Tag Archive: philosophy


elderly couple in Bellagio, Italy

Photo Credit: Daderot; Licence: Public Domain

For most of my life, I’ve had the goal of aging gracefully. Even at my still reasonably youthful age of 31, it hasn’t been easy. To start, my hair started receding when I was in high school. There’s nothing that feels particularly graceful about someone guessing you’re 30 when you’re 18. Especially since people usually guess low.

“It’s just the way you carry yourself. You seem older.”

Sure it is.

There’s also nothing particularly graceful about your future in-laws telling your future wife to check your ID to make sure you’re not some geezer going after a younger woman. Okay, in fairness, I was singing Geoff Stephen’s Winchester Cathedral with my wife’s grandfather at the time, and I did know all the words. And they didn’t actually use the word “geezer.”

In university, I liked to chase caesars with margaritas. Now I just chase them with antacids.

Then a male friend told me the other day — swearing me to secrecy — that he feels like he’s getting wimpier with age. I told him I felt the same. Little things that wouldn’t have caused me to flinch before are now excruciating.

A milestone was reached the other day when I went to the dentist to pick up my new night guard. Not that it has anything to do with age because I’ve evidently had a very slight misalignment of my jaws as long as I’ve had adult teeth, but as I’m sitting there lisping to the hygienist through the apparatus, I couldn’t help feeling a little self-conscious. I kept reminding myself that Christian Bale wore a night guard in American Psycho, and he was the very picture of youth. Or, at least, I hope he wore a night guard. Don’t tell me if he didn’t; I don’t want to know.

When you find yourself trying to extract comfort from drawing comparisons between yourself and a fictional psychopath, you know you have problems.

Mark Twain’s witty remark to Edward Dimmit that “the first half of life consists of the capacity to enjoy without the chance; the last half consists of the chance without the capacity” now haunts me like a warning instead of  joke.

I know that aging gracefully is supposed to be about taking care of ourselves, accepting — even embracing — the changes that come with life, and not resigning ourselves to stagnancy.  I’m trying to follow my own tenet but, heck, maybe I won’t have to resign myself to stagnancy: maybe stagnancy doesn’t give a damn whether I resign myself.  Resistance Is Futile.

One time I got stuck on the dementia floor of a long-term care facility.  I had gotten into the elevator, but the elevator was called to a different floor, and I got out without realizing.  When I turned around to call the elevator again, the buttons were locked behind a Plexiglas cover.  Stairwells were locked behind doors which would trip an alarm if opened.  I started to wander through the halls filled with people with somewhat vacant expressions, searching for a staff person to let me out, my mild amusement at my mistake of getting off on the wrong floor rising rapidly to panic.  My brain goes ludicrous places when I panic.  I started thinking: what if they think I’m a resident here? How am I going to prove I’m not?  What if they never let me leave?

When I eventually found a staff person and told her that I couldn’t get off this floor, she joked without missing a beat, “me neither: I’ve been here since 1994.”  If you spend your days face-to-face with dementia, I suppose it’s healthy to develop a sense of humour about these things.

Then today, while waiting in line at the bank, an elderly woman said to her granddaughter — with genuine fear evident in her voice and in the expression on her face — “I’m just so worried about falling on the ice out there.”  Ice can be treacherous, but it never occurred to me to be terrified of going out when ice is on the ground.  But it makes sense.  A fall that, to me, would result maybe in a pulled muscle or minor strain can mean broken bones that never heal to person whose bones have brittled with age.

My point is: it’s easy to preach the virtues of aging gracefully when you picture yourself aging well, doing all the things you used to be able to do.  It’s easy to say “accept change” when you’re assuming the changes are going to be positive.

Taking care of ourselves is vital, but sometimes we’re a ticking time bomb no matter what we do.  My uncle has taken extremely good care of himself his whole life.  Or, leastways, my aunt has taken extremely good care of him.  An active lifestyle, regular exercise, healthy eating — all the good stuff.  Several years ago, he was diagnosed with diabetes.  Bang.  Quality of life diminished.  Resistance Is Futile.  Sure, he manages his health well, but let’s not pretend that everything’s “same as usual.”

