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Finding (the Other) Donald

Finding (the Other) Donald

October 6, 2016

I took some days off work to spend time with visiting family members. I hoped the time away would ignite a writing spark and allow a few hours to fan it. My brother Will was in from Los Angeles, and our oldest daughter Lindy had come from Maui for the week. My sister Gwen joined the three of us, and we headed–literally–for the hills. That is, we piled into my Subaru with the family dog and hit the road for Mom’s small house in rural West Virginia.

Oh, we had fun, all right. All the glorious, obnoxious, jostling sibling interplay you might expect, served with some serious and dear conversation on the side. Lindy more than held her own. It is not for me to judge whether my husband and our other daughters felt more blessed than deprived in having been unavailable to join us.

Lee family gaiety is of the raucous variety, you see. My family is intense and somewhat chaotic. We are more firecracker than briquette. Our words and personalities tumble over one another with an energy which makes the air crackle. After two or three days, we have each either been smothered in the ample family bosom or we are waving sticks of dynamite in one others’ faces and daring each other to light a match.

Even so, we are a loyal clan. Our family dysfunction is such that we can bait one another well beyond the limits of civility but woe, woe, to the unwary outsider who gives offense to one in our ranks.

Theatrics and egos aside, I can count on my sibs to defend and care for me. This certainty among us has been hard won, and it is precious to me. It is from this maddening and glorious cocoon of family togetherness, this place of teeth gnashing and warm embraces, which I will tell you about finding Donald, a man who was not so lucky.

You could say I stumbled over him.

I discovered him last Saturday. He was sitting on the floor just inside the locked double doors of the church where I see my counseling clients. A spectre of the man he had once been, he was peeking at me from beneath an information table. I’d guess his weight at no more than five pounds.

DIW sits in hallway near door.jpg

Donald’s appearance spoke of haste, neglect, and a lack of dignity. Dead over six years, he still inhabited the cheapest of temporary urns–a black plastic cube. An edge of the clear plastic bag holding his charred remains poked out from under the lid. Shrouded in a gray plastic Dollar Tree bag, Donald sat on the cold linoleum and waited.

I waited too. Surely some reasonable explanation existed for my finding him thus.

I popped my head outside the door of my office between clients, hoping to discover he had been claimed.

Once, the church secretary came upstairs to rearrange the letters on the board above the information table. I said nothing and waited to see what would happen. Yolanda slid Donald further under the table. I confess, I cannot testify with certainty that she looked into the open bag at her feet before pushing him out of her way and against the wall. I confess, I cannot testify with certainty that she used her foot.

On Sunday, worshipers came and went, each passing within a few feet of Donald. Did they not wonder about the unexpected deposit in the empty hallway?

Days passed and nobody came for him. On the fourth day, Donald and I headed down to the church office to sort things out. Disaster was narrowly averted when Donald’s heft caused the sharp corners of his box to pierce the flimsy gray bag. I caught him before he fell and exploded in the stairwell.

The pastor and the secretary looked surprised to see Donald. Operating on the assumption that he or a family member had once attended the church, they conducted a little research. This is what they learned: Nothing. Donald had no discernible connection to the church at all. The staff scratched their heads and began researching the proper disposal of human remains.

I had had a cancellation, so I decided to do a little sleuthing of my own.

I was curious about Donald–Donald I. W., to be exact. From the label attached to his little box, I knew when he had come into the world and when he had left it. I even knew the date and location he had been placed in the furnace. I felt somehow embarrassed to know these intimate facts.

D.I.W. Urn Photo

This is what I concluded: Donald had lived with family 1.7 miles from the church. He has surviving family members in the area, including an older brother, now 70, still living in said family home. Either his relations are terribly poor or they don’t give a rat’s ass what becomes of him. Someone had sneaked into the building and abandoned Donald just as one would an unwanted infant.

When I consider Donald’s humiliation, I am overcome with gratitude for the generosity and only slightly deformed goodness which is growing up within and between me and my kin.

Maybe I should not be quite so hard on Donald’s family. They probably deserve some credit for choosing a church over a dumpster.

