I Loved It Until I Hated It: Mad Men

When the hit television series, Mad Men first made its appearance on AMC, I was enthralled–as were most regular viewers of this iconic TV show set in 1960s New York City. The sets. The clothes. The corded telephones and Selectric typewriters. The smoking. The two martini lunches. It was all so nostalgic, glamorous and interesting.

I was also appalled. The smoking. The chauvinism. The corporate arrogance. The deceit of powerful men living indulged double lives while their wives and secretaries were supposed to relish the role of making men’s lives easier. It was ugly. And it shocked me to consider the not so long ago engrained cultural acceptance of women and minorities being treated so horribly in the workplace.

Curious, I followed the lives of the show’s flawed (Don Draper) inspiring (Peggy Olsen and Joan Harris) and damaged (Betty Francis) characters. I rooted for them and hoped they’d figure out how to navigate their world and emotions. And for the most part, the series delivered. But the finale made me want to throw my cocktail glass at the screen as does much baby boomer B.S.

Sure, I’m all for extending gratitude to a generation of dreamers who marched for equality and tried to break from oppressive cultural mores. But as a child of baby boomers, and one who doesn’t much appreciate that generation’s nauseating search for significance, the final episodes of Mad Men featuring Don Draper wandering the open road trying to, I don’t know, lose himself, find himself, gah! It made me want to throw up. At least the dastardly Don of previous seasons seemed self-assured in his ability to leverage his creative brilliance and earn a living. Desperate Don seems to believe his failings are irreparable. That he is worthless. And do any of us really want to believe we cannot be redeemed?

I prefer fiction that holds a mirror up to society and our inner lives, exposes our brokenness and then shows us how to endure, change, make our lives and the world a better place.

In some ways, the final season of Mad Men delivered on that score. But mostly, it fell flat.

PeggyPeggy’s storyline should have ended last week with her bitch stride down the hallway at Mccann-Erickson. Instead, she’s not “complete” until the writers give her a cuddly and supportive boyfriend. Puke. Sure, Stan is probably one of the most likable characters on the show, progressive and smart, deserving of a confident woman like Peggy. But for crap’s sake. Really? A cheddar cheese love story ending for one of the most impressive and generation defining female characters to grace my television set? Pah-lease.

JoanKudos to Joan for launching her own business. But I still wish she’d kicked her self-centered boyfriend to the curb instead of him walking out on her. “At least she didn’t cry about it,” someone tweeted me about my lament. True enough. I’ll give it a pass.

BettyBetty changes little over the course of the show. But then, Betty was one of the few characters who seemed to understand how real life works. It’s a bitch. And she stood strong through her hard knocks. She divorced her lothario husband. She did what she knew how to do to take care of her children and eventually sought self-improvement through the pursuit of a college education. She knew who she was and was unapologetically stoic until the end. Bravo.

DonFinally, Don and his hippie dippy cross-country road trip and retreat attendance. It bored me. “I’m rich. Women love me. My life is so hard.” Wah wah. Old Don would have rolled his dreamy eyes at weepy Don. If I let the suggested storyline slide by about Don Draper shedding his skin and coming to terms with his failures, then I want a payoff that includes redemption and a return to his responsibilities, mainly his children. Enlightenment is not obtained through obfuscation and avoidance of consequence. Period. The final scene made me want to scream and ceremoniously tear clothing, evicting meditation Don from my consciousness forever.

In retrospect, I hope the cynics are right about the finale’s ambiguous ending and that Don did create the iconic Coca-Cola commercial that the show signed off with. Because if that’s true, then maybe Don still remains a shill for corporate America, but at least in that scenario he returns home to New York, where his children live. That maybe he seeks forgiveness and resolves to change his selfish and reckless ways. Like Pete. Like Pete?? Ick. Yes. Like Pete.

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What I Wish I’d Known Before Going to College

Credit: Google Images

Credit: Google Images

Soon, young people across America will graduate from high school. And many will head off to college in a few short months. I have no grandiose thoughts to share when it comes to one of life’s great transitions. No lofty commencement style speeches to make. But I do know a few things now that I wish I’d known back then. So strap in. Cause I guess I do have some grandiose thoughts to share!

