Mon pays

Posted by Marlinee on Jun 25, 2017 in Middle Age

Courtesy of my friends at CBC radio today, I was reminded (if I ever knew in the first place) that our national anthem is a French song that didn’t have English words until 1907 and the version we learned in the 1960s is quite different than the version millennials sing today and furthermore, didn’t even become our official national anthem until 1980. But that is not really our topic today. All of the talk about the history of O Canada and the related subject of the importance of music in the political and national fabric of Quebec reminded me of my French immersion course in the 1970s.

With all of the logic the Federal government could muster, the location chosen to transform us to French fluency was the Scarborough outpost of the University of Toronto. I had only been to Toronto once or twice before but even I knew that Scarborough was not actually Toronto. This location was probably chosen so that bright lights and night life would not distract us from our ‘devoirs’.

Despite our decidedly non-French environs, the program did manage to immerse us in la langue Francais pretty much 24/7. It was kind of a cross between a weird summer camp and a minimum security prison. We had all meals together in a dining hall and they took attendance, even at dinner. We also had assigned tables which made it kind of obvious if someone was AWOL. Each table took turns being the wait staff – taking orders from the menu (of course we had a menu and we even had wine at dinner – this was as full a French immersion as you could get) and bussing the tables. Each night one table was also responsible for the evening entertainment (also not optional). You have not lived until you have experienced the French translation of the ‘Ivory Soap’ skit or a rousing version of “Ne jettez pas votre jonque dans mon arriere-cour”.

Since this was an urban location, our daytime activities did not involve swimming, boating or outdoor survival skills. Instead, we had a roster of classes to attend. However, rather than drilling us on grammar and vocabulary from text books, our language acquisition took place while learning yoga (les salutations au soleil) and macramé. I also took ballet, which was my designated bird course as it did not require learning any new French words.

Another regular activity was the classic camp singalong. But no Kumbaya or rowing boats ashore here. We were issued a booklet of Quebec songs, whose topics ranged from wives trying to keep the home fires burning in the dark and cold of winter to people banished from their homeland for crimes of loyalty. In other words, spanning the gamut from depressing to really depressing.

Prior to my immersion experience, I knew where to find my aunt’s pen and how to converse with people who were on strike (one of the stranger scenarios that were included in our French textbook in Grade 5). Anyone who experienced this curriculum also has the secret handshake of referring to the second level in a parking garage as ‘the little dog’. But I digress. The songs of Quebec taught me a whole new level of vocabulary about the hardship of being a European pioneer in ‘the land God gave to Cain’, the equal parts of reverence for and hatred of winter, and of course about lumberjacks. Gens du pays, c’est votre tour
De vous laisser parler d’amour.



Garden Party

Posted by Marlinee on Jun 20, 2017 in Houses

Unfortunately, I have recently come to the conclusion that I like the idea of gardening more than actual gardening. I don’t know why this is only a recent revelation because the blatant indications that I am not as enthusiastic a gardener as I imagine myself to be have been evident for some time. Like, for example, the fact that I don’t often plant things or weed things or even water things. But that did not deter me from creating a vegetable garden this year, or at least a plot of land where theoretically vegetables could grow if they decided to but so far the garden jury is still sequestered.

I am told (by the back of the seed package) that lettuce and spinach are a cinch to grow and are so prolific that you can manufacture several crops a season. Except if it is too cold, too hot, too wet, or too dry. Oh, and unless there is nothing around that likes spinach and lettuce sprouts (which is apparently anything that breathes). But so far no worries about unauthorized scarfing of al fresco salad because of the thousands of seeds (or maybe just hundreds – they are too small to count accurately) I have planted in tidy rows, not a single one shows signs of ‘leafage’.

The beans, on the other hand, are showing some promise although I have just jinxed them by saying that out loud. In case you didn’t know (and I certainly didn’t) bean seeds look exactly like dried beans. I mean like the kind of beans you make baked beans with, something I find a little disconcerting because this must mean whenever you eat baked beans or black bean soup or chickpea salad you are eating scores of proto-bean plants. And remember your mother telling you not to put beans in your ear (because really, isn’t every child’s inclination to put beans in their ear)? Based on my bean plants, you probably really would have had leaves growing out of the side of your head if you hadn’t toed the line on that one. Just sayin’.

I also planted radishes. I don’t know why because I don’t really like them, so of course they are coming up really well. The seed man says you are supposed to thin them out when they get a few leaves on them, but based on other progress I figured I’d never get to that step. So imagine my surprise when they all popped up hale and hearty the other day. Of course about nine tenths of the way through the thinning (and flinging of the ‘thinage’ towards the edges of the back forty) I realized what I had was ‘radish sprouts’ and not just radish sprouts but the organic kind that cost about $12.95 for a handfull at Whole Foods. Never mind.

Anyhow, as long as the rain does the watering for me, the forest critters do the thinning for me and the plants grow higher than the weeds I think maybe I’ll ace this gardening thing. And maybe I’ll learn to like radishes.

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Food, glorious food

Posted by Marlinee on Jun 17, 2017 in Middle Age

I clearly have too much time on my hands because I’m pretty sure normal people’s first thought when going grocery shopping is how the store should be reorganized to make it more logical. I’m not talking about the ‘merchandizing strategies’ that place random promotions at the end of the aisle or filter you through the expensive sections of the store like an Ikea maze before you can get to the eggs and milk. I am talking about the basics of shelving taxonomies. As a public service, I am happy to provide some suggestions free of charge.

Pet food is usually near the cleaning products section. Except when it isn’t. Sometimes it is in the same aisle as the diapers and other child paraphernalia. Come to think of it, the latter makes marginally more sense since many people treat their pets like fur children. And since pet food is a distinct category and doesn’t usually require both sides of a full aisle I am okay with the notion that it needs to be shelved beside something that probably won’t have any immediate association with cats or dogs. My simple request is to standardize on a location so it doesn’t take half an hour to run in for a bag of cat chow.

Is coconut milk canned milk or is it an ‘ethnic food’? This must be one of those existential questions that even Plato couldn’t solve if ‘ethnic food’ had been a thing back in his day because even Mr. Loblaw, with all of his 21st century knowhow and grocery smarts goes back and forth between the two. Sometimes when I stride confidently towards the coffee aisle (you know, where they keep the canned milk except when they keep it with the baking supplies which is also where you will find the sugar except when it’s with the coffee, but I digress) coconut milk is nowhere to be found. And anyhow, have we not entered a ‘post ethnic food’ era? Given the fact you can buy sushi at a gas station convenience store and fried chicken at a Chinese restaurant, I think we have jumped that particular shark. (Please note: just because you can get sushi at a gas station does not mean you or anyone else should actually buy it. Just sayin’.)

The produce section is a significant piece of work on its own so I think I will have to rescind my pro bono offer and charge my normal daily rate. However, I will provide a few observations to get us started. First, tofu appears to be considered produce. This may be a radical suggestion, but since tofu is a protein and requires refrigeration perhaps it should be kept with the other refrigerated protein aka the meat section. