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When I do manage to write something these days, I seem to keep returning my hobbyhorse of narratives.

Here’s another example.

First, the narrative(s):  we are regularly and forcefully told that if you are of a certain gender, ethnicity, race, class or from a certain region, you believe  X and are concerned with Y above all things. And so the stories about Life Today that are told, especially by the lazy, are created, not by listening and retelling what has been heard from real people, but by carrying one’s narrative out into the field (or onto the Internet – usually as far as it goes these days) and filling in the blanks with what fits, ignoring what doesn’t.

Here’s why your narratives suck.

Just a couple of hours ago, I was in the Dollar General store down the road, here in my area of town called Woodlawn.

I got to the checkout and there was a lively yet  friendly conversation happening between two middle-aged African American men who were both working there and a middle-aged, and definitely world-weary, wiry, mustachioed white customer.

I have no idea what the starting positions were, but as I approached, the white guy was going OFF on what he called the “Muslim Ban” saying (I paraphrase):

“They all want to kill us all anyway. And if they want to kill us, you can’t keep ‘em out. And the ones that are already here – and there’s a lot of em – are just going to get pissed off.”

The other men nodded, either out of politeness or because they agreed, who knows.

So he went out the door, resigned to his fate of being blown to smithereens, and the guy behind the counter said,

“The two best presidents of my lifetime were” – he scanned my Diet Coke – “Reagan and Clinton.”

The other man, who’d been stocking, added, “They were good, but I always liked Carter – they said he was weak, but I did pretty well under Carter.”

“Clinton’s where I made my money. I did good with Clinton.”

And they spent a couple of seconds talking, first about Billy Beer, and then about Amy Carter, who they said they felt sorry for, and who one of them said was like the Lucille Ball of the White House – which I couldn’t figure out for the life of me.

Not a word about Obama.

And then one of them wrapped it up.

“Here’s the thing about Trump,” he said. “He’s a rich guy. Rich guys say what they want and do what they want and no one says anything to them. He’s used to that.”

While I was pondering this, probably the wisest comment I’ve heard in three weeks, he continued,

“He’s got to get used to something new now and just settle down. He’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”

Call it Woodlawn Elegy. There you go. If we don’t get into any more wars and the economy improves so these guys can feel that their lives and incomes are getting better? Narrative, busted. Again.

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— 1 —

Well, that’s done. Another book in the bag, manuscript sent in on deadline.

What’s next? With this book, the editors are looking at it and within the next couple of months will return the manuscript to me with suggested edits. Then I’ll return it to them, the publisher will produce galleys for me to take one more pass at, and then it will go to press. The goal was a pub date in the fall. It is an illustrated book, and I have no idea how that’s coming along. Once I get a cover and definite pub date, I will let you all know.

I have taken it easy the past couple days except for a flurry of cooking last night, which I recorded on Instagram Stories.  I haven’t cooked much since Christmas, but am back in the groove. Made minestrone, bread and my roasted tomatoes last night.

Work-wise, I have a little pamphlet due in a couple of weeks, and then an essay due on March 1.

— 2 —

amy-welborn66Lent is coming! Here’s a post from yesterday with links to all my Lent-related material.

I noted a spike this morning for clicks on this post – and I’m glad to see it, although I would have expected the spike next week and not this.

It’s a 2015 post on one of the most inexplicable post-Vatican II liturgical changes (and..there’s a lot of competition on that score) – the total obliteration of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays – the three Sundays preceding the First Sunday of Lent. So for those who celebrate the Extraordinary Form and some Anglicans, I understand, February 12 is Septuagesima Sunday. From a Dappled Things article I cite in the post:

In the chapter titled “The History of Septuagesima,” Dom Guéranger added, “The Church, therefore, has instituted a preparation for the holy time of Lent. She gives us the three weeks of Septuagesima, during which she withdraws us, as much as may be, from the noisy distractions of the world, in order that our hearts may be the more readily impressed by the solemn warning she is to give us, at the commencement of Lent, by marking our foreheads with ashes.”

— 3—

Despite the work load, I did do some reading over the past month. I can’t focus on work in the evening anymore, so I might as well read.

