Hiatus

So if you’re wondering where I’ve been, let me tell you. The hinge on my laptop fell apart on February 24. And it has been in repair limbo ever since. What ostensibly was supposed to be a simple replacement of a part has turned into a customer service… well, not nightmare, more like one of those bad dreams you get from eating too many nachos.

So I’ve been stuck with scattershot computer access from libraries and at work. I can’t just compute whenever I want, as long as I want. And some of my posts require quite a while for me to write. So I’ve been forced into an unintended hiatus until I can get it back.

I will try to catch you up on my life here. I received six graduate-school acceptances altogether. As the funding scenarios fall into place, I close in on my choice, which I will post here in the next few weeks. (A certain degree of discretion is critical in these sorts of negotiations, not so much for the schools as it is a courtesy to other applicants.)

I took a trip to my hometown. I got to spend time with my nephew, who just turned seven and is a really cool kid. I got to spend time with my mom, who just turned seventy-five and is full of stories and I consider her stories the greatest gift she could give me. I got to spend time with friends I hadn’t seen in over ten years.

Life is weird and wonderful.

A Ghost Story

Today I went to the Minneapolis College of Arts and Design (or, as we call it here, MCAD, pronounced “Em-cad”). They have a fantastic little art-supply store called the Art Cellar for their students and the general public, and from time to time I pick up supplies there. As I walked down the hall of Morrison Hall, I felt the oddest sensation, a shudder, almost. And I’ve felt it every time I’ve walked that hall. Today I figured out what it was:

A ghost.

In September 2007, I attended their open house for prospective students on a lark. I didn’t know for sure if I wanted to pursue a degree there, but I was desperate for a change of pace in my life. As I toured their studios and classrooms and laboratories, I drooled over the possibility of attending. I would have the opportunity to create almost anything I wanted, trained by the best in their field.

And so I set about putting together my portfolio and application. I hadn’t drawn seriously in the longest time (and with my job and commute and ridiculousness from my roommates at the time, didn’t really have the time or space to do so). But I gave it my best shot. I filled out the application and made an appointment for a portfolio review. Though she wasn’t so impressed with most of my drawings, my mixed-media work intrigued her. Shortly thereafter, I received notice of my acceptance to one of the top art schools in the country.

And then I found out how much it was going to cost.

And I understood why most of the students come from wealthy families.

Maxing out every possibility for funding wouldn’t have even touched the bill. And so, with that, I let go of that little dream.

And now, every time I walk the campus, the ghost of another self from a slightly different universe accompanies me.

I’ve had some very good news in the past week from graduate schools to which I have applied for a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. (I’m not going to tip my hand as to the specifics just yet in such a public venue as this.) Suffice it to say that I will be moving from Minneapolis this summer after a decade of living here.

The question for me at this point is, will I exorcise all these ghosts before I leave?

The job opportunity I didn’t take.

The guy I didn’t ask out.

The apartment I turned down.

Will I leave these ghosts behind when I move away, or will they somehow find a way into my baggage?

Does it matter?

I like where my life is going. It’s been a remarkable turnaround from my lowest depths five years ago. My future is bright right now, and my present ain’t too shabby, either.

The pangs of what might have been may always stick with me. My brain always seems to be at every point of time except the present.

It’s up to me to graciously respond, “Yes, that would have been nice, but this is nice, too — and probably better.”

Replacing “The Gays”

I read in a Quora forum a little while back the responses to the question, “What surprised you about America as a foreign-born person when you first came here?” The answers were mostly unsurprising:

Everything in the United States is much bigger and more spread out than they could have possibly imagined.

Everything is far apart — no, you can’t really drive from New York to Los Angeles and still get a good visit to both in the same week.

The people were friendlier and more helpful than they had expected.

The public transit was abysmal.

The educational system, much ballyhooed by many folks here, offered broader opportunities to enter the career of their choice than many found in their home countries.

The architecture was dull and repetitive.

The opportunities were impressive.

The wealth disparities were shocking.

Click for Creative Commons license.

This is why we’re less of a melting pot and more of a salad bowl. Leave the melting pots for fondue. Mmm, fondue… Photo by Barron Fujimoto via Flickr.

