Archive for February, 2005

The Thinker

Religion a la carte

I would think after thousands of years this might not be a radical idea. But it’s time to say that a lot of religious theology is bogus, wrong and hurtful. Oh yes, I know, it’s in your Bible, or other significant holy text. Therefore it is true. Besides, your faith informs you that the nonsensical and unworkable is somehow correct and true.

Bullshit. As the late Ann Landers would say, “It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee”.

If you are unwise enough to think that the Bible is the complete and consistent word of God then, my friend, you are in for a dysfunctional life if you take the time to actually read the Bible. I’m not stupid enough to say there is not a lot of wisdom in the Bible. There is. But there is also a lot of trash. There are also a lot of ideas that made sense two or three thousand years ago but make no sense today. It seems we try to read too much into the Bible and our other holy books. We project our needs and inadequacies into them and hope they will provide solution and solace to all life’s persistent questions. We would probably be a lot better off and happier if we were reading pop psychology books like Getting The Love You Want by Harville Hendrix. Oh, and we’re doing that too. That’s one reason that pop psychology books are flying off the shelves of bookstores. Because apparently our holy books and ministers can’t give the answers to all of life’s persistent and complex questions.

Just suppose we chose restaurants the way we choose religions. What would it mean if we would only dine at a McDonalds or a Wendy’s? Even if we upscaled our dining choice to say, Applebees, would it be good for us to eat off the same menu all the time? But that’s what many of us do with our spiritual life. We find (or more typically we are born into) a religion. Often it finds a way to grab us for life as children: through parental reinforcement, through Sunday school, and through the favorite method of many mainstream religions: reinforced communal guilt allegedly sanctioned by God. The result? Many of us enter adulthood with wacky and skewed ways of looking at the world. It’s hard to see things clearly because we have not walked far out of our communal tribe on religious matters. Because we eat only McDonalds of course their French fries are the best, and only a moron or apostate would consume a Whopper when a Big Mac or a Quarter Pounder with Cheese completely satisfies the appetite. And besides God, through our clergy and holy books, tell us it’s true.

Oh I know, how abhorrent and secular of me to compare lofty religions with fast food chains. If this alone doesn’t condemn me to Hell then I can at least count on a few eons in purgatory for such Voltarian thoughts. But I’m not saying that religions are necessarily bad or evil. I’m saying large parts of it are often BS. It’s time to say so out loud, and noisily, particularly to our religious leaders. And it’s time for us to stop shopping inside our insular religious communities and to check out other faiths to see if they ring truer. But why stop there? It is likely that no one faith can really speak to us. So I propose we build our religions piecemeal.

Yes, I know. We in the laity are spiritual morons. We need our so-called religious leaders to discern God’s truth for us. They after all went to seminary and we didn’t. And so we get shining examples like Pope John Paul II who, while he clearly has some excellent ideas about living in brotherly love, is also busy peddling shop worn and dangerous ideas that, if practiced conscientiously would doom our race to extinction. A couple examples: contraception in any form is sinful. It is better to transmit HIV by not using a condom than to sin by using a condom and likely prevent its transmission. This is not to pick on the Catholics since pretty much every religion has some of these dangerous ideas. But with John Paul’s health very much in the news and with my roots in Catholicism these jumped to mind.

Perhaps those of us who claim to be Christian could start with the Jefferson Bible. It’s a heavily pruned Bible consisting of just the words and story of Jesus and leaving out the rest. Of course it still takes a leap of faith to assume these “words” were actually spoken by Jesus. Men who had never personally met Jesus wrote the gospels. But at least this way the Christian doesn’t have to get messed up trying to integrate the Old and New Testaments. Because many preachers do not we get a lot of cognitive dissonance: we must love all our neighbors and turn the other cheek, but it’s okay to persecute and condemn homosexuals for their alleged sinfulness.

I took my pruning sheers to the Bible long ago. Out went Leviticus and Deuteronomy. I kept in the Psalms. They are good stuff. Much of what was written by the Apostle Paul: snipped. He never met Jesus. Paul seemed all about establishing rules. Jesus was much more a big picture sort of prophet. And of course Revelations had to go. It reads more like some lunatic’s ravings than something inspired.

Oh the apostasy, but the same thing could be done with the Quran, the Book of Mormon and pretty much any holy book out there. Whenever an idea is raised that clearly has been proven not to work let’s take it out, or at least footnote it that practicing this idea has been proven not to work. When it is a value that has demonstrated relevance and helped mankind as a whole, leave it in. So by all means, highlight the Sermon on the Mount.

We do ourselves and the rest of the religious world a disfavor by not speaking out against those aspects of modern faith that are hurtful and destructive. Where possible members should try to change the course of the denomination. We see these today in efforts by the Episcopalian Church to be more inclusive of homosexuals in its ministries and congregations. (Too bad the Anglican Community has effectively sent the Episcopalians to the woodshed, basically telling them, “Don’t show up at our decision making meetings for the next three years.”) Where not possible, and the Catholic Church definitely comes to mind, members need to be brave and walk out. For example many Catholics find the idea of requiring priests to be only men, single and celibate ridiculous, unworkable and outdated. They would be much more at home with the Episcopalians. Aside from the gender of their priests I couldn’t tell the difference between Catholic and Episcopal services anyhow.

It may take generations but eventually we might get the religions that are viable, workable and effective. But it also requires nerve from many of us. If we hold a value in our heart to be true then we must not be afraid to express it and to live our lives consistent with those values. When we manifest them in actions they will take on meaning.

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The Thinker

It’s a Shame

It’s a shame so many of us have their lives defined by feelings of toxic shame.

I am reading Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw (1988). I am trying to figure out if shame may be at the root of some of my (hopefully modest) issues. I don’t think so. I certainly got a huge heaping of Catholic guilt as a child. (Catholics are born guilty. They have the stain of original sin. They are not inherently worthy of salvation and only through baptism is there the hope of salvation.) But guilt and shame are not the same thing. Toxic shame is dysfunctional guilt. Pretty much all of life’s experiences are filtered through these extremely powerful feelings of unworthiness.