— 4 —

First up was Christmas Holiday by Maugham. I read it via one of the Gutenburg sites, violating my determination to Set A Good Example by sitting in the living room in the evening, Bartok softly playing, Reading Real Books  Oh, well.

Anyway, this was a very, very interesting book. A little too long, I think, and a bit clunky in tone and format, but cutting. It is a bit of a satire on between-the-wars Britons of a certain class, but more discursive and not as sharp as, say, Waugh. It reminded me a bit of Percy’s Lancelot, simply because a big chunk of it involves someone telling their life story to someone else, and also that the last sentence of the book defines the book and perhaps even redefines your experience of reading it.

It’s not a book I finish and say, “I wish I’d written this book,” but it is a book I finished and thought, “Hmmm…I wish I could write something with that effect.”

.

— 5 —.

Then was Submission by Houellebecq.  A friend had been after me for a while to read it – it was sitting on a display at the library, so there was my sign.

If you’re not familiar with the book, it made quite a stir when it was published in France in 2015 (the day, by the way, of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine) , it’s about, essentially, how Islam could take over France. The central character is a scholar, drifting, unconnected to family, non-religious, mostly unprincipled, still sexually active, but mostly in contexts where he has to pay for it. He is a scholar of the writer J.K. Huysmans, who is very important to Houellebecq – here’s a good article outlining the relationship. 

François’s fictional life trajectory mirrors Huysmans’s actual life: dismal living conditions, a tedious job situation, a serviceable imagination, a modicum of success, a proclivity for prostitutes, and, finally, a resigned acceptance of faith. And just as Huysmans put himself into des Esseintes, François is a self-caricature by Houellebecq—with a twist, or, rather, two: François is Houellebecq’s version of himself if he lived Huysmans’s life, in the year 2022.

Houellebecq and Huysmans have much in common, beginning with their ability to infuriate readers. “There’s a general furore!” Huysmans wrote when “À Rebours” was released. “I’ve trodden on everyone’s corns.” Houellebecq, for his part, has enraged, among others, feminists, Muslims, and the Prime Minister of France. There is more to these two writers than mere provocations, however. Huysmans wrote during the rise of laïcité (French secularism), in the Third Republic, when religion was excised from public life. Houellebecq says he is chronicling religion’s return to European politics today. They each have a twisted outlook on the sacred.

I found Submission an interesting and accurate read on social psychology and the current landscape. Yes, this is what so many of us are like now, this is the vacuum that’s been created, and yes, this is how, in some parts of Europe at least, Islam could fill that vacuum, and how post-post-Christians could give into it.

— 6 —

Now, I’m back to the Kindle (in my defense, I looked for this book yesterday at the library, but they didn’t have a copy) reading some Trollope: Miss McKenzieI’m liking it very much. It’s the usually thinking 19th century treatment of the bind that women found themselves in in relationship to property and independence during the period. This time, we have a woman in her mid-30’s who has spent her adult life so far caring, first for an invalid father, then an invalid brother. After their deaths, she’s inherited a comfortable income. So what should she do? And who will now be interested in this previously invisible woman?

It’s got some great social satire and spot-on skewering of the dynamic in religious groups, especially between charismatic leaders and their followers. I’ll write more when I’m finished with it.

— 7 —

As someone once famously said, and is oft repeated by me, “What a stupid time to be alive.”  It’s pretty crazy, and social media doesn’t do anything but make it stupider. If you follow news, you know the daily pattern:  8AM-2PM FREAKOUT OVER THE LATEST   followed by 2PM-Midnight – (much quieter) walkback/fact-checking/ – but with the walkbacks getting a fraction of the retweets and reposts than the Freakouts get.

There is not enough time in the day. Really, there isn’t. Add HumblePope to the mix, and Good Lord, what’s a wannabe political and religious commenter to do but make soup and read Trollope?

Well, here’s one contribution to non-stupidity – I first read this as a FB post put up by Professor George, and now it’s been turned into a First Things article on the immigration EO. Helpful. Take a look.  

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Here.