But something I hadn’t considered until I read the discussion was that people from abroad were surprised at how much the laws can change from one state to the next. I had made a false assumption that federalism elsewhere worked much  like it does here. It hadn’t occurred to me just how independent each state in the United States really is.

It’s not that I’m ignorant of the fact. Living near the Minnesota-Wisconsin state border, I know that people buy their alcohol in Minnesota and their cigarettes in Wisconsin because of disparities in excise taxes. Labor-friendly laws give Minnesota workers an edge, but in Wisconsin it’s simpler to open a new business. And, of course, if you and your partner are of the same sex, you can get married in Minnesota but not in Wisconsin.

It’s to this last point that the variations in law from one state to the next are showing most prominently in the headlines. In the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decisions regarding same-sex civil marriage, state laws opposing such contracts are falling under the scrutiny of the courts. And, state by state, more people are allowed to get married.

(Of course, if these newly wed couples change state boundaries, suddenly, they may not be considered married anymore.  No heterosexual couple in the United States must undergo such considerations when making a move. This is how truly disjointed the states are with respect to each other.)

This shift in the law, though, is being met with great resistance in other parts of the country — two states of which, I must note, are north of the Mason-Dixon line.  Of particular note this week are moves in three states — Idaho, Kansas, and Tennessee, to allow those who work in the public sector to deny services to LGBT services on the grounds of religious freedom.

However, this move is fraught with error on so many levels. Oh, where to begin…

First off, it declares discrimination as a religious freedom. Mind you, this is not the first time in American history we have heard this:

“I believe those blacks are the descendants of Ham and are therefore cursed by God; therefore, I stand by my religious freedom to refuse them service.”

“I believe those Jews are responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus; therefore, I stand by my religious freedom to refuse them service.”

On and on.

Such statements would not stand in a court of law today. (At least, I hope they wouldn’t. Heaven knows I have reason to avoid complete optimism in this regard.) Why aren’t we holding the same standard here?

Another thing: when a person chooses to enter a profession in which they will be serving the public, they don’t get to pick and choose who is the public. Once you cross the threshold of my business, it is my legal duty to render services to you. This is part of the social contract of entering such a profession —  public means the whole public.

To those who would say otherwise, I would simply ask they move on to another profession. If you do not have the capacity to turn off your prejudices between clock-in and clock-out so that you can perform the baseline duties of your profession… well, in my experience and observation, if you can’t perform the baseline duties, you get fired.

This goes to the police officer who refuses to intercede in a domestic dispute because the parties are of the same sex.

To the emergency-room technician who won’t touch a patient because they are transgender.

To the mortician who won’t care for the deceased because their spouse is of the same sex.

There are plenty of other jobs where it’s permissible to pick and choose who you serve, and you’re more than welcome to take one of those.

Then there is the issue of freedom. I’m all for freedom. I’m all for religious freedom — and I am an atheist. But a freedom is only a freedom insofar as it doesn’t interfere with the freedom of another. When we start to presume otherwise, when we say that some have freedom but others do not, it is no longer freedom, but tyranny.

But there is something else buried in this issue. It’s this notion of painting everyone in a swath.  If we make a law against “the gays”, what is that? It’s an abstraction. There is no face to it. It’s easy to legislate against an abstraction.

I say all this with the caveat that we can’t err the opposite direction, either. It was only through people openly identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender that legal progress was ever made in the first place. So there are good reasons for individuals identifying as such.

But that is not what I mean. I’m talking about creating this faceless group within your imagination so that you don’t have to deal with the individuals therein. (This of course applies to pretty much any group to which you don’t belong.)

But I have a face.

And I have a name.

And so, if you ever say to yourself or to someone else, “I don’t think the gays should marry,” drop that “the gays” and replace it with “Whittier”.

“I don’t think Whittier should marry.”

“I don’t think Whittier should eat at the restaurant of his choice.”

“I don’t think Whittier should receive equal service from emergency services.”

Don’t know me? Change the name to John.

Or Michelle.

Or Ethan.

Or Tamika.

Or anyone else you know.

And if you don’t think you know anyone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, the statistics bear out otherwise. Perhaps they haven’t told you because you have said that “the gays” shouldn’t marry.

Fill it in with the name of anyone you know.

Because, here’s the thing: no matter whose name you put in, regardless of sex

or gender

or religion

or political affiliation

or ANYTHING

it should be clear that the statement falls. That it should fall.