1) A willingness to work hard is more valuable than above average intelligence. As an 18-year-old high school honor student, I presumed my aptitude would carry me through college as well as it had in high school. It did not. And the ensuing frustration I experienced when discovering I wasn’t the smartest person in the room occasionally led me to question my ability and worth. So brace yourself. College can be hard. But life is hard. Egos be damned. A strong work ethic prevails.

2) Education is never a waste of time, even if you change your major. Some folks in my hometown didn’t put much stock in “book smarts” and viewed college as mostly an expensive means to employment. But we can never completely know where educational exploration might lead. Take a variety of classes. Learn something about the world, not just about your chosen field. In my opinion, every college student should take at least one course in ethics, philosophy, logic and economics. Please provide your college course recommendations in the comments section.

3) Figuring out how to get things done is more important than being done. If you already knew everything, it wouldn’t be called higher learning. So stop rushing through your homework and studies in a frenzied attempt to check items from your daily to-do lists. The red Solo cups can wait. Learn to value the process of discovery. Network. Ask for help.

4) Avoid taking early morning, late evening or summer classes whenever possible. Because it sucks. Period. You’re welcome.

5) Seek community. Study groups. Lab partners. Sorority sisters. Well, I actually have no idea about sororities. But I do know it’s important to connect with people who are experiencing the same challenges and incremental successes that you are. You are not alone. Somebody out there understands what you’re going through. Find them.

6) Internships! I’m pretty sure I made the short-sighted mistake of thinking paid part-time employment waiting tables was more valuable than an unpaid internship in my field of study. Recent college grads tell me that many internships are paid and that the long-term networking, skill acquisition and work experience are priceless. Check it out. Let me know. Please share your insights in the comments section.

7) Make time to discover extracurricular athletics and the arts in your college community. Whether it’s ultimate frisbee, pick-up basketball or a trip to an art exhibition, lay the groundwork for a full life. Plus, exercise and art appreciation are good for your health. Trust me. It’s true.

8) Don’t neglect your spiritual life. Find a local church, chapel or campus ministry. Getting and/or staying connected to the Creator and Sustainer of life will center you on what’s most important. Remind you of your worth beyond a GPA. Provide a purpose beyond achievement for your own sake. Encourage you when you’re feeling lost or low. And continually point you toward the only true source of fulfillment and joy.

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The Inmates Don’t Run My Asylum and Other Thoughts on Parenting

Photo Credit: Amber Gehring

Photo Credit: Amber Gehring

Last week on the blog, I asked you for a bit of parenting advice. Today, I’m going to share some. Because I had an epiphany when someone recently complimented the hubs and me on our ability to get our teenagers to church on Sunday mornings when most teens might prefer to sleep in.

In case you didn’t know, non-compliance doesn’t have to be an option, especially in matters you deem important. Yes, parenting is certainly a challenge since children, much like adults, usually have their own ideas about what they prefer to do with their time. But unlike life for adults in the wider world, life in our home is not a democracy. I like to tell my kids, with a smile of course, that I prefer the tyrannical dictatorship style of household governance. If you think you want to go this route, I suggest you begin early.

Don’t misunderstand. I can be as cuddly and gushy as the next person when it comes to being enamored with my own offspring. We often hug and kiss our children and tell them we love them. I’m usually not a yeller and I am, in my opinion, extremely tolerant of messes and mistakes. We’re open to hearing out any well-reasoned arguments. But I am rarely, actually never, open to extended debates with children. Because ultimately all Johnson asylum authority is centralized at the top of this house’s laundry pile. She who feeds and clothes the inmates deserves some modicum of respect.

I do not claim to be a parenting expert. And these tips are by no means exhaustive or meant to be the final word. Just some thoughts on what’s worked for us so far. So here goes…

Do not argue or debate with your kids. It should be clear from get-go street (as my mom used to say) that you are in charge and will not be lured or bated into defending your rules. Keep your cool. Simply state the reason for the rule and let that be the end of it. To me, it doesn’t matter if a child claims to not understand my reasoning. Because let’s be honest–most moms like to brag about how their kids are so brilliant or gifted, which to my mind means they probably do understand your reasoning. They just don’t agree. There’s a difference. And compliance does not require agreement.

