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Thoughts: The Wayward Bus

The Wayward BusThe Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t care at all about what the bus represents.

It might shine as a dumpy emblem of the American journey to either the realization or implosion of our future plans. But the story strikes me more as the common American journey not necessarily from childhood to manhood, like the universal Buldingsroman, but rather the solitary transformation to self-realization from what to who. After all, what can these characters do with a Virgil like Juan Chicroy? The prototypical guide never wavers, never falters, offers insights and leads the way. An effective guide allows the hero to transform through struggle rather than lecturing. But what if the guide does waver and falter? Perhaps if he does, the heros can delve even deeper into their primitive selves and come to a better understanding of the meaning in their lives.

Even if this all rings true, I don’t care about the bus. Steinbeck impresses with his dynamic grasp of character and in no better fashion than exemplified in The Wayward Bus. His others works provide an academic smorgasbord of analytic sweets but in this book we have a company of characters who seem to serve no purpose other than to mirror the readers very own emotional conditions.

Whether Steinbeck intended this or not, I gleaned a sharp sense of relation to these people. Each one not only reflects the emotional states of demographics sharing their circumstances but also exposes the fundamental emotional core from which they all crawl. Any reader who picks up The Wayward Bus will find themselves within its pages with near perfect likeness. They would first find the character with whom they relate but then find themselves in the shoes of the other characters with complete sympathy for their circumstances and emotions as if they share them in reality – perhaps before they even know of people who really live those circumstances.

What a talent! With ease, Steinbeck has me feeling like a middle-aged, unsatisfied and insecure woman, a confined adolescent yearning for life, a cardboard businessman and a happy-go-lucky salesman, feeling the strain of feminine beauty before infusing me with the integral masculinity which fundamentally drives me as a carrot just within my grasp.

So no, I do not care about the bus. But I haven’t read many books in which I care so deeply about the people. They are me.

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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in John Steinbeck

 

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Thoughts: Tortilla Flat

Tortilla FlatTortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thy life is not thine own to govern, Danny, for it controls other lives. See how thy friends suffer! Spring to life, Danny, that thy friends may live again!

Steinbeck obviously models his tale of Danny and his comrades in Tortilla Flat after Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. He never hid his infatuation with the stories of King Arthur and his knights. Nor did he hide his partiality toward an idea which describes a community as an organism. With his chapter epigraphs and little mini-stories expounding the adventures of Danny and his knights, he mirrors Malory’s work – but not in title. Where Malory chose to title his work by referencing one person, Steinbeck references an entire community thus entangling his idea of an organic world with the ideas presented by Malory.

He describes adventurous episodes with Danny, Steinbeck’s Arthur, Pilon, Pablo, Jesus Maria, Pirate and Joe Portagee – his knights. Some critics have chastised Steinbeck’s representation of Mexican-Americans in California after the first world war. He renders these men as childish in their behavior and logically inept, animalistic in their drinking habits and perhaps lazy in comparison to the prototypical American ideology. Yet he does not mock them. In fact, it seems that Steinbeck might actually envy them – their simple ways and pure hearts. While we read about their wasted days on the front porch, their liberal sense of theft, their obsessive addiction to wine – gallons of it at a time – and their immature thought processes, we must note their pure spirit, their innocent drive to perform good deeds according to their seemingly backwards logic.

While Steinbeck associates these characters with a particular group of people with whom he felt personally familiar, one may notice their characteristics in all people – rich, poor, black, white, yellow, brown, male, female – it doesn’t matter. A rich man might just as easily employ flawed, self-serving logic while contemplating an ethical conundrum. Women can embark on selfless humanitarian missions as quickly as any of these paisanos. We all share these same tendencies. I think Steinbeck brought his ideas out of the clouds and presented them through the lives of a familiar people who share the same human characteristics as the rest of us.

I particularly enjoyed Steinbeck’s moral crusade against possession. These men, homeless and penniless, enjoy their lives free from the constraints of material responsibility. When Danny inherited his grandfather’s two homes, Pilon noticed:

…that the worry of property was settling on Danny’s face. No more in life would that face be free of care. No more would Danny break windows now that he had windows of his own to break. Pilon had been right – he had been raised among his fellows. His shoulders had straightened to withstand the complexity of life. But one cry of pain escaped him before he left for all time his old and simple life.

Now Danny would have to endure a life secluded from his friends, burdened with enforcing rent, expecting payment for goods, feeling anger because of damaged property, etc. And his friends would have to endure that nagging feeling of debt to one they see as a brother. One might settle for calling this an eventuality of growing up, but, as Pablo notes, these things impair everyone’s happiness. More than ownership, they long to live happily. They experienced happiness sleeping in the woods. They felt free. Now they find themselves chained to obligation.

