Getting Through the Night… and the Day

The little guy lowered his hand after I called out his name. He was wide-eyed and exuberant. “My dad woke up in the middle of the night and he had to pee. And when he went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror he saw the devil.”

Oh.

I didn’t really know what to say so I just told everyone to pull out their math notebooks and turn to page 23. The rest of the class didn’t laugh uproariously and there wasn’t one snide remark. Not even a raised eyebrow. I relayed the story to my father later on and he smiled sardonically, blew his cigarette smoke out through his nose and said, “Maybe he did.”

This was back in 1980 and I was doing a five week stint of student teaching a Grade Five class in Magog, Quebec. The school was called… Magog Elementary, predictably enough. I remember that school started at 8 a.m. and that there were four of us who carpooled out there every morning with David Bird, the only one who had a car. We’d drive out from Lennoxville and I’d be the first one to jump aboard at 6:30 a.m. Louis was always the last to be picked up, living on the outskirts of Sherbrooke as he did. I remember all this because it always struck me as funny that Lou would be standing in a snowbank, smoking a joint. I asked him if he always started his day off in this manner and he’d say no, usually he woke up at 3:30 in the morning, had a coffee and smoked a doobie. Louis was always laid-back, the stereotypical pothead, and even smiley and articulate in those days. He became less well-spoken as the year went on, to the point where he couldn’t even finish his sentences. Later on that spring when we taught at Alexander Galt, the Eastern Townships regional high school, Louis would forego the staffroom, where most of the other pedagogues would have a smoke. He would exit the school, downwind from the kids’ smoking area and have a splif. I can’t even hazard a guess as to what number it was in the morning’s intake.
He was the only one in the class not to graduate.

I’ve been leery of the benefits of pot ever since.

I’m not saying that I have it all figured out. We are all unique and everyone has their own individual philosophy that helps them get through their days and navigate their nights. God knows that there is more than enough medication out there, making somebody rich. I’ve always loved this quote: “Doctors prescribe medication of which they know little to arrest diseases of which they know less to cure human beings of which they know nothing.”

Voltaire wrote that in the seventeenth century.

My apologies to the medical profession out there for which I have the utmost respect. We’ve made a lot of progress. Doctors are certainly under a lot of pressure and time restraints and most people enter their chambers and want to come out clutching a prescription of some sort. I’m very good at offending someone with every blog that I churn out.

I justify myself by saying that I mean well even if I haven’t figured out much in life: where we come from, what we are here for, what happens at the final curtain.

We’ve got to figure it out for ourselves. Me ? I’m usually at my best after popping open a beer after hockey.

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A Stitch in Time

I told the plastic surgeon that I wanted to look like Paul Newman in the the 60s.
Not when Paul Newman was in his 60s. Paul Newman in the 1960s. You know.. his heyday of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Sting and Cool Hand Luke. Not only did I see these movies, but one of my aunts used to read a lot of movie magazines and his photo was always front and centre. He and Robert Redford were Hollywood’s honchos back in the day.

No…no. I don’t consider myself a honcho and I’m certainly not heading to Hollywood. But a few weeks back I took a puck in the mouth. Luckily I was wearing the mouthpiece the dentist made for me back in 1973. I kid you not. It has saved a lot of teeth for me over the years.

This time the skin was ripped apart from my mouth to just under my nose. Needless to say the blood was gushing like a geyser.
“You better get to the dressing room,” one of my teammates informed me. “You’re bleeding all over the ice.”

Oh. Yes. I know that. Thanks. I gathered up my second stick at the bench and trundled off. Anyone tracking my path would have had an easy time of it.

Paper towels hardly stemmed the flow. I couldn’t undress while holding my hand to my mouth so a paper towel stuck to my face with hockey tape did the trick. Ray, a teammate, had followed me in a few moments later to offer assistance. He was an ex-RCMP cop who had a son who had played briefly with the Montreal Canadiens and now played in the Russian K>H.L. He had seen a few injuries in his day.
“You better get yourself to the hospital,” he advised. “You’re going to need a few stitches.” My only concern was leaving my teammates shorthanded and leaving the ice with an injury that wasn’t a bone sticking out. I was leaving myself open to being called a suck or, even worse, a word that rhymes with wussy.