Say yes when you can and no when you must. This has been some of the most beneficial parenting advice I’ve ever received. But it often requires me to not give immediate responses to my children’s requests. I sometimes pause and ask myself if there is any harm in saying yes even if my initial instinct is to say no. If your go-to response is “no” simply because you don’t want to think about a request or might be inconvenienced by a request, that’s unfair. Even dictators must let the masses have their way from time to time to avoid an all out revolt or worse, simmering resentment and strained relationships.

Your no must mean no. This is why you must think before you respond. Because once you establish a “no”, you must be willing to engage any defiance and endure any backlash with determined stoicism and resolve. So once you’ve said no to that toy in the store, DO NOT, relent to your toddler’s torture. Let ‘em scream bloody murder for all you care. You’ll get no evil eye roll from me. I’ll applaud and clap you on that steely spine of yours. I get it. You’re trying to establish authority and teach your youngster that no amount of squall can sink your ship. Stay strong sister! Because if you allow nagging, screaming or tantrum throwing to wear you down and make you buy that damned toy just to get your kid to shut up, you’re only teaching your kids to nag, scream and throw tantrums every time you say no. On the other hand, stick by your no, and after a while, sometimes a long while, kids do learn we mean business and will accept our rulings without the theatrics. An added benefit to not buying my kids stuff every time we  ventured into a store is that today, they are thoughtful consumers who carefully consider whether an item is truly worth spending their (or my) resources on. Score one for the dictator!

Teach responsibility early on. If you do everything for others, they’ll let you. (This also applies to your career, volunteering, and probably your marriage. But let’s just focus on the kiddos for now.) We all remember the Barney “Clean Up” song and how we happily encouraged our kids to pick up their toys only for the little rug-rats to gleefully dump the toy bucket over again. But why stop when they’re little? I tell you the truth–I will leave an empty granola bar wrapper on the counter for an entire DAY while waiting for my teen son to get home from school so he can throw it away himself rather than throw it away for him. You must think that would drive a person insane. Yes, well… I’ve already alluded to living in an asylum. But in this asylum, the inmates clean up their own messes.

When you’re wrong, say you’re sorry. This is a tough one for dictators like me. But, apologizing when we’re wrong does not undermine our authority. It legitimizes it. So, if you overreact, get angry, apply too much pressure or inadvertently say something that hurts your child’s feelings, apologize. Be tender. Be humble. Always, always, always be loving. Loving does not equal weakness just as being weak does not equal love.

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Is Unemployment Better for Busy Teens?

credit: Google images

credit: Google images

Some parenting standards can be planned in advance. We imagine we’ll know precisely how to respond to many parenting situations and be easily guided by our experience and values. New parents talk at length of the value of making their own baby food and limiting screen time. But then, real life happens and naïve certainty evolves into a realization that we’re often not sure what to do. This can lead to less thought through parenting decisions, like letting your toddler stand in the back of a shopping cart or allowing your teenage son to watch the Fast and Furious franchise while on the verge of getting his driver’s license.

So I’m asking you, dear blog readers, to help me think through an upcoming parental decision–whether to encourage our sooner-than-I-could-ever-have-imagined-to-be 16-year-old son to get a job. Seems easy. Right? Old enough to work means get your butt to work. I mean, hey, I got a job as soon as I turned 16. I remember how proud I was to don that polyester poop brown and orange jumper and a plastic nametag for my first gig at the Ponderosa Steak House. I had a driver’s license and my mom’s hand-me-down ‘76 Chevrolet Chevette that needed gas and insurance coverage. I had responsibilities!

And I suppose having a job during the school year was fine for me. Unless you factor in an early immersion into a grown-up world of restaurant co-workers who happened to not be all high school students like me. Some were high school dropouts. Some were struggling single parents. A few were rehabilitating criminals. But aside from this early exposure to the wider world–something I’m not sure I want for my own kids–my grades never suffered and my little blue hatchback always had a full tank of gas.

I’ll argue this wasn’t always the case when I went to college. That’s when I really needed money to pay for tuition, books and housing. But the heightened difficulty of college coursework meant that holding down even a part-time job during my college years caused my grades to suffer. Making ends meet during college is something I truly hope our kids won’t have to worry as much about.

