Every Family Needs a Lenny Bruce

This year, I think I will skip the Valentine’s Day card with the recordable message.

That was my brilliant idea for last year: let the kids record their own Valentine’s message and give it to their mom. It seemed like a nice way to avoid the off-the-shelf sentimentalism of most cards. That was the plan, at least. After multiple takes, here’s the best that I could record:

All three kids, in unison:    Happy Valentine’s Day, Mommy!

First Born & Third Born:   We love you!
Second Born:                        If you were a booger, I’d pick you first!

This is typical of Second Born. And while I often get blamed for introducing him to the sophomoric arts, I contend it is something more inborn–a certain Lenny Bruce gene that constantly inspires him to transgress. Case in point: several years back, when Second Born was in kindergarten, he was invited to a birthday party with a “safety” theme. I know, a little weird: the arts-and-crafts event for the party involved kids painting their very own “Children at Play” signs to post around their neighborhoods. The grand finale was a special visit from one of our town’s local police officers to discuss safety. As the policeman walked into  the party, all of the other children shouted “A policeman is here! A policeman is here!”

My boy hit the deck and hid underneath the table.

By no means is he a bad kid–in fact, there’s an argument to be made that he’s the most sensitive and considerate of the three. It’s simply the fact that his M.O. routinely involves finding the boundary of propriety, and then testing its outer edges. Another example from not too long ago:

Mom in Minivan:                  Enough already! With all your noise I almost had an accident!

[Silence]

Second Born:                          You mean…. In your pants?

There’s only two ways to respond to this: refer the matter to Assistant District Attorney Richard Kuh, or laugh.

And that’s where I get called a bad influence for reinforcing him with laughter. Truth be told, though–my wife is just as guilty at laughing at his humor (including the accident-in-your-pants bit). His music teacher at school, however: not so much. He recently came home with all A’s, and one “Needs Improvement”–for conduct in music class. When we asked him what was going on in music class, his response was:

I dunno. Maybe she doesn’t like my singing voice?

Or: maybe it’s because he likes to change the lyrics of songs now and then from the words on the page to something a bit more, um, rollicking?

I suppose I could try to teach Second Born that there is a time and a place for everything, but then again isn’t that already his gift–knowing that there’s a time and a place for everything, and then lobbing the exactly right comment at exactly the wrong (and therefore perfect) time?

My guess is, there’s probably going to be a few more disgruntled adults in Second Born’s future who will disapprove of his brand of humor. And I bet I will be one of them at one point or another. But I say let the boy play the edge for all its worth. Sometimes you have to color outside the lines, and sometimes you have to draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

And every once in a while, you just have to draw stink lines coming up from her backside.

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A Lesson in Gratitude…Gone Horribly Wrong

It was sometime during that home stretch before Christmas–not quite the holiday week, but close enough that the kids had little on their minds other than a trip up north to see the cousins and of course, what loot they were going to score from parents, grandparents, and the fat guy with a beard. We were sitting around the dinner table when it struck me that I had heard enough about trampolines, video games, and American Girl dolls. It was time for these kids to learn the true meaning of Christmas.

I laid down my fork, and in a solemn tone reserved for announcing the death of a pet or a TV show cancellation, I began to speak:

You know kids, it’s important for you to realize just how fortunate you are to have all the things that you have. We’re all caught up in talking about this great trip we’re about to take, and all these expensive toys and games you’re planning on getting, and meanwhile there are plenty of kids who aren’t even going to have enough to eat tonight. I mean here we are, sitting at this table with half-eaten food left behind on our plates, and right now, maybe right in this town, there are kids who are going to go to bed hungry tonight.

Something about that image must have hit home. They were actually listening, all three of them. I had them. I gestured toward my oldest son.

You are turning twelve soon. Do you know how many twelve year olds there are working twelve hour days around the world right now? How lucky you are to have a childhood where you can play! Right now, it’s probably five o’clock in the morning in the Congo, and some twelve year old is just now getting up and getting ready for a long grueling day mining metals that are going to end up powering all those cool electronic devices you love so much.

