Keeping It Simple

We’re late sleepers in this household come holidays, although that’s not much of a change. John can vary but his daily responsibilities don’t start until almost noon, so he has flexibility. I work late anyway, and while I can’t usually sleep past 10am I can sometimes make it all the way there (sometimes with a bedtime of 4am or later), occasionally past.

So it’s usually Julie who reverts to her true nature when she doesn’t have classes to teach, and this house is quiet in the mornings. And since she doesn’t teach on Mondays this quarter anyway, when I woke up and saw the time started with an 8, it was tiptoes all the way around.

Which is why I ended up in a corner of the basement this morning, trying to get to the furthest, most neutral corner, sitting on a cold floor, grinding coffee beans, which is a noisy business.

And I thought, why do I grind these beans? I’m not a coffee lover; I’m perfectly happy with a cup of Folgers. Can I tell the difference? Probably, but mostly I get a small sense of pleasure out of doing it. Can’t explain it, but I do and I’ll probably continue. Quietly.

I’ve had a few days of this, minihedonism. On Thanksgiving our video conference call worked fine, and for a few minutes I saw everyone’s faces, nephews, siblings, spouses, Mom. It’s not the same as being in the same room, there wasn’t much to say, there were mostly grins and waves, but it was possible and it was done, and I kept grinning the rest of the day.

Then there was the pie. I’m a fan of Thanksgiving pies in principle; in practice, with just the three of us they tend to be wasted and pastry as a nutritional concept needs to be approached with caution, at least for me. But we needed to have one, so I picked apple and relearned that I could get a fair amount of happiness making pie crusts every day, I think. I rarely do it but I picked up the skill a few years ago, after many questions to the bakers I know and many chunks of dough in the trash. A nice pie crust, made quickly, chilled, rolled out to a wafer-thin, flaky, buttery two dimensions and filled with apples is a pleasure of mine, one I need to remember for nonholidays, I think.

And yesterday afternoon, when Julie and John were out getting the kid a haircut, I tackled my wife’s nearly-6-year-old laptop, which had picked up another virus, a mild Trojan that nonetheless was driving her crazy. I could spend a fair amount of time, gladly, dreaming up fancy punishment for the life-wasters who create these instead of using their skills in productive ways — and it drives me crazy trying to figure out how she gets these, since she’s a cautious user — but I rolled up my sleeves and fought that bastard for an hour. I had serious tools on hand if needed, and I was prepared to take that computer back to 2004 factory condition (I’ve done it before) if I had to, but I finally figured out how to preempt it long enough for me to run a scan and kill it. I ran a few more, ensured a whistle-clean hard drive, set up a few more roadblocks for the future, and rolled down my sleeves, mission accomplished on a Sunday afternoon.

There’ve been other things, too, and it may be the holiday, maybe it’s the end of a stressful year, or maybe it’s just age and perspective. Life suddenly seems awfully trivial in so many ways. Climb Mt. Everest if you want, but you will still die and the mountain will still be there, and mostly I hope it gives you some pleasure, a sense of accomplishment, a stunning view, something, because I suspect that’s all it means in the end. I’ve always been a hoarder of moments so maybe it’s just me, but I’m sure starting to appreciate the simple ones, like pie and freshly ground coffee, done quickly and quietly, just for the grins.

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Home For The Holiday

It’s tricky, this Thanksgiving thing. There’s plenty to be grateful for, and I have no problem taking an abitrary calendar page and using it for inspiration. I am grateful and why not? There is peace in this household currently, music and warmth and a dog, phone calls (now video!) and plenty of possibilities.

On the other hand, I’m also really grateful to eat pie for breakfast. That’s right up there toward the top.

It’s complicated to dig into the holiday with three people, which is what our Thanksgiving looked like this year (again). It’s dumb to prepare food for ambience only, but some things are necessary. It felt all right, almost perfect, at any rate, when John, Julie and I sat down Thursday, and if no one ate the fruit salad (and pretty much no one did) it’s a small waste for the knowledge that at least an effort was made.

Also there was banana pudding.

