Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Advent Unplugged: The Unbreakable Tree

Advent Unplugged is about enjoying the holiday season with minimal stress.  For me, this meant doing some serious soul-searching about my Christmas tree.  I adore my Christmas tree.  It symbolizes the essence of all that is magical about the holidays.  I have been collecting ornaments for my tree since birth (thanks, mom!) and many of them are absolutely exquisite as well as being packed with sentimental value.

The problem is my son, who possesses a joie de vivre which the casual observer might easily mistake for suicidal tendencies.

Several weeks before the start of Advent, I started having a recurring nightmare in which Buggie tried to climb the tree and I stood rooted in place with horror, watching the whole thing come crashing to the floor.

I couldn't let that happen.

Rather than spending the next four weeks in a state of panic, I took a deep breath and gave my tree over to my children this year.  I created the Unbreakable Tree.

Every single ornament adorning the (surprisingly-realistic-looking) artificial boughs of my tree has been deemed "kid-friendly."  Even the ones up high.  (See above-referenced nightmare about falling trees.)

I was actually surprised by how many nice ornaments I have that won't shatter into a million pieces if they should happen to come flying off their perches.  Brass and sterling reindeer, a carved wooden moose on a sled, rattan woven angels, and engraved pewter bears all made the cut.

The lower branches still house the truly indestructible ornaments -- like the stuffed fabric angel who bears a striking resemblance to a sumo wrestler, the plastic Care Bears on a toboggan, and the carved wooden turtle -- and the children have permission to touch those.  I try to encourage my offspring to leave the ornaments on the tree, but I'm not drawing lines in the sand because then I'd have to spend all my energy enforcing the "no removal" rule!

And my beautiful, fragile ornaments?  Well, some of them are hanging on a small (real) evergreen that is sitting on top of my dresser, well out of range of small inquisitive beings.  And the rest were packed back into their boxes after I lovingly took each one out to admire it briefly.  They'll come out again when my littles are a bit bigger.

Do your kids and your Christmas tree coexist?  What works in your house?

Advent Unplugged

With the weekend's turkey-eating festivities slowly fading into a tryptophan-blurred memory, I'm launching headfirst into the Christmas season.  I love Christmas.  I love the ornaments and caroling and sledding parties and cookies and reindeer and lights.  It makes me all tingly.

This Advent, I'm feeling a strong desire to get intentional about building our Christmas traditions, as Miss Mouse is old enough to enjoy all the activities of the season.  What I want to guard against, however, is Christmas-overload.  The holidays can get frenetic so easily and you can wind up cranky and fried by Christmas morning.  I want to be sure that our celebrations and activities are focused around what's most important to me: making memories with my family.

I'll be posting some of our activities in a series I'm calling "Advent Unplugged."  It's a reminder to me that the holidays are about more than the TV specials which are becoming increasingly prolific by the year.  We're a pretty unplugged family most of the time anyways, and during the holidays, I think this central family value will serve us well, allowing us to spend more time baking cookies, decking the halls, and having impromptu Christmas carol dance parties.  I want more magic and less stress in my holidays this year.

So come along with me as we celebrate the season!

Monday, November 28, 2011

You Can Have My House If You'll Take My Dog

As we made plans for our Thanksgiving adventure, we had a challenge: what to do with the dog?  My aunt is not a Dog Person and to be honest, the addition of a fifty-pound Labrador to a house already filled with 18 people would probably have been less than awesome.

But Riley doesn't like spending time at the kennel.  We tried it only once, nearly five years ago and have never repeated the experience.  And boarding your dog is an expensive proposition, the prospect of which did not fill me with joy.  Sometimes we've been able to have friends and family dog-sit but we were coming up short for this trip.

Then inspiration struck.

I sent out an email to a bunch of parents from our daycare, with the following offer: they were welcome to use our home to house out-of-town guests for the weekend if said guests would be willing to take care of our dog.

It seemed totally reasonable to me and, sure enough, one mom wrote back promptly to take me up on the offer.  It really worked out great.  Her mother and mother-in-law stayed at our house each evening and various family members came over throughout the day to facilitate bathroom breaks and mealtimes for our furball.