Basically, every president, very early on, stakes out a position on this. It was instituted during Reagan’s administration. Clinton, after running as, if not quite pro-life, but in a way that made pro-lifers think he might not be their enemy, was on record, in a 1986 letter to Arkansas Right to Life, as opposing government funding for abortion….reversed the Mexico City Policy on his first day in office, as the crowds were gathering for the March for Life. I vividly remember that because the Catholic circles I ran in at the time were all very up on Clinton and how he was really big-tent-pro-life-and-not-just-anti-abortion-because-justice. And then, his first day,  not only this, but more:

With a stroke of a pen, President Clinton marked the 20th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade Friday by dismantling a series of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Administration abortion restrictions, only hours after tens of thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators rallied across the street from the White House.

* Ended a five-year ban on fetal tissue research, which scientists believe holds the possibility of benefiting patients with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, Huntington’s disease, spinal cord injuries and other conditions.

* Overturned the so-called gag rule that restricted abortion counseling at 4,000 federally funded family planning clinics nationwide.

* Revoked prohibitions on the importation of RU486–known as the French “abortion pill”–for personal use, if the Food and Drug Administration determines that there is no justification for the prohibitions.

* Allowed abortions at U.S. military hospitals overseas, if they are paid for privately.

* Reversed a 1984 order which prevented the United States from providing foreign aid to overseas organizations that perform or promote abortion.

Abortion rights advocates said Clinton’s actions were nothing short of historic.

It was eye-opening, to say the least.

And then, of course, Bush reinstated the Mexico City Policy on his first day, and then Obama reversed it.

And now Trump:

The executive order was signed January 23, one day after the anniversary of the far-reaching Roe v. Wade decision that mandated legal abortion throughout the U.S.

Originally instituted by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, the Mexico City Policy states that foreign non-governmental organizations may not receive federal funding if they perform or promote abortions as a method of family planning.

 

 

From USCCB testimony back in 2001:

The argument has been made by abortion proponents that the Mexico City Policy is nothing more than “powerful” U.S. politicians forcing their policies on poor nations. But, frankly, the opposite is true. First, the policy forces nothing: Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may choose to apply for U.S. tax funds, and to be eligible, they must refrain from abortion activity. On the other hand, NGOs may choose to do abortions or to lobby foreign nations to change their laws which restrict abortion, and if they choose that path they render themselves ineligible for U.S. money. As we saw last time the policy was in place, only two out of hundreds of organizations elected to forfeit the U.S. money for which they were otherwise eligible. (1) But it was and will be entirely their choice.

Far from forcing a policy on poor nations, the Mexico City Policy ensures that NGOs will not themselves force their abortion ideology on countries without permissive abortion laws in the name of the United States as U.S. grantees.

And as we have learned from our experience in international conferences on population, it is not the Mexico City Policy but the United States’ promotion of permissive abortion attitudes through funding of such programs that is likely to cause resentment.(2) This is especially true when it is perceived as a means by which the West is attempting to impose population control policies on developing nations as conditions for development assistance.

The Mexico City Policy is needed because the agenda of many organizations receiving U.S. population aid has been to promote abortion as an integral part of family planning – even in developing nations where abortion is against the law.(3) So, far from being perceived as an imposition on developing nations, the Mexico City Policy against funding abortion programs has been greeted by those nations as a welcome reform. The vast majority of these countries have legal policies against abortion, and virtually all forbid the use of abortion as merely another method of birth control.(4)

 

 

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How shall I say this?

I’m ….not upset that Donald Trump is being inaugurated as 45th president of the United States.

I’m a lot of things: bemused, still sort of incredulous, interested, entertained, wary…but…upset?

I’m sympathetic with those who are. Well, with some of those who are. Others I just want to swat away.

But I get it. I do. There are people who are deeply upset at this moment because they believe that his character is beyond poor and that his ascendancy empowers that kind of similar poor behavior and lousy attitudes. They are upset and feel the need to find each other and support each other because they think (I think) that if someone voted for Donald Trump that must mean that that same someone admires Trump as a person and thinks his personal character is worth emulating, and when you multiply that by the millions, that is an upsetting and distressing vision of the country you live in.

