Life lessons from Mom

In her day, my mother was a political junkie. She attended town council meetings, wrote letters to senators, worked on local campaigns and followed national politics avidly. After suffering a series of small strokes at the age of 72, she no longer cared. “Let the next generation do the worrying,” she said.

Nevertheless, in 2008 she was excited to learn that none other than Bill Clinton was planning to visit our tiny borough, on a campaign swing for his wife during that year’s Democratic primaries. The former president was scheduled to appear at a home just a few streets over, but by then, Mom couldn’t walk well. She had no stamina.

So we drove up the alley to the church parking lot, a block away, to save her from having to walk uphill, then proceeded slowly, arm-in-arm, through the crowd for another two blocks.

Soon President Clinton came out onto the front porch and said a few words. He stands out in a crowd, literally, since he’s a head taller than most people. Mom—at just over 5 feet tall—had no trouble seeing him. Afterward, we returned home, happy.

I wish Mom was around during this election season, for I’d love to hear her take on campaign 2016—surely the weirdest in recent memory. Indeed, as we draw closer to the second anniversary of her death, I find myself wishing I could check in with her on other topics too. I miss her commonsense opinions.

I recently began jotting down a small list of life lessons my mother left me with—not the big things that every mother espouses, like “be a nice person” and “brush your teeth after meals.” It’s a more idiosyncratic list.

First item: Don’t bother cleaning any surface that’s taller than you are. Mom was a neat freak and kept her house immaculate. But she was tiny, so the top of her refrigerator was allowed to get as dusty as it liked without her intervention.

Mom taught me how to budget by tucking money into envelopes designated for particular bills every payday. She taught me to iron a shirt and to fold a towel into thirds for the neatest package.

She handed down her love of bargain hunting and thrift shopping. Mom unearthed interesting finds from junk shops long before Martha Stewart made it stylish. She always looked chic on no money, thanks to her ability to sniff out a deal. I remember the time she nabbed new, wool designer scarves for 50 cents each.

As she aged, my mother was philosophical about her health problems. She didn’t much complain; she just dealt with whatever life handed her. She didn’t fear birthdays; indeed, she felt it was a privilege to grow older and was proud of every year.

I asked my mother what it was about aging that she liked. She thought for a moment and said, “I’m less afraid than I used to be.”

That’s a lesson from Mom that I hope to take into my own older years.

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The eyes have it

Makeup has always been a mystery. How much is enough to get that “natural” look—the finish that says “I’m not wearing makeup, wink wink; I was born with a natural glow and these huge smoky eyes”—and how much is too much? You don’t want to be Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.”

Let’s assume you finally get it right, after years of experimentation. Then you grow older and find that your skin has changed. Now you have to start over, jettisoning the blue eye shadow and mineral powders, and learning some new tricks.

I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about makeup—the bare state of my eyes doesn’t keep me up nights. But last weekend at a party, I was so entranced by the eye makeup of a cousin’s wife that I began wondering how to replicate the look.

This is not the first time recently that I’ve fantasized about eye makeup. A young friend who used to live on our block is a whiz with makeup. Not long ago, she posted a photo of herself on Facebook with amazing cat’s eyes, ala Liz Taylor in “Cleopatra.” Stunning.

Can I get that look, at my age, I asked in the comments, only half joking. Wear whatever makeup you like, whatever your age, she responded with all the assurance of a confident twentysomething.

My generation of women has been on both sides of the makeup wars. In the ‘60s we wanted to look like Twiggy, with kohl eyes and white lipstick. In the ’70s, many of us abandoned makeup altogether, either to make a feminist statement or in pursuit of a back-to-nature look. Those who did wear makeup went light and fresh—think Cheryl Tiegs.

By the ‘80s, we were back in war paint. It was the only time in my life I wore red lipstick. Thank you, Madonna.

The art of applying makeup didn’t come naturally to me. I’ve always worn lipstick (I’m too pale without it) and mascara. Beyond that, I’m lost.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with foundation (the color is never right); blush (contouring? but how?); and, especially, eye makeup. Drawing Magic Marker lines on my own eyelids, one at a time, is a messy undertaking. I’ve experimented with pencils, paints and powders and pretty much failed with all of them. As for shadow, the colored ones seem garish, the monochrome ones, drab.