I don’t think I am a dysfunctional adult. I love myself just fine. I know I am not a perfect person. None of us are. Yet my life is clearly defined by people I know and love that seem wrapped up in toxic shame. So something is going on. I need to figure it out why I am bound to love so many people with feelings of extreme shame. Perhaps it is normal because there are so many shame-based people in the world. Perhaps the same way I might stop to help a homeless person my heart goes out to those who I see as having worth and dignity but cannot find it within themselves. (I like that one; a sure sign I think that I do not have toxic shame.) Or weirder still, perhaps some part of me seeks them out to work through my own issues.

I am struck by the simple truths in the book that seem to be born out from so much experience:

Neurotic shame is the root and fuel of all compulsive/addictive behaviors. The drivenness in any addiction is about the ruptured self, the belief that one is flawed as a person. The content of the addiction, whether it be an ingestive addiction or an activity addiction (like work, buying or gambling) is an attempt at an intimate relationship. Each one mood alters to avoid the feeling of loneliness and hurt in the underbelly of shame. Each addictive acting out created life-damaging consequences that create more shame. The new shame fuels the cycle of addiction.

Shame begets shame. The cycle begins with the false belief system that all addicts have, that no one could want them or love them as they are. In fact, addicts can’t love themselves. This deep internalized shame gives rise to distorted thinking. The distorted thinking can be reduced to the belief that I’ll be okay if I drink, eat, have sex, get more money, work harder, etc. The shame turns on in what Kellogg has termed a “human doing”, rather than a human being.

Worth is measured on the outside, never on the inside. The mental obsession about the specific addictive relationship is the first mood alteration, since thinking takes us out of our emotions. After obsessing for a while, the second mood alteration occurs. This is the “acting out” or ritual stage of addiction. The ritual may involve drinking with the boys, secretly eating in one’s favorite hiding place or cruising for sex. The ritual ends in drunkenness, satiation, orgasm, spending all the money, or whatever.

“I am no good; there’s something wrong with me,” plays like a broken record. The more it plays, the more one solidifies one’s false believe system. The toxic shame fuels the addiction and regenerates itself.

It is all manifested in words and behavior that say, “I am not worthy”. Among the people I see with toxic shame is my mother. She is about to turn 85, but I believe she has been caught in this shame cycle all of her life. I can only speculate where it came from, but being one of 12 children living in poverty in the Depression, and a girl in the shadow of energetic brothers must have been at least contributing factors. Bradshaw seems to have his own theory that its roots are in early childhood:

As shaming experiences accrues and are defended against, the images created by those experiences are recorded in a person’s memory bank. Because the victim has no time or support to grieve the pain of the broken mutuality, his emotions are repressed and the grief is unresolved. The verbal (auditory) imprints remain in the memory as do the visual images of the shaming scenes. As each new shaming experience takes place, a new verbal imprint and visual image attach to the already existing ones forming collages of shaming memories. Over time an accumulation of shame scenes are attached together. Each new scene potentiates the old, sort of like a snowball rolling down a hill, getting larger and larger as it picks up snow.

When I see someone I love whose life is defined by toxic shame I find it hard not to get irate, but not at them. I have heard many stories about people who were raped. Some, despite years of therapy, never really quite emerge from its shadow. But toxic shame strikes me as something like being raped as a three-year-old child. Whatever potential the child had to grow up to have respect for themselves is gone. What remains is a person who can never truly know their authentic self. Not only are they separated from their authentic self, the ideal conditions are in place to make sure they never become in touch with their authentic self. It seems they are denied their right to wholeness as a human being.

The point of Bradshaw’s book though is to offer hope that those suffering from toxic shame can be rehabilitated. But from my perspective the hardest problem of all is to get those who live their lives in toxic shame to admit that this is their root problem. To most of the world they will deny they have these feelings. But people who love them can pierce through the layers sometime. And out from their ego comes the anguished cry: I am not worthy. I am not loveable. In their minds there seems to be no solution to toxic shame, only the ritual of addiction that acts like a Band-Aid for a while but only exacerbates the feelings of shame.

I think I grasped some of this as a father and decided it wouldn’t happen to my daughter. Raising Rosie I had an almost myopic need to be a loving and supportive father to her. I tried very hard not to make her feel worthless. But I know I wasn’t perfect. I know I have a sarcastic streak, and she has definitely picked up this side of me. It is only recently that I have come to realize that this dominant part of my personality was affecting her, and probably not in a good way. It may well be a sign of passive aggressive behavior in me. I may be passing on some of my own issues to another generation. I find the mere thought appalling.

I strongly suspect that even with perfect parents a child is going to grow up with issues that they will have to tackle as adults. But now that I am tuned into toxic shame I am aware of the scope of the problem. In our mental health landscape this is the equivalent of a hydrogen bomb. And much of it can likely be traced to early childhood issues wrapped around insufficient or inappropriate nurturing from parents and caregivers.

At nearly 85 I don’t think it is possible for my mother to find her authentic self. She is so physically immobilized she often can’t get out of bed without assistance from my father. Her feelings of being unable to care for herself just feed her feelings of toxic shame. I should be able to care for myself. I cannot care for myself. So it must be my fault. There is something wrong with me. I am not worthy. This is the context of what I hear from her when I talk to her. This is the tone of her emails. We hear it in words like “That costs too much money” and “I don’t deserve that.”

The amazing thing about toxic shame though is that no matter how much time and energy we spend telling people with toxic shame that we love, value and appreciate them that none of it leads to transformation. They don’t really believe us. They need to hear it and they appreciate hearing these wonderful things, but they don’t believe it applies to them. We are talking about someone else. The person we love is never their authentic self. The only balm that momentarily satisfies is to go back and revel in their destructive rituals. Drink too much. Eat too much. Complain that no one loves them. The ritual varies and depends on the person, but the ritual must go forward when the feelings of shame overwhelm them.

Perhaps a start is to pick up books like this and read them. But oh, the travesty to never know hold yourself in any esteem. The body survives but it seems like the spirit was killed in its infancy. It’s a crying shame.

The Thinker

Biking the W&OD Trail

East or West? On the Washington & Old Dominion Trail those are your choices. It is a 45-mile bike trail that stretches from Shirlington (in Alexandria, Virginia) to Purcellville, Virginia. There is no going north or south on the W&OD. Sitting on top of what used to be the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad the trail has become something of a bicycling Mecca for Washington area bicyclists.