That doesn’t capture everything, but as I have listened and thought through this, that is what I’ve come to conclude. My instinct, though, upon running up against these views, as a person raised in an academic environment by two very tough people, is to wonder what the hell is wrong with people that they take things so personally and are so enmeshed in emotion and the feelz, and Good God, can these people just go to church or synagogue or something and find something transcendent to identify with…now?

Oh, sorry about that.

(Although many have objections to what they assume will be Trump policies, as well, that is not where the movement to #resist is rooted. It’s all in a reaction to his character. Which is, in a way, understandable, but in a way not, once you think through what politics and government are for. But I’ve talked about that before. Stop me before I repeat myself.)

So as I said, I get it. This odd, repulsive-to-you man is the president, you’re offended by him, afraid that his ascendancy signals that it’s okay to be a proud p…….-grabber, and of course, that is not okay. It’s terrible and it would be better if Donald Trump were not that way. Better for him, better for all of us.

Agreed.Now. Can I have a turn?

As per usual, what interests me about the current moment is how people are talking about it and how people are talking to each other.

As I have said before, and those who have been with my on the Internets for a long time know, I have really lessened the amount of issue-related blogging that I’ve done over the past few years. I have explained in the past why that is so, but perhaps it bears repeating.

First, I don’t have an adult in my house or close in my life who can balance out the insanity of engaging in issue-talk on the Internet, whether that be blogs or social media.  I just didn’t want to be deeply engaged in online discussion with people I really don’t know all day, and have no one to be there when I closed the computer who will say, “Don’t worry. You’re sane. This is real life, right here.”

That’s very important.

Secondly, it’s a time suck. We all know that.

Third – and this is right up there with #1 – I have not been able to manage jumping into the rhetorical flow that has taken over public conversation on political, social and church issues over the past decade. I long ago identified what I think the problem is, and discerned that I didn’t want to waste my time engage in “discussions” on that level.

And what is that level?

It is the level in which narrative and tribalism are the paradigm.  We don’t discuss issues on their own merit. We toss out labels and dare you to be associated with that label.

It’s a paradigm which dominates conversations, such as they are, about the Francis pontificate. If you don’t like a decision or question a statement (or lack thereof) you are a (deep breathe) Francis-hater/Trad/sedevacantist/doctrinaire/right-winger. And you probably hate poor people too.

Sad!

Way too much of the issue-related material that comes out of American bishops, either individually or as a group, is framed in terms of narrative instead of actual information and data. “We have to welcome migrants and refugees.”  Well, yes, but what does that mean? “Health care is a basic human right?” Well, okay, but what does that mean in terms of policy, economics and access, realistically speaking? Food and shelter are basic human rights, too. So?  Of course, we all know that “health care is a basic human right”  doesn’t mean that Catholic institutions lead the way in providing inexpensive and free medical care or pick up the total cost for health insurance for their employees any more than the bishop’s “concern” for economic issues means that Catholic institutions pay any employee and actual living wage beyond well-compensated hospital and university administrators. Nah.

Narrative. All narrative and virtue signaling. Because it’s easy, that’s why.

And it frames most political discourse, as well, on all sides. In a way, of course, there is absolutely new about this, since labeling and boxing up is quick and convenient and easier to sloganize.  Always has been.

But there is something about the rapidity of communication now that leads more and more people to fall into the trap and if anything is worth #resisting, that is.

Let me illustrate by offering a (totally) imaginative dialogue:

“I think Tom Price is an interesting  choice for HHS secretary. I’ve read what he said about – ”

“Ah….so you’re a Trumpkin. Sweet. Did you see what Trump tweeted last night about Twizzlers? I mean..how can you defend that??”

“Well, I’m not..I was talking about Tom Price for HHS. His ideas about the exchanges…”

“How can you justify having such an undisciplined poser as president? He’s going to tweet our way into war.. “

“Okay, yeah, I wish he would get off Twitter, but you know even that is interesting, because when it’s an effective way of going over the media gatekeepers and directly..”

“Yup. Fascist. I hope you and your other Trump fans are happy when he tries to sue the New York Times out of existence…”

“Wait. I’m not a “fan.” I don’t have to defend everything he is or does. I was just talking about this one area of policy.  I mean, I didn’t support him or even vote for him, but he is the president now and..”

“#NOTMYPRESIDENT!”