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Dog Knows, Things Ain’t What They Used to Be: A Wandering Essay on Physical Fitness, Sex, & Wilted Produce

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

March, 2013

Things were better when I was younger…well, my things were, anyway!   –Maxine
(Maxine was created by John Wagner for Hallmark)

 

I was born with endurance and a great bottom half. From jump roping to pogo sticking to sibling kicking, my legs spelled power and possibility from an early age. Plus, they provided a great diversion from some of my weaker features. Dad always said my ears stuck out too far and that I had a bit of a chicken breast. Well, now that I’ve reached middle age, my arms are starting to resemble chicken wings. It looks like I’m getting the neck to match.

In elementary school, I was all about my banana bike. I got it the winter I turned 9. I was in heaven! But when the weather turned warm, and my younger sister learned to ride, Mom and Dad turned on me and granted my younger sister Gwen equal ownership.

Possession is nine tenths of the law, so I always made sure I got to the bike first. I’d peal out, legs treadling as if possessed, and leave Gwen flailing at the end of the driveway. I stayed away for as long as I dared. Sometimes I sneaked up to the shopping center to spend my pocket change on candy. I returned when the needle on my Spankometer indicated I was about to move from “Trouble” to “Big Trouble.” I often miscalculated. Between the Now & Laters and my Dad’s belt, I’m surprised I have a tooth left in my head and a hiney left to sit on.

I discovered another level of freedom at age 10 when we spent a few years in a good-sized German city. My bouncing stride propelled me to destinations of my choosing under my own steam and on my own terms. The city was very safe back then—both day and night. I needed no car. I needed no parents. I felt powerful knowing I could walk out my front door and take myself anywhere in the world. My adventures were limited only by my porte-monnaie and my own daring. Would it surprise you to learn that a good number of adventures involved eggs, tomatoes, toilet paper and my buddy Michaela? I ran faster, thank God. I hear she is doing hard time.

In 10th grade, I discovered cross country and track. Talk about a rush! I became a competitive athlete, and these very legs secured me lifelong friends, a million road trips, and two bachelors degrees. Ask me about my bunions another day.

If my physical activity was consistent, so were its fruits. Ripe, firm fruits, I might be persuaded to add–if I weren’t so humble.

One aunt liked taking me out to shop for clothing because, she said, my booty was SO. DARN. CUTE. Back in the days when I lived close enough to walk to our annual Renaissance Fair, a fellow I met there—a friend of a friend–raved about my tights-clad legs. Even my best friend, an athlete herself, coined a phrase to describe my awesome bottom. Happily, the passage of time and the dawning of political correctness prevent me from disclosing it here. My sister Gwen was content to call it my “buttflower” but, hey, what are sisters for?

Ok, ok. I admit that these occasions of bum worship occurred while I was in my teens and early twenties; however, I have it on good authority that even if I don’t exactly have “It,” I still have something. You noticed too? Oh, stop! You are making me blush!

So, the fruits have been predictable. The same can be said for the nuts. By this, I mean the males of our species, who feel compelled to demonstrate their machismo by ogling even those women whose AARP applications are stamped and sitting on the kitchen table.

I haven’t run in decades but they haven’t noticed. For years upon years, my walks have exposed me to the same primitive mating ritual. I used to find it frightening. Years later, I found it enraging. And then annoying. Now I just find it pathetic. My assets are holding up pretty well, butt….Get a life, guys! Get some glasses!

The ritual goes something like this:

(Car approaches from behind, slowing.)

HONK!

(Head cranes out window to take a closer look.)

NICE ASS!

This February, after much cajoling and an astonishingly professional and well-researched PowerPoint, our youngest daughter convinced us that so much undiluted time spent in the company of The Old People might get her down since both sisters are away at college. We caved and allowed her to adopt a rescue greyhound. Trident is striking! He is slender, white, and aristocratically graceful.

We had a break in the weather today. Trident and I, the two retired racers, set out on a long ramble down the bike path which runs alongside the highway.

And wouldn’t you know it…

(Car approaches from behind, slowing).

HONK!

(Head cranes out window to take a closer look.)

NICE…
.
.
.

(Wait for it….)
.
.
.

DOG!

Bankroll, Yo

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Half of my DNA belongs to Texas. My aging telomeres had been trying to tell me this for years but I ignored them until my brother wrote to say his had been doing the same thing. What did he say, you ask?