What kind of sleight of hand would I need to reinvent my makeup now? A quick Google search of “makeup for mature skin” produced depressing results involving “hooded eyes” and ways to minimize wrinkles.

But in truth, I’m never going to look like cousin Melissa, even if I were to copy her eye makeup line by line. She is years younger than I am and happens to be drop-dead gorgeous. She would look good without anything on her face.

And that, I think, is the ultimate irony of makeup: The women who look best in it are the ones who patently don’t need it.

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Creative disruption on the home front

Do you believe in horoscopes? Neither do I, but there’s something spooky in the way the prediction I saw in a magazine at the beginning of the month seems to be coming true.

I specifically remember what the horoscope said, because the prognostications for August were so out of whack for this Virgo that I read the entry aloud to a friend.

Learn to live with chaos, the horoscope advised. Invite disorder into your life—it’s the route toward a creative solution that will please you in the end, yada yada yada.

“Yeah, right—that’s not going to happen,” I scoffed.

We Virgos don’t like chaos. We are nothing if not orderly—assuming, again, that you believe in astrology. I don’t, necessarily, but this is one Virgo trait I relate to.

I enjoy being organized, thrive when things are in their place. It drives me nuts when my husband puts a kitchen utensil in the “wrong” drawer or drapes his jacket over the back of a chair instead of hanging it up. (He’s a Pisces. Is that a Pisces thing?)

So, creative disruption is not something I would naturally welcome. But here in the dog days of summer, it has found me.

I’ve been painting the porches. The side landing went smoothly enough, except for a wonky post at the bottom of the stairs that needs replacing. But the job is essentially done, and if there’s anything we Virgos like, it’s getting things done.

The front porch, on the other hand, is not.

Because the porch is large, I opted to do it piecemeal, beginning with the living room side. After power washing came scraping, puttying and sanding—all the prep work that I hate. Only then could I tackle the job I like: painting. I find a Zen pleasure in brushing on the color and I love how nice it looks when it’s finished. All fresh and clean.

Because the weather got hot around the time I began, I had to work sporadically. Early mornings were best. Trying to accomplish anything later in the day made me a little sun sick. How do professional painters do it?

Next came the monsoons. They slowed me down too. And then I traveled out of town for a few days.

But finally it all came together and that side of the porch looks great now that I’ve reinstalled the furniture and plants. But the other side is begging for attention—and now the weather is even hotter.

Meanwhile, my husband is almost done rebuilding the back porch, but the heat has driven him indoors too. He has turned his attention to the kitchen ceiling, which needs replacing due to a flood a while back in the bathroom upstairs.

So here I am, like it or not, living just as the horoscope predicted, in a muddle of messy, incomplete projects. It’s my fervent hope that at least one of them will be finished in time for my birthday in September—a Virgo wish if there ever was one.

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Can you reason with a groundhog?

We Pennsylvanians look kindly on groundhogs, if our affection for Punxsutawney Phil is any indication. But these oversize rodents—largest members of the squirrel family—are easier to love in February, when they are hibernating. In the warm months they can be a royal pain, shamelessly noshing your vegetable garden and flower beds.

We first saw a groundhog in our immediate neighborhood last summer. He was fat and sassy, a self-confident individual with little fear of humans unless you got right up on him and stomped your feet. Yelling from the back door had no effect.

We don’t plant many vegetables—there’s so much fresh, organic produce available locally that it doesn’t seem worth the bother—and the groundhog wasn’t doing much damage to the flowers. So, while my husband muttered darkly about “doing something” about this wily woodchuck, I advised pacifism. Live and let live, right?

This summer, I’m reconsidering. One result of tearing down and rebuilding our back porch was the discovery of a deep, narrow hole below the decking, right in the middle of the porch floor. I wasn’t sure what the hole signified until last week, when I happened to open the back door only to see a furry tail vanish into the void.