And I hope, for my American readers anyway, that yours was as good as mine. We were together, we at least touched base with family far away, we certainly were fed, the weather behaved itself, and at the end of the day my son wrapped his arms around me and kissed the back of my head, just because he felt like it. I’m grateful.

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On A Scale Of 1 To Something

The answer turned out to be 11, which makes sense. Eleven is logical, manageable, relatively insignificant and justifiable if you ask me. I’m good with 11.

Pounds we’re talking about, pounds of extra, unneeded energy that my body has stored for a rainy day, conveniently located in my butt. Call it an investment.

It’s really amazing, when you think about it. A pound of fat contains 3500 calories, enough to last 3 days if it were actual food. Two cans of Campbell soup weigh more than a pound. We are efficient creatures.

And I justify it by noting that I had a stressful year and this fall I’ve sort of relaxed a little, been busy but indulged a bit. Plus a local grocery chain has come out with a store-brand ice cream product that I’ve been testing for quality assurance (verdict: Really excellent). And late nights are the norm, and as my son-in-law has pointed out, eating late at night is just fun.

It took me a few days to figure out the damage, since scales are tricky. I have about 5000 words on the nature of scales. Got them right here. I can write them anytime, just waiting to be asked.

The gist of it, though, is that I refused to let scales piss me off, intimidate me or give me the blues. So a couple of years ago I decided to stop and think about scales, and I realized that they tell us how much we weigh, is all.

I’m not being cute, unless you think so. Example: Let’s say the scale shows that you weigh 200 pounds. Now put on a 50-pound backpack and get back on. It says you weigh 250 pounds, but do you really?

Of course you do.

But you know why. And you know you didn’t gain 50 pounds of fat, just backpack.

So I had to wait a couple of days, stop the late-night eating and let the numbers adjust, and now we have 11. I can live with that but I probably won’t.

It’s been 2 years since I outsourced a fair amount of my personal body fat; it now resides on the subcontinent somewhere, speaking with a musical accent and trying to get people to buy extended warranties. None of this is noble; I’m a crappy eater, particularly for a mature person, and the room for improvement is huge. I have a romantic relationship with pizza and all sorts of sugar, and I still seem to be at odds with veggies. My saving grace, relentless and daily exercise, has slackened this autumn, and I can find any number of reasons to wait until tomorrow for any number of changes, as always.

But if we look at that silly picture at the top of this blog, with the hat, and then look at this one from a few years ago

I think we can all say that 11 pounds, as annoying as they are, are a small price to pay for an autumn of indulgence, some really good ice cream, and the knowledge that I don’t take no crap from no scale, no way.

And I still have those 5000 words. Just waiting.

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Future Boy

Beth and I walked into a restaurant in South Carolina last June, halfway to Atlanta and hungry, and we immediately knew where we were, if there had been any question, no GPS needed.

“Smoking or nonsmoking?” the hostess asked, and I thought, Really? Living on the Left Side as I do, in the Land of the Nannies. It felt less like an anachronism than an echo, maybe, and mostly just struck me as polite.

The food was pretty good too, as I recall. Good iced tea, anyway.

I’ve had conversations about The Future lately, several with several different people, go figure, and it seemed to start with my son. Just a casual conversation, on our way to somewhere, and I wondered out loud what the world would look like if my 21-year-old self, say, were transported here to 2009. What would I notice first? I said, and speculated.

My son has really enormous patience with me.

Probably not the smokers huddled outside under the eaves, puffing in the rain.

Probably that men had really short hair.

Probably not architecture, but maybe road signs, crosswalk markings and traffic lights; those are different, I think.

SUVs, definitely, and minivans would turn my head, even as long as they’ve been around.

Show me a computer and I’d get it; by 1979 I’d already spent a fair amount of hours with keyboards and (CRT) monitors. But aside from the color(!) and doodads, I think I’d be baffled by the mouse. We’re so used to them now but really? The mouse was a breakthrough, a completely different way of doing things. A mouse would be a shocker.