On the other hand, there’s my friend Keith.  75 years old.  Drinks whiskey like I drink water.  Smoked since he was 14.  Broken every bone in his body, some more than once.  This is not a man who decided to navigate Life carefully.  But he’s one of the most active people I know.  This man just might outlive us all.

Or Patrick Stewart?  Let’s all stop pretending that man hasn’t tapped into some Elven elixir of life.  Yes, he’s aging but he looks better and better every year.

I think what I’ve learned is that we don’t know what the future holds.  Maybe I’ll live to 100 and still have use of all my faculties.  Maybe I’ll develop early onset dementia (some days, a case could be made that it’s already started).  Maybe I’ll die tomorrow.

None of these are new observations or thoughts: existentialist musings have been crystalized in history.  But for me, it emphasizes not just the old adages on seizing the day and living life to its fullest, but also the pure blessing of life.

Today, I am thankful for every molecule of breath in my lungs, for every beat in my heart.  If they’re my last, so be it.  If it gets harder to suck in that breath, or pump out that beat, too bad.  Right now, I Live, I Sing, I Dance, I Laugh.  Right now, I’m surrounded by people I love and who love me.  I’m golden.

an austere beauty


Photo Credit: Vera Kratochvil; Licence: Public Domain

Nature has the power to humble us. As much as the ravages of natural disasters are tragic, they also remind us that we do not own this planet, we will never overcome it, and our abuses will never go unpunished.  But there is also something astounding in the ingenuity of human achievement.  The universe gives us gravity; humanity responds with bridges, towering skyscrapers, and planes.  Process the concept of taking an 85 metric tonne hunk of metal and getting it to lift off the ground and fly it at speeds over 500 mph at 30,000-40,000 ft. If that doesn’t take your breath away, few things will.

I love nature and, if my life ambitions can be boiled down to a select few, moving further away from cities would be high on the list.  But I love the culture one finds it cities too and so I am drawn to them as well.  Let me find a place to live surrounded with trees and lakes and rivers, with mesmerizing sunrises and sunsets, with immense mountains and enchanted vistas, but let me be close enough to the city to see the marvels that one finds there.

While attending a conference for work this past weekend, I was simultaneously appalled at the dearth of green space and in awe of the vast network of towering monuments to human achievement.  It is not that I think skyscrapers and overlapping overpasses are the greatest testament to what humanity has accomplished.  The growth of compassion and philanthropy would be more valuable evidence.  But, regardless of your personal beliefs, humans were in some sense delivered into the world innocent, ignorant, and naive.  With observation they learned, with creativity they explained, with tenacity they tested, and with ingenuity they created.  They created the wheel, and bridges, and buildings, and music, and medicine, and trains, and cars, and planes, and transistors, and microchips, and… and then they took it a step further.  They didn’t just build something practical: they created art.  Engineers fought physics, architects made it aesthetic; scientists produced technology, designers made it alluring.  There is a beauty in that.  Sometimes it is an austere, cold beauty, but it is a beauty nevertheless.

Today, I am thankful for human ingenuity.  It has sometimes led to terrible outcomes, but overall our world is an incredible place to live simply because of the power of the human mind to evolve the most fantastical idea into reality.



Photo Credit: David Niblack; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Today was a difficult day.  Sometimes, working in mental health, you have to do things that feel wrong.  You have to keep reminding yourself that it’s right.  Sometimes, you’re even successful in convincing yourself of that.

Today, after having gone before a Justice of the Peace to argue that a person needs to be taken to the hospital to be assessed, I had to show up at that person’s home with police.  I had to help demonstrate at the hospital that she is ill enough to be involuntarily admitted for psychiatric assessment.  I had to stand by while she hurled a barrage of verbal assault at me for doing this to her, all of which was valid, even if what I was doing to her was necessary.  I had to wait with her in a cold, unfriendly hospital room for 7 hours while the hospital system tried to get its act together.  I had to ask her if there was anyone I could call for her, knowing as I asked what the answer would be: there is no one.

And through all of that, all I could think is how awful this entire experience was for her.  Here is this poor, lonely woman.  Her illness prevents her from understanding what is happening or why it is necessary.  All she knows is that she is surrounded by people she believes intend to harm her.  She is helpless.