And gesturing toward my next boy:

And just the other day, I was reading about nine and ten year old boys in Afghanistan whose job it is to dig up stray land mines to sell for scrap metal. Can you even imagine how horrible that must be? How many nine year olds do you think woke up this morning with two hands, but went to bed with only one?

And then to my youngest:

And look at your sister here. Not even six years old. There are girls not any older than her who are sold like pieces of property…

My youngest interrupted me, patting me on the back of my hand.

“OK, Poppa, OK. Now you’re really starting to freak me out.”

It’s family moments like these when my wife the counselor suggests that maybe I should consider anti-depressants. Me: I am thinking that there’s a valuable lesson I am trying to teach, a lesson about the horrible, horrible reality that so many children face each day. Is that such a bad thing to teach my kids? Don’t get me wrong–I am not trying to snuff out childhood innocence. Goodness knows the day will come when the world will snuff out that innocence all on its own….

OK, maybe I do need anti-depressants. But that’s not the point.

The thing is: how do you teach gratitude? My kids have all this stuff, and while I wouldn’t say they’re ungrateful, I am not really convinced they can see what they have in a bigger context.

Maybe part of the problem is the gratis in gratitude–how do you get a kid to understand that they’re getting all of this good stuff in their lives “for free”? What I mean is: no one is earning any of what they get dealt in life–no kid earns having to work at age twelve, and no kid earns having a cush suburban existence. It’s all “a gift.”

And maybe part of the problem is my own lack of gratitude–after all, I am probably the worst in my family at accepting gifts. Pretty much every Christmas, when I unwrap a package and say “Oh, you shouldn’t have,” it comes out sounding like “What the hell did you spend all this money on me for? What I really need is a brake job for the van, not another damn winter jacket.” But that’s the thing about “gifts.” We don’t have to like them; we can even try to exchange them for something else. But we do have to learn how to accept them as they come.

So, what did the kids learn from my rant, other than that maybe Daddy’s serotonin levels are a little off from time to time?

I don’t know, maybe nothing. But at some level, I guess I am hoping that they will realize that this thing that they get to have, this thing called being a kid, really is a gift, and one they should accept with just a tinge of recognition that they didn’t “deserve” or “earn” what they’ve received, but it’s theirs to keep anyway.

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Freakin’ Swim Meets

God I hate swim meets.

I’m sure for some of you, enough said. Swim meets are a freakin’ nightmare, period. But for those of you who have not been subjected to this summertime equivalent of a death by a thousand cuts, allow me to share.

Swim meet starts at 6pm on a Tuesday night. At about 4:45, our two boys head down to the local pool. For the next hour, the team warms up. At 5:30, those of us who have “volunteered” check in and begin our assignments. Since I am a hopeless noob at these things, I get stuck as a bullpen parent, which means making sure when the 10 and under kids’ races get called, we have the right kids in the right lanes. Last swim meet, we had 76 races–most of those with multiple heats, and with kids as young as 5 or 6 years old. If all goes well, we are wrapping up by 10pm. Four hours of races, plus an hour of warm-up, and no time for dinner other than what you can scare up at the concession stand. By the end of it all, I couldn’t care less who won, lost, or peed in the pool. All I want is to get home.

I suppose if I had some interest in swimming, it might make the time go quicker. Truth is:  I don’t. Remember those 76 races? My two boys (not the fastest fish in the pond, mind you) are usually swimming in two races a piece. That leaves 72 races in which I have absolutely no interest.  Break that down in terms of time, and it sounds even worse. Out of four hours of a swim meet, I am engaged and interested for 10 minutes, max.

In theory, being forced to volunteer (you keep using that word–I do not think it means what you think it means) should make the time pass quicker, right? In theory, yes, but the problem is I barely know what is going on at a swim meet. Mostly, I just wander around with a clipboard and pretend to be useful until someone throws some kids at me and points me toward the lanes.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not knocking the joys of parental involvement. The thing is: no matter how many clipboards and stopwatches you give me, I remain completely and utterly unengaged. It’s not that I can’t get heavily involved in other activities (let’s be honest here: activities that interest me), just not swimming.

