Archive for the ‘Civil Rights’ Category

Hidden HP History

April 1st, 2010

212 Fairmount Ave.

Nondescript 212 Fairmount in Hyde Park was the site of a social-activist nexus for Hyde Park, Boston and beyond — a century and one-half ago at least. Think abolitionists, suffragettes, Weld and the Grimkés (including the sisters’ half-black, former slave nephews).

Its nearby neighbors today are largely splendid Victorians. This is one of several clearly razed and replaced. No sign or wall plaque hints at the former buzz within.

In fairness to whomever redeveloped 212, that was what happened and not only in Hyde Park back then. One of Boston’s virtues is how many of its historic buildings it has kept. In contrast, in Manhattan far more important sites get that plaque if anything. However, Hyde Park was carved out of open tracts of Milton and Dedham and Fairmount Hill required either bushwhacking from the Mattapan train terminus or pushing across the bridgeless Neponset in a punt to begin settling the area. Such niceties as devoting resources to troubled houses could come later.

In fact, Hyde Park let herself go. The dangerous and dilapidated Fairmount House was totally gutted and rebuilt on Michael Tallon’s dime to become Townsend’s. The former grand inn lives only in a few pictures on the upstairs walls. Also, many of the grand meeting halls went down.

Moreover, the most known and distinguished building in this newest of Boston neighborhoods (1912) is Christ Church. While architects cite this Ralph Adams Cram building as the prototype for many other 19th Century works, it looks ugly to me and has mediocre stained glass.

Crusaders of Fairmount

Theodore Weld operated out of 212 Fairmount for the bulk of his rabble rousing career. In partnership were his wife, Angelina Grimké, her sisters, Sarah and Eliza, and eventually two of those those nephews, Archibald and Francis Grimké, They were a one-stop stop for freedom fighting for Black Americans and women.

The nephews became accomplished in their own rights, one after getting his Harvard Law degree. The lawyer, Archibald, also had a daughter Angelina Weld Grimké, who became a well-known poet and writer. She too had lived at 212.

The details of the sisters’ shock at finding their S.C. brother had continued to own slaves, fathered children with one of them, and then sold his sons is here.  Typical of today’s progressives, they did something, lots, about it. Their tale and Weld’s are in that and related documents on the link above.

So, out of 212 came tracts and activists on missions. Weld and the Grimkés were together and separately active writers, orators and organizers for abolition causes and what was known then as elevation of the Negro to equality. They were as passionate about women’s rights, and the suffrage action that didn’t take place in New York came out of Fairmount Hill.

Imagine the parade of women from 212 on election day, March 7, 1870, who went to the Hyde Park poll to cast the first votes ever by American women. Those did not count toward the total, but that was an inspiration for many.

There is a splendid period mixed theater to that episode as well. Each woman going to vote symbolically had a male escort, who had presented her with a floral posy. Each man held back at the poll to let the woman advance and place her ballot in the envelope for that purpose. So, it seems under the protection of men and with flowers, the women were at once demanding and fem.

Literally to the very end, Angelina showed her toughness and right-mindedness,  the stuff of a reformer. She had been frail and then lived her last years partially paralyzed from a stroke. She continued to write and made a poignant statement in her final note — I have purposely selected my oldest clothes to be buried in, that my good ones may be given to the poor, that they may do good after I am gone.

If there are any spirits around, it would seem that 212 would still have lots of Grimké/Weld mojo.

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Praising Needy Volunteers

October 1st, 2009

Likely more than most, I was a volunteer before I had the volition. My mother ran Red Cross chapters. By elementary school, I was folding appeal letters and stuffing envelopes, graduated to hand tweaking mimeograph sheets with a stylus and then running the wondrous flier maker, and even playing the victim for first-aid classes.

On a pedestalMy volunteer line has few interruptions and certainly did not stop when I left my mother’s apartments. As a child and adult, it has been church, professional associations, civil-rights and other political groups, and of course teaching swimming and first-aid myself.

All of that is to say that there are reasons I am astounded by two attitudes. One is the adult who grew up in a non-volunteering household and is content to sit before a TV or computer nights and weekends doing nothing that I think of as worthwhile. The other is the needy volunteer.