Today, I am thankful for my freedom.  I am thankful that I am not plagued by a mental illness which necessitates involuntary confinement.  I am thankful that, in my home, I feel safe from the possibility of police showing up and taking me to a strange place when I haven’t done anything wrong.  I am thankful that I live in a place where I can express what I think, feel, and believe, knowing that, although I might be persecuted, I’m unlikely to be prosecuted.  I am thankful that I am not targeted because of my race, ethnicity, religion, or sex, and that I feel safe to walk through my city, day or night, without any significant fear that I will be attacked.  I am thankful that I live in a democracy. I am thankful for my freedom in so many ways. Most importantly, I am thankful that, if any of these things ever happen to me, I am not alone.

What does freedom mean to you?  Tell me about it in the Comments.


Of course, I always knew the universe was vast.  Infinitely vast.  But that is a concept difficult to conceive, even in my most rigorous and energetic attempts.  It wasn’t until early adulthood that I really came to understand even the periphery of its immensity.  I floated along through adolescence in an egocentric cloud.  Cognitively, yes, I understood that our planet was not the centre of the universe, but in youth it is difficult to see the complexities of a system that extend beyond one’s own nose, much less really appreciate the immeasurable and boundless cosmos.  And, cognition aside, the practical result was that, even if our planet wasn’t the centre of the universe, might as well have been.

Then I began reading about the speed of light, the fastest known phenomenon in our universe.  I read that proxima centauri, the closest star to our solar system, is over 4 light years away from Earth.  That means it would take light 4 years to travel between our planet and the next star.  Our sun and that star are two of between 200 and 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone.  Our most sophisticated technology has observed 3000 galaxies in the observable universe, and it is estimated there are as many as 125 billion or more galaxies in the universe as a whole.

I began giggling uncontrollably, something I have found that I have done ever since childhood when I am trying to comprehend something which strains my mental capacity.

horsehead nebula

Photo Credit: NASA; Licence: Public Domain

While hiking along a trail at Algonquin Park a few weeks ago (see post nature), I fell to discussing the universe with my eldest.  (I’ve found nature trails are the ideal place to discuss esoteric miscellany with an 8-year-old).  I had read that our planet collects anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 tons of meteorite dust each year.  And, of course, the earth itself was forged billions of years ago from the dust and gas of a solar nebula.  I then went on to discuss in a Socratic manner that babies grow inside their mothers, and to do this, they need nutrients which the mother consumes.  Those nutrients come in some way from the earth, and contain minerals that might well be found in meteorites.

Each of us, then, is a product of this earth, a product of this universe.

“…we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.” – Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Today, I am thankful for the sheer magnitude and magnificence of the cosmos.  It has the power to humble me, but that I am part of it, and we are all part of it, is comforting. It brings me an overwhelming feeling of connectivity with those around me.

The Peggy Project

Seven years ago, I was couple of weeks into a new job when I met Peggy.  She worked in administration and was generally acknowledged as being the most unpleasant person in the organization.  I was encouraged to avoid her as much as possible.

My first few encounters with Peggy left me feeling that the consensus among my co-workers was startlingly accurate.  I was fortunate, though, in that my job did not bring me into contact with her a great deal.

One day, while passing her in the corridor, I made a snap decision.

“Hi, Peggy!” I said with a broad smile. “How are you?”

She looked at my coldly and walked right by without uttering a word.

The next time I passed her:

“Hey, Peggy! It’s great to see you! How have you been?”

…and so on.  My idea was this: either Peggy is really a softy at heart and I just need to break through her icy exterior by making her feel liked, or Peggy is really as evil as everyone believes and being effervescently cheery will annoy the hell out of her.  Either way, I win.

The first few times I did this, Peggy responded coldly.  After that, I managed to get a mumbled hello.  Within a few months, she was smiling back and asking how I was in return.  And a few months after that, she was stopping to have a chat with me.

Clearly, Peggy wasn’t evil.  Possibly afraid of getting hurt or rejected, she had decided to be the first to reject others and prevent anyone from getting close.  As anyone can guess, this was successful in preventing her from being hurt by someone she trusted, but didn’t make her any less miserable.  Showing interest in her helped build trust, and the guard walls were gradually dismantled.

grumpy old man illustration

Illustration Credit: Author Unknown; Licence: Public Domain

Since then, I’ve tried the same approach with several other people, and I came to call it all an extension of “The Peggy Project.”  The same result has always been achieved.  The most recent success was with a server at a coffee shop I frequent for my daily java fix.  This woman just never smiled.  Now not only does she smile, but she smiles a lot, and she has one of the most fabulous smiles I’ve ever seen, which makes me happy in turn.