While living among his free-loading friends, Danny silently contemplates his role and the reader senses a quiet struggle within him. But he does not bring his friends into the fight. In fact, when they burn down his second house, he feels relief because he no longer feels the weight of that house nor the obligation to enforce rent for it. With the house gone, he no longer feels alienated from his friends. Danny, suddenly burdened with these things and separated from those with whom he identified himself, seems to struggle internally about his very identity. But in the meantime, his friends do not indulge a sense of advantage over Danny. We see this through their desire to live as noble men and their continuous search to repay Danny for his grace, even though they fail miserably with every attempt. I think they innately understand that money and materials do not appropriately repay a man for providing them with invaluable happiness and friendship. Besides, possession and money drive Danny to burdensome sadness. Danny’s friends innocently adopt him as their leader, accept his grace and live to make him happy – not from a sense of obligation or gratitude, but from awe. They happily and proudly call him friend which influences their love for one another. In this way, Danny exemplifies Arthurian leadership and fosters the intimate integration of people after their spiritual divorce wrought by possession.

However, though we would like to abandon possession and responsibility, these things develop the bonds between the knights. If we remove the concept of possession from this social construct, gratitude becomes irrelevant along with kindness, generosity and sacrifice. Without possession, we cannot qualify Danny as a genuinely good and caring man. We cannot praise him for his tendency to abandon the complexities of ownership and his ability to unite these paisanos rather than divide them through debt. He redeems a debt of love for his generosity and blindness to advantage, which the paisanos would not feel without possession.

Yet we ought to note how Danny integrates these men unintentionally. His repulsion toward responsibility influences these events, not his conscientious choices of charity. While he struggles within, his friends enjoy a spiritual awakening of brotherhood, not by Danny’s plans, but because he symbolizes an idea of a man whom these paisanos admire and aspire to emulate.

Near the end, Steinbeck culminates his Arthurian episodes at Tortilla Flat with two wild events which unite the town. He uses his idea of a community organism as a ribbon to wrap his gift. Danny falls into a kind of madness, perhaps because he loses even more freedom due to his obligation to his friends who have grown to depend on him – and not just materially. As Danny suffers, so do his friends. They sympathize and stress over how to help him feel better. As he lives, so do his friends. They clamber about laughing, telling stories, and baking their bare feet in the sun. The group has completely fused into one living beast, completely interdependent. I wonder if Danny detested this – the curse of every noble leader. He finally felt the loss of his carefree independence, cursing the responsibility which had robbed him of his freedom and perhaps, also, the love and humanity which had blessed him with influence over the livelihood of his friends and seeded the inspiration which united a microcosmic world. When one invests themselves completely into the happiness of others, whether intentionally or otherwise, what more can they give when they no longer exist as themselves but as the spirit of all?

Afterwards, when they walk away, they know these possessions never mattered. And they would never feel lonely or sad again. Only content with life – sleeping in the woods and scavenging for the next gallon of wine. With Danny always with them.

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Posted by on July 2, 2013 in John Steinbeck

 

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Thoughts: The Winter of Our Discontent

The Winter of Our DiscontentThe Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

America the victim; suffering from the violent scourge of man. A dream born of a benign freedom, a political empowerment designed to allow men to be what they want to be, mutated into justifiable individualism and moral immunity. That freedom hasn’t died, man simply mutilated it. The freedom of honesty and humanity unfortunately bleeds the freedom of legal cunning and fiscal treachery.

What we once doted on as the idealistic beacon of political sanctuary – the idea that man can be whatever he makes of himself – disintegrated into economic efficacy – the idea that man can be whatever money makes him.

Steinbeck’s story, figuratively formed around Shakespeare’s line from Richard III, begins each part in a third-person narrative before handing the stage over to Ethan Allen Hawley’s perspective. It depicts that disintegration of the American ideal – her citizens manipulate and drown the essence of America’s character for the shallow and material allowances of her grace. Rather than focusing on the freedom of brotherly love, certain citizens focus on the freedom of monetary ambition because everyone’s doing it and no one can say they can’t.

The act of enabling a drunk soul-mate justifiably blends into the new American moral mantra when someone can profit by it. The act of propagating the legal deportation of a savvy businessman, who shares every economic ambition of the native-born glutton, cleanses itself of hypocrisy because of the protective ethics of American capitalism. The young representation of the coming generation forgoes his ethical upbringing at the lure of an easy buck. Of course, why work harder than you have to for your money? What difference does it make? None – says the man who defines himself according to the price tag hanging from the shelf he jumped on.