I am not either of those. I have known many though. In my UU church work and professional association stints, I met and dealt with those for whom no amount of praise and honors is adequate. Each act of volunteering requires constant affirmation.

Some friends at my professional group (the Society for Technical Communication) had giggles at my expense at June’s end-of-year meeting/dinner thingummy. We always gang our mentions of and hand out certificates, plaques and such to those who gave energy and time over the year.

This time, I got one of the special awards, the Spirit of Volunteerism one. It’s a much lower key version of the lifetime achievement Oscar. I had been on a six-year leadership ladder, including the presidency of the Boston chapter, but I found getting the sculpture and honorarium embarrassing.

My mother taught me to let volunteers take credit for things, even if they were not the originator or driver for them. She also taught me to praise the volunteers while deflecting attention from myself.

What a Good Boy Am I


I thought of this very recently when we moved Boston neighborhoods. The fellow of the couple who owned the house was a needy volunteer. I was pleased to hear that he was also a cyclist, but puzzled by a few things. First, he only rode from late spring when it got warm and only to prepare for the Pan-Mass Challenge, a three-day ride to raise money for cancer research.  For maybe nine months, he didn’t ride. I try to ride every day it isn’t sleeting, snowing or pouring rain. He instead seemed to ride for praise.

Second, he wanted everyone to know he does this to do good. He seemed inordinately proud of this, despite the many hundreds of others doing the same ride for the same purpose.

Likewise, packing for his move, he gathered up books he didn’t want to truck to Texas. When a bookstore would offer him only about $100 for the lot of six boxes, he took them to a local college, who incorporated them in a book fair. He says they said they got maybe $600 for his share. Again, he went on about how wonderful and clever he was to have benefited the school.

We didn’t bother to say that for years, we give our books like that as well as other valuable artifacts to Boomerangs in Jamaica Plain. Their money goes for AIDS research, but we don’t need a pat on the head for our small share.

Of course, praising volunteers has realistic and reasonable rewards for the organization. After all, by definition and custom, volunteers do not receive pay for their work. In that sense, praise is in lieu of salary. Public acknowledgment in a newsletter, at an awards ceremony and orally in front of others is the right things to do in any case.

The problems come when volunteers get self-absorbed, self-righteous or demanding. On the cash end, a couple at my professional society said they would only help if they got a discount on their membership dues, in other words, money. On hearing that, a long-term board member sneered and said that perhaps they should look up the definition of volunteer.

You Can Fire Volunteers

More commonly though, emotionally needy volunteers want figurative head pats and to step on pedestals for doing what the rest of us do as a matter of course. They can be very high maintenance. These characters want constant and repeated recognition of their service and are not at all shy about telling everyone else how wonderful, kind, generous, wise, and philanthropic they are.

We didn’t see a lot of that in the Red Cross. There, a typical chapter has many hundreds of volunteers in blood drives, disaster preparedness, teaching home nursing, first-aid or swimming, motor service to ferry folk to care facilities and on and on. There, helping others seems to be its own reward.

Churches, on the other hand, seem to swell the ego and open the need gates for many. As well as ad hoc and committee service, I chaired committees and boards at UU churches. While our congregations have a great concentration of do-gooders and sincere volunteers, some constantly leap over that boundary into look-at-me land.

There must be theories about what makes some need effusive praise for what others do quietly.

When there is much to do as in many social activist churches, some volunteers are just too high maintenance. That can be unfortunate from many angles. I can recall music, social action, worship and religious education groups with praise hounds. That is amusing at a low level, and thus forgivable. Cranked to the extreme though, it can be a distraction to ministers, staff and committee leaders. When your hands are busy holding another’s, clapping, or patting their backs, you can’t do your own work.

In the past decade or so, I have seen numerous articles about how it is right and sometimes necessary to fire volunteers. Often, a minister or committee chair can detour the worst offenders into special projects or roles where their interaction with other volunteers is less. On rare occasions though, there is the painful message often best delivered by a minister that they are not working out and need to step back for a bit.

If committee chairs and staff have to stop constantly to praise and honor the neediest volunteers, someone with a larger, wider view might be assigned to those volunteer jobs instead. Recruiting folk is always a chore, but intense management of the most distracting is more of one.