I haven’t done anything special, and I haven’t changed anyone.  I wish I could say that I invested more energy in trying to show interest in everyone I interact with, but that is most definitely an area on which I need to build.  Maybe I had some impact on the change in the coffeeshop server’s outward personality, maybe I didn’t.  It’s entirely possible that she was just going through a rough period in her life when I first began interacting with her, and later got through it.  But I’d like to think that showing her that no amount of rancor on her part was going to dissuade me from being pleasant to her played at least a small role.

I don’t encourage this approach for someone who is just having a bad day.  But if it’s a chronically cranky curmudgeonly crab, put your Peggy Project into high gear! 🙂

Today, I am thankful that people are always so much more than the sum of their outward behaviours, so exceedingly different than the “person” they present to us at any moment in time.

I believe the key to unlocking those hidden complexities is to be genuine and show interest.

What do you think?  Or, better yet, have you tried The Peggy Project approach?  How did it go for you? Please tell me in the Comments.  


I am a capitalist… with a few socialist ideologies.  I gather that is sort of like being a vampire who doesn’t like the taste of blood.

[I’ll interject here to note that, if you think — from the title of this post — that I’m going to be talking about how to fight off Dementors, you’re about to be really disappointed.]

I think socialism is a really beautiful idea.  I can get behind the from each according to his ability, to each according to his need philosophy that summarizes socialism.  But socialism fails when it runs up against a universal constant: greed.  Whether it is a desire for money, a desire for power, or a desire for fame, I feel that any human culture can only provide socialism barren, infertile ground for growth, and that it is only through tyranny — a greater evil than capitalism — that socialism can be sustained.

My golden compromise is to espouse the ideals of social responsibility, which I will oversimplify as: rich people care more.

In ancient Rome, when a slave was freed by his master, a patron-client relationship was often forged.  It was understood that a wealthy master was bound to provide for his former slave in some capacity.  Similarly, I feel that the haves of our society have a responsibility to give to the have-nots.  By haves, I don’t mean millionaires; I refer to those who do not struggle to put food on their tables, those who can afford a family vacation, etc.  When I write have-nots, I might mean the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the disabled; I do not mean the lazy.

The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence of Rome

Title: Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (1592); Artistic Credit: Pellegrino Tibaldi

Have you heard the legend of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence of Rome?  It’s an inspiring story.  Upon the death of Pope Sixtus, St. Lawrence was ordered to turn over to the Prefect of Rome the riches of the church for which Lawrence was deacon.  Lawrence requested three days to comply with the instruction.  He proceeded to distribute the riches of the church to the poor.  Then, on the third day, he went before the Prefect accompanied by the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the suffering and said, “these are the true treasures of the church.”  For his audacity and irreverence, he was gruesomely martyred.

Today, St. Lawrence is a symbol of charity.  He reminds us that, no matter a person’s lot in life, that person deserves love, respect, care, and to have certain basic human needs met.

Today, I am thankful for philanthropy.  Whether it comes in the form of a few coins tossed into the Salvation Army kettle at Christmas; a sandwich given to someone who hasn’t eaten; a warm smile given to the marginalized; an anonymous act of kindness.  I’m also grateful for the more headline-catching acts of millionaires and billionaires giving hoards of money to charities.  Even if the money is essentially pocket change in comparison to the donor’s amassed wealth, it’s still an amount that will benefit others immensely and an amount the donor could just as easily have kept.

Charitable acts renew my sometimes dwindling faith in humanity, and instill in me a feeling of “oneness” with those around me: my companions on this tiny tilting blue planet in the dark expanse of space.

Do you have a story about charity?  Please share it with me in the Comments.