I thought it was one of my cats until suddenly, up popped the groundhog. He turned his wedge-shaped face right and left to reconnoiter, but ducked in the hole when he spotted me and disappeared.

We assumed the groundhog lived beneath our neighbor’s barn next door, because that’s where he scooted whenever we chased him out of our yard. It was shocking to find him camping out 5 feet from my kitchen.

In fact, it turns out that groundhogs are master tunnelers. According to National Geographic, their burrows can span 8 to 66 feet and are equipped with multiple exits, multiple levels and multiple chambers—even a separate bathroom.

My husband went out and filled the hole with dirt and big rocks, hoping to keep the groundhog at bay. I feared an Edgar Allan Poe scenario—I wanted to discourage the little fellow, not bury him alive. “The Tell-Tale Heart” came horribly to mind.

I needn’t have worried. A half hour later we found the hole re-excavated, with the new opening slightly to the side of the boulders my husband had levered in. The woodchuck had broken free.

A Google search unearthed many suggestions, both peaceful and violent, for eliminating groundhogs. I’m not ready for a battle royal, like Bill Murray in “Caddyshack.” But I hate the thought of the groundhog tunneling under my house. Am I going to come face-to-face with him in the basement one day?

A friend of mine once caught a rowdy skunk in a Havahart trap and drove him to a remote area where presumably, he’s living happily to this day. My husband is threatening the same for our groundhog. I’m hoping the renovated back porch, now almost completed, will provide enough physical barriers to keep him away from the house.

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Which age would you replay if you could?

I used to ask my nephew Matt to steer me toward new music, but lately I’ve given up and just listen to the artists I grew up with—a sure sign of aging, no doubt. So after preordering the “new” Beatles release, “Live at the Hollywood Bowl,” online, I also purchased Bonnie Raitt’s 20th album, “Dig in Deep,” after seeing the singer-songwriter on “The Tavis Smiley Show” last week.

Smiley asked Raitt how the music has changed for her over time—what it’s like to sing a song like “Angel from Montgomery,” first recorded it in 1971, today, at the age of 66.

“There are songs that make me remember the woman I was,” Bonnie replied. “They take on all these different meanings” as you age.

Smiley then mentioned a teaser question a friend had posed at a dinner party: If you could go back to any age of your life, what age would it be?

Smiley, who is 51, said he considered reprising 26, 35 and 42—all significant years for him, for unspecified reasons. But as he thought about it, he realized he preferred to stay where he is. “I’ve finally gotten comfortable with the fact that aging is cool,” he said. “Every day offers a new opportunity.”

How about you? Would you, like Tavis, stay put? If not, what year would you choose to replay?

The age when you fell in love or got married? Maybe, but not if the relationship ended or the marriage failed.

The age when your child was born? Perhaps—but would you really want to revisit the sleepless nights and diapers?

It would be great to return to an age when everyone you loved was still alive—for me, that would mean pre-1975, to include my father. But would I then have to relive the subsequent years of death and assorted debacles—literally déjà vu all over again?

Also, in retrospect I tend to be disapproving of my younger self’s behavior. If I went back, would I still be as impatient, impulsive and self-absorbed? It’s taken me years of effort (not to mention therapy) to work through some of my many character flaws. Could I go back to an earlier time in my life while preserving these hard-won fruits of maturity?

Taking the game at its simplest and assuming I could return in an uncomplicated way to a particular time of my life with no negative consequences, after some consideration I settled on 25. That’s how old I was when I spent a year in Europe with my first husband.

We quit our jobs, stored our possessions and flew to Amsterdam to begin 12 months of travel and cultural immersion. As winter crept in we headed south, ending up in a tiny apartment in Malaga, Spain, for five months. I took Spanish lessons; shopped daily, string bag in hand, for whatever was fresh in the market; learned to dismember and cook a squid; and gawked at the Mediterranean from a bougainvillea-draped patio.

Bonnie Raitt, meanwhile, agreed with Smiley that she prefers her life today over fantasies of previous ages. Her father, the musical-comedy star John Raitt, had told her to enjoy her 60s. “My dad said if I could go back, I’d be 60 again,” Raitt laughed.

Maybe these really are the good old days.