Arguably there are prettier biking trails in our area. The C&O Towpath, which follows next to the C&O canal and the Potomac River is clearly more bucolic and four times as long. But it is not kind on the buttocks and was not designed with the bicyclist in mind. Except for places near Washington you don’t want to ride the C&O very far unless your bike has wide tires and excellent shock absorbers. Like riding a horse you can exit that trail more than a little saddle sore.

But not the W&OD Trail. It’s a ribbon of smooth asphalt. There are a couple spots where you might want shock absorbers. For example between Sterling and Leesburg there are two wooden bridges. Except at low speeds riding over their wooden planks can be teeth rattling. Happily though neither bridge is very long and you are soon back on pavement and cruising at high speed again.

Speed is the trail’s primary attraction for us cyclists. While not quite a biker’s superhighway, it comes close. No paralleling noisy major roads on the W&OD. Bikers get to cruise over many major road intersections. The trail’s bridges spoil us because eventually we also cross the old fashioned way: at intersections. Some intersections like the one at Sterling Boulevard are no fun at all to cross. Fortunately most of the crossings have a walk light. But just as most distance drivers prefer the interstate to regional highways, so we high-speed bicyclists want to travel nonstop too. Crossings like the one at Elden Street in Herndon, where there is no walk light, can be impossible at certain times of the day. It is often best to jog a block and cross at a traffic light.

But then there are occasional glorious miles of bucolic wonder. I haven’t made it to either extreme of the trail yet, but I am struck by about three miles of the trail between Hunters Wood Road near Reston and Maple Street in Vienna. It is three miles of no intersections. Houses, when they are seen at all, are way back in the woods. The trail straddles and crosses over Difficult Run several times. Woods border the northern side of this part of the trail. Northern Virginia is such a chronically overdeveloped place that it is simply a delight to find a few miles where you can feel the presence of nature instead of humanity.

But the trail’s success can bring a lot of humanity. If it is a weekend and the weather is gorgeous then you will likely find the trail busy. At those times it is harder to enjoy. On some weekends I have come close to experiencing traffic jams on the trail. This is because walkers and equestrians are also allowed to use the trail. And casual users of the trail often don’t read or take to heart the trail rules. Most learn pretty quickly to stay to the right and get off the trail if they need to stop. I consider myself a fairly high-speed bicyclist. But I can’t begin to compete with some of the bicyclists on the trail. They zoom past me when I am in 18th gear and really cranking on the pedals. Many of them won’t cut the casual user of the trail any slack. Some won’t warn you that they are coming. By the time they could get the words out of their mouth they would be past you anyhow.

My goal continues to be to make it to both ends of the trail. I have to bike three miles up the Fairfax County Parkway to get on the trail. I usually get on where it intersects the Parkway. From there the choice, of course, is east or west. I usually go the opposite direction that I traveled the last time. As soon as the trail allows I am in high gear and pressing the metal. Even on cool days it’s not hard to work up a sweat. I made it as far west as Leesburg on January 1st. Last autumn I made it to East Falls Church.

Mother Nature has slowed me down. Winter is not kind to us bicyclists. I went through the rest of January without favorable conditions for bike riding. A lot of snow needed to melt first. The elliptical machine in our basement was not much of a substitute for a bike ride.

We frequent trail riders probably share favorite spots on the trail. My favorite spot so far traveling east is the stretch that I already mentioned between Reston and Vienna. Heading west a stop at Goose Creek between Sterling and Leesburg is most welcome. Goose Creek is much more like a river than a creek. From the trail bridge its swirling waters are impressive and somewhat hypnotic to watch, particularly after a rainstorm or snowmelt. There is hiking adjacent to the bridge, if so inclined. But a few hundred feet away from the creek itself is perhaps one of the most unusual things you will ever see on a bike trail: the Luckstone Quarry. Most people in Loudoun County I suspect have no idea the quarry is even there. But for regular trail riders the quarry is a special treat. There is a lovely outlook along the trail looking south into the quarry. You can park your bike, sit on a park bench and enjoy the view. This is one view that is perhaps better experienced on the weekend. During the week it is a working quarry, and the noise of the trucks continually going up and down into the quarry can spoil much of its pleasure.

There are a couple downsides to the trail. While there are restrooms along the trail they are pretty much the chemical toilet type, so it helps to take care of Mother Nature before leaving home. And even the toilets are many miles apart. Still at least there are toilets if nature calls. There are also occasional watering holes. The Vienna and Smith Switch Stations have water fountains. There are places on the trail for those who want to dine. Naturally the closer you get to DC the more options there are. In Vienna, Herndon and Leesburg it easy to find food near the trail. Herndon perhaps does it the best, and seems to actually cater to its bike traffic. Passing through downtown Herndon the upscale Dairy Queen is hard to miss.

To anyone who appreciates the outdoors the other downside to the trail is the encroaching development. In the year I have been riding the trail, I am more than a little appalled by how fast the wild places of the trail are disappearing. They disappeared years ago in Fairfax County and now it’s Loudoun County’s turn. I remember in the 1980s I used to see lots of bumper stickers that said “Don’t Fairfax Loudoun!” What they meant was don’t take nice and undeveloped Loudoun County and turn it into another densely packed bedroom community like Fairfax County. But it’s clearly too late. Bulldozers are active along both sides of the trail. Housing developments in particular are springing up quickly. There are a couple miles between Sterling and Leesburg that sit between genuinely undeveloped land. But it’s clear that they won’t be there much longer. Sterling and Leesburg are joining in the middle, and regular bicyclists on the trail are watching it happen.

Yet I am very grateful for the trail and for the foresight of the last generation that found the time, energy and money to create this 45-mile long park. Open fully since 1982 I find it still to be a delightful ride. Riding the trail gets a tad boring at times, but it is almost always fun to ride on it. On the trail and largely away from the traffic I can escape into my own world. For a little while I don’t feel the press of humanity and its cares so much. Instead I often feel at one with the universe. Its sounds are the low hum of my bike’s tires on the pavement and the gentle roar of wind passing through my helmet.

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The Thinker

No More Mr. Nice Democrat

The problem with us Democrats in general is that we play by gentlemen’s rules.