Big Sister, I find myself unwillingly on the precipice of middle age and increasingly preoccupied with questions of mortality and the meaning of my existence. I aspire to visit the land of our forefathers to honor the memory of our departed pater and reconnect with our roots so I can resolve any remaining intrapsychic conflicts which have emerged in my quest for self actualization before such time as all those souls old enough to recollect me pass from this fragile earthly existence. Oh, and to appease my achy telomeres. For this reason, I am hopeful that you will agree to accompany me to Texas this fall when my country club closes for annual maintenance.

Hell, no. Naw. Not Will. He laughs at my verbosity—but only because we never see each other for more than a few days every other year. Imagine what it would be like to live with me?…Actually, keep that to yourself. Don’t make me cry.

Here is what he really said. He sent a text:

Yo! Whut up, Big J? How bout u n me meet up n tx n visit r peeps ina fall wen da club cloz?

No, he is not illiterate. He does that on purpose. Because he is cool. And, um, bad. And maybe rad? Wait. Is phat a word?

Our sister Gwen and I had tossed around the idea of visiting before this but it had never gotten out of the “wouldn’t that be nice” or “someday” stage. The telomeres had been satisfied with Facebook up until now.

In planning the trip, Will and I divided the labor the way we knew it would work best. After so many years as sibs, we knew the sweet spot. My job was to handle logistics and blow up his phone with lengthy updates and annoying questions. His job was to love me anyway. And give his input, of course. I’m not a total control freak! To prove my point, I archived all his responses and present them to you here:

Awsum!

Thx!

Snds gud!

Yes

Naw

Phuckit!

The time finally came. I arrived a few days early to get the lay of the land before picking him up at Love Field. We fell into easy conversation.

Wait. I’m about to forget why I started this piece!

My brother, as can be said of all of us Lees, is a jar of mixed nuts–a mixture of common and cultured. Will is a highly intelligent, articulate man with a refined palate and a wardrobe consisting solely of Ralph Lauren*. He works as a country club golf pro, teaching and caddying for celebrities. The guy is the only one in the family who can make a decent cucumber salad.  On the other hand, Will is an aging, beat-boxing gangsta wannabe with a crippled cat named KickStand. He is a half-luddite who frowns upon the use of plastic money. Go figure. How he thrives in L.A. is beyond me.

(Ok, I lied. He has the gift of gab. He is a virtuoso.)

After an exhausting trip, Will was dying for a cigarette. I pulled over, and he pulled out his money. Did you hear me say “wallet?” No. He had told me a while back that he was saving up his tips for our trip. For some reason, I had envisioned my little cache of folded bills. I don’t carry much because I like plastic. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t need a money clip. I could make do with a bobby pin.

Lord, have mercy! I am thankful my little bro is an extremely tall man with extremely tall pockets. The inauspicious bulge might otherwise have upstaged our homecoming. His bankroll was that big.

As he peeled off some ones, he smiled.

Did Dad teach you that too? Small bills on the outside?

I smiled back and showed him my measly wad of doubled bills. Ones on the outside. Always.

He hopped back into the SUV, and we were off. We never ran out of things to talk about as we roared through the stomping grounds of Billy Boy Lee.

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here. For the next post, click here.

*I am not kidding. I still tease Will about his mincing steps when I asked him to accompany me and Gwen on a walk down country roads while visiting family in West Virginia one Christmas. He hadn’t thought ahead—or he just didn’t own the right clothing—and had had to decide whether or not to embrace the cabin fever with the help of a few brewskis or take a stroll through gravel, grime, and potholes in his pristine, white canvas Ralphs. He chose the walk. Love ya, bro!

The Mender (May, 1987)

Make do and mend copy

It’s funny how something as simple as a small boy’s open face can tumble even the firmest defenses.

Sitting at my desk at school, surrounded by half-filled mugs of coffee, dog-eared laboratory manuals, and fermenting laundry; pressed from all sides by assignments outstanding; due dates looming like dark clouds, I decided I had had enough. With a single gesture, I cleared my desk, sending self-important documents sprawling across the floor. Picking a pen and a few sheets of paper out of the wreckage, I began to write:

Zooming down the highway at seventy-five miles an hour, the young woman reviewed her time-table for the day. Before setting out on her errands, she had dutifully visited the tiny apartment her mother and grandmother had shared since her mother had abruptly left her father in mid-January. After thirty minutes of polite conversation, thirty minutes during which her mother had self-consciously picked at her ragged cuticles with large-knuckled fingers, thirty minutes during which her grandmother had rocked, quenched and quiet, in her oversized rocker, the young woman had excused herself.