The rest, though, would be communication, we decided (this was long after John had begun staring at the window and thinking about jumping out; as I said, I had several of these conversations with different people). Cell phones in particular; as a friend pointed out, suddenly major plots of great literature seem sort of silly. Getting stranded, cut-off, isolated, even lonely, doesn’t work somehow in the 21st century.

I like it, all in all (as if I had a choice). I like keeping in touch, being in touch, being reachable and able to reach. I can list the bad side as well as you can, but we’re here and mostly I’m curious about the effect this will have on generations who have grown up with so much social consistency.

I have preferences. Of course. And things that irritate me. I don’t like hearing other conversations while I’m just trying to buy milk. I’m a walker so the sight of someone driving toward me, phone jammed against their ear, makes me nervous (and light on my feet). I have almost no use for voicemail; call my home phone and I might answer it, if I see your name, or I might not even get up to check, and good luck if you leave me a message. Maybe I’ll check them next week. Email me, call my cell, and actually best of all, if you really need to touch base quickly, text me. Texting is the lingua frequenta of this household now, between the three of us. Quick, utilitarian and not noisy at all.

And I hate IMs, by the way, although I get why it’s useful and I have to use it for work. But usually getting an IM notification inspires the same reaction as hearing my doorbell ring and seeing nicely dressed people standing on my porch with pamphlets.

But this is not The Future.

We knew about The Future when I was growing up. We engaged in all the usual dreams, the Jetson dreams, but when we got serious the one thing we knew is that when we talked on the phone, in The Future, we would be able to see.

And it took freaking forever.

This is the problem with communication technology; there’s a lag time between innovation and ubiquity. You can be the first one on your block to get the whizbang toy, but you’re usually left holding two cans and a bunch of string, waiting.

So I had my first video chat last night. With my mom, as it turned out, which makes a whole lot of sense somehow.

She upgraded finally from dial-up to broadband, mostly out of frustration with her ISP in a small town. And dial-up was generally fine for her, and it was fine for me when I went to visit, and she’s probably already found out the dangers that come with shiny stuff. Your television needs can be perfectly met with a few local stations grabbed from the ether, and then the cable guy shows up and brings Turner Classic Movies and suddenly there’s Jimmy Cagney and John Wayne and hey, it’s dark outside already, what happened?

She’ll be fine.

But a web cam came with my latest laptop, 18 months ago, and I thought it’d be fun to try this video thing out, and it took my mom to get me there. And really, the thought on my mind was this Thanksgiving holiday coming up, my family splintered as usual, and how nice it would be to see faces for a bit on Thursday, and I guess now we will.

It was good to see Mom’s face, too, even though it’s only been a few months. And during out conversation, working out the bugs, laughing at the fun, it kept running through my mind that I was here, finally, back to the future, and about time.

Now I have to wait for the rest of you, I guess, to get your cans and string so we can have a blog video conference. Hurry up before someone rings my doorbell.

 

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On A Clear Day (Like That's Gonna Happen)

The other day I needed a new computer monitor.

Now, yes. I’m a middle-aged American guy. Maybe just a guy. So, when it comes to electronics, we might need to delve into the difference between “want” and “need.”

But seriously. I needed one.

Because of middle-aged American guy back issues, when I’m at the computer I tilt. I lean backwards in a recliner, keyboard on my lap, with my monitor about 3 feet away on an extendable arm. This works for me, comfortable and sort of lazy feeling, even when I’m seriously working, which lately I’ve been doing a lot.

I do believe I said something about middle age. Meaning a good slogan for someone like me would be, “Don’t Blame Me. I Can’t See A Damn Thing.”

Actually I went to Best Buy looking for a little monitor for a retired laptop, thinking I’d refurbish it, maybe load Ubuntu and turn it into…something else. The screen bit the dust a while back, so it was off to see the Geek Squad. Just a little monitor. Tiny.

But they had an amazing sale. Amazing.

So I came home with a nice inexpensive 23-inch widescreen monitor and grateful eyes. And my old 19-incher became one with the old laptop, etc. We’re good now.

I did notice, though, that this monitor claimed full 1080 high definition, with an HDMI slot and cable, so I decided to play.

