dryers are triggered by infrared sensors that can see wet hands before them as well as Taliban commandos in the Afghanistani night.

The configurations of the hand dryers are different, too.  Instead of blowing air straight down, I’ve seen dryers that are folded over, and you place your hands inside a crease and the turbo-speed hot air dries your hands from both sides.  In the future you’ll place your hands inside a teleportation chamber.  The wet hands will be transported to a galaxy far, far away, where a swarm of miniature winged drier-fairies, that fly about your hands and dry them, not unlike the people that work at car washes.  Once dry, your hands are teleported back to the chamber in the rest room.  And you won’t find it strange at all that your hands are missing.  Due to the principles of special relativity, no earth-time passes at all while your hands are being dried light years away.

The circular chrome buttons are a thing of the past.  Somewhere in a junkyard there is a giant pile of circular chrome buttons from old-fashioned hand dryers.  Families bring their children to play on the piles, and on the way home, perhaps at the obligatory stop off at McDonald’s, the children ask the parents how the piles got there.

And the parents smile, and maybe tell the children the truth, that technology changed so that people could have drier hands, and the circular chrome buttons had to sent out to pasture.  But more likely they’ll tell their children that the chrome buttons got lonely, sitting all alone in this restroom or that, and congregate to one place where they could be together.  Forever.

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