Riley avoided the stress of being kenneled.  My friend was able to give herself some breathing room at her house by stashing her relatives at mine.  I didn't have to fork over a couple hundred bucks to let a stranger feed and shelter my dog.  Everybody wins!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Christmas throwback, but with turkey

We spent Thanksgiving at my aunt's house in Cincinnati and it was fabulous.  At our peak, we had eighteen folks milling around the house, four of them under the age of six.  Miss Mouse and Buggie connected with a pair of second cousins they rarely see and were over the moon.  I connected with a pair of first cousins I rarely see and was over the moon.  Josh was fed a variety of strange and unusual foods, but he survived.

What was particularly cool about this trip was that it felt like Christmas from my childhood.  Every year, my mother's siblings (three sisters and a brother) and their kids would gather at my grandparents house for the holidays.  It was everything you could want as a kid: games and singing and cookies and putting on plays and sledding and dogs and cousins and so much love it radiated from the windows and probably kept the neighbors awake.

As we've gotten older, the family still gathers, but we rarely all manage to be in the same place at the same holiday.  It's just harder now with more people and more in-laws to juggle and more distance between us.  And, as we got older, the holidays naturally became more "grown up."  Still fun, but a bit less foolishness as my cousins and I slowly morphed into adults.

But now we're on round two because there's a new crop of little people stampeding around the house.  Having kids around again and a full house of family (four of five of the siblings made it for turkey day) made the visit particularly magical.

We went for walks in the neighborhood and clambered around on a nearby playground, seeing which grownup dared attempt to wedge themselves into the tube slide while Miss Mouse shrieked and egged us on.

I watched my cousin patiently collect leaves with Miss Mouse and help her iron them between layers of waxed paper for a beautiful craft.  And I nearly died laughing as Buggie attempted to play "duck duck goose" with his older cousins, waddling purposefully around the room after them as they raced in circles.

We all crowded around the kitchen table to decorate gingerbread houses, the adults carefully creating "terracotta" roof tiles out of sliced gum drops while the kids joyously and haphazardly slathered icing and  candy bits onto all available surfaces (including the table).

There was music, of course.  When my family gathers, music ensues.  My ninety-one-year-old grandpa and my mom and uncle performed a few numbers that included violin, piano, voice, guitar, and harmonica at various points.  And we all sang a few Christmas carols because -- why not?  Watching Buggie toddle around from lap to lap brought back a lot of memories of wrangling my younger cousins at holidays gone by.

And we ate.  A lot.  There was soup and homemade bread and turkey and mashed potatoes and baked goods by the thousands.  Scones and muffins and cookies and fudge and quick breads.  Egg casseroles in the morning and honey-baked ham sandwiches at whatever hour you needed to munch on something.

After the kids were in bed, the grown-ups talked politics and played a few fast and furious rounds of Bananagrams, my cousins and I shuffling our tiles frantically while our parents looked on and shouted out suggestions.

It was awesome.  It's exactly what I want from my holidays.  And it's a big part of why I have always wanted to have a big family.  Holidays are meant to be shared.  You're supposed to cram your house full of food and family and laughter because you know that the memories you're creating are what it's all about.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Preschool Perspective

Here's yet another example of how having children enriches your life experiences.  I am excited about seeing my family for Thanksgiving.

Miss Mouse, on the other hand, is borderline manic in her excitement.

She has been bouncing off the walls for days, delirious at the prospect of seeing her grandparents, aunts, and cousins.  All of her teachers at school (and some who aren't even her teachers) know all about her aunt: where she lives, what her house is like, what her cat's name is, and that we're bringing cookies and muffins to share with her.

It's infectious.  My own enthusiasm about the weekend piggy-backs on hers and I find myself bouncing up and down on my toes at the prospect of the gathering.

We've been in countdown mode since the weekend.  It went like this: "Today is Sunday.  Tomorrow is Monday.  You'll go to school.  Then the next day is Tuesday and you'll go to school again. Then on Wednesday, when we pick you up from school, we'll go to Thanksgiving."

And, at last, the much-anticipated day has arrived.  Oh joy!  Oh bliss!  My daughter woke up in full Thanksgiving frenzy and was on her best behavior at breakfast.  She shooed me out the door at school with a chipper "hurry!" -- presumably assuming that the faster I went to work, the faster I'd come back.