I’m all for high definition. The more definition the better. The higher the better. But as I believe I’ve mentioned, we’re not much of a TV household. John refuses to watch anything, not being able to tolerate the human interaction and tension on “Everybody Loves Raymond” or anything else. Julie’s too busy. I’m too wary of my compulsive nature to invest in anything that might requiring weekly watching, so TV watching for me is about 3 hours a week, mostly The Daily Show and a couple of sitcoms I catch when I think about it. I rarely skim and surf, and I have no use for cable news or any other kind that I can’t read and fact check.

I do have cable, though, and a set top box, with loads of HD channels that of course I never look at since I have no HD set. I hope this is becoming obvious.

I ran that HDMI cable then from my box to my monitor. I jerryrigged a sound system from a stereo amplifier that is older than most cable news personalities. I went above 500 on the channels and leaned back.

Sorry to be so far behind the times. Of course I’ve seen HD before. Of course I like the idea of Blu-Ray and of course I thought that one day, sure, when prices come down and I’m older and more sedate and maybe about to die or have the flu, something. But it was fun to wander through the channels, see the difference, and watch polar bears for, I think, six straight hours.

So I guess I have a new bumper sticker, or ad campaign slogan, if only they’d asked me.

“High-Definition Television. Now You Will Watch Anything.”

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Between The Lines

There’s a bumper sticker and now apparently T-shirts cropping up in certain parts of the country (oh, guess), encouraging people to pray for our president as he attempts to guide the nation. Good intentions, I suppose: “Pray for Obama – Psalm 109:8

As they say, let’s go to the text:

Psalm 109:8 (KJV)
Let his days be few; and let another take his office.
Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.
Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.
Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labor.
Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favor his fatherless children.
Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.
Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the LORD; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.
Let them be before the LORD continually, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.

On the other hand, it’s been my (anecdotal and totally unscientific) experience that the loudest thumpers and Jesus screamers are usually pretty illiterate when it comes to actually, y’know, reading the thing, so maybe this is just what it seems. Good wishes, yay.

(h/t)

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D'ough!

Julie and I have the rare treat of both being free this Saturday night, the even rarer treat of going out together to see friends, and the rarest treat of all, which is that these are my friends. Mineminemine.

Friends are good. I now have six, not counting the UPS guy and Gayle, the checker at Albertson’s. Been working at home a long time.

These are fun friends, all of us attending the same high school in Phoenix in the 70s and having, in unconnected but maybe sorta connected ways, ended up here in the Pacific Northwest. Last January we finally got together at a restaurant, the four of us, and repeated that a couple of times, and now we’ve decided to invite spouses/significant others/stray children to join us for a little dinner party on Saturday night. Fun.

Wait. Dinner party? And I have no idea where my tuxedo is. Bummer.

A party. With dinner. Salmon, I understand. And when we were spontaneously throwing this together over coffee last month, we divvied up the responsibilities, and in good Mickey-Judy fashion I said, “I can make bread.”

And I can. So I will.

I’ve been a bread baker for so long the origin story has become a little misty. And it’s been a few years since I really have eaten bread on a regular basis, although I’m still a fan. It’s just that it’s nutritionally marginal and has calories an aging guy can do without, particularly a guy who used to think that any food-like material could be improved upon by putting it between two pieces of bread, including soup.

I like dough, though. And sometimes I’m just in the mood to knead and bake and smell. So I’m good for Saturday night.

I wanted it to be special, though. Not just ordinary bread, if you could call my bread ordinary, which I would rather you didn’t. Something more artisanal, maybe, or unusual. On the other hand, it’s just bread, something to put in your mouth at a dinner party when you’ve run out of things to say.

And I did it. Yesterday, after a week of fooling around with a family favorite, cheddar bread, I found my dough muse and trusted my instincts. I kneaded, I rolled, I chilled, I folded. I used whole milk, real butter, more brown sugar than seemed prudent. I made rolls but almost croissants, stopping before I got all Frenchy but just in time to produce The Best Bread Ever. Cheesy. Garlicky. Flaky like a buttermilk biscuit but still maintaining breadness. It was golden and hot and I realized, then, that you either develop a sense of solitary pride or a peptic ulcer, because no one would know or appreciate my bread.