Look. If you can predict, right now, the night before the inauguration, that you are going to be deeply opposed to every single policy position that a Trump administration proposes, go ahead and #resist. I guess.

But as you do, try to make your opposition about the policy and based on data and your philosophical position not about the fact that IT’S TRUMP and my tribe is #RESIST and my other tribe is #NEVERTRUMP and my narrative is TRUMPLAND IS EVIL.

And, perhaps, acknowledge that those who are not suffering from the Sadz tonight, not posting statuses saying that they’re ready to bravely endure the next four years because they will always have Art, and who are  relieved that the Obama presidency is coming to an end and are even more relieved that we’re not going to see the Clintons up there on that dais tomorrow, not because we’re misogynists, but because they’re criminals…yes try – just try to acknowledge the fact – yes, the fact– that those of us who feel that way are not necessarily Trump “fans,” may not be able to watch him in action without cringing, may not have even voted for the guy, and are interested in issues, not because they promote a narrative or tribe or reflect well on Donald Trump, if they do,  but because they seem to us to be better for the country, and if a Trump administration is proposing something we agree with, we’ll agree with it, and if we disagree, we’ll do that too.

And it’s fine.

It’s perfectly tenable to hold the following positions. I’m saying that because I hold them, of course:

  • Barack Obama seems to be a good role model as a husband and a father.
  • Barak Obama’s presidency was marked by overreach, excess by the executive branch, authoritarianism, politicizing the mechanism of government, and a personality cult.
  • Donald Trump is one strange guy. Probably not a good personal role model. YMMV, but not in my house.
  • Donald Trump was not a candidate I supported at any point in the election of 2016.
  • I didn’t agree with some of Donald Trump’s expressed positions and found him politically inscrutable and incoherent.
  • My now-twelve year old spent a lot of the year before the election reading Bloom County and then much of the election year very puzzled.
  • I wasn’t upset when Donald Trump won the election.
  • I am not “proud” or “ashamed” that Donald Trump is the president. I’ve not been “proud” of a president, ever, in my  life. He’s the head of the executive branch, not my relative or an expression of my inner hopes and dreams.
  • Although I find Donald Trump strange and cringeworthy (I mean…why is his 35-year old son-in-law going to bring peace to the Middle East? Because he’s Jewish??)  I also am not quite sure of my judgment. I suspect there is an element of performance art happening here, partly as a method of staking out positions, but also partly as a way of causing distraction by shiny things and squirrels over there while real business is happening over here. When you observe his actions with that assumption, rather than simply assuming he is a narcissistic poser, things get interesting. I’m not saying I’m right. I’m just saying.
  • I am interested in the policy prescriptions that are in the wind regarding health care, education, immigration, and the size and role of government in general. I don’t know what Donald Trump actually thinks about any of this, but the direction that his administration is going in at this point interests me, and I find most of the conversations, as I have dipped into the confirmation hearings, well-grounded.
  • I was never worried about Trump being any kind of fascist or authoritarian or being able to bully his way through the presidency, except to the extent that he made use of mechanisms to that end created under the Bush and Obama administrations, the latter of whom perfected their use.  I was not bothered because, honestly, even though those might be his instincts, he would be limited by the fact that everyone seemed to hate him. The press hated him, Democrats hated him, a big chunk of Republicans hated him. (They  still do even as they glad-hand) That would hem him in, even though he seems unfazed by negative reactions and even energized by it. But balance of powers, checks and balances – especially from members of his own party? It would work.
  • But who knows? It’s all an enigma at this point (Thursday night). I’m not particularly nervous about undue and inappropriate influence in government because after 8 years of hibernation, the press is clearly well-rested and is on it. Even if it has to make stuff up more or less constantly, it’s on it. #brave
  • There should be constant fact-checking and digging and reporting and holding to account. There always should be. There should be during every presidency. Welcome back, guys.
  • It’s all pretty entertaining.

 

 

Someone wrote on Facebook to someone they knew that even though that other person had voted for Trump, they knew that they were better than that. They had to be.