Signal the stock exchange! Suddenly and carelessly, we have sanctioned the profitable merger of Might and Right. It’s all Good Business!

And in that Place, forlorn of material “happiness” and impregnated by fortune-telling prophecies, no justification will survive. No talisman will lie. No safety net awaits the inevitable fall from humanity. No ear will bend at the imploring screams of regret – except your own. And the Place knows you were already aware of all this.

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in John Steinbeck

 

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Thoughts: Cannery Row

Cannery RowCannery Row by John Steinbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With every book, my affection for Steinbeck swells exponentially. Cannery Row is a story rhythmically interrupted by episodes of poetic grandeur and hyperbolic humor which describe a setting better than any official landmark or history textbook. Anecdotal accounts of seemingly insignificant characters have a way of slapping the reader in the mouth at the very last sentence. I felt like a man in a foreign town listening to a citizen dictating driving directions according to self-entitled landmarks and buildings. And within this town swirled Fate and Destiny, a powerful sovereign over intermingling histories and correlating circumstances.

As in other books, like The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck criticizes the deranged folly of Man’s Order of rules and enforceable laws over the natural intended organization between men. The relations between the characters, though constructed by petty illegalities, function efficiently, symbiotically and according to a natural moral and ethical code. For example, Mack possesses an honest disposition and hates liars who lie to themselves but easily embellishes and manipulates truth in the presence of official authority or legally protected owners. His respect for Doc, a somewhat altruistic and fair-minded town caretaker, inspires his feeling of magnanimity toward him, not legal obligation. Mack, though ostracized from society in the pursuits of shallow, selfish pleasures, respects the natural relationship of people and circumstances and ignores societal contempt.

Some have argued that Doc represents Steinbeck himself and I wonder if Mack then might represent an enviable alter ego. Attention must be called to a strange bond between Doc and Mack. As mentioned above, Mack lives outside of social convention whereas Doc lives within it. He doesn’t run a whorehouse or con grocery stores. Yet Mack respects him for his fairness and refusal to judge and his work for everyone in the community. And it is Doc who says this about Mack:

The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.

A certain envy lies festering within Doc for the life Mack has chosen and the rules which govern him.

I have discovered that Steinbeck speaks very personally about social issues and the hypocrisy of American ethics and it fascinates me. I envy his clarity. A friend once asked me long ago if I ever hear a song and wish I’d come up with it myself. When I read Steinbeck, I wish I could say it like him.

Our Father who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys. Virtues and graces and laziness and zest. Our Father who art in nature.

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in John Steinbeck

 

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Thoughts: Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and MenOf Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suppose we have to put our dreams down too. A man’s most intimate companion.

This is a story ensnared in loneliness. But wouldn’t we all want a companion like Lennie? He embodies such extremes, physically terrifying and mentally meek. A man who only has thoughts of protecting you but hasn’t fallen from innocence enough to take advantage of you. But each character settles for a life of solitude. The ranch workers squander their earnings in whore houses longing after the companionship of the dream of their own land. Curly’s wife is lonely in her marriage. Crooks is isolated from his co-workers. Candy’s dog is taken.

Beyond the harrowing experience of desolation, I find myself asking why men ought to live this way. Crooks, the black ranch hand who lives away from the bunk house and has no friend to speak intimately with, is in a position imposed by the social standards of the day. Both he and Lennie, because of his mental ineptitude, are social outcasts. The beautiful thing about Lennie is that he doesn’t seem to see it. His companions are the dream of he and George’s ranch and George. He doesn’t consider that George would ever leave or that the dream is really just a dream. But for him and Crooks, there is no place in the social order for them. Their alienation is imposed rather than embraced. Because of their circumstance, it seems inevitable that they will be purged from normal people and normal society. The established social rules keep men ashamed, helpless and self-loathing. Who are you to realize such a grand dream? You don’t belong with us! Again, only Lennie is too dumb to realize this. And even though Curly’s wife is lonely, there’s a place for her in the order as she, in a way, ousts Lennie.

For some, this loneliness is self-imposed. It is truly odd that we would attack the very thing that would remedy our isolation. We give up our dreams, let them die with our innocence, because circumstances are beset against us and we kill their inspiration perhaps because it is easier to live without the burden of longing for more.

I find this oddly inspiring. A tragedy of this magnitude must make people realize what is too valuable to give up.