Thus we're off.  I've got my millions of muffins and other assorted baked goods, way more wardrobe options than necessary and a large (but still probably not large enough) box of activities to keep my children occupied in the car and to (hopefully) prevent them from destroying either themselves or my aunt's house this weekend.  Onward!*

* And if you're a weirdy reading this and thinking my house is empty and easy picking for a little Black Friday break-in: think again.  Our house is actually inhabited, thank-you-very-much (blog forthcoming).  So bugger off.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Philosophy of Baked Goods

When it comes to baked goods, I have a pretty simple mantra: Go Big or Go Home.  As long as you've got the ingredients out, why not double the recipe?  Or make a couple variations?  Cookies, muffins, and scones all freeze well so there's really no down side to have a lot of baked bread products on hand.

I took a few hours off work this afternoon so that I could dedicate myself to baking.  I'd been tasked with bringing some edibles to my family's Thanksgiving festivities and I took the challenge seriously.  And when I take time off work, I expect to have something to show for it.  Like nine dozen muffins.

I've got several dozen in the freezer for future breakfasts, several dozen packed and ready to head West tomorrow, and a few set aside to share with co-workers.  There's two varieties in there: pumpkin chocolate chip and spicy sausage and corn.

I've got pumpkin spice scones in the freezer and the world's best sugar cookies (cut into turkeys, leaves, and pumpkins) drying on my dining room table.  Oh yes, we'll be eating well this weekend.

Monday, November 21, 2011

My Son's Decision-Making: A Flowchart

He may only be 14 months old (almost) but my son has a pretty sophisticated decision-making protocol.  It looks something like this:

I don't know if it's because he's the second-born or if it's because he's a boy, but my son appears to be lacking some sort of common-sense mechanism possessed by normal human beings.

He's like a two-and-a-half foot tall Evel Knievel.  Without the motorcycle (thank goodness).  He tries to chew on my computer cord.  He launches himself face-first off of couches, beds, and playground equipment.  He routinely attempts to stick his finger into light sockets -- after pulling out whatever was previously plugged in.

And he climbs.  Oh, lord, he climbs.  Onto chairs, over barricades, onto bookshelves.  He seems to believe his family lineage includes Spiderman.  It doesn't.

When he's on an exploratory rampage, Josh and I are never quite sure whether to laugh hysterically or frantically chase after him holding pillows!

He looks harmless.  Don't believe it.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mousie See Mousie Do

After just over a year of big sisterdom, Miss Mouse has picked up some good mommy moves (like bossing her little brother around, curtailing his activities).  It's fun to watch her mothering her baby dolls.  She is so tender and solicitous.

She takes her dolls for walks around the living room, waving jauntily and announcing that they're off to the zoo together.  She changes their diapers, announcing with zeal that "Annie pooped all over the floor!  Eww!"

And she snuggles.  That's the part I can't get enough of.  Watching her rock her baby dolls, telling them stories, makes my heart sing.  Every time.

Friday, November 18, 2011

All Kinds of Bossy

Miss Mouse has adored her baby brother since the moment we brought him home.  Thank goodness.  I'm not quite sure how I would have handled any requests to return him to whatever cabbage patch he came from.  No, if anything, my son is most at risk from death by excessive love.  She hugs, she squeezes, she sits on him and bounces affectionately.

Lately, she's working on honing her maternal instincts.  She's decided that she needs to take care of her little brother, keep him on the straight and narrow.

In short, she's morphed into the most bossy three-year-old tyrant you've ever seen.

"Buggie," she snaps.  "I've told you three times to stop taking my toys.  I told you!  Uh oh.  I'm sorry.  Now I have to take this toy and put it away."

Or she'll pull out that great motherly line that I fear she learned from me -- "Buggie, I'm going to count to three..."

She's also taken to following him around the room, preventing him for engaging in any unsafe behaviors.  Like climbing stairs.  Or pulling books off the shelf.  Or walking.  Unfortunately for Buggie, her most common rescue maneuver is to grab him around the neck and pull him down to the floor.

But her mom moves have a sweet side, too.  When Buggie cries, big sister is at his side in a flash.  "It's okay, baby brother," she coos as she chokes him with enthusiastic hugs, "Big sister is here."

