The Old Men and the Sea of Leaves

This was a dreamer day, warm temperatures, golden grass and trees and neon-colored, crackling leaves underfoot, mellow folks dressed in shorts and tee shirts, walking along the river.

Farmer Orville and Quilt Queen weren’t home, so I opened the dog pen and let out Ruby Puppy, Reba the farm dog and Bud who was visiting. We romped across the fields, and the dogs dove at holes. Bud is elderly, but he was leaping in the tall grass. We passed the beehive, which was abuzz with workers prepping for winter.

Juncos have arrived from up north, slate-grey with cream-colored breasts. They ran along in the grass and under leaves using their beaks for plows. Bluebirds perched on the Osage Ironwood posts. The sky was filled with circling turkey buzzards and the resident red-tail and Cooper’s hawks.

The dogs and I got back to home base just as Orville and Quilt Queen came back from shopping. Beverly had fed about twenty people yesterday, and she was exhausted. She excused herself and went in the house for a nap. Orville made fresh coffee while I set up porch chairs. Old Walt emerged from his house, headed for the confab, so I set out a third chair.

Walt is nearing 90. His wife has been in a nursing home since I’ve lived here. He soldiers on. He walks as slow as a human can, leaning on a stout cane. He has a mane of lush white hair. He was born in Orville and Quilt Queen’s house. He is a big fan of my newspaper columns. He almost always tells me so, whereas Orville and Quilt Queen figure Midwesterners don’t need praise lest they get big heads.

Orville brought out the coffee and set the cups on the outdoor table. “No pie left,” he said. “The grandkids ate every morsel. The turkey skeleton ain’t got a bit of flesh left.”

How was my Thanksgiving? my friends asked. I told them I ate a cheese sandwich and Fritos for supper. Orville shook his head at Old Walt and said Gene doesn’t get it. It ain’t about sex. It’s about pie and holidays arranged by females—that is why us boys need women in our life. We all do. Walt guffawed, even as he knows his wife will never be able to return home. I said my last wife’s pie ultimately cost me $30,000.

The breeze blew the leaves into funnel shapes. It had been coming from the north for two weeks, which is why, Walt told Orville, all his dang leaves were in Orville’s yard, saving him from raking them. The leaves will be bundled and carried to the blackberry bushes for mulch and protection from the weather.

“I hate shaving,” Orville said. “See, Gene, what a wife will do is get you to shave and bathe regular. Have you boys seen that 19th century beard of Letterman’s?” Whereupon Walt and Orville discussed how they missed David Letterman, shocking me to my core. It’s a long turn of the channel knob to go from Fox News to Letterman/Colbert.

It dawned on me that Orville might actually envy me for my independence. He would have eaten a cheese sandwich and Fritos with chocolate chip cookies for a chaser, had he been by himself on a holiday. Perhaps that is your dream, when you have been married for sixty years.

I headed home for a nap, smelling of dog licks and decaying leaves and crusted honey and barn mold and Old Spice. “Good to see you,” Old Walt called, his words warming me to my core.

This was my Thanksgiving.

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A Thanksgiving Memory

November 23, 2017 “A Thanksgiving Memory”

Thanksgiving 1973, 4:30 am, and we watched out of our apartment window, snow coming down in buckets. We had got up early to drive the three hundred miles from Chicago to Alton, to my dad’s house, but now we hesitated. Snow in Chicago, in those days, was serious stuff.

But we got on the road, very little traffic, stopping along the way for coffee and hot chocolate. The snow followed us—or we followed the snow—all the way to Baldwin State Park, my dad’s name for his fifty acres of woods on Route 67. He and my stepmother hadn’t attended our wedding in Long Island. This was the first meeting.

I warned Barbara, from the moment I knew we were serious. My dad was two men in one body. He could be gregarious; he could be buried in foul moods, like layers of dirty blankets. Surly I exaggerated, my wife said, as we drove up the steep, one-lane dirt road above Piasa Creek, the oak woods heavy with snow.

Dad greeted us at the door. He hugged Barbara and took her coat. My stepmother came out of the kitchen and kissed my wife. Dinner was nearly ready, as our trip had taken almost eight hours. Dad sat us in the living room, the TV in the background showing a football game. He was in his recliner, a glass of ice and amber liquid on the end table next to him.