She had gone on to the bank and then to the post office. Sometime before she headed back to campus, she would stop by the grocery store to pick up stockings for her grandmother and some cereal for herself. If she were lucky, she would have time to pick up her father’s suit at the dry cleaners.

But first things first….She was now on her way to visit her father, who had been admitted to the hospital with a bleeding ulcer. A week ago, he had almost died; but a second surgery and three transfusions had pulled him through. On her way to the hospital, she would stop at the house to look for his checkbook and gather his mail—today was the day she was to help him pay the bills. The daughter visualized her father’s fleshy and stubborn face atop his flaccid white body.

As she pulled up to the house, she noticed that the garbage cans were overflowing. They looked as though they had been sitting in the driveway for a week. The grass had grown tall since she had last been home, and someone’s lark had left tire marks, deep black scars, in the damp spring soil. Cigarette butts and bottle caps, a sure sign of her brother’s habitation, littered a path worn from the drive to the front door. In all the windows, the curtains had been drawn, adding to the property’s forlorn appearance.

Cautiously, she turned her key in the lock and stepped inside. Ugh! A cloud of stale marijuana smoke burned her eyes. She squinted in the darkness. As she made her way to the window to open the drapes and let in fresh air, she stumbled over a disarray of pillows and blankets mounded in the center of the living room.

When she had opened the drapes and thrown open the windows, she stood back in surprise. The house’s emptiness shocked her. At least her brother had had the courtesy to move most of the furniture and breakables out of the way before having a party. She shuddered to think of all that would have been ruined or missing had he not taken these precautions. Still, without the pictures and knick-knacks, the upstairs seemed gray and lifeless. Perhaps it was right that they should have been moved. The objects her mother had lovingly arranged throughout the house had perpetrated a cheerful lie. At least now the deceit had ended. Her mother had walked out three months ago, weary of her father’s bickering and her brother’s wildness. She would not soon return. Why shouldn’t the rooms of the house bear witness to the facts?

Now, in the afternoon shadows, the remaining cabinets gaped like empty mouths; white spots replaced the floral prints and showed the walls to be badly in need of paint. Butts and stains had rooted themselves in the brown carpet like persistent weeds. No scents of cooking or cut flowers warmed the house now. Instead, the air was ripe with the odors of stale beer and smoke–and vegetables rotting in the refrigerator.

She studied the huge black speaker strategically placed in a corner of the living room and facing her now with utmost contempt. Her brother had taped its wire to the carpet with strips of electrical tape, forming a snake-like suture leading back into his room and the mother system. Following this trail, his sister tiptoed back to his room. She expected to find him asleep, as usual, resting after a long night of partying, but he was not in his bed. Thank God he was not there! Had he threatened her today, nobody would have been around to help her.

Sleeping, he resembled a good-natured giant, his oversized hands and feet protruding from his wiry frame and dangling off the bed, which had become too short to contain him. And his face…he had prided himself on the scruffy beginnings of a mustache. Seeing him asleep, one could almost forget his temper, the drugs, the late-night police visits….

She let out a deep sigh and closed her eyes in momentary relief.

In an instant, relief gave way to anger. Didn’t her brother EVER think of anyone but himself? Of course not! He had a way of worming his way out of every predicament, disclaiming all of the responsibilities and escaping most of the consequences of his doings. He simply did whatever her wished, knowing that eventually, someone else would be forced to pick up his tab. What would happen now? Her father was to be released from the hospital in a few days. Was he to come home to this? Was it any wonder he had developed an ulcer?

Ignoring the knot in her stomach, she tried to focus her energies on the problem at hand. She willed the larger issues to the back of her mind in order to treat their symptom. She would just have to squeeze out a few hours to do some straightening and cleaning.