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Ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend?

“The best friends are old friends.” So said the caption on a Facebook photo from a mini-high school reunion I went to a couple of weeks ago in Rhode Island.

My classmates are reunioneers. Aside from the traditional decade parties, there are yearly get-togethers on the anniversary of commencement, June 10, and pop-up reunions whenever a distant classmate comes to town. The event I attended came together because Mariette had driven in from Nebraska, Lu was home from Florida and Jane had arrived from Arizona.

Some of my best high school pals didn’t make it, but no matter. It was a noisy, happy group, and I felt a kinship even with those I barely knew in school. Years later, all that shared history counts.

The school years might be as good as it gets when it comes to making friends. Research suggests that it’s harder to forge new connections as you age. I Googled “trouble making friends when older,” expecting articles about friendships over 50. Instead I found links geared toward thirtysomethings, floundering after the chummy college years.

A supportive social circle is key to health and happiness. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Friendship decreases blood pressure and stress, reduces the risk of depression and increases longevity, in large part because someone is watching out for us.”

Of course, there are friends and there are friends.

Not counting the online world, where we may connect with hundreds of people in a new, 21st century type of friendship, the typical social circle—kith and kin—is 100 to 200 people, says U.K. researcher Robin Dunbar. He pegs 150 as the number of relationships our brains are wired to manage.

Of those 150, about 15 emerge as the most important individuals in our circles. Drilling down even further, a handful of people are the very closest—friends of the heart, those with whom you feel completely accepted and can share any intimacy. Dunbar’s research suggests that “you need between three and five of them for optimal well-being,” says a Time magazine report.

It’s not a static circle. Friends are constantly coming and going in our lives. And when someone in that BFF category reenters your world, it’s cause for rejoicing.

Doris and I became best buds 30 years ago when she bought the log cabin down the lane from me in Dingmans Ferry. We just clicked. We were both single and we started hanging out. We had many adventures together, shared many meals, went through boyfriends and breakups, and earned the nickname “the Snoop Sisters” from an antiques dealer whose shop we frequented.

In time, Doris moved away and embarked on a career as a house flipper. She ultimately wound up in Florida, where my husband and I visited her a few years back.

This year she began thinking about buying a second home. And amazingly, she ended up with what used to be my cottage in Dingmans, which by a twist of fate had just come on the market.

Life will be a lot more fun with my friend back where she belongs.

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Home renovations: not for the fainthearted

Nothing is simple. Or maybe some things are, but home improvement projects are not among them. Otherwise, where’s the source of drama in all those HGTV house flipper and renovation shows that I love to watch?

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when our major summer project—repainting the front, back and side porches—veered off-course.

It sounded so straightforward. A little prep work—scraping, power washing—a little paint and a little elbow grease. Voilà! Instant facelift for the house. But that’s not exactly what happened.

We knew we had a couple of spongy floorboards on the back deck, and here’s where our best-laid plans went awry. My husband was going to replace them. Easy peasy. He had replaced a few other floorboards two or three years ago, when last we painted. No big deal.

Well, remember the song about how the knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone?

Removing the two errant floorboards disclosed rot in the neighboring boards, so my husband began taking those out too, one after another after another. Pretty soon he decided that with so many floorboards gone, he might as well install a whole new deck.

To dismantle all that flooring, he had to pull out the two columns that hold up the porch roof. Uh oh. One of them turned out to have an ant colony inside—not carpenter ants, thankfully, but the grease and sugar ants that invade our kitchen every summer. We now knew where they lived. We would have to put in new columns.

Next on the hatchet list was a foundational crossbeam at the very front of the porch, one of two planks sistering each other in the important job of supporting the entire structure. Fortunately, only one of them had rot. Out it came.

At this point, there’s not much left—just a skeletal infrastructure of boards and beams. A couple of jerry-rigged uprights are wedged into place to temporarily hold up the roof.

The new lumber has just arrived and my husband believes the porch will go back together more easily than it came apart. I hope he’s right because in the meantime, I can’t use my back door. There’s no there there. I don’t fancy stepping out onto bare beams like a tightrope walker or a pirate walking the plank, though my husband has gotten used to it. The cats, too. Wimp that I am, I use the front door and circle around.

