From the monthly archives: July 2011

Part One – Sunderland

Thomas Quin was aware, with the acute self-consciousness pubescent boys suddenly acquire — a hilly solipsism from which they daily tumble into an abyss of despair — that he was unusually thin, and awkward, and afraid of everyone. His formerly natural friendliness and curiosity disappeared, replaced by morbid insularity. He went, as most teenagers do, insane. For instance, he was under the impression that he had invented masturbation.

Learning came so easily to Thom that he did not bother to learn anything; rather, with the arrogance which accompanies extreme shyness, he expected that things would learn him. He invented biographies for his future selves. He had many future selves, who accomplished great and wonderful things, though without effort — Thomas could see only the accolades, and the esteem, and never the work, because any kind of work directed toward anything other than his daydreams seemed pointless and silly. He would sit in the waiting room of the dentist’s office with a few children his own age or slightly younger, or slightly older, and imagine their future surprise to learn that they had once shared a dentist’s waiting room with Thomas Quin — so unprepossessing, so lacking in the qualities one normally finds in a hero, in a Great Man. And yet there he was. Waiting to have his teeth drilled.

The history of Sunderland, Massachusetts, despite its best efforts, has been and in all likelihood will remain unremittingly dull. There are only a few sources: a pamphlet encompassing the period from the town’s incorporation in 1639 through 1939, funded by President Roosevelt’s WPA act and executed by a group of talentless school teachers who based most of their work on Rambling’s much more thorough earlier history covering the years 1639-1889; and Bearhart’s unimaginably tedious gap-filler, from 1939 through the mid-eighties, which consists mostly of the results of various budget meetings, or midget beatings, sorry.

Sunderland lies sixteen or perhaps thirteen miles west and south of Boston, using the old Boston Post Road, established for obvious reasons three hundred and fifty years ago and which ran through Sunderland on its way west to Marlborough. The Wayside Inn on the south-western edge of Sunderland, along the Post Road, was celebrated in a collection of poems called Tales From A Wayside Inn by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was not a particularly talented poet but who had a knack of coining memorable lines (“One if by land, two if by sea” from his poem — included in the Tales — about the midnight ride of Paul Revere, silversmith, to alert the citizenry to the approach of the British Regulars at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, foremost among these rote rhymes).

In the ensuing war, various noble-hearted citizens of Sunderland took up arms and fought with tennis raquets and muskets against the cowardly and brutal and slightly confused British, distinguishing themselves at the Battle Of Bunker Hill and at Valley Forge and at the Battle Of Old Bill Battle’s Battlefield, on the site of which is now a factory that produces board games of famous battles. Since that exciting era, nothing much has happened in Sunderland, with the minor exception of the first public performance of the rock opera Tommy, written and recorded by The Who, which had been licensed for public performance in the United States by one of the heirs to nature writer Rachel Carson’s fortune, who discovered too late that he had purchased a license for exactly one public performance, which thus took place at Sunderland Regional High School sometime in the early nineteen-seventies, according to reliable and friendly sources at the Sunderland Historical Society, which also sells maps. These sources unfortunately cannot remember the name of Carson’s heir, and speculate that his involvement in hard drugs may be responsible for the absence of any further information on his whereabouts or disposition. The performance, by an ensemble of local musicians, was well-received.

Young Thom Quin had a paper route, since age nine, delivering the evening edition of the Boston Globe to a new development of colonial-style homes in south-eastern Sunderland. He had a ten-speed bicycle, attached to the handlebars of which was a wire basket suitable for carrying the forty-odd papers that constituted his daily route. He also delivered the morning paper on Saturday, but the bulky Sunday edition was left to a specialist who employed the particular efficiency of an automobile. Thom was expected to deliver his papers in every kind of weather, and though on exceptionally snow-bound and frigid afternoons he would beg his mother to drive him in her dark green Ford Granada across the blustery tundra of Sunderland’s winter-dark streets, her firm belief in the value of persistence and self-reliance and hard work rarely melted in the face of Thom’s whining. He would suit up in a snorkel jacket, woolen mittens, and a scarf wrapped around his face which his breath soon dampened uncomfortably before freezing solid.