Whenever I go to the hospital I am always amazed by two things: the never-failing courtesy of the whole medical and support staff and also the fact that half the city’s population always seems to be sick, injured or avoiding work. My bleeding still hadn’t stopped as I was moved along from one waiting area to another. I was also attracting some curious looks. Probably, they thought, another derelict who had been fighting for a panhandling position on the street. My life-long lack of a fashion sense probably didn’t help.

Two hours later a young Asian woman appeared. She took one look at me. “Yikes !” By this time I’d had enough and was ready to go.
“Can you stitch me up ?” I pleaded.
“I’m an intern,” she informed me. “I’ll go get a doctor.”
Wonderful. I’d already waited more than two hours for an intern. How many hours more until a licensed doctor made his way in through the sick, injured and hypochondriacs to take a look at a bleeding sexagenarian who stems the flow of blood with bathroom paper towels and hockey tape? Oops… I meant to say her way in. Seventy per cent of the physicians I see now are female. That’s a figure I just made up. But… something like that.

Another hour passed and a middle-aged male ambled through the doorway. He took one look at me and probably decided that this particular patient no longer looked patient. He was right. I cut to the chase. “Puck to the mouth,” is what I said. I figured a male Canadian of his vintage would understand. But he said nothing, gave me a long look and it was easy to read his mind. “At your age, shouldn’t you be playing Bingo or Bridge or something like that ? Ever hear of Pickleball?”
All he did was sigh. “You’ll need a plastic surgeon.” He turned on his heel and started to leave but not before I was able to blurt out, “I’ve had over 200 stitches in my face over the years, some of them done with me lying on a table in the dressing room back in the 70s. How complicated can it be?”

He chose to ignore that. “The plastic surgeon is operating at the General right now.” We were in the Civic. “He’ll be here when he finishes over there.”

Wonderful. Another wait. And now that everyone is on their phone all the time the hospital doesn’t even provide any magazines. I didn’t have my phone and to tell you the truth I’m not on it too much anyway. Twitter is too bitter, I don’t like like looking at other people’s photos very much, reading someone else’s political views just makes me angry and I don’t need to be texting anyone with a breathless account of every move I make. Yeah… I’m a relic. Probably of medieval times.

Finally, five hours after check-in a plastic surgeon arrives. She looks young enough to be my granddaughter, or at least my daughter… by a second wife. At least she admits it. “I can do it,” she says as she examines my split-open face. “But I’ll need some supervision.” Two hours later the supervising physician arrived. He examined me carefully. “Do you want me to do it?” he asked his younger colleague. She seemed to already have the freezing needles at the ready. Five minutes later all I could feel was the slight pull on my skin as she sewed in 15 stitches from my mouth to just under my nose. Another young plastic surgeon had been called in to watch or cheer on the spectacle. I felt like an aging Hollywood starlet with all the attention, but even more fortunate… I didn’t have to pay the bill. I sat up and looked around, anxious to avoid any mirrors. All the time and work of three highly-skilled medical practitioners and a Hollywood screen test was not even a consideration. “You can have the stitches taken out in five days,” the youngest physician, who had actually done the work, told me. “The swelling and scar tissue will gradually disappear with time.”

I thanked them all as I stood up. I felt some of the wrinkles under my eyes. You know, maybe a little Botox would fill in all those lines.
But looking like Cool Hand Luke was still a stretch.

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Barroom Humour

“All parents are an embarrassment to their children.”
(novel) The Rosie Project

Sometimes I’m grumpy, foul-tempered, negative and impatient. At least that’s what I’m told. And apparently not everyone appreciates what I consider to be a marvelous sense of humour. But, here goes…

My daughter had a summer job bartending. I found this ironic because until she scored this plum position she didn’t even know how how to open a bottle of beer. I kid you not. She calls me a
“raging alcoholic.”
Imagine that.