I am a proponent of evolutionary psychology, the school of psychology that believes human behaviour can be explained in terms of survival benefit. It is beneficial for the species, for instance, that we do everything we can to ensure our offspring survive. We deposit infants into the world, completely vulnerable and unable to care for themselves. It makes sense, then, that parents should care for their offspring until the children are able to care for themselves. If you’ve spent much time with infants, you’ll know they don’t exactly ingratiate themselves with you through their behaviour alone. Charming traits like waking you up every two hours to feed and eliminating waste at any place, any time, might have made our neanderthal forebears inclined to toss these screaming tyrants to the wolves. That would never do, of course, so the capacity for love evolved. (I realize this is a severe oversimplification, but you get the point).

But music! No matter how many theories I read on the evolutionary benefit of music, it still feels like an anomaly. Sure, it might be a by-product of the evolution of another behaviour, or it might have evolved as an adaptive mechanism to promote bonding.  But none of that explains the way music makes me feel, like an explosion of feeling has gone off in my chest, and sometimes an intensity felt throughout my entire body.  None of that explains the complex neuronal light show necessary for musical appreciation. To listen to music uses a multitude of cognitive functions, and our brains must be just like a fireworks display. All of that from an evolutionary by-product?  Hard to believe.  And there are already several other simpler human behaviours which promote bonding.  Why would music ever be necessary?


Photo Credit: Vera Kratochvil, Licence: Public Domain

Yet there music is, in us and around us and in every culture, in every inhabited place in the world.  Somehow, the inadequacy of science to explain music to me makes music seem like a mystery unwilling and unable to be solved.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  As much as I love science — and I really do adore science — there is some small measure of comfort in feeling that there are things science can’t explain, though science may strive to do so.

Today, whether I am sailing down the highway singing along with some classic rock, snapping my fingers to the rhythm of some jazz, or glorying in an operatic aria — today, I am thankful for music.  Music has transformed my life, permitting me to leave behind drudgery for a little while and enter a unique and remarkable realm filled with inexplicable feelings and sensations.

How do you experience music?


Have you ever experienced that feeling when courage stirs in your heart and fear retreats? It is a marvelous, disinhibiting sensation.  Sometimes it takes the form of a major accomplishment for you but one trivialized by outside observers: the person with obsessive-compulsive disorder fighting back a compulsion, the man with social phobia stepping out the door, the child who stutters doing a speech in front of the class, the woman with dyslexia reading to her son.

Imagine you are at a nearby theme park and hundreds of people are lining up for rides. A man with a life-long fear of heights gets into his seat on the ride that goes 300 feet straight up to the sky, then plummets back down to the earth with nauseating velocity. You don’t even notice him but, in a little bubble around him, something great has happened: he has put his butt in that seat.  It doesn’t matter if he screams, or cries, or pees. It doesn’t matter if he never gets more than 2 feet off the ground for the rest of his life. He has demonstrated more courage than any daredevil in the history of the world.

Then there is the less localized brand of courage. The courage of true heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Rosa Marks, Abraham Lincoln, and countless others who have gone against the grain and stood up for their beliefs in one way or another, and often suffered heinously for it.

There are the lesser known heroes like Frank Kameny, who was a long-fighting and forerunning gay civil rights activist, who passed away last October. Kameny was fired from his position as a federal employee in 1957 when it was discovered that he was gay. At a time when most people would have just slipped into hiding with their tails between their legs, Kameny protested his firing all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and, though he did not win his case in the end, he is a man who should be honoured for his fearlessness. It doesn’t matter what your personal beliefs are: this was a man who had the courage to stand up for his beliefs, and that should be respected.

There are heroes like Helen Keller, who fought against the greatest obstacles, and Anne Sullivan, who trudged past all of the naysayers and believed in her student.

Inside all of these heroes was a common element: courage.  Today, I am thankful for courage, because it has inspired great heroes to do great things, and I believe my world is a better place because of it.

In the Comments, please share with me your stories of personal courage or the courage of others you know.


Two days ago, I arrived home from a trip out of town around 11:00pm and parked the car in my dark driveway.  The next morning, I went out at 9:00am and got into the driver’s seat. There, directly at eye level, attached to the steering wheel and to the frame of the door, was a perfectly symmetrical spider web.  I felt an immense pang of guilt clearing the threads away with my hand, even though I had to in order to drive, and I was probably doing the spider a favour since it wasn’t likely to catch a lot of bugs there.  The guilt came not only from the feeling that I was destroying something at which the spider had laboured, but also from the sense that I was negating a moment.