On the other side, then District Executive Tim Ashton of the Mass Bay District dealt with us at the Arlington Street Church in his extremely respectful and pleasant way. Behind all that was a candor that made his an effective manager and pilot.

ApplauseOne thing he taught us while we transitioned from Victor Carpenter through Farley Wheelwright into Kim Crawford Harvie during the interim ministry was to praise efficiently and with purpose. He noted that the ASC volunteers didn’t have enough fun often enough. He said we were far and beyond the most socially activist church in the district, but we were too focused on all that needed to be done and not on what we accomplished on the way.

Rev. Tim suggested that we regularly stop to celebrate. He suggested that committees also have gatherings for fun and mutual enjoyment, with no intention of conducting any business or setting more goals. He never once suggested catering to the neediest volunteers or picking individuals to praise.

Yes, volunteers deserve thanks. No, they should not require that everything and everyone join in praising them for every deed.

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UU, Me, Me

August 4th, 2008

Pardon me while I scream. I attended a Sunday worship at a UU church far from the death, wounding and panic in Knoxville, only to hear vacuous comments from a minister owning the risk and fear from afar.

Come to notice this all too common pseudo-empathy, I suppose it is as bad as schadenfreude. Is there a term for feigning the perils and travails of others from a position of safety and comfort?

This time it was in a wealthy church distant from urban threats and unpleasantness — overcrowded housing developments for the poor, street gangs, the wandering and homeless demented too early from treatment, druggies seeking to buy or steal their next fix, vast and obvious class differences…

The minister did the same thing in two ways:

  • Each of us is at daily risk, as surely as if we lived in a war zone.
  • If it happened in a Knoxville UU church, it would happen anytime in any UU church.

Well, no, damn it, no!

In too much of the world, violence can be random, cruel, sudden and frequent.

Even if done with the best of intentions, such preaching does not service to the congregants. Trying to frame tragedy in our shared fears has its limits, or should.

Fair preaching, for one example, is noting that we are all terminal patients here. We all die. Such thoughts can often lead to sermons with specifics on living well and helping other, true shared UU ideas and ideals.

Equating the minor inconveniences and elevating the fears of the most privileged with the very real dangers to the most imperiled is not fair or reasonable or respectful. Projecting that a lone loony could appear at any moment out among the wealthy white suburbs intent on violence is more likely self-absorption.

We heard this over-projection during the 60s civil-rights period as well. There was no surer way to alienate black activists than to say your minor inconveniences were the same as a heritage of slavery and then government-aided oppression. A recent version is rich folk eating on a food-stamp budget for a few days saying they understand the suffering of those with no choice.

During the sermon, I found flashed on one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books, McElligott’s Pool. The young lad angling in a tiny splash of water imagines myriad, diverse fish headed his way. “Then maybe some fish might be swimming toward me!  (If such a thing could be, they certainly would be!)”

A post over at Marry in Massachusetts, touched on the difference even being in an urban UU church means. There at a church with seven days of activities, supper programs for the poor and outreach to many the needy, unhappy and unstable are always there. They consider the downtown church theirs and some abuse it. Some arrive with anger and even sometimes armed. The likelihood of violence is vastly higher in a less isolated and protected setting.

Yet, it is a still different, harsher, riskier world in war zones. For the dreadful events in Knoxville, our UU churches in this country should be very cautious about claiming solidarity. How many of us can imagine and accurately project living where armed militia may well shoot any of us on the street, in our homes or anywhere? Can we comprehend a daily possibility that someone of a different religion or political bent would maim or murder us and anyone with us? Can we really project what it would be like to drive to the grocery with the strong likelihood that a roadside bomb could explode at any moment?

In too much of the world, violence can be random, cruel, sudden and frequent. While it may speak to our sympathetic side, we must be careful to equate our lot with that. Projecting our compassion may well go to our seventh principle — Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Yet, let us not trivialize the suffering of others by pretending our minor doubts and insecurities are the same.

Numerous churches have been scenes of violence and death. Progressive politics don’t seem to be the marker either. UUs shouldn’t be so sure we are targets just because we are more left-wing than many.