This is what equality is about.

This is what freedom is about.

Jewelry

The online presence for my jewelry design is now live. Check it out at Whittier Strong Jewelry.

Friend Redefined

When you have an EMDR treatment, the therapist tells you that the memory you are reprocessing in therapy may come back to you a lot over the coming week, and that you should take that opportunity to continue thinking and processing, don’t resist the thought but just go with the process. My thoughts from my last session (detailed here) have left me pondering two interrelated ideas: abandonment and friendship. I’ve experienced a good deal of abandonment from numerous people throughout my life, and, partly as a consequence, I’ve had to constantly redefine what it means to be my friend.

Kindergarten was really the first time I ever met children my own age. And, so it seemed, everyone liked everyone else and  played with everyone else. It didn’t occur to me that there were kids who didn’t like me. (Imagine my shock when I worked in a daycare, and the three-year-olds cliqued off Mean Girls-style.)

But then I got to first grade, and everything changed. The children grouped up during recess, and I was left out. You see, I was the boy who played with dolls, thus violating the strict gender-segregation codes instilled in us by the pink-aisle marketing mentality. (I will say this for my parents–they let me shop in whatever aisle I wanted.) On occasion, a girl might let me play with her, but for the most part, I was a pariah.

At this point in my life, “friend” meant “playmate”, and I didn’t really have any. Sometimes a fourth- or fifth-grader would feel sorry for me and tell me, “I’m your friend,” but, of course, they didn’t play with me. Now I understand the vast developmental differences that justify why they didn’t play with me, but at the time their words sounded hollow.

In second grade, I developed a strategy. I would befriend “new kids” their very first day of school, before anyone could turn them against me. And I would have a playmate — until my friend moved away, which always happened, often in a few months’ time.

By third grade, with a sporadic history of playmates, I altered my definition of “friend” to “someone who doesn’t make fun of you to your face”. That was fully half my class. I had a lot of friends.

In fifth grade, it was “someone who sticks up for you”.

In seventh grade, it was “nobody”. What friends I had in sixth grade were not in my classes, and had taken an interest in girls.

In ninth grade, it was “people who spend time with you” — not far removed from “playmate”.

The line between “friend” and “enemy” blurred sometimes. Some of the members of my church youth group bullied me, but the youth pastor said it was because they liked me. And so I let them bully me some more.

In Bible college, “friend” meant “someone to whom I can entrust my secrets” — and I was carrying the biggest whopper of a secret: I was gay.

At age 29, it was “someone who stuck with me after I came out of the closet”. For a while, that was two people.

At 30, it was again “nobody”, as I pulled up stakes under duress and moved to Minneapolis.

It stayed “nobody” for two years. Then I randomly fell into a large circle of friends. And we spent a lot of time together. And we played games. And we would entrust our secrets to each other.

And along the way, I joined Facebook. I reconnected to friends I had lost along the way. As well as a lot  of acquaintances. But we don’t call it “acquaintancing” on Facebook. We call it “friending”. So in social media, the count of those who are considered my friend is artificially high.

But then, two years ago, I went back to school. For various reasons, I fell out of the circle of friends with whom I had spent time and played games and entrusted secrets. This hurt. I doubled down and focused on my schoolwork.

Now I look to relocate in a few months. And I find that my social life the last two years is nearly as bereft as it was my first two years in Minneapolis. I currently have some opportunities to develop new relationships, but it seems like a fool’s errand since I’ll be leaving them soon.

And I’m stuck wondering if this move will mean inventing a new definition of “friend” to tide me over until everyone leaves again.

Voyager

This morning was my weekly EMDR therapy. This is my treatment for PTSD. I feel like I’m drowning in initials, sometimes.

EMDR stands for “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing”, but the name is a bit deceiving. Originally it involved eye movement , but now it can involve any number of sensory inputs. For my treatment, I hold two small vibrating devices, one in each hand.

Basically, when someone undergoes severe trauma, their brain gets rewired to process sensory data differently, so they’re always on guard, hypervigilant. It makes the sufferer tense and anxious and worried pretty much constantly. In EMDR, the therapist goes back into the traumatic memories with the aid of the sensory input to undo some of the traumatic damage and make the patient’s life less tense — easier.