The thing is, I’ve dropped into ‘her’ bar a couple of times in the past two weeks, mainly because I discovered that her night manager picks up my beer bill. So naturally I became a little distressed the other night when I mounted the stairs with my arthritic knees and sore back to the terraced bar overlooking Dow’s Lake and saw no one. No servers, and more importantly, no bartender. Fortunately I had the presence of mind not to panic and proceeded to the window separating the outside patio to the indoor section. Several waitresses were sitting around a table, as if their night’s work was over or something. Of course my only recourse was to tap loudly on the window.
“Hey, where’s your bartender”? I was a little put out and possibly, I was told later, a bit too loud. “What kind of operation are you running around here?”

Which was met by some blank, but mostly indignant stares. As if they didn’t know who I was or something. Maybe my daughter had failed to mention that the short, stubby guy frequently drinking beer on the premises lately was her father.

The embarrassed barkeeper made her way quickly back to the bar when she noticed who the late -arriving patron was. No use allowing him to hang around even longer, making an even bigger fool of himself than he was, and what’s worse, reflecting badly on her.

“What kind of draft beer do you have ?” I inquired, hoisting myself onto a stool at the empty bar.
“You know what kind of draft beer we have,” came the answer. “We go through this every time you come here.”
“The usual, then.” My memory was coming back to me. “Does anyone ever call you Porky?”
Another indignant glare. My daughter is a university hockey player and she works out at the gym every day year round. Porky she is not.

So I had to tell her the story from my own university hockey-playing days. My New Jersey friend, who also happened to be the team manager, Mike Dunn, and me, had taken out a young rookie on the team to what was probably his first foray into any kind of bar. We were in Massachusetts, just after Christmas, and we really shouldn’t have been out the night before a game. But remember, this was the ’70s.
“I’ll have a Budweiser, barkeep” said Dunn. With his New Jersey accent barkeep sounded more like ‘baakee.’
Our rookie friend, Johnny Parker, was from rural New Brunswick and hadn’t really attuned his ear to the tones of deepest , darkest New Jersey. He looked at our server, heavy-set and scowling.
“Yeah, you can get me the same thing, uh, Porky.” Poor Johnny had misunderstood the nomenclature. Back in the day it wasn’t unusual to call a fat guy Porky, especially if you’d just heard one of your friends use that moniker already. However, our service for the rest of the night was grudging and intermittent.

My story done, I thought I’d finish off by impressing my daughter with my generosity. After all, that virtue had been the subject of many a lecture. “Beers for the house,” I announced,”and keep ’em coming.” I circled my finger in the air, using the universal signal of barflies everywhere. You might be startled by my generosity, but I have to admit I was the only one still on the premises.
And the beers were free.

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Apple Pie

“Baseball and hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet,” rang the t.v. commercial back in the 1960s when I actually had to stand up and take a few steps to turn the channel. And even that would usually break into a fistfight with my brothers after an argument as to who had changed the channel the last time.
All of those products are out of favour in modern life. Baseball: too slow. Hot dogs: don’t even think about what’s in them. Chevrolet: too American. And who actually makes apple pies anymore ?

Nepal does. The Annapurna Trek through Nepal’s Himalayas is nicknamed the ‘Apple Pie Trek’. A lot of the teahouses along the way serve up what is a usually-delicious apple pie that we often ordered and sometimes ate before our actual meal. This could be partly explained because the high altitude’s thin air not only makes exertion difficult, but also seems to impede normal brain functioning. After making short work of her second piece of pie before lunch,Brenda had to deal with a breathing problem. In my characteristically sympathetic manner I assumed it was because she had eaten too much too fast. Brenda waved me off. “I’m having a heart attack,” she informed me. She’s usually indignant with my superficial ways but this time she surprised me with her forgiving request. “If I die I want you to do my eulogy.” Funny what becomes a priority when you visualize the Grim Reaper’s scythe on your jugular.

We couldn’t afford to have Brenda die on the bare floor of a Himalayan teahouse with a half-eaten piece of pie left on the table, so a couple of hours of uphill trekking brought her back from death’s doorstep. A $2.00 charge at the next teahouse brought Brenda pause. “Pricey,” she said. “Usually they let us stay for free if we promise to eat supper and breakfast there.” Her old parsimonious self back, I knew Brenda had recovered from her moment of mortality.