What dopes! What morons! No wonder we seem to be a declining party. Large numbers of Republicans may not believe in evolution, but they certainly believe in natural selection in the present. They are predators, devoid of civility and any sense of fairness. Did it bother Sen. Tom DeLay one bit to try to reapportion congressional seats in Texas in 2003, even though it had never been done before? Not at all. While those “play by the rules” weenie Democrats whined, he pressed Gov. Rick Perry of Texas to reapportion congressional seats again. Traditionally states do it every ten years based on the latest census results. Democratic members of the Texas legislature tried delaying tactics by taking up temporary residences in hotels in New Mexico. In response DeLay called the Department of Homeland Security to have their flights tracked. Eventually of course the Democrats had to go home. Once home the state legislature reached a quorum, the bill was rammed through both houses and Perry gleefully and without one moral qualm signed the bill into law.

Did Attila the Hun ask permission before invading and pillaging all those cities and countries? Of course not. Those with the power and the means make the rules. Charge ahead. When you control all three branches of government the likelihood of paying a price is low anyhow. The good news is that Republicans don’t usually kill or maim people in the process these days. They just roll over the rest of us like a steamroller. Perhaps that’s why they admire Israel so much. The Israeli solution to the settlements issue is to keep creating facts on the ground. The rule of law is for weenies. What matters is whether you can get away with it. If you can then it must be okay, is how Republicans apparently see things.

Liberals are morally squishy? Hardly. Republicans are far more morally squishy than Democrats could ever hope to be. It seems Republicans were born with dichotomy in their brains. Liberals who support a woman’s right to choose do so knowing if a woman chooses abortion that the embryo or fetus is killed in the process. Most of us recognize the Hobbesian choice. We are not entirely comfortable with our position. On the other hand it’s not a problem at all for a Republican to be both antiabortion and pro death penalty. State sponsored murder is perfectly okay. And everyone has complete freedom except of course when they find it personally disagreeable. So for those women who operate under the illusion that they control their own bodies, Republicans decide they must choose for them. However that certainly doesn’t mean they will also pay the costs of rearing these unwanted children. I mean, that would be socialism or something.

And on most other issues Republican say one thing and do completely the opposite. They say they want smaller government, but keep expanding the size of government. They say they are against payola but hand it out to their friends. Remember the Contract with America? How many of these congressmen and women elected in 1994 are still in the Congress, despite vows going in on the importance of term limits? Line item veto? Gone. It became politically expedient to do away with it when Clinton wielded it. Fiscal responsibility? Don’t make me laugh. This year alone deficits are expected to be over $400 billion dollars. Personal responsibility? Okay for others, but not for Congress and, oh, red states apparently get a lot more federal dollars than blue states. Laws are still routinely passed that exempt Congress from their provisions. They can’t even get into a war without double checking their intelligence. Their ideas of personal responsibility are charge up our credit cards to the max and pass the debt on to our grandchildren.

If there was excitement a couple years back with Howard Dean’s run for president it was because, finally, there was a Democrat willing to retire fire. Dean is no namby pamby wishy washy liberal. In fact, he’s not a liberal at all. While governor of Vermont he was far more fiscally conservative than any Republican you can point to in Congress.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery. The reason Democrats rallied around Dean was not because our party is suffering. We rallied around him because we know he won’t let Democrats get pushed around anymore. If Republicans insist on playing on their rules the Democrats will finally learn that game. And the signs are out there that we are beginning to wake out of our dogmatic slumbers. Where we have political power, and there are plenty of blue states, it is time to use it. Republicans apparently are now trying to redistrict Republican Georgia out of turn. We learn today that Democrats like House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer are realizing two can play this game:

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has spoken with several Democratic governors in recent weeks about the possibility of revisiting their states’ Congressional lines in response to the ongoing Republican-led redistricting in Georgia, according to informed party sources.

Faced with the prospect of Republicans redrawing Congressional lines in a third state since the initial 2001 round of redistricting ended, a faction of national Democrats is urging an aggressive strategy aimed at striking back at Republican House Members in states like New Mexico and Illinois.

“We have to stop playing defense and go on the offensive,” said Howard Wolfson, who served as executive director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2002 cycle and is now a consultant with the Glover Park Group.

“The only way to stop them from doing this is to make them pay a price for it somewhere else,” said a longtime House strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Democrats believe their best opportunities lie in Illinois, New Mexico and Louisiana, where Democrats have seized control of all the levers of state government in those states since the 2001 reapportionment and redistricting.

Democratic Govs. Rod Blagojevich (Ill.) and Bill Richardson (N.M.) as well as high-ranking Louisiana elected officials have been contacted by members of House leadership led by Hoyer since the Georgia legislature began their re-redistricting.

“Some of us who believe Georgia is going to happen think that it will help us strategically, to motivate some governors that weren’t interested in doing it to help us,” said one source who works closely with House Democrats.

At least a few D.C.-based Republicans privately acknowledge they are concerned about the possibility of Democratic retribution over the maneuvers in Georgia, but are not in a position to change the situation.

Politics is no longer a fraternal game of tennis, if it ever was. The Republicans have shown it is a game of rugby, and the referees are very absent minded. Republicans have gained clout and influence by bending and breaking rules left and right.

We were fooled once. Hopefully we are smart enough now to realize we have to dish it out like we are getting it. We can see it emerge clearly from the blogosphere. With the election of Howard Dean as the DNC chair we will also see it on the national level.

I wish it had not come to this. While Democrats played nice guy and tried to do the statesmanlike thing, we were figuratively slapped, kicked around and abused by the opposition. We were given no credit whatsoever. But the times, they are a changing. The Republicans have become the overbearing abusive husband. The Democrats have played the role of weak and submissive wife. The Republicans are about to find out how it feels to have what they have served to us daily for years sent right back at them.

I just hope when this is all over we can revert to our better and more civilized ways. But now is not the time.

The Thinker

Review: Million Dollar Baby

Clint Eastwood is not aging well. He face was weather beaten back in the 1960s and now it is a mass of cracks that make him look like his face is going to split apart. In Million Dollar Baby his voice also sounds like it is on its last legs. It is hard to hear what he is saying. He sounds like coarse gravel. Eastwood, for years an actor who played typecast toughs, now has enough money and clout to direct his own films. And he has proven he can succeed behind the camera as well as in front of it. The film Mystic River that he directed was one of the nominees for Best Picture in 2003. Now comes this movie, which seems to be trying to trump his last triumph.