My description doesn’t really do the process justice. I’m making it sound like the therapist is minimizing the trauma, trivializing its impact. It’s not that. It’s more that it takes away the power that the traumatic event has had over you. It helps you overcome.

As I was going through my memories today, strangely enough, I kept coming back to scenes from Star Trek: Voyager. Of course, I’ve been running through the series on Netflix (just finished Season 2 Episode 12 a bit ago). But I also have recurring dreams set in the show, in which the Borg are attempting to assimilate the U.S.S. Voyager.

The ship of my dreams, literally. From http://memory-alpha.org

At first, I tried to pull my thoughts back to the memory I was supposed to be working on, but my therapist told me to just follow this train of thought and observe it.

And I flashed through all the characters on the show as if they were photos in a family album.

Family. It struck me that this is the appeal of the show for me.

If you’re not familiar with the show, a very simplified version of the plot is that the crew of a starship is hurtled halfway across the galaxy, and they are trying to get back to Earth with none of the support or allies they are used to having. So the crew all have to learn to rely on each other. And as the series goes on, the crew think of themselves more and more as a family, even using that word for themselves.

And it strikes me that this is a common theme in shows at the time. (Voyager ran from 1995 to 2001.) I came across a critique of the show Friends a couple of days ago. (If I have time, I’ll dig up the link later.) It decried the show for featuring the most self-absorbed characters in history, that their entire lives revolve around their immediate relationships, with no connection to the outside world.

I think the critic is missing the point. Like many shows that achieve a certain canonization in our culture, it depicts a fantasy. It gives its characters the very things we wish for in life.

And for a child of the Nineties (which is really more what I am despite the fact that I’m pushing 40), this idea of security in relationships means everything. We, the generation whose families broke up, whose parents may not have been around (in the same way they were so conspicuously absent in John Hughes movies and suchlike) craved some depiction of the comfort, safety, and love we so desperately wanted in our own lives.

I may well find myself back on the bridge of Voyager after I drift to sleep tonight. And when I do, I’ll see a reflection of the sort of connections I’ve always wanted in my life.

“Crazy”

I’ve been meaning to follow up my last blog post, because the incident has still left me with a lot on my mind. You see, the thing is, the gentleman caught me catching the bus on a Wednesday afternoon. If he had caught me on a Monday morning, I would have been indeed on my way to the “crazy clinic”.

I have a multitude of psychological impairments for which I have been treated for years, and which I have talked about with some regularity on this blog: generalized anxiety disorder, major depression, delayed sleep-phase disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. With the exception of the circadian-rhythm issues, these all came from having lived a less than easy life. There were a lot of bad things I went through as a child that left a permanent mark on my psyche. And I’ve been working diligently with medical professionals to erase that mark the best I can.

What if the gentleman had encountered me on a Monday morning? Who knows. I would most likely have changed bus stops, but I probably would have been in tears along the way.

I like to pretend that my disabilities are invisible, that you would just assume I’m healthy if you passed me on the street. This isn’t really the case, though. My disabilities leave me with tense body language and a hypervigilant engagement with my surroundings.

And some people, rather than observing such symptoms in a person and reacting with sympathy, instead erase them with words like “crazy”. Sadly, the mental illness known as lack of empathy is underdiagnosed in our culture.

I will not be erased. I will stand. I will stand for those unable to stand for themselves.

Dear Gentleman at the Bus Stop

Dear Gentleman at the Bus Stop:

First off, I want to thank you. You see, I’ve been experiencing a bit of writer’s block lately, and I’ve been looking for inspiration. Our ninety-second interaction encapsulated so much of what is wrong with society that I now have writing fodder for days.

And because you don’t know what was going on before our unfortunate encounter — not that you bothered to ask — I thought that I’d fill you in (on the snowball’s chance that you happen upon this post).

I missed a bus. By thirty seconds. That was to take me to an appointment that I have been waiting on for two months. I needed to contact the clinic to let them know I was running late and to see if there was any way they could accommodate me. But I didn’t have the clinic’s phone number. You see — as I’m 99% certain you noticed — I don’t have a smartphone. Because I can’t afford one. I get my phone through the LifeLine program, and it offers no internet capacity.