John had a couple of rolls. “Good,” he said, but then he always says this. Julie promised to have one when she got home at 11pm, but she was too tired and only wanted chocolate ice cream. And by then it was too late, anyway. You can’t nuke bread like this; it needs to be eaten within a narrow bread window. I had to be satisfied with knowing I had created pure goodness and leave it there.

Still. It’s a little depressing, although that could also be due to the darkness and the rainy-windy stuff we’ve endured the last few days. I grabbed a cold, already stale roll this morning and nibbled and I got nothing. A faint memory, maybe, and I walked outside to see if any trees had crashed on my front lawn from last night’s storm.

A crow was also doing a survey. I hate crows. They tear up my roof, they make noise, they peck at my grass and perch on the telephone line, mocking baby elephants and just being smug. I hate crows like I hate raccoons.

So I stood there, cold, once-magnificent bread in hand and watched this crow. Big one. Fat, even. Jet black. Smug, as I say, and completely unafraid. He looked me in the eye.

“I’m sensing some garlic,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, almost against my will. “It counters the sweetness of the sugar and goes well with the cheese.” This is the way we talk, we bread bakers. It’s always the mix, and anyway the crow seemed interested.

“Do you mind?” he said so I tossed him a scrap and immediately regretted it. He took his time, looked at it from all angles, sniffed and cawed before gingerly taking it in his mouth and chewing thoughtfully. I was his prisoner.

“This,” he said, “is the best bread ever,” and I don’t trust crows by nature but I had to, I guess, or else mope all day. I gave him the rest, and he had more nice things to say, about texture and layering and actually pretty sophisticated stuff for a creature that usually eats bread out of trash cans.

I held my arms at my side, then, palms up and open in the universal sign for I Have No More Bread, and he snorted a little and went back to looking for worms, or whatever. I still hate crows, but a compliment can sway even a bird bigot like me, and suddenly he seemed sleek, beautiful even, all black and wingy and avian.

“You know,” I said, wondering if he’d heard the old joke, “you look like you could be wearing a tuxedo.”

“What makes you think I’m not?” he said, and flew away.

***

dumbo0

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Numb(ers)

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I signed a new contract recently with my Internet/TV/phone provider. This is not Comcast.

Actually, this is Verizon FiOS. Who am I protecting? Whom? Me? I love FiOS.

Although it irritates me that I pay for television I don’t watch, and for television that I’m pretty sure no one else watches, or should. But for various reasons we keep this, so shut up Chuck.

Anyway, part of the deal was a speed upgrade, not a priority at this point (FiOS is blazing anyway, and stable, but an extra 5 mbps down and 10 up? Sure. I can now waste time faster). And the truth in all of this is very clear now: The only thing that loads and runs noticeably faster is (wait for it) the online speed test.

But I can run that test whenever I want. It’s fast. Like marsupials.

I can go crazy with numbers, which is why sometimes I stay away. It’s dangerous to ignore my bank account and risky not to look at the speedometer, but I can get carried away. Start charting cereal intake, etc. Not good.

Thus the news this morning that I possibly have gained 20 pounds since August.

I certainly could have. In a fair and just world, given the junk I’ve been consuming as the thermometer numbers drop and my nights get later, I certainly would gain weight. I don’t, though, think that I did. Not 20 pounds. But certainly maybe 15.

All of this, Internet speed and scale snarkiness, is worthwhile to me, a little reminder that there’s a Big Picture, and even though I rarely see it it’s nice to know it’s there. As I mentioned to Julie the other day, when I found myself grumbling that my jeans felt tight and uncomfortable. Really feel sorry for you, 51-year-old guy in the United States of Obesity who has snug pants with a 32-inch waistline. Who finds his weight creeping up into the 180s, the horror.

As a matter of fact, just having numbers at all to play with, and time to play with them, should be enough for me to take this upcoming Thanksgiving seriously. We have blessings to count, and food, and clothes, and at last look a roof (there’s been some rain; I might have to look again).