This time it was me who couldn’t walk any further. “I’m staying here,” I declared.”Even if they are over-charging.” A glance at the door showed a calendar with the page showing February. Today was November the 8th. “They’re a little behind the times,” I pointed out. “I hope that they’re a little more prompt with their meals.” Then I noticed that the calendar’s year was 2009.

We gathered around the woodburning stove at 5 p.m. waiting for a little supper action. There were four other guests present. Three German girls named Sophie, Francie and Ronia and one other French young woman who introduced herself as Anne. All of them were outgoing and cosmopolitan. We spoke French and German and I even contributed with my caveman version of the Teutonic tongue. We eventually found our way into English, which they all spoke quite well. Sophie the blonde German girl had almost finished medical school and had already worked as an intern in a Kathmandu hospital. She could get by in the local dialect and was not averse to lending a helping hand in the kitchen. She was also outgoing and funny. Anne the French girl had travelled through Mongolia and China. She was now hiking the Annapurna of course, and then would continue on into India. Most of the young males I knew of her age were still playing video games in their parents’ basements. But Anne worked in the aeronautics industry in France, where it is law that all employees could have a year’s sabbatical with a guarantee of having their exact same position back upon their return.

Supper was fried potatoes and vegetables; all we could eat. Anne had misplaced her phone and that sparked a frantic search until Brenda reached into her pocket and pulled it out. She had mistaken Sophie’s phone for her own. There were no angry accusations and I was able to good-naturedly joke that “Brenda had given you some of her fried potatoes. We figured your phone was a fair exchange.” All of us had a hearty laugh.

The sense of humour of both the French and the Germans is greatly underrated. We stayed, laughing and joking around the stove until 8 p.m. when the fire died out. With nothing to keep us in the now-unheated kitchen, it was time to bunk down in our unheated huts.

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The Breakfast Club

It’s something I’ve always wondered about… do assholes know that they are assholes ?
At breakfast after playing Saturday morning hockey I posed this question to my friend Dave G. He immediately looked further down the table and re-directed the query to one individual in particular.
“I don’t know…. Chris???

I know…I know. I apologize for the use of that crude term. I don’t even like to use it myself. Years ago a wise old gentleman told me that he doesn’t like to compare that most essential part of the human anatomy to a jerk. But my Saturday morning hockey and the post-game breakfasts do serve as a salve to my soul after living in this world all week long. Most of us are 50 plus years of age, the younger players don’t usually join us for breakfast. They probably don’t want to waste their time with people who still receive daily newspapers on their doorsteps and have landlines.

Ahh.. not me , of course! But those of us now receiving Canada Pension Plan deposits in our bank accounts now seem to feel wonderfully liberated when it comes to speaking the truth… as we see it. And if our editorializing might hurt the feelings of one of our peers, well, that’s his problem. We’re all far too beholden to our egos anyway. One of the guys has his own electrical supplies business, owns a fleet of classic cars and who I’m sure could sell it all now and spend the rest of his days basking in the sun on Club Med cruises. But watching him move on the ice reminds me that what most of us hear from others is a long list of our weaknesses, errors and blemishes. “Hey, Jacques,” I ask Mr. Electrical Supply as he comes gasping back to the bench,”you should get yourself a Handicapped sticker for your windshield.”
As my wife says, “You are emotionally stunted, David.” I don’t even know if she thinks I have any redeeming qualities at all.

But the thing is, most of us in the Breakfast Club realize that the world has moved on without us, but instead of being bitter, it is instead served up as a good story. For instance, a couple of years ago when my youngest (daughter) was still in high school she belonged to this organisation called ‘Link.’ Their goal is, I don’t think even they know exactly, but it’s supposed to link up the senior Grade 12 students with the young Grade Niners just entering high school. Anyway, I suspect its true value was another notch on university and scholarship-seeking students’ resumes. This particular incident happened right in the middle of the compassionate, socially just, gender- fluid years of Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal Ontario government. My daughter walked to the front of the room and in her direct way asked the curious class, “What pronoun do you want to be known as?”
The Grade 9 boys blinked in confusion and stared at her. After several seconds one of them raised his hand.
“What’s a pronoun?” He was genuinely curious.
“He, she, they… there are quite a few of them now, my daughter informed them as only a young, confident and morally and socially-just young university aspirant can be.
“Well, I’m a he… aren’t I?” asked one of the confused young males, looking up from his cell phone for maybe the first time since he entered the class. Sounds like this 14 year old could be a future member of the Old Guys’ Breakfast Club.