For me, there seemed no other way. But that’s not the case for my children. Our son doesn’t need to have a job right now. The hubs and I are fortunate enough to be able to provide for his needs. And, unlike some kids with more refined tastes, our son rarely asks for extras. He seems perfectly content with bargain priced t-shirts, a few pair of no-name-brand jeans and wearing one pair of athletic shoes at a time until they’re either outgrown or worn out.

But even though he doesn’t necessarily need money, shouldn’t he get a job to learn responsibility? Start saving for college? Gain some work experience? My immediate answer to all of the above is yes. (Although please God not at a place like the Ponderosa.)

But what about his already busy schedule? My son participates in high school sports–something I never did. I’m pretty sure our son isn’t on deck for any college sports scholarships. It’s not that. He just likes to play. It’s part of his high school experience and something he most likely won’t get to be a part of once he goes to college. And these activities often mean he doesn’t return home from school until after 6 o’clock. Sometimes later. Then there’s dinner and homework for courses admittedly tougher than what I took at his age. You probably don’t need to read another blog post about how kids today are pushed too hard academically and have more homework than we did in high school. So I’ll skip that for now.

I suppose he could find a job that only requires him to work on weekends during the school year. But that would mean zero down time day in and day out and that cannot be a good recipe for a healthy mind and body. So I’m tempted to discourage any paid employment during the school year. Am I wrong? The hubs thinks so. He says kids on more competitive traveling sports teams typically have games or practices most every day including weekends. What’s the difference? He says a weekend job wouldn’t really be like “working” if it were outdoors and connected to something our son already enjoys. In the hubs’ mind, there isn’t much difference between the kid spending all day on a winter Saturday skiing for fun or getting paid to  teach kids to ski. Is he right? Do our kids have the energy and ability to endure long days every single day? Cause I don’t. Good grief, I sure don’t.

So, as much as I’ve always been a believer in young people having some skin in the game, I’m reluctant to have my boy grow up so fast. I’m thinking a summer job might be sufficient. But maybe I’m being too soft. I prefer to give this decision a bit more thought than the time I let him stand up in the back of a grocery cart. Cause you can likely imagine how well that turned out.

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What Planet Do You Live On? How elitism exacerbates the achievement gap and makes you look like a jerk.

My elementary school in Flint, Mich.

My elementary school in Flint, Mich. built in 1928. Closed in 2011due to low enrollment and sold in 2015. Photo taken in 2009.

I grew up in Flint, Michigan. Maybe you’ve heard of it­–that blue collar town known for being the birthplace of General Motors, the UAW, Michael Moore and Mark Ingram. A city that once boasted one of the highest median incomes in the country, now with sad regularity, tops lists for highest unemployment and crime rates. Not surprisingly, its public education system leaves much to be desired. As much as 35% of Flint residents read at only a first grade level.

I don’t live in Flint anymore. Today, I live in an affluent suburban community with well-maintained parks and trails and regular trash pickup–something I see as a marvel when considering places like Flint that struggle to provide basic services. And the schools here! Oh my goodness, the quality of public education in my suburban land of enchantment is astounding. So much so, that sometimes when I overhear seemingly trivial things that parents in this district complain about, I think, “REALLY? You have no idea how good our children have it here compared to the state of public education in other, less fortunate communities.”

But of course parents in wealthy school districts have high standards. Why wouldn’t they? It’s most likely part of why they choose to live in areas with the “best” schools. But I wonder how much of our perception perpetuates reality.

It’s my belief that few schools are inherently better than others. Schools are made better–as defined by test scores and graduation rates–by parents who are educated, involved and typically wealthier than families whose children attend schools considered “not the best.” And when educated, involved and wealthy parents decide to move their children to schools they perceive are “better,” they take their education, involvement and disposable income with them, leaving a higher concentration of less educated, more dysfunctional and less affluent families behind.

Gradually over time, this money, stability and brain drain likely impact the quality of educators available to families less able to relocate. Because, let’s face it. It’s got to be easier for teachers to manage classrooms filled with kids whose home lives are not as negatively impacted by maladies associated with lower incomes. It takes compassion and conviction for quality educators to choose to teach in less affluent school districts. Their jobs are tougher and their burnout rates are higher most likely because they lack the advantages of teachers at richer schools.