Clint may play a tough but apparently he has a tender and almost effeminate side. Now that he can both direct and act in his own movies he has a safe space to step a bit beyond the stereotypical roles he usually inhabits. Here he plays Frankie Dunn, the trainer to many a prizefighter in his long career. At first blush he comes across as yet another macho, albeit aged character. Trainers of prizefighters don’t get into their positions without dedication, hard work and an appreciation for the violent world of boxing. It takes over two hours of cinema time before the layers of Frankie Dunn slowly pull back to reveal the tender and compassionate man beneath the bravado. And yet I get the sneaking suspicion that the real Frankie Dunn is not so much a character, but Clint Eastwood himself without the mask.

The gym Frankie owns is a depressing and apparently very poorly lit place. No Gold’s Gym here. You can almost smell the grime and sweat. An ex-fighter that Frankie befriended, Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman) actually inhabits the gym: he has a cot and a TV in the back. Eddie and Frankie go back decades. Eddie narrates much of the film, but it seems unnecessary. The story is clear enough without the narration. It is fine to see two top actors like Eastwood and Freeman working together in a movie. Either one could make a mediocre movie shine. Together you know the movie will be a good one.

Pretty much every drama has to have a woman. The woman in this movie is Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a waitress in her early 30s from trailer park trash someplace in Missouri. She nonetheless aspires to more than growing old, fat and dysfunctional. She eventually decides she wants to take up boxing as a solution to her aspirations to get beyond being a waitress all her life. She spends months trying to convince Frankie to take her on as her coach. Of course Frankie eventually agrees, otherwise there would be no movie.

The rest of the movie splits into two parts. Part one has to do with their increasingly intimate yet father-daughter like relationship between Maggie and Frankie as Maggie’s career takes off. Maggie needs the father she lost early in her life and latches on to Frankie. Frankie, who was long ago estranged from his own daughter to the point that his letters to her always come back refused, needs to be a nurturing presence. Maggie makes an agreeable substitute daughter. Invariably Maggie’s career reaches a zenith and there is a fall. I won’t get into the details of the fall so I don’t spoil the movie for you. But it’s a big fall.

Part two is the relationship between Maggie and Frankie after her fall. Adversity only draws them closer together. It causes the last parts of Frankie’s armor to quickly come off. In the process his metamorphosis is complete. By this point Maggie is divorced from her family. She has nothing left meaningful in her life except Frankie, her new father. And like every father Frankie wants what is best for his girl.

Hilary Swank does a top-notch job as Maggie Fitzgerald. Her performance has already been noticed as worthy of a best actress nomination. I think she could well be a contender, but there are lots of other movies in the last year with very talented actresses. So we clearly have a combination of fine acting and directing talent. In addition the cinematography captures in shadows the extreme personal anguish the characters move through. This is not a beautiful movie. It is deliberately full of dirt, blood, shadow, and agony. But we learn that sometimes in the roughest soil that beautiful flowers can grow.

So those hoping for a female version of Rocky will be disappointed. This is not Rocky. For all its appearances it is not even a movie about boxing. It is a movie about relationships and the painful choices that have to be made during life. Like The Cider House Rules it reminds us (and a Catholic priest drives in the point, in case you don’t get it) that life can be full of squishy moral choices. So it is at times a tad overbearing. However the acting and direction are so good that it is easy to overlook these minor flaws.

As good a movie as it was, I felt it fell into stereotypes on occasion and was a little too transparent. It is a movie definitely worth seeing but falls a bit shy of my criteria for a great movie. So it gets a 3.2 on my 4.0 scale. It’s not worth a million dollars, but it’s probably worth more than what you pay to see it. And that’s something.

The Thinker

The Unseen

Where I work we don’t give much thought to the mailroom. It seems like snail mail somehow find us and it ends up in our mailboxes. The people who pick up and deliver the mail zip by a couple times a day. They move from station to station largely unseen and unacknowledged. Without meaning to I had totally tuned them out. It was like they were not there.

My somewhat famous name occasionally it gets remarks. Usually it goes in one ear and out the other. I keep my office door open but I face the hall. Usually I am engaged in work, so my eyes are focusing on my monitor and my hands are flying over the keyboard. I am only dimly aware when people pass by. So I was a little surprised when the other day one of the young women who pushes the mail cart struck up a conversation with me about my name.

Like many in the mailroom she had handicaps. She wears coke bottle glasses and moves unsteadily down the hallways. She runs by my office a couple times a day. I was only tangentially aware of her. I never spoke to her because I had nothing to say. If I were to think about it, which I never did, I assumed she would never have anything to say to me either. Two people with less in common would be harder to find. She delivers the mail. I direct a bunch of knowledge workers using tools like email and conference calls. But she spoke. Her name, she told me was Karen. Nice to meet you Karen, I said. She remarked again about how my name is similar to a famous actor. I smiled pleasantly but wanly. I didn’t mean any offense but I hear such remarks about once a month on average and they are a bit tiresome. She smiled back. And she looked at me awkwardly. I could sense she felt somewhat embarrassed and on some level she was attracted to me. We traded a minute or so of polite conversation and then she resumed her mail run.

Weeks went by. She kept pushing around her mail cart. I tuned her out and kept typing words into my keyboard. Then I heard her ask me a question by name. And I looked around wondering who it was. And there she was outside my door smiling. She said something to me and I have no idea what it was. My train of thought was somewhere completely different. “Umm, can I help you?” I asked. But by that time she was gone. It is only now days later that I pulled her name from my memory.

The unseen are all around us. To call them “unseen” is to really tar myself. But since Karen changed the dynamic I have been looking around me. I am finding the unseen everywhere. Our building, like most federal offices, contracts out most services such as the mailroom, the cafeteria, cleaning the restrooms, picking up the trash and polishing the floors. Like most civil servants with twenty or so years of service I had largely tuned them out. I didn’t mean to. I just sort of picked up this vibe from my coworkers. They never talked about them. So I didn’t.

But sometimes the unseen invade my personal space. A guy comes into my office about noon to get my trash. I always acknowledge him with a “Hello.” I get a muffled “hello” back but basically he wants to be neither disturbed nor acknowledged. I am one of a thousand offices he will visit today. He wants to get the trash and get out. I do always make a point to say “thank you” as he leaves.