Where should she begin? She could not move the heavy furniture herself, and yet she knew she could elicit no cooperation from her brother. Her sister would be of no assistance. She had moved out a week ago, her green eyes shot with red, and was still too uneasy to return to the house. Her mother…? She would not ask this woman to abandon her new-found adolescence for motherhood in all of its responsibilities. Enough! She would concentrate on the positive—how she could serve her father and how she should be glad to be able to serve him in this way. With her hands on her hips, lips pursed, she surveyed her situation and determined what she could accomplish alone.

Gathering up the soiled bedding, she sang to herself. She sang as she emptied hampers and retrieved underclothes and towels from bathroom floors. By the time she had hauled all the bundles down to the laundry room, she was weary of Joni Mitchell and her melancholy lyrics and searched her mind for lighter tunes.

Time flew as she straightened and scrubbed, dusted and vacuumed. Her mood began to lift. A gentle breeze had cleansed the air; and, like a tender rain, the pine-scented cleaner had bathed the house in freshness. The sinking sun warmed the rooms, repossessing them one by one.

Brave in her triumph, the young woman dared to touch the large speaker which still defaced the living room. She pulled up the black tape and managed to push the beast back into her brother’s room and shut the door. She felt the satisfaction of one who has vanquished a trespasser. Flicking back her damp bangs with the palm of her hand, she felt ready to face her own room.

She thrust open the door and met with the sound of breaking china. Now she knew where her brother had stored the articles he had removed from the other rooms. Appliances, boxes of breakables, and a stray bong prevented her from opening the door very far and forced her to squeeze her way through for a closer look. After a quick examination, she retreated, not desiring to compromise her good cheer. She would reclaim her own room another day. Today she had neither the time nor the energy to wonder who had slept in her bed, or what had become of her jewelry box, or what that was floating in her toilet. She closed the door and returned to the living room for one last inspection.

She was genuinely pleased with what she had been able to accomplish. Small victories such as these made the larger battles seem less formidable. With every struggle, she acknowledged, comes a bounty of good. Silently she thanked God for the beautiful weather. She thanked Him for the fact that her father would be leaving the hospital shortly… and that she had entered the house before he had.

She put behind her the times she had attempted, herself, to mend and patch and pick up the loose ends in her household. She put behind her the times she had believed in herself, her mother, her father, her brother, her sister, and been disappointed. She felt strong. She had hope. Soon things would change—she had prayed that they would. God had heard her. Soon there would be an end to this vicious spiral, the seemingly endless chain of bitterness and rebellion. Yes, she had hope: vibrant hope, realistic hope—realistic because she knew that whatever its form, God’s answer was at hand. Her mother might never return; her brother might never change from his abusive lifestyle. Still, she knew relief would come.

Looking out the picture window at the blooming dogwood, she observed Mark, the little boy from across the street, approaching her house. With large, clumsy steps, he bounced up the driveway, holding his cupped hands importantly before him. The girl smiled to herself. She wondered what he could be bringing this time… an injured bird, a dandelion, a fistful of cookies…?

He stopped before he reached the house and planted his feet steadily and deliberately, as if to brace himself. For a moment he paused. Then he rubbed his hands together, spreading a handful of refuse across the lawn. With a look of innocent satisfaction, he turned and started for home.

Violently, the girl flung open the door. In a second she had spun the child around.

“Just what do you think you are doing?” she screamed, her flushed face inches from his.

Wide-eyed and without comprehension, he looked first into one pupil and then the other. He hesitated.

“My father was mad because your brother partied all night.”

Without realizing it, she had been holding her breath. Now, pierced to the marrow, she allowed it to escape, slowly deflating her rigid shoulders. Wearily, she reprimanded him.

“Why didn’t you at least throw them in the garbage can?” She pointed at what she now recognized as several hundred of her father’s address labels. How had they ended up on the neighbor’s lawn? Mark must have had quite a job to retrieve them all.

The boy’s eyes turned to liquid, and his chin trembled. Finally he replied.

“I didn’t know,” he wimpered, squirming.

Taking a step back, she scrutinized the offender. He was just a little boy, a child of six—not unlike her own brother at that age.

“Oh,” she answered, no longer aware of the child, who, frightened, turned and sprinted for home.

She remained for a moment in silent contemplation. A moment later, she returned to the house and began to cry.

I returned to the house and began to cry. Later, in the safety of my dormitory room, I picked up a pen and a few sheets of paper and began to write….