Barbara nuzzled next to me, watching my father watch the football game. Few words were spoken. Then halftime came. Dad looked at me and asked if I wanted a drink. Barb, why don’t you go and help Marlene with the dinner?

Dad and Barb walked into the kitchen. Marlene told Barb, no thanks, you sit with your father-in-law and get to know him. Back came Dad with a drink for me, Barb trailing behind. He sat and turned up the TV and sank into oblivion. Barb took a sip of my drink and asked for one of her own.

You know where the bar is, my father said, not even bothering to glance our way. My wife stewed for thirty minutes. No words were exchanged by anyone in the house. Finally, she looked at me. She jerked her head: Come talk to me. We stood up and went into the hall bathroom. I warned you, I said. The nerve of my dad, to ignore the woman guest. I made a bad joke: He treats his wife the same way.

I’m leaving, Barb told me. I will not stay in this house. We drove eight hours, for this? I knew her well enough to know she wasn’t joking or just letting off steam. She was leaving. Never mind that we were deep in snow-covered woods, with only a two-lane highway the shoulder of which was too narrow to walk.

She fetched her coat from the hall closet. Going for a walk? my dad asked. And out the front door my wife went. Marlene came from the kitchen to announce that dinner was served. She asked my father: What did you do to upset Barbara? He shrugged and went right back to watching the television.

We’re leaving, I told my dad. Okay, he said, so casually, so seemingly disinterested.  The important thing with him was to steel the emotions; nothing could hurt him.

Marlene followed me to the car, kissed Barbara and said she was so sorry her husband was a jerk.

And back we drove towards Chicago, the snow letting up a bit, exhaustion making cautious drivers of us both. We stopped at a Cracker Barrel outside Bloomington and ate the saltiest Thanksgiving food I can ever remember. We got some wine and a motel room, and we passed the bottle back and forth and laughed, at the worst Thanksgiving of the imagination, an event that would never be discussed again.

The next summer, my dad walked Barb all around the fifty acres. They came out of the woods holding hands.

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nova November

The leaves reign and the rain slashes fueled by snake wind the cold crawling underneath my fingernails chilling my blood nova November remember her pale body pasted wet with leaves and sieves of dust clockwise the cattails chasing their tales

Playing catch knuckleballing oakleaf divers the road slick as ice

She walks naked through the woods her rustred hair hanging to her waist though she never looks back never utters a prayer never gives thanks and this enflames me fills me and I watch and listen Thomas Hardy coming to mind the woman of the moors lit by peatfire

Stained by berry juice peach juice plum jam

Erica as Eroica the tympani tyranny ping-ping-ping of hearts the rush of breath of breatheless footfalls nova November remember breaststroking the lowering of the body the ringlets the trumpeter swans flying fanfareing along the bluffs the creaking of old trees and men

“kisses sweeter than wine” in my synapses my naps’ constant concupiscent lapses

Ice-coat raincoat seedcoat fecund and sleeping in the earthquake the barred owl: who-who/who-who-who-who the unanswered question twilight whylife and worms for midwives and she is gone without warning dies without warning without notice just gone

nova November remember rustling colors lightfilled blindness and child dreams wept and wet

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Viking Hand

My hand surgeon Dr. Calfee told me today I have “Viking Hand,” a condition where the ligaments leading to the fingers thicken until bumps rise up under the skin of the palm. The bumps tighten along the ligaments and curl one’s hand inward. It’s an inherited condition, widely found in genetic Brits. I am Welsh, mystery solved. Who passed along Viking Hand to me, I do not know, but I have my suspicions.

If Judge Roy Moore had Viking Hand, it might explain his girl groping style. The hands of the afflicted are perfectly curved and suited for junior miss ass grabbing. Macbeth might have had Viking Hand, a new theory of the “out, out damned spot” crowd.

A little internet research has revealed some other aptly-named afflictions. “Mongol Mastoid,” for instance. In ancient times, Mongol invaders celebrated mass slaughter by repeatedly thrusting their spears into their own ears, the lobes of the affected ears growing thick and outward. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has thrusting ears. Mongol Mastoid Syndrome could explain why he met with Russians but didn’t hear them.