It's pretty awesome.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Redemptive Cuteness

When she's in a bad mood, my firstborn is a force to be reckoned with.  And she has a whine that could make Mother Theresa strangle someone (like her).

But when it comes to total, complete, stop-you-in-your-tracks cuteness?  She's got that down, too.

And it's pretty hard to stay mad at a three-year-old sporting a winsome smile, a set of bangle bracelets, a flower lei...and a pig nose.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Learning with Fruit Leather

Last weekend, Josh and I spent much of Saturday at an adoption conference which -- mercifully, blessedly, thankfully -- provided free childcare to attendees.  The conference ran from 8am to 1pm so we were asked to send a lunch for the munchkins.

This gave me the opportunity to pack a bento box, a project I hadn't undertaken in a while.  (Well, actually I packed two - Buggie got his very own, virtually identical lunch in his very own purple bento box.)  Miss Mouse was thrilled to be able to carry her lunchbox with her on this grand adventure and I didn't let her peek inside before dropping her off.

When she popped open the lid, the following repast awaited:

Sunbutter and Jelly Sandwich Fingers (no crusts, of course)
Mandarin Oranges
"Shark Fish" crackers
Strawberry Cereal Bar
Juice Box

And...some artfully cut fruit leather.  It's cheesy and silly but I am a huge fan of using cookie cutters on fruit leather.  It just adds such a nice touch to the lunch.  Plus, Miss Mouse can practice her letters!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Dreaded Headache

I've added a new trick to my "bag-o-parenting-tools" -- the Dreaded Headache.  It's proving to be quite effective in my War Against the Whine.  Miss Mouse whines.  A lot.  All the time.  Constantly.  When she's not whining, she's sobbing piteously about some perceived injustice, slight, or life-ending disaster (including but not limited to: a Cheerio that fell out of her bowl, not being asked what flavor yogurt she wanted for dinner, being asked to share her toys with her brother, being asked to wear underpants, and being licked by the dog).

It's wearying.

I needed some sort of consequence that I could dole out in these circumstances that was logical.  One of the central tenants of the Love and Logic school of discipline is that the punishment needs to make sense to the miscreant.  The idea is for the consequence to derive so naturally from the behavior that the misbehaving child has no way to blame anyone but herself for what happens.  I want to try to keep her from getting mad at me because if she can blame me, she won't learn.  I need her to blame herself.

My first successful application of the Dreaded Headache happened about a week ago.  Josh was at a meeting and bedtime didn't go well in his absence.  Miss Mouse was a massive pain in the rear as I tried to put her little brother to bed -- stomping, pouting, and wailing outside his door the whole time.  Thanks, sweetie.

When I finally got Buggie tucked in, Miss Mouse instantly asked to do puzzles, which is what we usually do post-Buggie bedtime.

"Oh, honey," said I.  "My head hurts so much from all that whining and crying that I just can't do puzzles right now.  I need to lie down.  What a bummer."

She was instantly filled with remorse, but I stood firm for a few minutes.  Then, inspiration "struck."

"Oh!  Miss Mouse!  Do you know what might make my head feel better?  If you put away all the music toys into their box in the living room all by yourself."

She didn't like this plan and tried to cajole me into helping her, but I wasn't budging.  And, lo and behold, after fussing for a minute she set to work, cleaning up the living room.  When she was done, I proclaimed my headache cured and we did a puzzle together.

And thus the Dreaded Headache was born. It was beautiful.  She couldn't really get mad at me for having a headache when she was the cause of the headache.  A grown-up would probably see right through this, but to a three-year-old, it makes perfect sense.

 The Dreaded Headache has appeared a few times since and now I can sometimes get away with just invoking its specter -- "Ooooh.  My head is starting to hurt from that whining..." -- and she'll shape up.

Is it a magic cure?  Is the whining gone forever?  Not hardly.  The key to all parenting, I'm learning, is consistency.  I'm making a concerted effort to nip the whining in the bud each and every time (which is exhausting) and am hoping it makes a difference!

Friday, November 11, 2011

I feel like a million bucks, but I only paid eight

What is it about new clothes?  They have the magical ability to put a spring in my step, make the weather better, and cause my children to behave.  Or at least it feels that way.