But it is my assertion that kids of educated, involved and affluent families succeed in large part due to their privileged home lives. Successful, stable families tend to produce successful, stable offspring. Going to the “best” schools is simply icing on our fortune-filled cake. And if that’s the case, then are wealthy families partly responsible for the “underperformance” of some schools by refusing to send their children there? By chasing the perceived best, the rich get richer, a principle known as cumulative advantage.

Maybe you’re not convinced that you have any responsibility beyond providing the best opportunities for your own kids. Fine. I get it. I really do. I worry sometimes about how my children will achieve the American dream in such a competitive meritocracy. But let’s at least acknowledge our privilege and not look down our noses at schools we believe aren’t good enough for our own little darlings. For example, there are three senior high schools in the suburban school district where I live. Each one is governed by the same school board and education standards, thus presumably deliver the same quality education. But they are geographically located in three distinctly different socio-economic areas–albeit all suburban mind you. And yet, the most common perception around here is to rank these schools as bad, better and best in direct correlation with the age of the building and the number of students who receive free and reduced price lunch.

Worse is whenever I encounter a teen who laments spending even a few hours for a sporting event at the school they (and their parents) consider the “worst.” I’ve heard students say things like, “It was scary, like going to the ghetto.” What?! The school isn’t in Beirut. Hell, it’s not even in Flint! We’re still talking about a suburban high school located in a city with a crime rate well below the U.S. average. Plus kid, it’s by God’s grace, dumb luck or the adroitness of your parents and their realtor that you get to go to the shiniest schools. So let’s dispense with the elitist attitude lest you turn out like this…

Flint’s deterioration is certainly due to a confluence of many factors, chief among them, deindustrialization. But the degradation of some of its schools began long before that. It began with rich folks bent on moving their kiddos to “better” schools lest they be forced to rub shoulders with the lower classes. My mother, who still lives in Flint, once asked me if it ever feels like I’m living on another planet. The answer is, “Yes Mom. Sometimes it does.”

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I Have Questions

photo from Google images

photo from Google images

It occurs to me that when you avoid a “taboo” topic of conversation and I dive face first into one, that maybe, we are trying to convey the same message–compassion.

This is a new revelation to me as I’ve been historically puzzled by those who don’t ask questions. I’ve always found it particularly odd when family members and supposedly close friends dance daintily around elephants plopped smack in the middle of the room.

Examples:

  • You meet a friend for coffee. You know she’s been struggling with something personal because she’s either previously told you or you heard about it from a mutual friend. You avoid the topic. But I say, “So I heard you’re having a rough go. Wanna talk about it?”
  • Your teenage son’s buddy comes over. You remember something about his having a girlfriend. You offer the kids pizza rolls and return to loading the dishwasher. But I say, “Still have that girlfriend? How are things going? Is she smart? Is she funny? Do her parents like you? Do your parents like her?”
  • A relative or college friend is getting married. You know her fiancé has a child from a previous relationship. You attend all the pre-wedding festivities and behave as if you’ve known the child its whole life. (Which is good btw. Always be kind to children.) But I ask the bride-to-be, “Was your fiancé married before? Does the child have a relationship with the mother? Do you? I honor your commitment to becoming a step-parent. But it must be challenging in some ways. Tell me about that.”

So, to be clear, I don’t necessarily pour out all of my questions in the sequential style of an interrogator. I understand the dance of discussion. And I’m talking about people we have relationships with. (Or maybe not. I do tend to ask strangers questions too.) But the fact is, I do ask questions. Questions other people seem too afraid or too indifferent to ask. I suppose I’m just curious about people. I don’t want to guess or assume or conjure up my own ideas about how things are going with you. I’d rather hear it from you. And how better to know what’s really going on than to ask questions?

Before you begin to think I have no boundaries, let me share a few examples of topics I’ll most likely ask you about that others might not:

  • Your relationships
  • Your work/education/career status, goals, hopes and dreams
  • Your faith/spiritual life
  • Your physical and mental health
  • Your kids (But mostly if your kids are over 5 years old and are capable of doing more interesting things than making poop in the potty. Cause, eventually we can all do that. So although you’re excited, it’s not that impressive.)