Someone else I know (not me!) is taking tomorrow as a day of celebration – keeping the kids out of school, watching the inauguration together, and so on. Why? Is it because this family thinks of Trump as some sort of hero and DJT in particular as a role model for their kids? Or because they believe every word he has written or spoken is true? Not at all. It’s because they are a small business family whose business has been hammered by the costs associated with ACA and other regulation. Perhaps, with Trump, they have a chance, not just for themselves, but for the customers they serve and future employees.In their judgment, they didn’t have a chance with a Clinton presidency. They made a decision about policy, not about the meaning of life and masculinity.

Maybe they’ve been had. Maybe the price of trusting what you believe is a good cause to Donald Trump’s stewardship will be higher than they expect. But what was the alternative? Honestly?

Perhaps you can judge their support of Trump as a candidate for president as a mistake, but caricature it by saying that it must be racist and misogynist hero-worship, a moral  failure and a betrayal of all the women you know to boot is small-minded and lacks empathy.

And even more so to say that if, now that it’s done, if you don’t reflexively hate Trump and everything Trumpian, it must be that you  love him and have bought into the bombastic Messiah cult, and you will be called on to defend every word he utters and if you can’t or won’t, that proves….

….something. 

I was just watching Tucker Carlson – another change in my life – I haven’t watched any kind of television news for probably fifteen years, but I’m recording his show and watching much of it every night – and he was talking to Robert Reich, who served as Bill Clinton’s Labor Secretary.

Carlson gave him two very Trumpian quotes about trade, and said, “Who said this?”

Of course, Robert Reich himself had said them. And Carlson proceeded to grill him on why, if he was, as he admitted, closer to Trump on trade issues than he was to Hilary Clinton, why hadn’t he supported him? Why couldn’t he support him now?

Reich averred that he wished Trump well and hoped that his policies resulted in better economic climate for middle class and poor Americans, and who knows, they might, and yes, he admitted, he had disagreed with Clinton on these matters, and had actually supported Bernie Sanders. He told of being at book signings in the Midwest last year and often running into people who were weighing their support between Trump and Sanders, which is not surprising to me at all. But, he said, Sanders was a progressive populist and in his view, Trump was an authoritarian populist, and that was scary. His public behavior reveals him to be vindictive and small-minded, and that worries Reich.

“But,” he said, “if he can get above that, great! Let’s hope for the best.”

Carlson’s answer:

“What if both are true? What if he’s vindictive and small-minded but he stops TPP? (chortles) I hope you’ll come back, we’re out of time – but meditate on that. “

And there you go. Meditate on that. We can keep grumbling or shouting our chosen narrative for the next four years, and trying to play gotcha with those we deem members of the enemy tribe, or we can be thinking adults and have conversations about real programs, policies, decisions on their merits, not based on who proposes them or what blog is for them and how they impact real people, call out wrongdoing and dishonesty, celebrate the good, grapple with ambiguity and unintended consequences, and admit limitations – first and foremost, our own.

This. Yes. 

People are perfectly capable of holding seemingly contradictory opinions about a person as a president and a person as an individual.

Also, Michael Brendan Dougherty

My hope is that entrusted with power, Trump follows his more dovish foreign policy instincts. The unipolar moment in world history was always going to end, and ending it without an aspiring or revanchist great power rising to dethrone the United States militarily is the best possible ending, just as the British Empire’s mostly peaceful transfer of power to Washington over two World Wars was the best possible outcome for that empire’s end.

I concede that it’s on foreign policy where my hope is clutching the thinnest reed. The last two presidents ran as peace candidates and each pursued wars of choice, in part because the president is given almost unconstrained latitude to do so. But perhaps Trump, being suspicious of experts, will ignore the universal advice of American apparatchiks who believe in the omnicompetence of the American military to salve every irritation across the globe.

Lastly, I hope Trump’s administration ends the cult of sophomoric wonks, ideologues, consultants, and even experienced politicians. Most Washington “experts” hold forth with confidence to prove to themselves the value of their expensive educations, even though they skipped most of the reading assignments. They crashed the economy, they wasted and marooned American military might across the Middle East, they balkanized the American nation, and paid each other handsomely for the tender service, while saying Trump could never win. If an impulsive, self-aggrandizing dolt ends this cult, it would be a fitting judgment.

 

 

 

 

 

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