Yes, we should feel a sibling relationship with the Knoxville congregants and clergy. In light of evidence that this particular killer, Jim David Adkisson, had stockpiles of right-wing literature and seemed to have a fixation on liberals, we can pause and think and rethink.

We should certainly not try to close off our churches, be wary of any visitor, or generally be non-UU welcoming. We should do the what-if though, not to become paranoia and distrustful, but to revel in our worship and other events together, knowing we are likely to return home safe as well as fulfilled.

The Daily Mensch: Part 2 of 2

November 2nd, 2007

Recently, the new neighbor across the street suffered a tragedy. I respect that word and its implication, and write that she did indeed. Two weeks after she and her youngest son moved in, the son died. He had come to stay with her after she lost her daughter in a car wreck three years ago. Her son and his brother were visiting their father on his birthday. On the way home on their motorcycles, the younger man ran off the road and into a phone pole. He died in his brother’s arms.

There are so many levels of sadness in that, it remains overwhelming. As Priam pleaded with Achilles, it is not the natural order for parents to bury their children. Now she had buried two of hers.

A Jewish friend said that I was a mensch for making a series of meals for her and sitting with this woman I barely knew. My neighbor wept, showed me photographs, and spoke of her son’s virtues and personality.

This is part two; part one is here.

Humble Social Action

My grandfather was a mensch. Compared to him, I’m a misanthrope.

GranddadGranddad, William Benjamin Michael, (right in a college photo just after he returned from WWI) sought neither praise nor thanks, but did the right things daily. By example he taught me. In retrospect, I marvel at the elegance of his deeds.

He was relentlessly industrious. He had a full-time job as a yard foreman on the B&O Railroad. He read, but did not waste time on TV. Among other avocations, he had a dry cleaning/tailor shop, and he grew vegetables. Therein lay the basis for good deeds.

Every summer, he grew one or two patches, as he called them. These were one-acre (a lot of veggies) little farms. He would sell enough to the local grocers to earn back his seed and fertilizer expenses. I weeded and harvested beside him all summer, and I got to sell whatever I could for spending money.

Much of the output though went to the other side of the tracks.

There were 14 Black families in this small town (about 2,000 in the area). The adults from there worked in service jobs, like housecleaning, or the few large corn or fruit storage and shipping facilities. There were no manufacturing jobs for anyone. While the few Blacks did not face overt racism, life wasn’t easy.

At my Granddad’s funeral, the unofficial Black mayor of the town in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia said to me, “Your grandfather was a great man.”

That was my own Atticus Finch moment, á la To Kill a Mockingbird. The seed for this post came from Laurel reminding me of that in a recent BMG post about Nelle Harper Lee’s latest award. I thought of the moment at the end of the trial when the elderly Black minister, Rev. Sykes, said to Scout, “Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”

I hadn’t thought in those terms of Granddad’s relationship with the small Black community there, but yes, he was very helpful. He provided money and clothing, but more important, from his gardens, he gave countless bushels of vegetables and fruits to the Black community every year I was there and apparently before.

Mr. Pankhurst and others would come to the gardens and I would pick what they wanted or we’d do it together. We’d fill up the backs of pickups. Apparently for low-wage families, that was a huge help. The canned foods continued to supplement their meals throughout the cold weather as well.

So, the rest of the town may have ignored the Black families, but we were always welcome in their homes. We were friendly on the street too. Funny stuff.

Contagious Respect

My mother later told me a tale about her own mother in regards to Mr. Pankhurst. To nearly everyone, he was the diminutive Panky. To my mother and to me, we followed her father’s example and gave the same honorifics to Blacks as to whites.

My mother said once in high school, she referred to him as Mr. Pankhurst when speaking with her mother. Mable scolded her saying, “Don’t you ever call a coon Mister!”

That was quite a shock, my mother said. Her father did not use and did not allow racist terms around him. His wife was not so egalitarian. My mother responded — she said she surprised herself with her firmness to her stern mother — that she had always been taught to call adults Miss, Mrs. or Mr. There was no reason not to do this because Mr. Pankhurst was Black. He was still older and deserved common respect.

Living Your Thoughts

My grandfather was quiet and never self-satisfied or arrogant. I spent months of hours with him over the years (parse that!) and knew him as kind, wise and generous. Giving to others was just what he did and was. I didn’t think that other people took a lot of notice, much less felt strongly.