So how do those other parents do it? My guess is, for some in that crowd they really, actually care whether or not our team beats the Parkside Platypi. Maybe they were swimmers once, or their kids are first heat swimmers. Not me, on either account. And I’m sure for others, the gift of a clipboard, a stopwatch, or a bullhorn is a dream come true. I get that–there are lots of arenas in my life where I can become a controlling, Type-A maniac, but the pool is not one of them. Then there are the parents slipping mojitos into their “water cups”–another effective strategy for getting in the spirit of the evening, I am sure, but not one available to me. So what’s left, then, for a totally uninterested, clipboard-laden dad with not a scrap of interest in a swim meet?

What else? Wagering.

It was a brilliant idea, if I do say so myself. I just can’t believe it didn’t occur to me earlier. I look at my clipboard with its list of races, heats, and swimmers with their qualifying times and think: looks like a scratch sheet to me. So I start comparing qualifying times and seeing how well I could do at handicapping swimmers. Turns out qualifying time is a pretty dependable predictor of a win, but there was enough variability in place and show to make perfecta bets interesting. By the end of ten races, just keeping a hashmark tally of wins vs. losses, I was doing alright.

Hey, it’s not like I was really wagering on the local swim meet (what do you take me for, some sort of degenerate gambler?) but it certainly did pass the time. And I am sure from appearances, I had suddenly become quite engaged and involved in the swim meet. So who am I to judge those parents hootin’ and a-hollerin’ for swimmers in the 100 yd. individual medley? Maybe that’s their daughter who just edged into third place. Or maybe it’s the mojito talking. Or maybe they’re about to rake big on a daily double.

So does intention or motivation really matter here, or is simply creating the appearance that I’m engaged good enough? If my own childhood is any indication, I was pretty oblivious to what was going on in the world of Big People. Do my sons want and/or need me “engaged” at the meet? Honestly, I think they’d be happy as long as I’m not betting against them.

Now all I need to do is see if I can volunteer myself into a bullpen with at least one other parent who will share my passion for a true and meaningful engagement in the sport. Who knows–maybe I can even convince the Parental Involvement Coordinator to add “Handicapper” as a volunteer task.

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Bipolar Parenting Disorder

First things first:

This post has nothing at all to do with DSM-IV 296.xx, Bipolar Disorder; I offer no differential diagnoses, nor do I plan to address the significant challenges of being a parent who is affected by a bipolar disorder, or parenting a child who has a bipolar disorder. If that’s what you’re looking for, head back to that WordPress search box and move on to your next hit.

If, however, you find yourself subject to radical swings in your approach to parenting–one minute patient, kind, and child-empowering, the next moment an iron-fisted tyrant–well, you have found your soulmate.

Here’s the thing: I’m just a little too prone to extremes. Either that, or I cave too easily. Or maybe it’s just that I turn to irony and sarcasm when I’m all out of parenting tools. For instance. Cunning Child asks:

Can I go play across the street?

To which Sensible Parent responds:

No, we are going to be eating in a few minutes.

After which, The Party of the First Part begins to present counter-arguments as to why going across the street, perhaps for just fifteen minutes, or perhaps just to play in the front yard, etc. all seem like reasonable work-arounds to this problem of dinner being ready in just a few minutes. Sensible Parent responds to each counter-argument with a patient and equally logical response, until, after the fifth or sixth of said counter-arguments, Sensible Parent finds himself saying:

You know what? I don’t care what you do. Just do whatever you want and pay absolutely no attention to me or anything I say. OK?

My bipolar parenting disorder kicks in, and I pull a 180 reverse.

It could be I just suck at the whole patient, mature parenting thing and I can only fake it for so long. Or it could be that I believe that this sort of rhetorical move will somehow help my child to see the unfairness and ridiculousness of his request. I realize it’s a faulty belief on my part, created out of an irrational faith in the power of guilt, but at times it feels like it’s my only move left. And why not? If guilt can dictate so many of my parenting decisions, why can’t it guide the actions of my children, right?

OK, maybe not.

I’m guessing that I wouldn’t have to google too hard to discover that a “good” parent is a consistent parent. Now while I probably can’t get away with quoting Emerson here in support of my parenting techniques, allow me, if you will, to speak for a moment in praise of parental inconsistency.

Here’s the thing: as a rule, my kids do listen to me. For the most part they make reasonable demands of me, and by no means would I say I feel they run me over. So what is it, then, that throws my switch?