On the worst days he would put the papers in his Boston Globe carrier bag and sling it over first one shoulder, then the other, stamping through the snow which inevitably crept down his frozen-buckled rubber boots, soaking his thick socks, and adding to the torture of his travails. On one well-blizzared occasion he resorted to hauling the papers on his Flexible Flyer, fastened thereto with characteristic shoddiness by Thom, so that half-way through the route a strong gust swept the remaining papers into the white-quilted landscape, the papers unfurling like the mainsails of the Tall Ships that had earlier that year ported into Boston Harbor in celebration of the nation’s bicentennial, on the exact day of which Sunderland had lent its patriotic zip code, 01776, to Philadelphia. Thom made a half-hearted effort to save what few papers remained intact, which numbered exactly two, delivered those to the nearest two houses, who incidentally did not happen to subscribe to the Globe, and hurried home. He spent the rest of the night huddled in bed staring at his wallpaper, which featured a montage of Revolutionary War emblems, pretending to be sick in order to dodge calls from angry residents who unreasonably expected the timely delivery of their newspaper regardless of the weather, regardless that a fourteen-year-old boy has limits, both physical and mental, that should be tested only with great care.

Despite occasional irritations, Thom liked his paper-route very much, not least because it was an entirely solitary activity. His imagination was not constricted by the need to interact with anyone, and as such was free to tackle all the important questions a fourteen-year-old boy must confront: Is the world a dream, and if so is it my dream, are all these people, places and things a product of my dream, or am I part of someone else’s dream, and therefore unreal, but so thoroughly unreal that I’m unaware that I’m unreal? He had been taught in church to believe that the world was an illusion, and Thom had little difficulty absorbing that patently obvious fact, but he was endlessly absorbed by the question: whose illusion? Because his religion made no use of images or icons or representations of God, he saw everything and everyone as God-in-potential. But his favorite fancy was to imagine himself God, to invest himself with omnipotence and omniscience, though not yet omnipresence, as he had at that point very limited experience with life outside of Sunderland. Like many adolescent boys, he longed deeply for two seemingly contradictory things: to be accepted, to be well-liked, to appear normal in all aspects and not in any way weird; and to be special, to stand out above all others either by virtue of having been marked by God for some secret task, or, better yet, to have been invested with some magic ability — superhuman strength, mind-reading, invisibility — that no one realized but that would one day be revealed to the astonishment of all.

Walking backwards down Warren Road so as to avoid the cutting easterly wind that regularly buffeted that quarter of his paper-route, Thom could see Mount Nobscot, a few miles away in Framingham. He liked to imagine that an enemy force of great strength and determination lay hidden just behind Nobscot’s peak, which in truth was not so much a peak as the round back of a gently-sloped hill, but the maps provided by the Sunderland Historical Society do not lie. Mount Nobscot was a mere blip of earthwork, sparsely forested, on the crest of which sat awkwardly a water tower, whose tip bisected Thom’s oriental view. The hill sloped gently on either side, and disappeared behind occlusions as occur in many suburbs: bushes, streetlight, roof, the wafted smoke of twilight fires.

The enemy force could be ghosts, demons, humans, or some concatenation of the infinite congeries of evil — Thomas had recently finished reading Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary on an idle weekend — depending on the mood set by the setting sun, but what this enemy force did not suspect, lying in wait and chuckling to themselves at the excellence of their surprise attack, was that a great general had divined their plans, and was in the process of marshaling forces that would hide in the stands of birch and spruce and maple and oak, waiting, ready to meet force with force. This fantasy would last usually until he passed the frozen pond near Lands End Lane, where he could see the frost of breath from skating kids scrapping with sticks to push a puck through a goal carved from a snow bank, which distracted him to dream of the glory of sports.

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The excellent online litmag Metazen has seen fit to post on its site a story that I wrote. The story is actually part of a chapter from my next novel, which has a title, but the title is a secret. If you have any interest in the shape or tenor of my next novel, you can go read the story here.

If you don’t have any interest, then I suggest you do something useful, like the dishes. They’re not going to wash themselves, you know.