At his funeral, Mr. Pankhurst said he took pride in representing his community in signing the guest book. He and I laughed about the vegetables, particularly the huge zucchinis that Granddad let grow to monster size because he knew that some on that other side of the tracks liked to stuff the giant ones for baking.

He went on about how respected Mr. Michael was. Honestly until that conversation, I hadn’t considered how unusual that was. The other white folk were not hostile to the Black residents. They just didn’t think of them unless they needed a worker. Yet, what Granddad did for so long, he considered a small effort and the right thing to do. He both treated them with dignity and gave what he had. The Black folk didn’t think it was so trivial.

Granddad was a better person than I’ll ever be. Yet I know that if I act as a mensch, I do so by his example.

The lessons include not making any display of piety or virtue. Stepping up for others instead of stepping back can be a daily opportunity. Sometimes it is easy and other times it can take considerable effort, expense and risk.

I am regularly pleased to see the number of lefty activists who perform mitzvahs simply because it is the right thing to do. While some want praise, many must have had their own examples.

As the chances present themselves, be a mensch.

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The Daily Mensch: Part 1 of 2

November 1st, 2007

Shortcut: For the impatient, the key message of this two parter is you don’t have to offer up your life for another every day to be a good guy. You need merely do the right thing time and again, even when it is a bit of trouble.

My move to New Jersey at 14 ended up joyful and Jew-ful. The latter is noteworthy, as coming from Southern Virginia, I knew very few Jews. In Danville, we rented an apartment in a mansion (770 Main) from one of the few Jews there. He was also my pediatrician.In the summers, I stayed with my grandparents in the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia, apple and peach country. The one Jewish family there, Dave Shear’s, did not affect the culture of Romney. They went to temple 28 miles away in Cumberland, Maryland. Amusingly enough, Dave was the long-term mayor and ran the only menswear store in the county.In Plainfield, New Jersey, however, my culture shock was much less adjusting to Yankees as to a very Jewish culture. Jewish foods, Yiddish phrases, intense girls, Talmudic arguments and learning how it felt to be the outsider were all parts.That wasn’t true for all goyim in my high-school class of over 600. I was on the swimming team and newspaper, both heavily Jewish. I was in advanced classes in those days of graded education and a high percentage of my classmates were Jewish.In class, after school, on dates and with friends’ parents, Yiddish and the related concepts of Jewish religion and culture were suddenly ubiquitous. One word I heard a lot was mensch — that ideal of the stalwart who lived integrity and honor, religious principles, and of course, respect for his mother.I heard friends charged by mother or grandmother to be a mensch, and high praise came to those described lovingly in “He’s such a mensch.” That often followed a person performing a good deed, a mitzvah, particularly one that acted out a commandment of Jewish law.

The Epitome

Place and times can test us to the edge of heroism. Few of us can know whether we would risk all for others. Certainly, we are fortunate that life does not present such choices to each of us, rather only to a few and only occasionally.

We need look only to the nearly 22,000 honored as the Righteous Among the Nations. These are gentiles who risked their lives or at least all they and their family had, including their freedom, to protect Jews. Many of these were in Europe before and during WWII. A large number of these were in Poland, where it was a capital offense to hide or even help a Jew.

Moreover, the award goes to those, who Maimonides listed as, “Whoever among the Nations fulfills the Seven Commandments to serve God belongs to the Righteous among the Nations, and has his share in the World to Come.” As an aside, those ancient commandments contain a couple of anachronisms, such as not eating live animals and being against homosexuality. The concepts of being moral and just to all remain. In fact, a prime continuing commandment is to maintain the legal system so that all may have justice.

Surely we should be happy that we do not face the situation where we have the dreadful choices that the Righteous Among the Nations faced. Yet, that does not give us license to ignore the condition of others. At our daily level, social awareness and action possibilities are common. You and I too can be a mensch…with a lot less effort and at a lot less peril.