With the back porch a construction zone and the front porch a huge endeavor, I decided to start my painting on the side. There’s no actual porch there—more a landing and set of stairs. I finished over the weekend and I’m not sure about the color. The idea was to match the decking and the siding. In some lights, the colors jibe. In others, not so much.

I’m considering the side area my beta test zone, and will live with the color a while before deciding whether to change it. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to starting on the back—once it gets rebuilt.

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Hey baby, don’t call me dear

I remember the first time I got called “ma’am.” It was at a gas station in New Jersey, on Route 3 in Bergen County. I was in my 40s and didn’t feel or look like a “ma’am”—or so I thought. But apparently the 20-something guy at the pump disagreed. Who knows, I might have been the same age as his mom.

If “ma’am” told me the world was beginning to see me as middle-aged, “dear” surely represents the next step. The lawn guy called me “dear” the other night and it made me feel 1,000 years old.

Most women I know dislike “ma’am,” but at least the word has gravitas. It’s said with respect and a tacit nod to your maturity. “Dear” is condescending and nothing more. It’s a putdown wrapped up in an artificial-sugar coating.

We usually do our own lawn but we had gotten behind and the weedy grass was embarrassingly high. Queen Anne’s lace was ready to bloom on the grass path to the front steps.

Lawn Guy and his assistant were working on the property next door, so I ran over and asked if they had time to do our yard as well. Lawn Guy is a well-built, good-looking charmer, probably in his 30s, who approaches his lawn tractor like an off-road vehicle. He’s a cowboy doing wheelies.

He said OK, as soon as he was done next door, where he was mowing the grass into a geometric diamond pattern. He laughed when I asked if he knew how to do crop circles.

It started to rain just as he was finishing our yard. As his assistant packed up the equipment, Lawn Guy bounded up the stairs to our porch to get paid. We chitchatted and he made his pitch for doing our yard regularly, at the same price he had charged that evening. I told him my husband usually did the lawn but that we’d think about it. That’s when he dropped the “D” word.

“OK, dear, have a nice evening.”

The word stopped me cold. What had seemed like a pleasant conversation between equals suddenly assumed a different spin as I realized that to him, I was not just a potential customer and friendly neighbor, but a veritable “dear”—an old lady, I suppose. If only he had called me ma’am!

I remember nurses and home aides calling my mother “dear” and “honey” in the latter part of her life. The words combined distracted faux affection with dismissiveness. You don’t take someone seriously if you’re calling them dear.

Men get called “dear” too, but only if they’re old enough. My father-in-law was addressed that way in the nursing home.

But generally speaking I think it’s more of a woman thing. My husband, for example, can’t remember ever being called “dear” by a lawn guy, gas jockey or anyone else. (Well, maybe me—but in a completely different context.)

If we ever do hire someone for yardwork, it will have to be somebody who doesn’t call me dear. And he’d better not address me as “young lady,” either.

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In praise of porches

My next-door neighbor recently told me that she pretty much fell in love with her house at first sight. Why? Because it had the front porch of her dreams. “I’ve always wanted a wraparound porch,” she confided.

I didn’t have a fixed idea of a dream home when my husband and I bought our place 19 years ago. There were lots of architectural styles I liked, from Victorian gingerbread to rustic log cabin. But in the end, I’m glad we chose our classic Pennsylvania farmhouse with its many extensions and add-ons—one of them a big front porch. It’s not wraparound, like the porch next door. But it’s roomy enough for entertaining and for sheltering our many houseplants on their summer sabbatical.

The porch is charmingly asymmetrical—there’s more lateral space in the portion on the living-room side. We have Adirondack chairs and a matching settee out there, along with my mother’s porch glider and a midcentury wire chair my husband dug out of a Brooklyn dumpster. It was a rusty wreck that cleaned up well.

On the other side, in front of the family room’s bay window, is a bench glider that a friend gave us years ago as a housewarming present and a comfy metal chair from the 1940s or ‘50s. The two sides of the porch get light at different times of day, so we move back and forth depending on whether we want sun or shade.