Recently, rooting through my garage, I came across an old Polaroid JoyCam which must have been given to me sometime in the early- to mid-90s. I also found several cartridges of very old and poorly stored Polaroid film. So I figured I’d see what would happen if I tried to use the old camera with the old film. Here are some of the results:

The Dirty Poet, Emergency Room Wrestling, Words Like Kudzu Press

Jesús Ángel Garcia, badbadbad, New Pulp Press

Ben Tanzer, You Can Make Him Like You, Artistically Declined Press

Tom Williams, The Mimic’s Own Voice, Main Street Rag

Patrick Wensink, Black Hole Blues, Lazy Fascist

First, I have to apologize. I’m not in the habit of reviewing books, and I’ve long since grown out of the bad habit of reviewing music, because it’s not one of my strong points. I’m a very bad critic. I’m likely to resort to shop-worn formulations and insights that would make a ten year old cringe and whisper “The banality! The banality!” in a strangled voice to her slightly older brother as they sit quietly reading their Kindles on a rainy day, slumped against couch cushions on the floor of the living room in their parents’ summer house in Kennebunkport, Maine (I figure the kids must be rich if they both have Kindles.)

Second, I have to apologize. Each of the books I’m going to briefly mention deserves a much longer review than I have time to write. While it’s true that I’m a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and further true that I might one day write a longer review of one or more of these books for that newly-launched and well-regarded endeavor, the backlog of reviews over at LARB central is such that anything I have written for them and might write in the future will necessarily appear many months from now. That’s not a bad thing, and in fact one of the operating principles of LARB is that it revels in sometimes reviewing books that are not exactly current, but in the meantime, I thought a few short lines of praise about a few books I read recently couldn’t hurt.

Third, I have to apologize. Readers of North of Onhava should be aware that I know most of these authors, with one exception, and that I am on friendly terms with all, excepting that same one person. I haven’t met all of the people I know in person, yet, but these days that’s less and less necessary. While I make every effort to maintain a costume of objectivity, occasionally the mask will slip, because I don’t look in the mirror when I write. Probably nobody looks in the mirror when he or she writes, except Tao Lin, and even then he looks in a mirror that’s not a mirror but approximately a mirror, and no one else should try to write in an approximate mirror, in my opinion. He’s got that covered.

On to the books, in alphabetical more or less alphabetical (except apparently I can’t spell) order:

Emergency Room Wrestling is a short book of poems by someone who calls himself The Dirty Poet. His poems are not dirty in an obscene way, unless you consider death obscene, or gallows humor in the face of death, or the grim truth of human suffering, or laughing about the grim truth of human suffering. In that sense, Emergency Room Wrestling could be called obscene and The Dirty Poet an obscene poet, but that would be misleading. In fact these poems are documentary in nature, and I suspect cathartic (I hope cathartic) for The Dirty Poet. A graphic description of flesh-eating bacteria devouring the scrotum of a 400 pound patient opens the book, as the narrator of the poem helps three nurses insert something called a “rectal trumpet” whose purpose I would rather not consider just now into the struggling and howling overweight patient. It’s a shocking image. I think it’s meant to shock, but also to draw you in, to see what other horrors await. The poem is called “you think you need a beer” which is a good example of the way The Dirty Poet uses humor to offset the brutal truth of his poetry. But there’s tenderness, too—depthless, unrelenting—as in “dead end,” where a father struggles to come to terms with his son’s near-fatal car accident. He tries to thumb wrestle with the kid’s “large, limp hand,” his thumb “hopeful in a hopeless world.” And on and on, alternating by turns in short, sharp poems that are sometimes cynical, sometimes forlorn, sometimes despairing, sometimes numb, sometimes funny, and always arresting. The Dirty Poet stands at the gate between life and death and watches. I don’t know how he does it. The book is not long, but its power far exceeds its modest presentation.

I cannot do justice to a work as ambitious and multifarious as Jesús Ángel Garcia‘s badbadbad in one paragraph. I can’t even accurately summarize the plot without taking a cleaver to at least one or two of the novel’s limbs. On one level, it’s about a guy named Jesús Ángel Garcia who works by day as webmaster for the First Church of Church Before Church, and by night as a kind of online sexual healer. In less accomplished hands, even that level of quirk could curdle, but Garcia is a vigorous and hugely talented writer, so when he goes off on even more far-out tangents (one could make the argument that the whole book is a series of tangents, and I’d maybe agree, and say that’s not a bad thing), you follow. You don’t have much choice. It’s a little like this: you’re walking along a deserted desert road, and a beat-up old Ford pulls up next to you. The driver offers you a lift. You accept. It’s both the best and the worst decision you ever made in your life. At the end of the ride, you realize the driver is you. A soundtrack and a series of short films accompany badbadbad, and the experience of reading the book is not complete unless and until you listen to/watch the bonus material. Garcia aims, if I interpret his intentions rightly, to unsettle your assumptions about class, about gender, about sex, about religion, about identity: in short, about yourself, and what it means to be human in an inhuman world.

Ben Tanzer‘s ambitions are less lofty. He just wants to make you cry. In You Can Make Him Like You, which unfortunately is a song by The Hold Steady, from an album called Boys And Girls In America, released in 2006. It’s a not-great album by a fitfully competent band, but I’m not going to judge Ben’s book by his taste in music, however much he wants me to. Tanzer writes with endearing frankness about the kind of postponed adolescence that most Judd Apatow characters go through in Judd Apatow movies, except Ben is more honest, and his dissection of his character Keith’s emotional oscillations is both more precise and funnier than anything in Knocked Up, for instance. (I really hope Knocked Up is a Judd Apatow movie, or this review is screwed.) Ben’s also wiser about the different ways people deal with the maturation process. His characters can be self-centered and dense to the point of unlikability, and yet you still like them, because (perhaps most importantly) you recognize them, or yourself in them. I think the magic trick Tanzer pulls off here has something to do with unsentimentality. His prose is clear-eyed and dead pan, even if his characters are more dead pan than clear-eyed, and the trip from confused-scared-selfish but basically large-hearted guy to confused-scared-selfish but basically large-hearted dad will plaster a goofy grin on your face by the time you finish the book. Those are not tears, that’s just something in my eye, but thanks for asking.

Tom Williams’ novella The Mimic’s Own Voice is an act of mimicry itself. It purports to be a semi-scholarly monograph about a talented and hugely popular mimic named Douglas Myles, whose meteoric ascent—at the height of his popularity Myles “plays” to football-stadium-sized audiences—and subsequent disappearance from public life parody the similar trajectories of (to name just a few) J.D. Salinger, Andy Kaufmann, Scott Walker and so on. And so on. Williams himself never breaks character, and the result is an absorbing meditation on fame, race, show business, the mystery of inspiration, the absurdity of life, and a bunch of other stuff, too, but you get the idea. That Williams is able to cover so much ground so deftly within the confines of a novella is a testament both to his own tremendous talent and to the underrated possibilities presented by the form itself. (Though Melville House has taken an admirable step in the direction of rectifying that situation with its relatively budget-priced novella series.) The Mimic’s Own Voice is as close to a perfect book—meaning perfect on its own terms, with respect to intent, execution, textual integrality—as I have read in many moons. Or however you count time.

Patrick Wensink is not a weird guy, at least I don’t think he is, in my limited experience, but he has a decidedly twisted imagination. His second book (second that I know about, anyway) and first novel (his collection of short stories Sex Dungeon For Sale I can also recommend without reservation) is about an aging country music star named J. Claude Caruthers and his twin brother, Lloyd, a physicist. When I say “about” I mean that those are two characters in the book, which is told variously from the point of view of both Caruthers, J. Claude’s guitar, a tour bus, a particle of energy, a sandwich, and on and on, all of whom are given distinctive voices and personalities over the course of a novel wherein Lloyd accidentally creates a black hole that threatens to destroy the universe, while J. Claude struggles to write the last in his alphabetically comprehensive series of songs about women, “Zygmut,” who turns out—and really, who didn’t see this coming?—to be J. Claude’s and Lloyd’s long-lost sister. I would tell you more, but I don’t want to, and I don’t think I need to. Black Hole Blues is a trip, and one I think the reader is better off taking without particular guidance. At least from me. Bring your spirit animal, if you want. We are all lucky that Wensink decided to turn his talents for good. As an evil mastermind he could wreak some serious havoc.