I love to shop, but these days I'm living on a budget that doesn't allow for much retail therapy.  But for my birthday last weekend, I treated myself to a little shopping spree.  I cashed in some credit card points for a GAP gift card and my fabulous husband gave me an Ann Taylor gift card.  But his real gift was agreeing to watch the kiddos at home while my aunt and I hit the outlet mall together.

Oh, outlet malls.  How do I love thee?

I know not everyone does, but I usually have great luck at an outlet mall.  Two examples from this weekend.  At the GAP, I discovered some exquisite v-neck sweaters for $15 (down from $50).  I found myself torn between a few colors.  The easy answer?  By all three.

Then there were the Ann Taylor blouses that were marked down to $8 from $49.99.  Be still my heart.

That's not me (notice the long hair).
But I look almost that good in that shirt...
The fact that I was buying clothes one size smaller than virtually everything I own took the experience from "fun" to "fantastic."  Size 10 jeans and blouses and medium sweaters for the first time since I got pregnant almost four years ago.  

I don't have any illusions that it's going to be easy to stay this size.  I'm 30 now, remember?  The days of easy weight loss are gone, if they ever really existed.  I've gotten pretty lazy about eating light (the pumpkin cake for my birthday was divine), but I'm in a really good rhythm for exercise.  I hit the elliptical machine hard at least five days a week so I'm holding my own for now.

And I've got the new clothes to prove it!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fish Fish and Remembering

Have you ever tried to play an organized game with a three-year-old?  Not a game of "let's make fruit and fish soup in the play kitchen while singing songs and wearing a fireman's hat."  That's easy.  I'm talking about an actual game with actual rules.  Like Go Fish, for example.

Hercules, eat your heart out.  Your challenges got nothing on this one.

I bought Miss Mouse a Disney Princess Go Fish deck, mostly for the pictures.  A few days ago, Josh managed to get her to hold still long enough to (sort of) learn how to play.  And now she wants to play "Fish Fish" all the time.  She and Josh seem to do really well at it.  I see them perched on the couch studying their cards and hear her chirp "Do you have any Belles, daddy?"

When I try to play with her, I feel like my head is going to explode.  She fidgets and sits on her cards, scattering them everywhere.  She insists on asking for cards she doesn't have.  She gets mad when I get a pair.  It makes me crazy.

I suspect that the problem is more on my end than hers.  She's three.  And me?  I'm incredibly competitive and rule-oriented when it comes to games.  And that makes it hard for me to have the patience to play with her.  Josh, on the other hand, is completely laid back about games (which is why he refuses to play them with me) and is happy to go with the flow.

I think this also explains why he is the only one who can teach her things like the rules to Go Fish.  I want her to listen carefully as I explain the rules, then follow them.  Ha.  She senses my need for order and responds with chaos.  For Josh, she listens.

The same problem occurs when I try to play "Memory" with her.  You know, the game where you put a bunch of pairs of cards face down then flip them over two at a time, trying to remember where the matches are.  She is actually incredibly good at it.  It's eerie.  She can be only half paying attention but when you say -- "Now, where was the other tiger?" -- she instantly picks it out...

...when she's playing with Josh.  When she's playing with me, she starts frenetically overturning cards, blatantly disregarding the rule that you can only turn over two at a time.  Oh, the pain.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Buggie and Miss Mouse have entered a new phase in their relationship.  It's the "Buggie is now big enough to fight back when pushed, pulled, sat-upon, or otherwise abused by his sister" phase.  I suspect this new dynamic will be the status quo for the next twenty or so years, with the only potential change taking the form of escalation.

While 85% of the time they get along swimmingly, the remaining 15% of their interactions go something like this:

Buggie is sitting by himself with a toy or book.

Miss Mouse comes over and takes said toy or book.

With shocking speed and hand-eye coordination, Buggie reaches out, takes a firm grip on Miss Mouse's hair, and pulls.  Hard.

Miss Mouse shrieks and shoves Buggie.

Buggie shoves back.

Miss Mouse lunges for Buggie, only to be restrained by Mommy who separates the combatants.

And, repeat.

For now, Miss Mouse has the upper hand.  She's stronger and bigger than he is and if she wants him to stay in a laundry basket, by gum, he's stuck.