So I was stuck trying to figure out how to get their number. I tried calling someone who I figured would have the number, but we had multiple issues in getting the correct number to me. And in the middle of all that, I thought to contact directory assistance. If you haven’t used it lately, it’s all automated, and you have to say things very clearly, like “MIN-NE-A-PO-LIS MIN-NE-SO-TA” and “MED-I-CAL CLIN-IC”. And as clearly as you’re talking, over the din of the downtown of a major metropolitan area, you can barely understand a word the computerized voice is telling you. You’re just looking like and idiot saying “MIN-NE-A-PO-LIS”.

And as I’m doing all this, I’m pacing about. I know, this is verboten in Minneapolis. At a bus stop, you’re supposed to stand still. Well, when it’s below zero out, I move, because moving keeps you warm. And all that pacing may make you look like an idiot. But —  unlike everyone else in this town — I don’t complain about the cold.

So, in the middle of all this, the lady standing next to you asked me if I was okay. And I replied — in the foolishly honest manner that I have — that I missed my bus to go to the clinic and that I was having trouble getting their phone number.

And at this point, you engaged me. You told me that my shoe was untied. And I thanked you, but said that I needed to focus on something else right now. Because it was more important that I get hold of the clinic in a timely manner than that I tie my shoe. And, quite frankly, in forty years on this planet, I have never once tripped on my shoelaces.

And then you noticed my coat. And you decided it was not a winter coat. I hate to break it to you, but I was actually warm underneath my coat, probably warmer than you . It has a fitter cut than the enormous parka you were wearing, and so at first glance might appear more appropriate to spring or autumn, but I’m baffled that you didn’t notice how ridiculously thick the fabric is.

And that’s when you told me that I wasn’t dressed for winter. I forget the exact wording, because shortly after this statement, your reasoning spiraled so far out of control that to take down an exact quote from you for this blog was not the first thing on my mind.

Now, here, sir, was your first mistake. Because one would think that if a human being observed another human being underdressed for below-zero weather, and they were engaged in conversation about this very fact, the first thing you should have done was to inquire whether there was anything you or anyone could do to ensure I was more warmly dressed.

(And yes, I said “should”, despite all that liberal-arts public education I’ve had that has told me the word “should” is a bad word. But — and I hate to break it to the academy — this damn relativism has produced an I-can-do-whatever-I-want mentality that is, frankly, screwing society over. I only hope it’s not irrevocably so.)

Now, inexplicably, you decided that my supposedly thin coat made me “crazy”. And that the clinic I was going to must be the “crazy clinic”.

And so, sir, you might have felt quite proud of yourself for your quick-witted jibe. But you know what? Your snide statement only further contributed to the stigmatization of mental illness in our culture — and that stigma leads to people killing themselves, because words like yours make it harder and harder for them to seek the help they need. So, if you notice an infinitesimal smudge of red on your hands tonight, you know where it comes from. Words have consequences.

Now, sir, I don’t know what you thought I was going to do next. Since you had deemed me “crazy”, you might have thought that I would punch you, or rant about the aliens that live under my tinfoil hat. But you seemed to enjoy what I did next.

I’m about to get to the point where I question your upbringing. But, you see, you said “thank you” as I walked off to the next bus stop. You thanked me for removing my allegedly “crazy” self from your almighty presence. And because you have the capacity to say “thank you”, I know that somewhere rattling inside you is some modicum of decency.

So why did you not use that decency at any point within our interaction? You seemed quite proud of your capacity to bully an emotionally distraught person. You’re going to be hard-pressed to find anyone other than yourself to give you an accolade for doing so. Did you honestly think I was going to just stand there and continue to listen to your insults? No, sir, because that would be “crazy”.

I honestly have no idea what your story is — because, from the outset, you ensured that we would never have a chance to exchange stories. Oftentimes, when people act as you did today, when they have the hopelessly wrong notion that some human beings are ontologically superior to other human beings (and of course, they usually see themselves in the former group), I assume that their parents must have somehow inculcated that idea in their heads early on.

This is, of course, a drastic oversimplification (but you were in the mood for oversimplification today, weren’t you?). The majority parents do the best they can, there are societal pressures that undermine good parenting, and some kids just grow up in defiance of their good upbringing.