Oh, I’m not a complete dinosaur. Young people seem a lot more tolerant, kinder and gentler than we did at their age, at least until they get on social media. But even when I was young I held a grudging respect and admiration for, ahem, older folks more plainspoken and direct speech. My grandfather, an old farmer, had an abandoned wee dog wander up to his kitchen door one morning in 1962. He became his constant companion until he died fourteen years later (the dog, not my grandfather.) His name throughout all that time ?
Wee Dog.

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Being There

“Sometimes it’s heaven and sometimes it’s hell and sometimes I don’t even know.”
-Willie Nelson

A friend answered an e-mail that I had sent to her. “Good rant,” she wrote. “But so true !”
Rant ? I wondered. I don’t rant. I’m just telling the truth.

I’d like to say that I ran into a guru, like the ones we’re always seeing in the comic strips, on one of the peaks of Nepal’s Himalayas. I could then pass on to you this wisdom, but at the altitudes we were at I had trouble even remembering my own name.

I usually come back from trips either sick or injured. To tell you the truth, there’s a lot about our trips I don’t like. In my doddering old age I’m a homeboy at heart. The best day away is usually more difficult than my worst day at home, but I’m always trying to learn something, to come away with a broader perspective than when I left. What I really love in life is to watch sports, play hockey, work out in the gym or golf and then go out with the boys for a beer afterwards, not necessarily in that order. I even like walking our dog around our neighbourhood’s Dow’s Lake or in the nearby arboretum. I realize that some could consider this a shallow life, but I’ve mellowed a lot and no longer harbour delusions of grandeur. I don’t argue politics or religion anymore because I’ve come to realize most politicians will say or do anything to get or stay in power and now that I’m collecting Canada’s Pension Plan I’m older than all of them anyway. I don’t discuss religion because people would think I’m a weirdo, if you can believe that. The following are some random observations from Himalayan mountain-tops that don’t necessarily make me a better person, but found interesting anyway.

Despite the often bad raps that the millenial generation takes, kudos to their sense of adventure and initiative. We met several twenty-something females who thought nothing of quitting their jobs or taking a year’s leave of absence and trekking through India and Nepal. A lot of them were English, German, Dutch or French. One young Aussie journalist had been to one hundred and twenty-eight countries already and she was not yet twenty eight years old. We met another young English lass who had spent the last month in New Delhi and “… didn’t suffer one day with the dreaded ‘Delhi belly’, an intestinal affliction which is hard for travellers to avoid in that city. Her name was Millie, she told us.
“Millie… what’s that short for?” I was charmed by the old-fashioned moniker.
“Millicent,” she answered.
“Wasn’t that the evil fairy’s name in ‘Sleeping Beauty ?” I asked.
I’ve never lost my charming ways with the ladies.
But enough with the praise already. I still find those millenials way too politically correct !

I love those Hotel Trivago commercials. But a hotel ? Who needs ’em ? If you don’t like bare-bones rooms with two single beds on a cement or wooden-planked floor and a roof of corrugated tin and a Turkish toilet somewhat nearby, don’t hike the Annapurna Trail. But the price is right. Rooms are very seldom more than two dollars a night for two, often being offered for free if you agree to eat supper and breakfast at the establishment.

The hike often seems to be at a seventy degree angle, going up or down, often stepping over boulders. If that’s not your idea of fun, then don’t come.

I saw a Nepalese, he must have been in his fifties, carrying a huge pack on his shoulders up the side of a mountain. The bulging pack must have been at least forty five pounds. He was wearing flip-flops over a pair of socks, a feat in itself. Didn’t faze him anymore than me walking my dog around the block.

I know that we’re not supposed to generalize, but Spaniards are noisy. (Full disclosure- my last name, Perras, is originally Spanish.) Early on in the trek we would run into different groups of Spaniards, as the Annapurna Trek must have been well-publicized on the Iberian Peninsula. If you should end up seated at a table beside them and you’re sensitive to noise, you’ll probably go to bed with a headache. This was shortly after the Catalonian vote for independence and there were very passionate opinions one way or the other. Too bad I couldn’t follow the arguments. You have to admire their passion however; we in Canada let our politicians off the hook far too easily.