My guess is that at some point, the matter at hand becomes far less important to me than my desire to maintain my position. Really: did it matter if the kid played out front for a few minutes? Granted, he doesn’t have a clue what a “few minutes” means–but then again, it’s not as if I have the best track record at keeping “a few” to a few when it comes to getting dinner on the table.

So perhaps that’s the root cause of my disorder–that gnawing sense that at all cost, I must hold fast. What if, instead of holding fast, I were to let go of the whole idea that there’s an inherent good to be found in maintaining a consistent position? This isn’t about “choosing battles”; it’s about realizing that whenever I’ve drawn a line in the sand, I’ve created sides and chosen one for myself.

In retrospect, the better answer to Cunning Child’s first request would have been “Nope. Wash your hands and set the table please.” Logic and patience only set the stage for a rational exchange. Why set the stage, unless I am actually willing to host the debate?

Is my bipolar parenting disorder teaching my children to challenge my consistency in the hope that they will eventually “get their way”? Maybe. I’m not sure if that lesson hurts them any, but it’s probably good medicine for me to have my consistency challenged, if only to make me aware of those moments when I have drawn a line between “my way” and “their way.” Maybe someday I’ll figure out how a grown up handles these things without resorting to the verbal equivalent of taking my ball and going home.

If nothing else, perhaps I’ve given my kids an exceptionally high tolerance for sarcasm–which, come to think of it, might not be such a bad take-away after all.

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It’s Your Decision, and I’m Making It for You

So we had a moment of crisis the other night.

My oldest is a really impressive athlete. He has been involved with a very demanding sport on a very demanding team for over two years. Unfortunately, he’s not the most focused of children. He’s made progress though, and just last week his coach complimented him on his efforts at being more attentive during practice.

Last Tuesday, however: not so much.

She sat him down after practice and gave him the “What are your goals?” talk. It went something like this:

If you want me to help you achieve “Top Four” in the nation this season [he was top ten last year], I’m going to have to put pressure on you to perform to your highest level in all areas–not just at competitions, but at practice as well. If that’s not what your goal is, we need to reassess what you want from me, and why you want to be on this team.

That’s a lot for a 10 year old to process. We came home after practice and talked through what he thought Coach was trying to tell him. I asked him if he wanted to go to Nationals. He said yes. I asked him if he wanted his coach to help him achieve that goal. Again, he said yes. I asked him: “Are you clear, then, on what she expects from you, if you want her to help you reach your goals?” Answer: an emphatic yes.

Off he goes to change into his pajamas and brush his teeth. I am in the kitchen going over the day’s mail when he wanders back into the room.

“Hey Dad, I’ve been thinking. Maybe I should take a break from the team.”

Not exactly where I thought we were at, given the conversation we had five minutes earlier–and given the emotional and physical investment he has put into his sport over the past couple of years. I just stare at him dumbly, trying to dredge up something that would make Bill Bixby proud. He’s clearly waiting for some fatherly feedback as well. The best I can come up with is:

“Huh?”

Great stuff, right? He repeats himself, giving me enough time to formulate something a bit more meaningful. I ask him how and why he arrived at this decision, and he tells me he feels like it would be less pressure on him if he wasn’t on the team. I ask about Nationals, and he affirms his commitment: he still wants to go, and he still wants to make Top Four.

“How will you train?” I ask him.

“I will drill the things I already know.”

“And who is going to help you with what you don’t know? Who will give you feedback? Who is going to coach you during competitions?”

Now he’s the one staring dumbly at me. Apparently, he was operating under the assumption that Dad could pick up the ball and run with it, so to speak. As flattered as I might have been at such a suggestion, it was clearly an unrealistic expectation.

Now here’s the tricky part: earlier in the night I had said to him something like:

“This is your choice here, your decision. Playing a sport isn’t like going to school. No one is forcing you to compete. But if you do want this, then there are certain things you need to do blah blah blah.”

He heard at least part of that, because what I got back from him was:

“I guess I’ve been thinking about this like school, and since it’s my decision, I think maybe I should take a break.”