Living Righteous

vcSomewhere between the extremes of righteous living is Rev. Victor Carpenter (to the right in a shot from the First Church in Belmont). He literally risked his life hundreds of times when he lived and worked in South Africa. He was among other things, a courier for Nelson Mandela and others in the anti-apartheid movement. Later back in the United States, he was extremely active in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

As an amusing sidelight, he had a little family inheritance and never cared much for money. He donated his salary to various charitable causes when he was minister at the Arlington Church. Our venal IRS officials could not believe this. They audited him — perennially. No matter how many times he proved that all of his income went out to good causes, they kept demanding proof.

He was the minister who drew my family to the ASC. His preaching was powerful and personal, and demanding. He loved his roving microphone, which had an absurdly long cord and which he used to bring even those who thought they were hiding in the back of the huge nave into the conversation.

He also personally involved me in church politics and liberal religion. For example, not long after we began attending, he dropped by our little apartment on the North slope of Beacon Hill. He had been at the denominational headquarters at 25 Beacon Street and stopped by, as I recall, on his way to visit patients at Mass General. He directly asked me to reconstitute the moribund personnel committee and work on the dysfunctional staff.

Here was Victor’s great gift. Not only did he recognize what needed doing and do what he could himself, he enlisted and delegated, charged and inspired others to do the rest.

In 2003, he received the UUA’s Adin Ballou Peace Award. Many of us from his various congregations came to the ceremony to see him honored. As befitting his style, we ended up on the roving mic praising him ourselves. My primary message was that he went beyond what other socially active preachers did. We never left one of his sermons without homework. Every week, he gave us specific tasks to do, social, political or both, to make the world better.

Victor is no airy-fairy liberal. He is happy and driven to tell us what a mensch would do.

Part two returns to Romney to cite an ordinary man doing relentless good deeds. It looks like this one needs to end up at Harrumph! as well.

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Air Nannies

September 25th, 2007

My annoyance over in-traffic strollers has long morphed into amusement.

My supposition, which some shrink friends say seems plausible, is that someone who saunters across an intersection or between two is acting out his or her powerlessness. They like to make the drivers and passengers wait for them because they feel like they aren’t in charge of their work and daily lives. Here is a chance to be in control over others.

They savor every instant.

So it appears to be with too many flight attendants. The flood of news stories in recent years shows many acting out, perhaps for similar reasons as those amblers. Particularly since 9/11, what we and they themselves used to call flying waitresses have a new lawman persona. They kind of, sort of, a little bit are helping protect the airborne public from terrorists and other bad guys.

While that is a good aim, it also gives the outliers in the group the excuse to play sham sheriff. Recently, it’s become absurd, as in the several cases of Southwest attendants enforcing unwritten dress codes on women with short skirts or what they arbitrarily decide is too obvious cleavage.

Other less frivolous cases involve passengers pulled off planes and interrogated for seeming to attendants — sometimes egged on by other passengers — to be somehow threatening. Search in Dogpile, Yahoo or Google for terms like flight attendant and arrest to find such cases of (horrors) Arabs speaking Arabic, for example.

I suppose we can’t expect attendants to show better judgment than the general flying public, or can we? One would think that if the airlines and government want to use attendants as a fourth or fifth line of defense, they would train them. Also, they’d need guidelines to keep them from overreaction or arbitrary judgments.

With all of nervous about safety, particularly in the air, we don’t need to change the term flight attendants gone wild to man false arrest and harassment of passengers. “She meant well” or “He was just trying to keep the passengers safe” doesn’t cut it in these extreme cases. Attendants who clearly violate passengers’ rights need retraining or to face civil action or to explain themselves to the district attorney or at the least a dope slap.

This nation has plenty of petty bureaucrats and self-appointed controllers of others’ lives. In places like the Registry of Motor Vehicles, they may just lengthen your wait while they play big shot. When they can trigger flight delays (and missed connections) for hundreds of passengers, and make poor saps they pick on go through elaborate, time-consuming, humiliating and stressful detention and questioning, they go too far.

When a flight attendant loses it and causes a serious and unnecessary problem, we can’t hide them behind the only-following-orders shield. When they put on their shiny name tag, they shouldn’t be allowed to check their brains at the cabin door. The worst of the outliers are happy to hold passengers accountable for imagined transgressions. They need to know if they leave common sense behind, they’ll be accountable for their very real ones.

Cross-post: This also appears at Marry in Massachusetts.

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