We start to think about bed at about seven p.m. By this time it’s been dark for at least an hour and a half and it will be another long day’s hike tomorrow. One night I find myself seated around the woodstove with three generations of Asian women: grandmother, mother , daughter. They are all smoking, snorting and spitting. I don’t happen to smoke so I fit in by doing more snorting and spitting.

Our porter, Sunil, speaks hardly any English but he’s always ready to learn. After a brief respite, a group of Frenchmen sitting nearby get up and prepare to move on. They must have nicknames for each other, because one calls out to another, “Allons-y Dum-Dum.”
Sunil gets up, shoulders his pack, looks at me and smiles. “Okay, Dum-Dum?” he asks.

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Up and At ‘Em

Lately, it’s occurred to me
What a long, strange trip it’s been.
‘Truckin’- The Grateful Dead

“Doesn’t Dad weigh about,like ninety pounds now?”, my son Adam asked my daughter Rachelle from the outback in Australia where he has been working on a sheep ranch. He and Rachelle had been messaging, or whatever you call it, on Facebook.
“I told him that you had put on most of the weight you had lost on your trek in Nepal,” Rachelle informed me. “But I also said that you hadn’t speeded up any, either. Remember that last trip to Costco when we were grocery shopping and you walked into the freezer area to pick up some milk and eggs, I think it was. Do you remember the sloth in the movie ‘Zootopia’? I told him that you moved at exactly the same speed.”

Maybe some old injuries and illnesses have something to do with this present sad state of affairs. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then the roads through the Himalayas are not paved at all. That was my first thought as we set out on our first morning of actual trekking. The previous night spent at the teahouse of the laughing-man-peeling-potatoes had been surprisingly pleasant and comfortable, with a large and delicious breakfast on outdoor tables overlooking a fast-moving river and a suspension bridge. It was the first of many that we would have to cross, so many that Ieven began to think of myself as a bow-legged, limping Indiana Jones. And across from this rushing river was a very large and ornate modern edifice. “What’s that?” I asked our host.
“Chinese government building,” came back the answer. Apparently these structures are now all over Nepal, as Chinese expansionism has not limited itself to Tibet. I couldn’t help thinking that Nepal could use its own version of Donald Trump and I pictured a large, orange-coiffed Nepalese with a golf club in his hand, tweeting out nightly about the need to build a wall and keep out the Chinese. Maybe he could even get the Chinese to build it, seeing as how they’d already had the experience a few thousand years ago.

Thank God, however, that I was finally away from Trump coverage twenty-four seven. We aimed to spend the night at a place called Ghermu. The first couple of hours were pleasant with vistas that reminded me of the Swiss Alps,but my mind jumped ahead to what could be considered as possible Terrors of the Trek. Such things as earthquakes, Yeti the Abominable Snowman and spending time twenty-four seven with your spouse.

I of course include my own company in this nightmare scenario. Was it only yesterday that my loving daughter remarked in the middle of a grocery-shopping expedition that “I can only take you in small doses, Dad.”
Sigh.

My mind was brought back to the moment by jeeps roaring by raising dust. Washing clothes could be a problem for us, I mused, but then almost immediately we passed by a woman doing laundry in a washtub with her feet, a cigarette stuck in the middle of her mouth and a big smile on her face. So that was good… I would not be stuck wearing dusty clothes throughout the next three weeks. I wondered if the North American media machine could get womenkind…oops… I meant humankind, adopting this new and very practical method of low-impact aerobics.

The village of Gherma was still several hours ahead and apparently there were lots of teahouses from which to choose, not just the one recommended in ‘Lonely Planet.’ We kept on walking, Brenda usually outpacing my limping, bow-legged gait. My arthritic knees made me feel like the crippled kid who couldn’t keep up in the Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tale ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin.’
O.K. … I’m showing my age with that particular turn of phrase.
I was walking like a special needs child.
One day down, eighteen more to go.

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