“Photography is unclassifiable because there is no reason to mark  this or that of its occurrences; it aspires, perhaps, to become as crude, as certain, as noble as a sign…. Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.”

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

Sometime last winter while I was driving at 140 km/ hour from Point A to Point B there occurred a sunset I couldn’t resist, and I took a silly risk to shoot these pictures.

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When I was young we used to call this a mackerel sky. Maybe we still do. I don’t know, I’m not young anymore.


Everything that was invented has to be reinvented, for instance: the sound of waves slapping wet rocks in the dark. We once called this night rote. We also used the phrase heart murmurs. If you look carefully you’ll see that this isn’t appropriate or necessary. You’ll see instead track marks, not on your arm but in the damp sand or [other] — a piper birdly walking the sine wave’s edge; a squirrel rattling down tremulous branches in the hot wind.

I have an urban confession: cars make me proud because I don’t understand them. I’m proud of everything that runs when you want, stops when you can; mechanical reactions to a muscular prompt. Because it proves that Fielding was right, and Burton, too: right. There’s a line in the song that goes “Bumps a lot, bumps a lot,” crushed now to cinders, heaped in ashy piles, a volcano of mistakes. “Wrong again, wrong again, come along home.” How we count the days, how we tear back pin-holed roof and radiate the sky. The slick approaching your shore is a hit-and-run kiss, and don’t say you had no idea, because we’re fraught with ideas. Cop-killer bullets: your idea. Crib death: idea. Why insist on throwing rotten apples at the apple tree? You’ll only make the squirrel happy, and the piper tramping through the muck has nothing to do with your lousy aim.

An empty house, close to the ocean, windows open to admit the breeze. From everything I’ve confessed there’s no reason it should not be clear that we are summer. There’s a book, and in the book there’s a set of rules, and these rules have a purpose. To ease you down the hill. To show the best route to the worst driver.

Thomas Quin doesn’t care how you arrive, only that you arrive, and he doesn’t care how you’re dressed, you can dress like a fruit tree, a dandelion, a Ford Fusion, the angel of history. Tel que tu es, in better words. He’s flush with ammo, and the minute you reach the barbed wire, he’ll butcher your best ideas. Bits of your body will be strung along the line, lifeless. Like pulpy diamonds, like organic melons eaten inside out by maggots. What remains of what was you he will scoop and use to fertilize his land.

On that land grows nothing like an idea, and there is peace, and fields of rape-seed.

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Page 112 of the April 1993 issue of Spin magazine, embedded above for your reading pleasure (and because this entire post depends on you being able to read it), is not, I hope, too difficult to navigate. If you get lost, go to Google Books and search Spin Magazine, Jim Greer, New Market, in that order. Capitalization is unimportant. Otherwise you should be able to zoom in, up, and around the article at will. Which you should do, because this was like the Rosetta Stone of magazine-based April Fool’s jokes. Which is to say, this happened, man. (I am employing hyperbole in the service of irony, if you’re taking notes.)

Editor Craig Marks had an idea for the April 1993 issue. Because of the way magazines work, or used to work, he had this idea in January 1993. I was driving across the United States of America at the time. (Have you heard of this place? It’s wild. It’s untamed. It’s really boring almost always, except when it’s not.) At one of my stops, Craig called me and asked if I wanted to write a fake scene report about a random town in Anywhere, U.S.A. We were in the middle of the post-Nirvana goldrush, and anything or anyone equipped with musical instruments who could be categorized as “indie” or “alternative” was being signed by the major labels (there was more than one back then) at an alarming rate. This explains, but does not excuse, the Lemonheads—whose singer, Evan Dando, was featured on the cover of this same April issue tongue-kissing the actress/director Adrienne Shelley (many years later tragically murdered, which is in no way anything other than horrible, horrible, horrible)—in one of the most repulsive covers in Spin‘s long (some would argue too long) history.This was neither Evan’s nor Adrienne’s fault: whoever thought up the idea; whoever took the picture; whoever approved the picture for use as the cover of a rock ‘n’ roll magazine is/are to blame. These people know who they are. Probably.