For the most part the unseen are in uniforms. Maybe that’s why I don’t see them most of the time. Their uniform where I work seems to be dark blue. I have learned to tune out people in blue uniforms. When I engage others in conversation in the halls it is always with coworkers. The unseen walk past quietly, never talking. Most of the time they will not look you in the eye. It’s like they’ve been told by their managers to blend in.

It’s four o’clock and that means it’s time to clean the men’s room. For some reason Mother Nature wakes me up around this time. I often arrive to find the restroom closed, or about to be closed. Here is a rare case where the unseen sometime need to talk to me. They ask if anyone is inside. If so I holler back. Or I give them an all clear. I know I certainly appreciate a clean restroom. I take plenty of paper towels and toilet paper for granted. Our toilet bowls always sparkle. But it seems to be the nature of these things that we only care when the usual high standards fail. If we run out of paper towels then I am upset. Sometimes I even fume about it. But I don’t acknowledge the many other times when all supplies are in place and the restroom is clean.

In the evenings as I exit work I find the main foyer invariably being buffed by the floor polishing crew. I don’t know their names. I suspect I never will. They are also in blue uniforms. The hum from their polishing machines is almost hypnotic. They are always quiet, methodical and single minded. The bright yellow wet floor sign is about a dozen feet behind them. They squirt polisher onto the floor and buff the tile. The truth is the tile always looks gorgeous. Polishing it so frequently seems unnecessary.

They are the service class. On those rare occasions that I go to the basement of my building I see them in a different state. In the break room they turn into regular people. They laugh and joke. But then the break is over and they resume work. Silence and ubiquity are then again the norms. They move around us but remain unseen and largely unacknowledged.

But because of the unseen I get to work in a professional office instead of a smelly hellhole. I get to do what I do best and have the freedom to concentrate on my job. I wish I were better at acknowledging the unseen. I wish I could find ways to have more meaningful conversation. I wonder is it just me or are they not anxious to talk to me too? Is not being seen or acknowledged a standard they strive to achieve in their performance plan?

I don’t know. But I do know I appreciate the unseen. What they do may seem unglamorous but it is important. I wish we could find ways to better appreciate them. If I were in their shoes I think I would see us as a haughty, stuck up and pretty obnoxious bunch.

I’m sorry you are supposed to be unseen. But I do thank you today for all you do. And forgive us when we tune you out. That seems to be the way it has evolved. We certainly don’t mean you any offense. And I will try to get better.

The Thinker

Strategies for Coping with Suffering

I participate in a monthly covenant group. We’re a small group of six to ten people (depending on who is available) that get together once a month. We give each other brain dumps on our lives. We also pick a new topic for general discussion. We do all this in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist church that I attend. This month’s topic was how we cope with the nasty stuff that life throws at us.

This is a tough one for us UUs. Most of us do not believe in traditional notions of God. Many of us don’t believe in God at all and are rabid secular humanists. Those with more traditional faiths can project their anxieties to the Almighty through prayer. While some of us practice meditation, no one in my covenant group prays.

Coping happens on many levels. Suffering is usually sharpest when we experience the death of a loved one. But we may also suffer by watching someone we love suffer, and certainly incidents like cancer can cause enormous personal suffering. I feel fortunate to have thus far largely escaped the grief of the death of someone I loved. But I was the exception in my group. The members of my covenant group have all experienced the loss of someone very close to them. One woman related the death of her mother in 1979 from cancer. She broke down and cried. I thought: how extraordinarily attached she must have been to her mother to still feel such acute grief more than 25 years later. But in a way she was fortunate. Not many of us experience such a meaningful relationship with another human being during our lives.

Comparing their experiences with mine I felt very fortunate. I heard stories of a church member who will spend the rest of her life in a nursing home. Yet she still clings to life, in all its mundanity. My suffering is more prosaic: aging parents and coping with a spouse with fairly serious mental and physical health issues.

But who is to say whether one person’s suffering is worse than another’s? The friend in my covenant group lost her mother more than 25 years ago, but at least her mother is now at peace. The loss can still feel acute at times, but she has moved forward in her life. For those of us in a caregiver role, the ups and downs of the suffering of someone we love are a daily trial. What it lacks in extremes perhaps it makes up for in duration. For me it sometimes feels like a marathon that never ends.

How do people get over suffering? We opined that talking with friends and family helps. But I am not so sure about that. I think we all must grieve when we suffer loss. Part of the healing can come from expressing the grief, whether privately or with friends. As much as I love my parents, I don’t believe that unloading to them about my trials of the moment is going to make me feel any better. It seems we emerge when we piece together unique pieces of mental gauze to cover our wounds. It’s almost a quilt that we stitch by ourselves: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. No one size really fits all. We have to make it fit in the unique context of our own personal suffering.

I personally am skeptical that prayer reduces suffering. It may be a step in the healing process to project your anguish on a higher and unseen power, but suffering seems to be universal. Through suffering we learn life’s deepest lessons. We would be shallow and superficial people if we did not suffer. In some respects suffering is good.

I have found some strategies for me that, while no solution, act a lot like a temporary pain relief. For example, when I feel anxious or really stressed I find that exercise helps a lot. A vigorous thirty mile bike ride engages my mind and body. It takes me out of the immediate situation (assuming I can escape in the first place) and gives me a chance to focus on something else. When I get home exhausted and sweaty I feel like I have changed my perspective for a bit.

I have also learned to not put my hand on a hot stove. By this I mean that while I need to be involved in the care of people I love, getting too deeply nested in their problems can adversely affect me. I am not in a position to help them best if I cannot stay above the fray. I am not sure this is actually the best coping strategy, but it seems many times to work for me. The hard part is finding ways to stay concerned but not too empathic. If you truly love someone it can be hard to deliberately emotionally detach yourself from the situation.

Perhaps the best coping strategy for anyone suffering is to engage in life as much as possible. Admittedly this can be a tall order. That woman in a nursing home will find it very challenging to find ways to keep her mind busy and to bring other people into her life. But to some extent we can we can minimize our suffering by accepting that suffering is a part of life, but only a part of life. We need to make the deliberate decision to bring in the outside world even though we grieve. Death finds all of us in time. But life is also about many other things, including joy. We cannot experience these things if we stay mired in grief. Thus it is important to keep engaging, even while we grieve. To let the bad stuff out we must also let some of the good stuff in.