“Reichstag Shoulder” is attributed to Germans who inherited their grandfather’s shoulder joint condition, from repeatedly performing the Nazi salute. Certain divisions of the Luftwaffe, in late 1944 when they were out of planes to fly, were documented charging unarmed into advancing Russian positions, killing thousands of Russkies by stiff-arming them. Donald Trump clearly suffers from Reichstag Shoulder.

“Brobdingnagian Beak,” the repeated slamming of a whisky glass into the nose, causing abnormal bone growth and brain damage, can be seen in generations of imbibers. Steve Bannon, for instance, who when he gives a speech has to balance his torso backwards to offset his elephantine nose and can only spout gibberish.

“She’s Got Michele Bachman Eyes.” This is fairly common in Republicans without souls, which explains why the Republican National Convention looked like a scene from “The Walking Dead.”

“Ryan’s Run.” A variation of irritable bowel syndrome, where the sufferer shits out of his mouth. “Mock Turtle Head.” Kentucky’s own turtle-esque Mitch McConnel suffers from this condition, where a human head develops an oversized bony cavern which stores Ryan’s Run.

Finally, there is “Sara Palindrome,” where the demented speaker spouts gibberish while looking across the Bering Strait to see Russia. Example: “Swat God for a janitor; rot in a jar of dog paws.” Translation: We’re bringin’ God back to the working man, and Libtards can rot like the feminazis dogs they are.”

Of course, there is one public person who has Viking Hand, Mongol Mastoid, Reichstag Shoulder, Brobdingnagian Beak, She’s Got Michele Bachman Eyes, Ryan’s Run, Mock Turtle Head and Sara Palindrome, all rolled into one flatulent, beady little body.

The alt-Right Reverend Pat Roberson.

Can I get an Amen?

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Stand By Me

Actress Heather Lind has joined the growing chorus of women coming forward to tell their stories of sexual harassment. Lind, star of “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” said that she was groped from behind and told a dirty joke, by none other than eighty-nine-year-old former president George H. W. Bush, from his wheelchair, at an event promoting the TV show in 2014.

Ms. Lind also claims that President Bush groped her a second time while Barbara Bush rolled her eyes, as if to say “not again.” A Secret Service agent is purported to have advised Ms. Lind to never stand next to the randy ex-president.

(Whether Mr. Bush ever groped Mrs. Bush from behind—in the “bird in the hand is better than two in the, uh, bush” analogy—was not reported.)

Is it ever okay to grab-ass? Miss Manners, in her book, “Up Front About Your Behind,” observed that the only way to avoid having one’s keister kinkily cuckolded is to adapt the old nuns’ “ruler code for dances,” in this case staying at least a yardstick length away from anyone.

I once did a stint as a driving instructor to high school kids. A girl client and I had just sat in the car, me on the passenger’s side filling out paper work. I instructed her to run through her preliminary tasks, adjusting mirrors, checking brakes etc. She promptly leaned across my lap to reach the outside mirror on my side, her yoga-panted middle resting on my middle, said yoga pants slipping just enough to reveal part of her end zone.

My face burned. I mean, it caught fire. I prayed to White Jesus to take me. My panicked mind jumped to tomorrow’s newspaper headline: “Driving Instructor Gropes Girl.” Actually, my panicked hands shot up and groped the car’s ceiling. My panicked voice shook as I sternly told the kid to sit up. She blew a bubble and sat up and adjusted the mirror on her side. I didn’t say another thing. She was oblivious. Thank god George H. W. Bush wasn’t her driving instructor.

Let’s start with President Eisenhower and play, What Future Presidents Copped a Feel? Ike? No way. John Kennedy? Way-way. Lyndon Johnson? Yeah, baby! Tricky Dick grabbing hippie heinie? In his dreams. Gerald Ford? Pardon? Jimmy Carter? Lust in his heart but not in his hands. Ronald Regan? Well. . . George H. W. Bush? Read his lips. Bill Clinton? Give the man a cigar! George W. Bush? Nucular. Barack Obama? No way-way. Donald Trump? Way, baby, way, way across his big brass bed.