And some topics I probably won’t ask you about because I do have boundaries or they don’t really help me know you in any meaningful way or I don’t really care all that much:

  • Your finances
  • Your sex life (Gross.)
  • Your fitness routine (Gah! Shut up already. You’re fit or really want to be. Good for you.)
  • Your politics (I can already tell from talking to you.)

I ask questions because I’m interested in you. I care about you. I want to know you better. And I’ve always believed that others avoided asking questions because they’re either too bashful or too self-involved or think they already know all the answers or don’t really care all that much. But I may be wrong about the non-questioners in some instances. We just may be trying to convey the same message of sensitivity and care; you by keeping silent on some matters, me by speaking up.

I think this is most relevant when it comes to people’s personal lives. Even though the media makes huge efforts to convince us that all personal things are fit for public consumption, many still believe personal relationships and problems are off limits. Which is funny since most people have no problem dishing about the serial mating habits of some insecure and drug-addled movie star but won’t dare ask a friend if they’re lonely.

My revelation has been that some believe asking such questions is intrusive and judgmental. People say nothing not because they don’t care, but because they don’t wish to offend or open old wounds. And sometimes the silent types, the non-questioners believe I’m being needlessly nosey or rude.

But I believe we’ve misjudged each other. You’re trying to show compassion by keeping silent. I’m trying to show compassion by being inquisitive. Is one way better than the other? Should you speak up? Should I shut up?

Discuss…

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How Social Media Can Be a Career Killer

social-media-exhaustionYou’ve surely heard about or most likely experienced the power of social media and its ability to lure us in with photos of an old flame’s wedding, a friend’s new baby, tips on creating a quixotic tabletop display, recipes for the latest gluten, sugar, fat, dairy, nut and taste free side dishes, as well as those hilariously quirky cat videos. But these time-sucking, productivity-killing banalities aren’t the only sinister mind traps of the 24-hour online world.

There is also a crap-ton of terrific, useful, inspirational and motivational art and information flying over those fiber optic freeways. As a writer and editor, I regularly wade through a torrent of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and blog posts–mostly great stuff about what other people are doing to make the world a better and more interesting place. I want to be like them. Those people are “out there.” They’re moving and shaking and making things happen. They’re writing reams of content, noticing and photographing tiny seeds bursting forth in springtime, designing killer web pages and mixing Mad Men styled cocktails for their weekly poetry readings. It’s all so amazing and exhausting.

But here’s the thing… The thing is, we (and by “we,” I mean, “I”) too often tend to lump all that online action into one giant pile of competing ambitions and then attempt to ascent this impossible media-made mountain–or just sit immobilized along its foothills trying to discern our next best move. And then, if you’re anything like me, you eventually say, “Screw it,” and go watch The Voice while folding laundry and tweeting about whether Adam Levine’s shirt selection makes him look more or less sexy.

It’s kind of like what happens when kids go off to college and spend too much time checking the status of friends at other universities. The constant social media impression that students at other schools are having better parties, meeting more interesting people and receiving a better education experience can leave a kid feeling unsatisfied and questioning her choices.

I’m way beyond college, thank God. But I still find myself wondering if I’m in the right place. Maybe you do too. If so, let me share what a wise woman recently reminded me of. She noted that when your career and/or life is already in pretty good shape and on an acceptable trajectory, it makes little sense to burn out trying to go in a dozen different directions, especially if it prevents you from doing your best work at your current job. Stop. Self evaluate. Don’t confuse contentment with complacency.

Heck, even if your career and/or life are a hot mess, it makes little sense to attempt to plod a dozen different paths just as much as choosing no path at all.

Social media can help promote and even elevate your career. But it can also be a career stifling distraction. Focus more on being who you are and what you’re doing well right now. Concentrate less on trying to imitate or measure up to social media standards. Create more content than you consume. (This includes those crazy cat videos. I love those.)

Find your niche and plow into your future with purpose. Go ahead and leverage the inspiration and knowledge you discover online to help improve your writing, networking and creativity. But stop letting it distract or discourage you. (And by “you,” I mean “me.” But if this advice also helps you, then my work here is done. Godspeed.)

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