Nearly a decade ago, I was attending a wedding near Mont Tremblant, Quebec, and, feeling a little overwhelmed by the noise and activity around me, I decided to take a walk down by the water in the cooler night breeze.  On my way back up the stairs built into the side of the mountain, I was startled to see a doe grazing on some of the long grasses gracing the slope.  The doe was not more than about 10 feet away from me.  Having spent my life living in cities, the sight of deer has always been something worth stopping to observe.  While I was doing so, a buck suddenly burst out from the bushes, jumping and alighting on a picnic table about 5 feet away from me. It might be an embellishment of my imagination, but I remember the moonlight seeming to shine down directly on the buck, regally crowned by his fantastic antlers.  He stood there majestically, elevated on the picnic table which itself was already positioned at my eye level on a plateau higher up the slope. I froze with fear and amazement. He was protecting the doe against a perceived threat, and it would take only the slightest movement on his part to trample me to death. We remained in a brief stand-off, until he and the doe disappeared into the brush.

Then, five years ago, in our first summer in this house, I went out at night and was inspired by the sight of hundreds of fireflies in our garden. I was alone and felt as if I were gazing upon some beautiful magic.

I am skeptic and a cynic.  I don’t feel that these moments have been anything special on a cosmic level and I am not one to believe in fate or signs.  I believe that we see what we want to see in the world and that any meaning we derive might have value for us, but no value beyond that which we assign it.  The above events are really quite commonplace, everyday occurrences.  But they nevertheless have the power of making me more circumspect.  I pause in these moments and feel as if I am experiencing something brief and important and that I need to pay attention.  I am left thinking that everything I have done in life must have been perfect because it brought me to this place, this moment.  For a little while, the experience washes away all of my regrets.

Today, I am thankful for moments.

Have you had any moments?  Please share them with me in the Comments.


Today is the fourth anniversary of my marriage to my wife and, today, I am thankful for her.

I wasn’t a huge fan of marriage before I proposed to Sandra. I was happy when other people found happiness in marriage, but just couldn’t see it working out for me. I had seen too many people fall in love and then watched it end in divorce and, sometimes, bitter hate. I had worked professionally with people who could no longer stand to be in the same room with each other and had devoted themselves obsessively to making their ex-partner’s life as miserable as possible, and their children were caught in the cross-fire.  When those people got married, they no doubt believed it would last forever. Who was I to think I was exempt from the power of time to erode our illusions?

The simple fact is people change over time.  Right now, yes, I can spend the rest of my life with this person, but what if she’s not the same person in 10 years?  What if I’m not the person I am now?  Sandra believed marriage was forever and, if I wanted to commit to her, I also had to commit to that ideology.  I’m not a big risk taker: with so many “what ifs,” I was wary of taking the plunge.

It occurred to me, though, that life is filled with the unexpected.  Sandra put a lot of stock in marriage: she saw it as a key to her happiness, and it wasn’t sufficient just to “be” together.  Maybe I would get hit by a bus tomorrow and I would have missed out on the opportunity of making her happy, and sharing in that happiness. The point is that we never know what the future will bring, so why allow it to enter into the equation?

The proposal wasn’t easy.  I forgot the ring for one thing. Not a good start. Then the weekend was filled with all the sorts of hurdles that made it not the weekend to propose, because it simply was not going to be perfect.  But then I realized that nothing in our lives has gone perfectly.  If anything, our first year together was a complete disaster, filled with one mishap after another.  In that sense, it was the perfect weekend to propose: imperfection – a microcosm of our entire relationship. Why not share imperfection and fight misfortune together?

When I said “I Do,” I was committing to loving Sandra for the rest of my life, and that was a committment I knew I could keep, regardless of what the future had in store for us.

Four years later, I can say that marriage has become easier with each year, and I feel more love for Sandra with each passing day.  Does she drive me nuts? Sure. More than anyone I know. But I feel joy when I know that I have the privilege of spending my life with a truly marvelous woman and phenomenal supermom; someone I love and — more meaningfully — trust; someone who still loves me even when I am at my worst.

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