But here’s the thing: there’s just no way that quitting the team would be a good decision for him–not now, at least, and certainly not on the spur of the moment. This sport has been an important part of his life for the past several years. It has given him confidence, courage, and conviction in all areas of his life. And he’s amazing at this sport as well. I mean: the kid ranked 8th in the nation in his age category last year–Top Four is an entirely realistic goal. He has a legitimate shot at ranking first in the nation.

OK, OK I’ll admit it: when I start talking about rankings and thinking about national competitions, I start to get a little suspicious. What are my motivations, here? Am I, perhaps, one of those dads?

Honestly? I don’t think so. That’s not to say I haven’t caught myself behaving like one on a couple of occasions. But am I going to push my son to the point of burn-out, torn ligaments, and anabolic steroid abuse before his 16th birthday? Trust me: I’m way too lazy to be that crazy about anything.

So no, I don’t think I’m that dad. Still, though, this was clearly not a decision that I could leave in his hands.

“But I thought this was my decision!” He tells me, with that look of hurt and exasperation that only our children can manage to pull off so successfully.

What I should have said to him at that point was: “Hey, If you tell me you’ve decided to start smoking, that doesn’t mean I’m going to run out to buy you a pack of Lucky’s.” Instead, I return to my fallback position: I stare at him, saying nothing, completely frozen by a growing set of doubts in my head: “Is this his decision? Should I be letting him make a choice here? Am I just being too pushy and controlling?”

Fortunately, it was around that time that my wife came downstairs after putting our youngest to bed. She assessed the scene at the kitchen table and decided it was time for her to step in. We brought her up to speed on “The Decision.” Now mind you, my wife makes her living counseling people through their problems and crises. She is the family-appointed expert in helping us feel our feelings and express our needs. Drawing on all of her professional and maternal skills, she announced:

“You want to quit? Well, too bad. You’re going to stick with this. When this season’s over, if you still want a break from the team, then fine. But right now, this is a decision that you don’t get to make.”

And you know what? She was exactly right. Not to mention that by the next morning, our son had changed his mind and told us that he too had “decided” to stick it out.

Sure, I’m all in favor of empowering my children and helping them to find the confidence to make and stick to their decisions. The reality, though, is that as an adult I am barely sure of what I am doing half the time–what my motivations are, what’s a clear and conscious decision vs. a well-rationalized whim. How on earth can I expect a 10 year old to see beyond the immediate outcome of his decisions?

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Bad Language

A little story from a few weeks back:

I’m in the grocery story with my soon-to-be five year old. We’re wandering down an aisle, picking up a few things here and there, when suddenly she comes to a dead standstill and points up toward the ceiling, where an enormous bouquet of SpongeBob and Dora balloons are moored to a top shelf.

Sweet little girl: Daddy! Look at those frickin’ balloons!
Bad Parent: Honey, you shouldn’t say that.
Sweet little girl: But Daddy, they are frickin’ balloons!

I was reminded of this event the other night when my oldest boy said to me: “You know, I just realized that there’s no difference between bad words and other words. You’re just not supposed to use them around children.” Good point. But why?

I grew up in a house with a rather broad interpretation of what was acceptable language. As long as you weren’t swearing at someone, you were fine. My wife’s family…well, that’s a different matter (I recall my father-in-law spelling out “f-a-r-t”–not because he was around kids, but to avoid saying a bad word).

Why the fear of bad words? Are we trying to protect our children from the “corruption” of adult speech? Is it “bad manners” (a philosophical quandary: is saying “fart” socially equivalent to issuing a fart?”) or a sign of “bad breeding”? Or is it verbal laziness–a sin of sloth?

I’m not too happy with any of these answers. My own discomfort with my daughter saying “fricking” in public, though, shows that clearly I am not immune from feeling that there’s something wrong with this–which means, of course, that I’ve fallen short once again.

We’re beyond the Laurie Berkner/Steve Songs phase in our household. In fact, my daughter’s favorite band right now is Green Day (Favorite song? “American Idiot,” of course). I still try to hit the mute button, but in a rather idiosyncratic way–I censor “You Oughta Know,” but not “Jeremy.” At this point, there’s probably not much that my kids haven’t heard, either out of the car speakers or out of their parents’ mouths. Don’t get me wrong–most of what gets said in our house is still TV-7 safe (ok, maybe TV-14); but why this fear of “adult speech”?