As it happens, I had been passing the long hours driving from New York to San Francisco in part by making up band names. I don’t know why. It was just something to do. I was traveling solo, and listening to a lot of American Music Club, one of my all-time favorite bands, who had also recently signed with a major label, entirely justifiably if not entirely happy-ever-afterly. When Craig suggested the fake scene report thing, I started coming up with different anagrams of “April Fools” or April Fools Day” and so on, because I think I’m in love with anagrams. Only one of those (I think) remains in the article—the name of the record label “Flap Or Soil,” which I thought was a dead giveaway, but no. The rest were either inside jokes or just names I thought were a) funny or b) plausible.

Mid-January, dead of winter, is a stupid time to drive cross-country. I was in Wyoming traveling along I-80 when a blizzard hit, closing the interstate. I was lucky enough to snag one of the few remaining rooms at some dreadful sub-Motel 6 otherwise populated by truckers and people who should have been truckers, and possibly cannibals, at the last exit before the highway closure. Stuck for two days, I wrote the fake scene report and somehow figured out how to fax it to Spin HQ using nothing but chewing gum and two paper clips.

I had set the piece in Omaha, because I had recently passed through Omaha, but Craig, who apparently used to spend his downtime scouring atlases (this is before Google Maps, if you can even remember back that far), discovered a town called New Market, Virginia, and thought that a better fit, both as a tell and for irony’s sake. It was an inspired choice.

What neither Craig nor I expected was that anyone would take the story seriously. Nonetheless: I have it from reliable (second-hand) sources, people who live or have lived in the New Market/Harrisonburg area, that at least one A&R guy from at least one major record label flew all the way there looking for the imaginary bands I discussed in the article. The town’s Chamber of Commerce was apparently flooded with calls fielded by confused officials who tried to explain that there was in New Market no diner called “Happy Chef,” or club called “Stinky’s.” Amazing.

I’d like to think that this article in some small way contributed to the downfall of the parasitic major label system, but that would be giving myself way too much credit. I will say that if only one A&R guy wasted his company’s time and money on a fruitless search for a scene that did not exist… Wait. That pretty much describes every major label A&R guy in the history of rock. Never mind.

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One of the more influential books I read as an adolescent. I still return to it for inspiration from time to time, though it hasn’t aged well, I’m afraid. And yet…

“They do not listen to me. They say that nothing can save them.
We speak the same tongue, yet they will not understand.
They do not believe in angels. It is as simple as that.
There is danger.
There is the danger that you will kill me.
I am your enemy more than any foreign soldier.
I love you. How can you forgive that?
My moist skeleton clings to your lying mouth.
I am a poet of death.”

Kenneth Patchen, The Journal of Albion Moonlight New Directions (1941)

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As for the actions of our Senses, we cannot but observe them to be in many particulars much outdone by those of other Creatures, and when at best, to be far short of the perfection they seem capable of: And these infirmities of the Senses arise from a double cause, either from the disproportion of the Object to the Organ, whereby an infinite number of things can never enter into them, or else from error in the Perception, that many things, which come within their reach, are not received in a right manner.

The like frailties are to be found in the Memory; we often let many things slip away from us, which deserve to be retain’d, and of those which we treasure up, a great part is either frivolous or false; and if good, and substantial, either in tract of time obliterated, or at best so overwhelmed and buried under more frothy notions, that when there is need of them, they are in vain sought for.

The two main foundations being so deceivable, it is no wonder, that all the succeeding works which we build upon them, of arguing, concluding, defining, judging, and all the other degrees of Reason, are lyable to the same imperfection, being, at best, either vain, or uncertain: So that the errors of the understanding are answerable to the two other, being defective both in the quantity and goodness of its knowledge; for the limits, to which our thoughts are confin’d, are small in respect of the vast extent of Nature it self; some parts of it are too large to be comprehended, and some too little to be perceived. And from thence it must follow, that not having a full sensation of the Object, we must be very lame and imperfect in our conceptions about it, and in all the proportions which we build upon it; hence, we often take the shadow of things for the substance, small appearances for good similitudes, similitudes for definitions; and even many of those, which we think, to be the most solid definitions, are rather expressions of our own misguided apprehensions then of the true nature of the things themselves.

From Micrographia, by Robert Hooke (1665)

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