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in John Steinbeck

 

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Thoughts: East of Eden

East of EdenEast of Eden by John Steinbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel calm…and somehow older; like every two-year-old wants to feel when they ask their millions of questions which adults can’t truly answer because the inquiries are so simple.

A friend of mine recommended East of Eden and touted it as his favorite book which, to him, makes it the best book ever written. Having read it, I don’t necessarily comply with his assessment, nor do I think it the point. It is a rare occurrence to read a book and see the triviality of simply realizing it as a good piece of literature and rather as an insightful and applicable truth. I do understand him better, my relationship to him and, ultimately, my relationship to myself.

At times, the biblical metaphors were both intriguing, like piecing together an elaborate puzzle, and mind-numbingly annoying. The specific references within the narrative were like mosquitoes penetrating an ozone layer of bug spray. However, I think the only way Steinbeck could have avoided this reaction was to shorten the book, not omit certain references. After all, we consider the story of creation, as described in the Book of Genesis, as a cornerstone of our Western culture, but I would think it irresponsible for Steinbeck to assume anything about his readers.

The Genesis stories describe the origin and development of the human beast. As we progress through the Bible, particularly into the next book of Exodus, we find ourselves within the struggle of the human condition. But before being able to properly understand that struggle and that condition, we need to know who we are; what our constitutions are, what are nature is and how our nurture is developed. This is Steinbeck’s focus and at the heart of the discourse is love and the fight between good and evil for the human soul. If Les Miserables is a celebration of the human spirit, than East of Eden is its analysis.

Without spoiling how these stories are represented, I will say that there are symbols for Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and knowledge itself. An even more interesting approach is to consider how these are symbols of symbols, which, when coupled with the generational time lapse of East of Eden, reinforces the idea that these works are about truths, not circumstance or history. Self-absorption can manifest itself in pride and neglect. Faith can blind us to dishonesty and blind love can be both selfless in its affect or self-absorbed in its blindness. Within our natures are both tendencies for good and evil but may choice, not hereditary inheritance, be our governance and set us apart from our fellows. May our own individuation wield the power of our nature in a way we see fit. Such a lonely existence, to be separated from our fellow man in spirit, because of choice, that we find ourselves seeking approval and recompense, perhaps not only to a deity, but to ourselves. One who hates the mean disposition brooding in his breast will relish the love toward a father and lavish gifts on him in return for praise. Others are blessed to please simply by living. And we see ourselves in others; we relate to the self-same conflict waged within them. This is how we know men and, subsequently, ourselves. Such an inseparably shared existence.

I think I may have written as many words in notes while reading this book as there are in it. I have to remember that this is simply a review, my reaction. I feel calm…and somehow older. I’ve contemplated things in the world which are taken for granted. I wasn’t surprised by things in this book, but was filled with a sense of satisfaction of their analysis and presentation. As Genesis describes the nature of these truths, so does East of Eden. There inlies it’s greatest symbolic power.

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in John Steinbeck

 

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Thoughts: The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of WrathThe Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a story about separation, dismemberment. And if it doesn’t piss you off, go own something.

As I neared the end, I wondered how the story would resolve. Naturally, I was ravenous to read how Tom Joad, the great, enlightened hero, would lead a battle against the owners. I wanted to relish the righteous war he would wage. And then I started thinking how I would be absolutely content if I were to see nothing more of Tom through the remainder of the book, if the story remained with Ma. After all, it’s the story of the Joad family. And Ma is the family. As she said, she, as a woman, can adapt and move on, like a jerkless stream, because she thinks with what’s in her arms, not with what’s in her head. Then the commonality between Tom and Ma struck me, and the secret lies with Casy. His theory of the Soul, its largess, how every person is just a piece of a whole. It sounded like Ma’s talk of family, generations passing on a piece of land as one continuing life, as one constant body. If Tom were to be the guardian of the Soul, he would be no different than Ma, the queen of Family.

But that family would break up and mankind would split between the iron bars of progress, the divide between Natural Law and Man’s Law, both designed to serve mankind; the owner and the worker, both desperate to survive in a changing economy; the greedy and the content, both migrants, like the turtle, never stopping and moving towards some unforeseen destiny.

Progress is never content. The fat need fattening and the lean need leaning…but God bless America all the same! Greed and self-advancement are the heart of capital progress and these qualities are hallowed in the Constitution and manifested in Capitalism. And even The West, the American symbol of the Promised Land, is tainted by the same methodology that scarred the homes they came from. But families will continue moving, will never give up on the integrity and reward of an honest days work. And, Lord, what a model of resiliency they are. And, by the way, thanks for not overthrowing our right to overcompensate for our vacuous void of insecurity.