Moral of the story: Fathers and mothers, don’t let your babies grow up to be White House interns. (Sorry, Willie Nelson.) Advise them never to lay across their driving instructor. Watch out for communion wino Father Maximus in the sacristy with his “knife.” Avoid all people named George, whether uncle, president, personal chef, tax man, tai chi instructor. (Except—there’s always an exception—for my music teacher George H., who stood up to my jerk of a father.)

A woman friend recently told me we’d all be better off if we avoided men. At least she included me in the “we’d.” Now I’m rooting for all men except me to spontaneously combust.

Yeah, baby!

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The Song of Debra

We walked the narrow Michigan country road between rains, the dog straining at her leash to pull us forward, my friend laughing at her frenzied pet.

There was silence filled with words and words filled with silence.

It seemed as though we could touch the low clouds, and there was the constant rumble of thunder in the distance. The grasslands along the woods were ember-colored, a prairie fire of light and dark sky. Stands of forest shook their branches, and tree rain fell, a baby’s rattle morphing into a maraca, the reedy breeze the percussionist.

We passed an aged barn, its boards soaked and stained from rain scars. Two horses watched us from the barn doors. They knew the dog and the woman. We walked to the fence, and the horses came outside and put our hands in their warm mouths, noses noisily sniffing.

This was a painting, I thought, light and shadow that might have made Vincent envious – cloudy, cloudy night, out of the bleeding sunset.

That night, after Debra and the dog had gone home, I sat in her boyfriend’s living room (he was at a wedding in Cincinnati) and listened to the rain fierce the rain soothing the rain ranting at bent trees. Acorns landed on the roof and burst like popcorn.

I sipped scotch. The power went out. The house was a black hole. My bones ached. I groped my way to the dining room. I sat and looked out the window. The black bird feeders black-gold with finches. Tufted titmice. Chickadees singing blues. Redheaded woodpeckers hammering. In the ink, the blackness, the dream light. I sipped scotch.

Outside, Gregg’s stone labyrinth above the pond, a line of possum pilgrims, masked bandits, coyotes praying, a killdeer crying ‘let me Kodak you, baby,’ a disbarred owl seeking penance, and denning, snoring snakes beneath the stones.

Let us prey pray praise posit ponder palliate: The ebony nightlight. The tintinnabulation of bluebells, baby’s tears, baby’s breath. The blackened fish stirred in pond song. The dark matter and the matted mud and the leaf pudding and the dark doesn’t matter and blackness matters.

Soughing black lives of snails, spiders, mosquitoes buzzing ears, beetles, bats, sleeping fox kits, a lagging hummingbird, thoughts, crows looking at baby pictures: matter.

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Yesterday, nuthatches swarmed the bird feeder. The dogwood tree seemed to move like an escalator, birds walking upside down in a row. And there were the visiting birds, perching along the electric wires, migraters at a rest stop.

Yesterday, I walked along the river. The path was strewn with acorns. I could hear fellow walkers and some bikers approach: the crunch of tires on acorns, the crack of acorns underfoot.

Yesterday, a lone man in a john boat piloted eastward, his left arm holding a huge, flapping, Confederate flag on a pole. He stopped the boat every minute or so to stand and wave the obscene flag with both arms. I assumed he was protesting Black Lives Matter, the after-verdict shutdown in St. Louis. How empty must a life be, I thought, that holds up the symbol of a lost cause perpetrated by rich, white southerners who, if they were alive, would have nothing to do with a hardscrabble desperado in a john boat.

Yesterday, a migrating forty-pound snapping turtle stopped at mid-road on Stroke Hill and hissed at me. It was too big and aggressive to pick up and relocate. So, I stood guard and alerted passing cars. Snapping turtles rule their world but not the world of pickup trucks. Finally, I kicked at the old warrior, and it hissed and crossed and disappeared down the bluff.

Yesterday, long strands of white pelican pearls swirled above the islands.

Yesterday, my straight-faced friend Hummingbird Man retold me his annual fall story, that hummingbirds hitch rides on the backs of big birds all the way to Mexico. Belief is a powerful thing. Science hasn’t got a prayer.