The Thinker

The Best Work of American Classical Music

There is so much wonderful classical music out there that it is hard to pick favorites. Nonetheless there seems to exist a rough consensus among the classical music aficionados that Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor is the best classical music that has ever been written. It has certainly withstood the test of time. Some might argue that Handel’s Messiah should have the honor. Arguably Messiah is perhaps the best work of classical music known to the masses. And it is a lot more hummable than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. (Ode to Joy from the fourth movement is familiar to lots of people.) About once a year or so I slip the Ninth into my CD player. Although brilliant, played anymore than that it gets hard to appreciate its brilliance. My only wish is that someday Ode to Joy would be sung in English, so we unwashed Americans could better appreciate it. But I guess that would be sacrilege to classical music purists.

Pondering great classical music, I was wondering if there is a work of American classical music that critics could agree is our best work. I suspect if pressed many scholars would pick a work by Aaron Copland, most likely his Appalachian Spring. There is no question that Aaron Copland writes quintessential American music. After you have heard a number of Copland pieces you can almost always hear something else he has written by him and say, “Yep, that’s Copland”. While there are many American classical music composers out there, only a few have any name recognition whatsoever. Some others that come immediately to mind for me include Leonard Bernstein, Charles Ives and Alan Hovhaness. Your short list of American composers is likely different than mine.

But the best work of American classical music? That’s a tough question to answer. While I personally am drawn to the music of Aaron Copland I am often scorned for my choice. I like Appalachian Spring so much I had it played at my wedding. But while it was likely the best thing that Copland ever wrote, Copland was not an inventive composer. In fact he routinely stole snippets of American music. The main theme to Appalachian Spring, for example, is the well-known Shaker hymn, “Tis a gift to be simple.” Copland excelled at finding excellent bits of the authentic American sound and weaving them together into larger orchestral works that amplified and extended these sounds.

A “best” work though has to stand the test of time. That’s a bit of a problem for American classical music since, by European standards at least, we are still a new country. Most countries though have one composer that stands out. When you hear his music (and it’s almost always a he) you say you understand that country. For example, Jean Sibelius gives us the sound and spirit of primal Finland. Who though could carry this mantle for American classical music and also create works of music that are uniquely their own?

The answer came to me last night as I heard music drift upstairs from the TV room. My daughter Rosie was deep into TV. I don’t know what she was watching but the music was unmistakable. It was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Suddenly it clicked into place. This single work is quintessentially American, wholly unique and as wonderful and amazing in its own way as Sibelius’s Finlandia is to the Finnish and Ralph Vaughn Williams’s Greensleeves is to the English. And Rhapsody in Blue is perhaps the most performed work of American orchestral music in American and in the rest of the world. And of course it is really, really good.

I remember fondly my first exposure to Gershwin. While I have an appreciation for jazz, it is not a genre that I have done more than sample. Sometime in the late 70s when I was finally on my own I wandered into a record store (this being in pre CD days) and found a two record collection of his best-known music. Of course it was just his works for piano and orchestra. You had to read the liner notes to realize he had a whole other career working with his brother Ira to create show tunes and popular music. He seemed an unlikely person to call a classical composer. Most people of his time saw him as a jazz composer. Perhaps Rhapsody is both jazz and classical music. But at 22 I remember thinking, “This is amazing music.” It is still true today.

George Gershwin is an odd selection for best American classical composer. Much of his music would be considered trite stuff. Fluffy musicals like Of Thee I Sing seems like Gilbert and Sullivan operettas: fun to go to but empty of content or meaning. Steeped in the jazz era, and the Ragtime music that preceded it, Gershwin drew inspiration from many authentic forms of American music, including Negro spirituals. So like Aaron Copland he heard authentic American music and integrated them into his own music. Unlike Aaron Copland however they were largely inspiration for the creation of new music. In Rhapsody in Blue it all came together. The work itself is rather short. The pace moves from sedate to frantic and journeys in places in between. But there is no confusing it with stuffy classical music from Europe. It is a work that is fully of the energy of the American experience. It often feels almost giddy. And now the music is almost ubiquitous. I find it woven into television commercials for airlines.

Gershwin’s list of pure classical music is rather thin. Concerto in F and An American in Paris are his best known other works. Both are wonderful. But it is Rhapsody in Blue that endures and captures our soul. So for me, it is America’s Finlandia. I see it as not just our most recognizable piece of American music, but also as our best work of classical music.

What do you think is the best work of American classical music?

Update: 9/19/13 – It should be noted that while Gershwin is the author, he wrote Rhapsody in Blue for piano. Ferdinand Grofe actually arranged it for orchestra, so he deserves some credit for this work of art. Arguably, some of Grofe’s work could be considered as best works of American classical music. His Grand Canyon Suite comes to mind.

The Thinker

Wal-Mart and Unions

When is a union good for Wal-Mart? Apparently only when they are in communist countries like China. And Wal-Mart is okay with it. Why shouldn’t they be? Because this “union” is no union. Instead it is run by the All-China Federation, which is directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. Yeah, I know at one time communism was about liberating the masses from oppressive capitalists. But no longer. Chinese taxi drivers, for example, routinely work 15 hours days trying to make a living. They too are protected by the All-China Federation. In other words, workers in these “unions” have zero control and no influence over their union, their working conditions and their wages. In fact the unions exist solely to serve the purpose of the state. And if Chinese unionized workers are unwise enough to actually speak up and complain about their wages and working conditions, they will most likely be booted out of the union and their job too. Clearly these are not unions. So naturally “unions” in China and Wal-Mart are a natural fit. What could be more natural for Wal-Mart than cheap and plentiful workers forced to work long hours at starvation wages?

When is a union not good for Wal-Mart? Whenever a union acts like a real union, and demands a decent wage and some say in their working conditions. When this happens we see the real Wal-Mart in action. For example, in Jonquiere, Quebec the local Wal-Mart is going to close in May as a result of reputed “unreasonable demands” from the union leaders. What was unreasonable here was apparently the expectation that Wal-Mart would bargain in good faith. But this is but the latest example. Whenever a real union wins clout Wal-Mart refuses to deal. It will shut this store but not because it will lose money. Better to nip this union thing in the bud, is how Wal-Mart executives view it, before it spreads like a cancer. Wal-Mart workers need to feel that unionization is hopeless.