Look, I understand that if the only adjective my child ever heard or used was “fricking,” then maybe we’d have a vocabulary issue here. But I’m a fan of understanding context. Was it inappropriate for her to say “Daddy! Look at those frickin’ balloons!” at that particular moment? On the contrary: I couldn’t think of a more appropriate choice of words to convey her surprise at seeing such a huge and unexpected assortment of balloons. And she has a wide vocabulary. The other day she brought me a toy, saying “Hey Daddy, can you fix this? It’s all jacked up.” When we brought hamsters into the house, she was quick to tell us “You know, hamsters are nocturnal.” I’m perfectly happy with a not-quite five year old capable of effectively using “noctural,” “fricking” and “jacked up” in a sentence–or even in the same sentence, for that matter.

And of all the things she might have said as an expletive, “fricking” barely counts as a swear, right? That’s good restraint, I’d say. It’s like the time I was carpooling my oldest and two other ten year olds to school one rainy morning and got into a fender-bender with the car in front of me. “I’m pretty impressed with myself,” I bragged, “all I said was ‘dammit.'”

“Yeah,” my son responded, “but you said it five times in a row. And really loudly.”

Sometimes you have to be happy with small victories.

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Just Because I Don’t Care….

We recently returned from a short trip up north. We live far enough south where a serious snow is a rare thing, so the kids were thrilled to find 18 inches of freshly fallen snow. By the time we got to my parents’ house, where we were staying, it was around two in the afternoon. My oldest, just about 11 years old, asked me if he could go outside and play in the snow. I responded: “I don’t care. Go right ahead.”

Being a literal kind of kid, he did just that: he went right ahead outside. He did grab his jacket, but that was it. No hat, no gloves, and certainly no snow pants or snow boots, which were still packed away in the mega-sized suitcase sitting in the hallway of my parents’ house.

It didn’t take son #1 too long to realize that if he was going to build a snow fort, at very least he was going to have to find some gloves. So in the house he comes, covered from his knees down in snow, sneakers caked thick and hands bright red.

My wife pretty much flipped out. My oldest boy’s defense for going outside completely unprepared for the elements:

But Dad said he didn’t care if I went outside!

To which I quickly replied:

Just because I don’t care doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

I suppose I could claim that I was intentionally setting up natural consequences for my son (if you choose to go outside unprepared for the weather, you will be cold, wet, and uncomfortable). The truth is, I didn’t really care if he went outside. There was no reason for him to be inside, and he was excited to go outside. So have at it, son!

Now, if he had asked, “Dad, can I rush outside and play in the snow wearing my sneakers, and without hat or gloves?” I would like to think I might have given a different answer (maybe I am the one who needs to be more literal!) So what was my shortcoming here: Did I give him too much credit, assuming that he would get boots, snow pants, etc. before charging out into the snow? Or did I simply not care enough to ask the requisite Daddy Questions: Do you have your hat? Do your have your boots? Did I make the mistake of not caring more than my child whether or not his feet got wet?

Or is caring overrated?

From my perspective: there was no big deal here. Yes, there was snow, yes his hands got cold and his clothes got wet. But this was not some scene out of “To Build a Fire.” We threw his clothes and shoes in the dryer, got out a change of clothes, and towel dried the melted snow in the foyer. And, ultimately it provided us with a teachable moment, namely: the best way to thaw out frostbitten hands is to tuck them in your armpits.

Soon, he was back outside, properly suited this time, and digging a tunnel system oddly reminiscent of something I constructed more than three decades ago in the same front yard, during the Blizzard of ’78.

I get it, I get it: I know that I am supposed to care in this instance, but what exactly does caring do for him or for me in this situation?

From my recollection, at age 11 I think I would have behaved exactly the way my son did: given the first opportunity to play in deep snow (and a rare deep snow at that), I would have immediately–and quite literally–thrown myself into it.

And I probably would have appreciated a little less caring about snow pants and snow boots from the grown-ups around me. Not that it’s a good idea to play in the snow until you are soggy and frozen; it’s just not the end of the world. Unless, of course, your spit crackles in the air before it hits the ground….

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