Yesterday, dog-eye sulfur butterflies with yellow-green wings undulated on the breeze. If I had to vote on Best Butterfly, I would elect dog-eyes. They come before autumn, gather in large groups in puddles, and flutter in concert, and break tender hearts with their sheer beauty.

Yesterday, my legs burned, my heart beat wildly, my body rained sweat and gnats, my feet became brittle and numb, and still I walked, among orange-hued soybean fields and golden row of cornstalks, above the ribboning Mississippi River. And I saw my younger self in the mirror of my sunglasses: young and strawberry-haired and rusty-bearded and sex-crazed and arrogant and vital and confident and masculine


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Electric Neon Deep Blue

The Genehouse walk today began with but a single step from the house. A splendid Imperial Moth lay, wings extended, in some fallen leaves just below the porch. Its wingspan was three inches across, its coloration mottled yellow and brown. Eyespots dotted its wings.

Giant moths have in common that when they are fully articulated they are the most beautiful creatures to behold, they have but four to five days to live, and one mission, to mate and leave behind the next generation encased in tiny eggs. They don’t even eat, for they won’t live long enough to be hungry.

Like the biblical, mythical Seven Days of Creation, it’s all relative. Imagine, you’re a perfect specimen of a teenager, you spot the most gorgeous boy or girl of the imagination, you mate and mate with abandon for four days, the girls among you lay eggs, and then you die.

I walked through the canopy of shade down Stroke Hill, every step orchestrated by the frenzied music of cicadas. Hummingbird Man, aka Vance, with his long blond ponytail reaching to his butt, was working on a four-wheeler engine in the front yard. Twelve hummingbird feeders hung from windows and a fir tree. For every nectar portal, four or five rubythroats fought to reach the liquid. I stood amidst the feeders, and hummingbirds chattered in my ears and swarmed my face.

“I’ve trapped at least five coons,” Vance said. “They come at four a.m. and climb the tree and try to take the feeders down. I just let them go, upriver. If you know what I mean.”

I walked east along the Mississippi. Great and snowy egrets looked like stilt walkers, plodding along the shoreline of Scotch Jimmy Island. The water was riffled by a cool breeze, and sailboats zigzagged across Alton Lake.

And then I spotted an indigo bunting, flitting along the bluff trees. It was finch-shaped, its body electric neon deep blue. It was spearing insects. A couple of bikers stopped and asked what I was watching, and we all marveled at the sight. Indigo buntings are royalty, related to cardinals. They make bluebirds appear pale, by comparison.

Nearing home, I stopped in at Farmer Orville’s place. He and Quilt Queen were talking Taco Bell. “Or just get anything,” Quilt Queen said. “I don’t care.” “She don’t mean it,” Orville said. “Bring back an exact order, or there will be hell to pay. I am a man who knows where his bread is buttered.” His wife smiled and nodded.

Orville groupies arrived in cars, seeking tomatoes. Country small talk broke out. I saluted my friends and walked home.

Birds and butterflies can break your heart. The beauty, the song. Half of all animal species on earth have gone extinct. We like the show of nature, more than the stewardship it would take to preserve living things. There will always be butterflies. Except, there won’t. Our great-grandchildren may only know butterflies and moths from sketches in books.

But hey, as one friend put it, “Glad I won’t be around to see it.” And your kin? The children? “Well, I hope they figure it out.”

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Send Me No Power

I am powerless—in more ways than one. I drove to my house to soothe the cat. The electric lines were still down, the house was an oven.

I stopped for coffee at the convenience store. The parking lot was full of contract electricians, some all the way from Oklahoma. I walked to a young guy’s truck and tried to make small talk, but he wasn’t having it.

“You don’t deserve air conditioning and power,” the guy said. “I’m working around the clock, and yesterday I took a break and worked my soybeans. And I didn’t have no air conditioning. You people (I thought he meant seniors) think you should get everything. Well, listen up, guy. All the electric grids in the world are going down—only the fittest will survive. I am ready.”

I believed him. He may or may not represent a class of people who call themselves survivalists (white people, dare I say it), but I wasn’t going to probe.