Hey, you got any natural, fundamental needs you need attending to? Well, by all means, attend to them but you gotta pay us. I know, I know…you were able to take care of yourself and yours just fine but, see, we want more money. Oh, you don’t like that? Well, that’s too bad. We could have had a good arrangement, me and you. But just so you know, ’cause I’m an honest businessman, I’d rather just shoot you because, really, you burden my right to own any and everything I please. But since I can’t, at least at the moment but we’re working on passing a law that will afford me that allowance, we’re just going to jail you after funneling you into misdemeanors and felonies. How? Oh, actually it’s quite easy. You gotta sleep, you gotta eat, you need shelter, etc and I can count on you to pursue these things. So all it takes is to own them so it’ll be illegal for you to take them. Oh, wait wait…you’ll love this. This is the best part. We’re going to call this patriotic. Get it? We’re going to call this good business. No? Wait, hear me out, give it a chance. It’s really quite brilliant. There are so many of you, and despite vast expenditures to repress any reactions from you, I need other ways of keeping you at bay. So I simply solicite the general public to help me out! All they have to do is believe in this ideology of ownership and consumption, and they’ll look at you as thieves, beggars and general ignoramuses! Oh no, they won’t feel bad about it because it’s all in the name of patriotism and the American Dream! They’ll think you aren’t playing by the rules! They’ll think you’re lazy and mooching. The only thing we have to do, once this propoganda…oh yeah, sure, we’ll afford you the actual term for it here. It makes no difference to me at this point. Anyhow, once it’s disseminated, I just have to hide your back story, who you are! Or at least make them not care about those things. Of course you can understand we don’t want them seeing you as people. Don’t be silly, man! Or, okay, if you want them to see you as people you have to give me hatred, at least. If you want government relief because you can’t work, you have to let the people hate you and judge you as lazy for it. What? You think they’ll respect you because you’re looking for work? What work? Their work? Like they’ll be okay with that. Cost benefit, man. You heard of it? More competition, lesser cost. I got the system workin’ for me. No, no…it can’t work for us both. Actually, you’re doin’ me a favor by being poor. Then I don’t have to be! Ha, you’re way in over your head. Hypocritical? If I didn’t manipulate Law, the natural order of things, twist the evolved rules of natural morality and write legislation to cater to my benefit, I’d be starving like you! I can’t work the land. I can’t take care of myself. This is eat or be eaten, man, and I’m gonna EAT! Just because you settle for simple, honest lives doesn’t mean I have to. And the law isn’t going to say I have to either! If you don’t like it, why don’t you find the power to change it! Oh, you think you have the power of God and Natural Law? You think you’ll be the ones to endure?

Separation, dismemberment. Not just from land, but from each other. And it can be attributed to greed, insecurity, overcompensation, but all these things are natural among those who are the smallest, the softest. What is unnatural are the laws of ownership in place to split the classes. Ownership in itself is not bad, we’ll say. After all, a tenth of it isn’t the problem. A man who lives on a piece of land can live a life of self-subsistence; feed his family and enjoy an honest days’ labor. If he is lazy and won’t grow any food, they won’t eat. The equation is quite simple because it’s natural. But the corporate laws of ownership are man made to serve a small group of people. The natural laws are manipulated. And they are enforced despite leaving land farrow, ruining food product to protect high prices, driving wages down to a point where a man can’t eat or feed his family. Yes, these are the natural rules of capitalism, which are at complete odds with the natural rule of morality. Please, don’t preach to me about the goodness and moral integrity of capitalism. The roots of selfishness can’t grow selflessness.

We’ve built a social order that defines a good citizen as one who conforms to an arrangement of man-made, power-serving, greed-encouraging laws and rules. A man can’t live by the fruit of his own labor if there’s nowhere to labor, having it all owned and restricted. And a homeless man can’t sleep in a place fit for a man to sleep because laws funnel him into costly hotels and inns, which make money because these laws prevent men from sleeping out under the stars. Does it make sense to define a good citizen by shifty standards and transient laws? Isn’t it better to be a good citizen of humanity as described by natural order and consistent morality?

Put me in a roadside camp. With good people who don’t own anything but a tent, clothes on their back and some pots and pans; who live by a Rule of Law that needs no enforcing. Partner me up with the harmonica blower and I’ll sling my guitar. Let me take care of my own and give me the right to leave others the same freedom. That’s all I ask.

‘Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build, why, I’ll be there’

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in John Steinbeck

 

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