And yet, I’ve also seen bad parenting in action. See, one of the great many things you don’t know about me is that I spent several years of my career working with families, and I saw all the good attitudes and the bad attitudes that parents pass on to their children. And, frankly, it’s the kids who are being brought up with the bad attitudes that make me nervous for humanity’s continued survival.

But regardless of where nature and nurture fall in this equation, at some point, we all grow up. We become adults. And, for the vast majority of us — with the possible exception of those whom you might erase with the word “crazy” — we become responsible for ourselves. We have to take stock in our lives, and if there was some poor nurturing, whatever the source, that wove its way into our history, we have to take responsibility to unweave it.

You looked to be about fifty. About time you grew up.

I hope that I just caught you on a really bad day. When I was working with families, I was taught to always assume that bad behavior was merely indicative of a “bad day” and not of a larger pattern — even when I saw the same bad behavior from the same people day after day. I hope that whatever got stuck in your craw worked its way out and that you had a good day.

If this is not the case, if your behavior today is the norm for you, then I hope that you’re not a parent. I hope that you haven’t raised your children to believe that your behavior — so utterly lacking in grace, compassion, and the most rudimentary elements of humanity — is somehow socially acceptable. And if that is how they were raised, then, by all that is good and just, I hope that they have taken up the responsibility to undo those lessons.

You see, I don’t get the privilege to be a parent. The best I can hope for is to admonish every person I come across to raise their children to be loving and kind and compassionate. See, I’m committed to making the world a better place, and that means doing everything I can to undo the consequences of the sort of behavior I saw in you today.

You were astonished at my behavior today, though I fail to see how I did much of anything that was beyond the pale, other than that I didn’t exhibit the icy unflappability that is considered the greatest Minnesota virtue.

Well, guess what? When I crossed Hennepin Avenue, getting hold of my acquaintance once again to finally get the correct phone number, I shared my amazement and befuddlement at how a grown man saw fit to run off another man from a bus stop.

Some would say your actions were “crazy”. But I’m not going to erase you with that word. I’m just going to hope for good things for you.

You surprised me, because somewhere in my head, I have this notion rattling around to assume good things of people.

And I guess we’re not yet to the point where I can make those assumptions about everyone.

But, I tell you, I’m going to do my damnedest to work for a world where we can one day.

Peace to you,

Whittier

PS Since you didn’t ask exactly where I was going, and only assumed: I was going to a dental clinic, not a “crazy clinic”. And they were able to fit me in when another patient didn’t show. And now I have a nice smile — one that you can never take away.

On the Impossibility of Turning into a Giraffe

You will notice above this post a link to a new page. This page will lead you to the .pdf of a multigenre essay I wrote this past summer, entitled “On the Impossibility of Turning into a Giraffe”. (Alternately, you can click here.)

The essay details the history of Exodus International, from the perspective of former leaders and clients, as well as from my own experience. I have chosen to publish this story for free and online so that anyone may have access to the information therein, and learn about the inherent dangers of attempting to change one’s sexual orientation. I hope that this work might help anyone who wants to know more about this history, or who might be considering such treatments.

Fleeting

I was working on a different story this morning. But I just hit delete, because now I am haunted.

This story (trigger warning: cancer) showed up in my Facebook feed. It features a four-minute video that covers the life and death of a young woman. If you have the emotional space right now, I recommend you watch it

And I watch that, and it seems that any piffle I could write this morning pales in comparison.

Because life is oh so fragile. And we don’t like to confront the fact that it is fragile. We busy ourselves with a million distractions to keep our thoughts away from the awful fact that every single one of us will die.

And life is so unpredictable. We don’t know when we will die. The young woman in the video had a couple of months’ notice. But some of us get no notice at all.

I look back on my life and see so many opportunities missed. Risks not taken. Chances squandered.

The party I skipped out on because I was too tired to go — the lost chance to spend a few precious moments with friends.
The date I didn’t ask for because I was sure I would be turned down — the missed possibility of friendship or romance.
The injustice I did not speak out against — the forgone opportunity to make the world a better place.

And, of course, I run the risk of wasting my hours and days and years looking back on a life of regret, rather than seizing the moment to better my life, to better the world, thus perpetuating the cycle.

So how do I make these few fleeting moments of life worthwhile? This is a question only I can answer for myself. But it must be answered — before it’s too late.

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