I spent an hour with the cat. She was obviously stressed. A car pulled up, and an electrician, a black man, got out and introduced himself. He was the point man on getting the power restored. I mentioned that a lot of people were stressed out. He had heard an earful already, as had his colleagues. Unfortunately, he also had a few customers who didn’t want to let him in their houses.

“I love my job,” the man said. “I will keep any further opinions to myself. You look familiar. How do I know you?”

I told him I was a writer, most recently about the Tuskegee Airmen. He had been at the ceremony to unveil the memorial to George and Arnold Cisco. He said I was blessed.

And then I drove to Farmer Orville’s house. We sat on the porch, and his wife Quilt Queen offered me more coffee and some Pepperidge Farm cookies. I told them about the two electricians. “What a shame,” Quilt Queen said. “That in 2017 people still hold racist feelings.” She was utterly sincere.

Their neighbor Walt’s giant maple tree had shattered in the Saturday night storm, one long piece of it snapping off and flying like a spear, downing itself just feet from my friends’ kitchen. This turned into a theological discussion. Sure, God tried to kill me; I’m a heathen after all. But He also threw a maple spear at the sacred Missouri Synod Lutheran kitchen, from whence pies and cookies and cobblers emerge.

“Read your Martin Luther,” Orville said. “God don’t choose sides. You are a spectacular sinner, but I am a sinner too.”

True dat.

And since God or god or Universe or universe don’t take sides, we all are being called—to speak against hatred and injustice. To act: not a comforting notion to most people my age, who “don’t worry, be happy,” and want to eat and be merry and dote on their grandchildren, never mind the grandchildren are facing global catastrophe and may have to fight for water.

And if we don’t speak and act, we deserve the survivalists, who—in case you haven’t heard— managed to elect a President of Hate of the United States of America, even if that president is cheerfully throwing them off the bus.

In chaos is joy—if you have a gun.

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We Interrupt This Program

The tanks rolled up to the balcony where I was standing and holding a little girl in my arms. The turrets made an awful racket as they pivoted their guns up and toward the balcony. The girl screamed and clawed at my arm. And then the tanks fired: This was my dream.

I awoke with the cat in the crook of my arm. She was yowling and trying to get away from me. There was a freight train coming at the house, and an explosion, from outside. The cat vanished, and I jumped out of bed and stood under an archway.

I opened the front door and saw wires and cables strewn all over the front yard, the power still on. Rain slashed northeast, and lighting repeatedly flashed to the north, like a lamp light turning on and off. A 20-foot tree limb lay across the wires, at the corner of my study. The car, I thought, the car.

I called 911, and within minutes two firemen pulled up in a pickup truck. They shouted at me to stay inside. They had been making rounds in the storm’s path, Stanka Lane to Stroke Hill and up to the highway. The storm, it seems, took the Genehouse path.

The firemen told me that several house fires were being fought, power lines were down, and thousands of people and homes were without power. They checked my yard by flashlight. My shed roof was punched in. The street light pole next to the shed had snapped, and the wires all fell. My carport was listing toward the house but the car was fine. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DRIVE, STAY INSIDE.

So, I had a beer and typed a message on Facebook, and I discovered that friends all over the area were awake, many without power. We had been scorched by 108-degree heat the day before, and we all had looked forward to sleep.

I was dead tired. I lay down, intending to check back in with friends, but I drifted in and out of dream states. At least I was cool. And Scout the cat rejoined me in bed.

And then the power went out. My box fan stopped singing white noise. The storm had passed; there was deadly quiet. I meditated until dawn.

And walked outside, and saw the damage that the tank in my dream had caused. I went back in the house and read the Sunday paper. By 10 a.m. the heat started rolling back in, and steam rose off the tall corn across the highway. The humming birds fed in a frenzy. But there were no insects, squirrels, birds.

The tree that crashed my carport bounced and rolled off to the right onto my shed. Had the carport not been there, in front of my bedroom window, Scout and I might have. . .

I’m fine, staying with a friend down the road, cool. I imagine that a lot of people who live alone are bearing the heat, as they bear life itself and wait.

And wait.

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