The suburban ranch house I grew up in had no porch, but my grandmother’s house did. I loved sitting out there with her when I was a girl. Grandma had a triple-decker house and the porch was at the second level, so it was like being in the box seats at the opera. We got a bird’s eye view of the street scene below while enjoying our shared privacy.

My porch is likewise elevated, due to the pitch of the site and the structure of the house, so it offers a sense of seclusion amid the activity on the street and nearby ball field. Perhaps because of the porch’s height, we aren’t too bothered by bugs. In the front gardens you’ll be dive-bombed by no-see-ums and mosquitoes. But on the porch, there’s only the occasional fly. This is good news on evenings when we take our dinner out there on trays.

Of course, every stick has two ends, and the other side of the dialectic of the porch is maintenance. The porch is overdue for painting, and I’ve nominated myself to get the project going.

We’ve always had a contrasting floor color—green, initially, and more recently a deep russet red. But this time, we’re going monochrome. We’ve chosen a nice khaki color just a shade darker than the house for the floor and handrails; spindles and columns will remain white.

I don’t work as fast as I used to and I take plenty of breaks, so I’m allowing myself the rest of the summer to finish the front porch, a smaller back porch and the side-door landing. First task: Buy paint.



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Happy birthday, kittens

Where did the months go? The kittens are approaching their first birthday and soon I won’t be calling them “kittens” anymore. They are emerging now as confident young cats.

The kittens, their siblings and their mother appeared on my neighbor’s back porch one night last July, in a cardboard box lined with bath towels. My neighbor has no idea who left them, but it turned out to be a fortuitous drop-off that resulted in happy endings for all five felines.

The mom is a beautiful longhaired calico, boldly splashed with orange, black and white. Among them, the four kittens bear all of those colors, but not in combination. They divide up into two black-and-white brothers and two orange kittens, a boy and a girl.

All four have adorable white feet. They could have been called Mittens, Boots, Socks and Paws. Instead, my neighbor gave them the placeholder names of Eeny, Meeny, Miney and Moe.

Moe is the only name that stuck, and he’s our cat now, a sleek, smart, athletic individual who manages to be simultaneously passionate and easygoing. I think he’s an old soul, if there is such a thing. Who’s to say the subtle white brush mark on his black-velvet forehead doesn’t denote a third eye?

His red sister, Sassy, is tiny next to him. Where Moe leaps like a gymnast, spinning through the air before firmly reconnecting with the ground, Sassy is more like Tinkerbell. She seems to hover or levitate, lighter than air.

Moe is friendly and self-assured. He trusts in the goodness of life. Sassy is nervous. She hides when anyone comes over, only reappearing when she’s sure all is well. Moe will let you pick him up and hug him. Sassy squirms to get away. Yet, she’s the first to give nuzzles and head butts when it’s her idea to cuddle.

A year apparently isn’t long enough for kittens to fully grow up. In fact, a cat behaviorist told me that cats aren’t mature until they are 2 to 4 years old. My pair still love to frisk and play—and they play hard. Indeed, they rumble so madly that they’ve broken a few treasured items (specializing, it seems, in antique majolica flower pots, which my husband patiently glues back together). Yesterday I went into the kitchen to discover that the cyclamen in the greenhouse window had gotten knocked into the sink, spilling black dirt and vermiculite. Sassy was the perp, giving chase to a bug that had the misfortune to fly in there.

We don’t know the actual date the kittens were born, but working backward from when they arrived on my neighbor’s doorstep, we are setting July 4 as the day we will call their birthday. This way, all of America will celebrate with us. My neighbor kept the mama cat, and my longtime bestie Lisa took the other two kittens in the litter. We are one big happy extended family.

You’ve seen the seasons now, kittens, traveled once around the sun. Happy birthday, little ones!

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    Jacqueline Damian

    Jacqueline Damian is a writer and editor living in Milford, PA. The author of "Sasha’s Tail: Lessons from a Life with Cats" (W.W. Norton), she has worked in newspapers, magazines, book publishing and technology journalism. Read Full
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