But, Miss Mouse only outweighs her baby brother by about seven pounds so I suspect her days of supremacy are numbered.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Big 30

I turned 30 today.

It's a milestone birthday, I suppose, marking the end of my carefree youth (as if the stretch marks and gray hairs hadn't already done that).  I'm well and truly a grown up now!

I actually had no problems making the transition.  I know plenty of friends who struggled with their thirtieth birthdays, but I'm ready to embrace a new decade.  After all, I feel like I've accomplished a lot in the past ten years...

...I graduated from college.

...I graduated from seminary.

...I spent a year abroad, learned a new language, and mastered the art of riding side-saddle on a motorcycle while wearing a sari.

...I got married.

...I welcomed a rescue dog into my home and my heart.

...I got my first job.

...I had a child.

...Then another one.

...I got a new job (which I love).

...I laughed, cried, danced, sang, rocked babies, wiped noses, cooked dinners, baked cookies, read stories, wrote blogs, played hide-and-seek, and jumped into leaf piles.

If all that happened in the last ten years, can you imagine what the next ten will bring?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Baby-Led Solids: The Final Verdict

Now that Buggie is well and truly weaned -- no bottle, no bink -- it seemed like a good moment for some final reflections on our baby-led solids adventure.  If you missed the start of this conversation, take a look back at the premise of baby-led solids as well as the history of baby food.  It's fascinating stuff.

Having read up on the topic, I became a convert to the school of baby-led solids and Buggie never had any baby food.  Seven months later, would I do it that way again?

Heck Yeah.

I'm not just a convert anymore.  I'm a zealot.  I cannot fathom why I ever spent hours pureeing food for Miss Mouse and I'm appalled by the baby food industry in general.  The price, the questionable ingredients, the price, the nasty flavor combos -- did I mention the price?  Plus, baby-led solids just worked so darned well.  Buggie started right in on bananas, graduated quickly to pasta, and has never looked back.

I see three main benefits to the BLS approach, at least in terms of how it impacted our family:

1) Family Dinners Work Earlier -- It took us a long time to incorporate Miss Mouse into our family dinners.  It wasn't until she was really comfortable eating "table food" that we included her in meals.  For many months, her non-bottle dining was done solo, strapped into her high chair while I spoon fed her stuff in the kitchen.  We ate after she was in bed.  It was just easier that way, rather than trying to coax spoonfuls of mush into her mouth while also trying to eat myself.

Buggie joined the dinner table immediately.  Some of this is probably second-baby syndrome, but since he was managing his own meals from the start, it was no big deal to pull his high chair up to the table and let him gnaw on his food while we had ours.  Family dinners are really good things, so I'm thrilled that he was able to be a part of them early on.

2) It's Just So Easy -- Making baby food isn't hard.  You cook some fruits and/or veggies and puree them in a blender.  But it is definitely more work than just slapping some of whatever you're eating on a plate for your offspring!  Granted, we had to do some tweaking to our meals early on to be sure that the pieces we served were Buggie-approved (big enough to hold, soft enough to gum, etc.), but on the whole BLS made dinnertime prep a snap.

3) BLS Promotes Adventurous Eating -- Buggie will eat anything (including injera).  Miss Mouse eats virtually nothing.  Some of that is personality.  But I firmly believe that the BLS approach has helped mold Buggie into the food-lover that he is.  He loves to eat.  He wants to try everything and gets mad if he spots a side dish that isn't on his plate.  It brings me endless joy to watch him pack away with gusto the dinners I prepare.

Miss Mouse's biggest stumbling block is that she Will Not Try New Things.  She won't put them in her mouth.  And she's been that way since she was first eating table food.  Buggie, on the other hand, has always had the freedom to explore his food.  He was never "force fed" anything.  He picked things up.  He licked them.  He spit them back out.  He sniffed them.  He rubbed them on his head.  It's all led to a fascination with food and a willingness to try just about anything.

I suspect there may be other side benefits as well.  Buggie has really good hand-eye coordination and I wonder if that may also be a product of manipulating his food from an early age.  You have to develop decent coordination to get a piece of food into your mouth.

Somehow I doubt there will be a revolution against the baby food companies anytime soon, but I've convinced a couple friends to try baby-led solids so I feel like I've done my part for the movement!

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