Image credit here

 

Rule # 9: I Know You Better Than You Know Yourself

Photo courtesy of TMAB2003

Photo courtesy of TMAB2003

I think I was my father’s little boy.

I say this tentatively and with an apology to my younger brother Will. Both because I may have misunderstood–and that makes me sound queasily grandiose–and because it might sound like I am blaming him for not being chosen as heir. Maybe I should apologize to Gwen as well. If one daughter could be his son, why not the other? I believe it had little to do with our individual merits.

Maybe birth order is to blame since both my siblings are loveable and gifted individuals. Looking through my adult vantage point and my therapist goggles, I see that my father was prone to bending logic when it suited him. It is deforming to spoil, provoke, or ignore a child into brazenness, neediness, or despair and then point at that child’s behavior to justify your concerns about his or her goodness or stability.

The fact that I learned to negotiate the shifting shoals is both an achievement and a source of shame and guilt. I rarely ran aground in any obvious way. While I was astute enough to figure out and operate within the rules of engagement, I did not save or defend my siblings when I might have. Instead, I stood quietly by and watched as they were branded with various labels and then punished for bearing them. Older and stronger, I sometimes even threw them under the bus.

I know, I know. I was just a kid. But it still feels bad sometimes. Back and forth, back and forth I go. Was I a victim or an accomplice? This is how I wear my damage. They wear theirs differently.

Allowing myself to contemplate my brokenness brings self loathing. If I claim I am damaged, I selfishly compete for balm at the expense of those who need it more. I have shown I can manage. If I claim I am undamaged, I smell superior and condescending. There is no way out. Thankfully, the reverberations have become dampened over time. I don’t spend a lot of time or tears on this matter. It generally stays in the back of my mind, held comfortably in check by God’s cleansing and my adult logic.

Occasionally old feelings still build and threaten. Writing this–right in this moment–I feel the edges of madness pressing in. That slow sinking. Eyelids falling shut. Bad Jane, bad Jane. Time to take a break…

…The brands I received were different but no less constricting. Though I never struggled with sexual preference or identity, being Junior and being entrusted with my father’s inside views on my mother’s shortcomings caused me to associate my womanly emotional makeup with weakness and disown it as inferior. I was just as uncomfortable with my body.

I got to be the Good Student, the Responsible One, the Dutiful One. Whoop dee do. These labels came with the designations Stoic One and Stick In The Mud. I think in time I also got Sneaky One, and sometimes that one fit.

Gwen got to be the Feminine One, the Cute One, and the Artistic One. Sigh. Sadly, those were padlocked to the brands Dramatic One (never to be taken seriously, even in extremis) and Messy One (“She can’t help herself. It’s because of her artistic temperament.”). How would you like to labor under those prophetic burdens? And what do you think happens when two girls, so differently regarded and so close in age, have to share a single small room? This was not a recipe to cultivate sibling love.

Will had other brands but those escape me now. The comparison between me and Gwen was sharpest given our 18-month age difference.

Dad labeled me because he knew he knew me and what I was about. Looking at me was looking in the mirror. It was a Fun House mirror–wavy and distorted–but only one of us seemed to realize it. I was supposed to be an engineer like him. He knew it was a fit for me. I knew I would never, ever, do it. Even the thought of it made me clammy.

I stood up to him about the engineering major but compromised by giving in to his expectation that I enroll in 21 credits my first semester in college. He had done it. No problem! Never mind that I was participating as a scholarship athlete on a Division I sports team. I lasted a few weeks before quietly adjusting my schedule and doing my own thing. To his credit, he was entirely supportive. This marked the start of a better phase in our relationship. On the cusp of my adulthood, I began to understand him differently. I came to view his behavior as motivated more by a lack of insight than a spoiling for malice. More on that soon.

I ended up studying Bio and German. I said I might try for medical school though I knew I never would.

In retrospect, this may have been the most Jane I was able to be at this time in my life. The finding of Jane has been a molasses-slow and ongoing process. Bio was not my thing. German, I love, but not as a profession. Years later, I ended up in counseling and then in grad school for counseling. It’s a great fit.

As for writing? Too artistic for me to even contemplate.

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here. For the next post, click here.

 

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