So enough with the numbers, I tell myself. Consider them, manipulate them, raise them or lower them, whatever, but be grateful mostly that they’re there, and you are, and so is a new toilet, which by the way flushes really, really fast. Like marsupials.

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News From Me

PLUMBING UPDATE AT BOTTOM!
I have a small but very loyal band of newspaper readers who like to touch base, toss me emails and kvetch about the state of the weeklies since my byline took a break.

(And it’s been an interesting lesson in perception, how so many of us read the words we expect to see, not necessarily the ones that are written. I’ve had quite a few emails — and more have come to the papers — referring to “retirement” or “moving on” or other ways to make it sound like I stopped writing because it was time to die. Really. “Taking a break” doesn’t quite seem dramatic enough, I guess.)

At any rate, a head’s up for those of you who cross-read: Looks like my weekly column will resume in January. This has nothing to do with me (I was sort of ambivalent, in a way) but with restructuring, expanding markets, personnel changes, etc. A timing thing, in other words, and I’m all for good timing. But I’ll be back in print soon enough. In the meantime, maybe I should start a blog or something.

***

We have an afterthought bathroom, although I’ve thought a lot about it lately. It’s technically part of our bedroom but in no way a “master bathroom” in the way we use that term (use it carefully). It has to do with my eccentric house, the way it was constructed and moved and remodeled, and so it has a toilet and a shower, sticks out from the back side of the house like a bad idea, and is cold.

Given that there are usually just the three of us, it was also an unnecessary bathroom, so it was mine. My personal bathroom space. But, as I say, cold.

Three years ago I gave up using the shower, since the glass door had broken at the bottom in various places and water tended to do what water does when it finds a crack. And shower doors aren’t cheap, etc. Recently, though, I was sort of hankering for my own shower again, where my personal beauty products could remain free from tinkering, something you all can relate to.

After thinking about it for a couple of seconds, I suddenly realized that the easy fix would be to take down the broken door, put up a shower rod, hang a curtain and step on in. And that, in fact, worked fine. But then I started looking at the carpet (it had carpet, always problematic for a bathroom but, as I say, it was cold) and for some reason I couldn’t help myself.

So I ripped out that carpet (disgusting, by the way, after 20 years), laid down new flooring (easy these days, lots of fun products), and persuaded my wife to paint it (I don’t mind painting but I tend to put it off for another century). Voila, new bathroom. Very nice. Comfy. Still kinda cold.

Last week I flushed the toilet and noticed that it kept flushing. The float had broken off, somehow, so once again I turned to my spouse, who tends to do the plumbing in this house. She went down to The Home Depot and bought a new, fancy, water-saving kit o’ toilet innards, but since this required removing the tank this also required loosening rusty bolts, which eventually required me.

And even I, with my exceptional bolt-loosening abilities, wasn’t having any luck, and neither was WD-40. It was during this process (I have to warn those of you with certain home improvement skills that this story may have disturbing images), fighting with time and oxidation and cramped spaces, that I made an amazing discovery.

That is, my toilet was portable.

How long the seal had been completely broken is unknown, but what’s weirder is that it could exist like that, basically sitting over a flange in the floor, without noticeable leakage or any other nasty scenarios for any length of time. I literally picked up the toilet-tank and moved it to the other side of the bathroom, which is not very far, and I stood there for a couple of minutes, wondering.

I’ll admit I was tempted to be the little kid who stuffs the broken ashtray under the sofa, just put that toilet back over where it belonged and forget everything, but then I’m a grownup and a homeowner and a toilet user. Also, I had a good excuse to learn to install a new toilet, which I’ve actually never done or had to do but I hear is a lot of fun.

Today’s the day, at any rate. Yes, I know how to do it. No, I have no illusions that it will take an hour or so. Yes, we have another bathroom.

And yes, I know some of you refer to a “toilet” as a “commode,” which is all right with me.

HERE IS THE UPDATE AT THE BOTTOM: Piece of cake. Couple of hours. Julie did most of the bolt tightening and seal position; I lifted some. Somewhere, on an obscure cable channel, Tim the Toolman is smiling (check your local listings).

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