Wal-Mart will take the most extraordinary means to ensure unions cannot take hold in their company. For example, in 2000 the meatcutters at its Jacksonville, Texas store voted to join the United Food & Commercial Workers Union. Wal-Marts enlightened response: get out of the meatcutting business altogether. Today all its stores are stocked with prewrapped meat only. Those few union workers: laid off. And I’ll bet you that their meat is not coming from businesses affiliated with unions.

As I opined in 2003, Wal-Mart is an evil corporation. It’s as evil today as it has ever been. Their slick web site and media campaigns want you to think their employees are ever so happy and doing ever so well. But that’s the spin, but it’s not the reality. If their average employee is making $9.68 an hour they are still living in poverty or slinging two or three other jobs to get by. How do I know? Because factoring for inflation, $9.68 in 2004 was worth $3.79 an hour in 1979. And that’s about what I averaged on a good week working full time at Montgomery Ward selling shoes against a draw. And I was living in poverty. I could not afford a car. I lived in a group home. I could not afford health insurance. I had trouble affording food. I ate a lot of rice and boil in bags because they were cheap. The fact that this $9.68 an hour wage is almost twice the current minimum wage is irrelevant. It is still poverty wages. The minimum wage has simply not kept up with inflation.

Wouldn’t it be great if we moved the focus of our War Against Evil from places like Iraq and liberated Wal-Mart employees instead? Wouldn’t it be great if we forced scummy corporations like Wal-Mart to pay their employees a living wage? I’m ready to enlist in that War Against Evil.

The Thinker

Good Billionaire

And my unlikely nominee for best philanthropist?

It pains me to say it, but it’s Bill Gates. More specifically Bill and his wife Melinda Gates. Yes, that Bill Gates, the man whose net worth is currently about thirty billion dollars. Yes, that Bill Gates, the man my wife routinely curses at. She swears someday she is going to Redmond to firebomb his house. Because many of us (I know we are so un-American) just don’t like Bill Gates. We consider Windows “technology” to be buggy and inferior crap designed to drive us nuts. I hold Bill Gates personally responsible for wasting hundreds of my hours, for which I was never compensated. When Windows 3.1 ruled the world my machine crashed every 30 minutes, if I was lucky. What a piece of crap, I thought. Why would anyone, particularly my employer, spend so much money to own this piece of shit? How could any company allow such crap to go on the market?

And it didn’t get much better. Windows 95 was marginally better but it was often BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) City. Windows 98 was the same piece of crap, and Windows Me was the most unreliable Windows product since Windows 3.1. Reliability started improving with Windows 2000 but of course something had to give. And that was security. It became clear that Windows was a hacker’s dream. My PC regularly got infested with viruses, spyware, adware and Trojan horses. To use it with any sense of security my wife and I had to become PC security experts. Even after putting in firewalls, virus checkers and plugging every hole we could think of we still have security issues. God only knows what else may be on our PCs that we don’t know about. And all this is the fault of Bill Gates, who rushed buggy products to market without adequate testing and forced us to cough up premium prices for inferior software.

Yeah, I know I should have got a Mac. Except I couldn’t work from home with a Mac. The reality was the business world was Windows centric and there was not much I could do about it. I could just feel frustrated and resent feeling like my pocket had been picked clean.

So it really pains me to admit that Bill and Melinda Gates are excellent philanthropists. I figured when it came to philanthropy they would bring their formidable software skills to it and completely wreck it. But that’s not what happened. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is perhaps not only the best funded charity in the world, but doing the most vital work out there.

For example take malaria. It kills a child in the world every three seconds. And it is a completely preventable disease. A third of the world is at risk of developing malaria. Malaria vaccines are relatively cheap by our standards, but it is hard to get to all the third world countries in order to inoculate people. But even where spraying and inoculations are difficult, simple malaria netting can greatly reduce the likelihood of contracting the disease. The Gates Foundation is taking a pragmatic approach that might actually solve the problem.

It is hard for many of us to understand just how desperately poor billions of people are. In some places of the world, like Thailand, families have to sell their own daughters into prostitution to survive. Even malaria netting costs more than they can afford. Handing out malaria netting in these areas greatly reduces the risk of contracting malaria. Clearly inoculations and systematic spraying are also important. The Gates Foundation is working in all three areas. Money and persistence can do a lot of good. And arguably they are doing a much more effective job than many governmental organizations are doing, although they often work directly with leading organizations addressing these problems. Of course many governmental organizations such as the World Health Organization are not always flush with sufficient funds. But Bill Gates can use his personal fortune to create the sustained focus needed to seriously address chronic problems like malaria.

In the global health arena, the Gates Foundation is arguably at the forefront. The Gates Foundation is funding HIV/AIDS research in both vaccines and in drugs that minimize symptoms and extend patients’ lives. It is also working on HIV/AIDS prevention strategies. In addition to HIV/AIDS the Gates Foundation is coordinating work on other common and preventable diseases like tuberculosis. It is working to make sure that people in poor countries have access to tuberculosis, measles, polio and other vaccines that the rest of us take for granted.

But one area that makes me almost want to shake Bill Gates’s hand is the foundation’s work in family planning. While our Administration wrings its hands over using tax dollars on birth control in third world countries, the Gates Foundation is pushing family planning in the poorest areas of the world. I have been giving money to Planned Parenthood World Population Control for more than a decade. I can think of no better use of my money than to help stabilize the world’s population. But the amount I can contribute is tiny. The Gates Foundation can throw hundreds of millions of dollars at the problem. And they apparently don’t give two figs if birth control upsets some Catholics and Mormons. Stabilizing the population is good for humanity and good for the planet.

In short Bill and Melinda have proven themselves to be excellent humanists. Realizing they can’t take their billions with them into the afterlife, they have decided to use significant chunks of their fortunes to target some of the thorniest and most pressing problems in the world. It would be nice if we could adequately fund efforts in these areas on the national and international level, but we seem to have other priorities like tax cuts. Free of the prejudice and ignorance that comprises much of our leadership, the Gates Foundation can potentially solve some of these persistent and thorny problems.

So while I still resent Bill Gates for all the time and money he cost me, I feel a little better toward him because he is using a significant portion of his fortune to make the world a better place. I still intend to buy a Mac one of these days though.


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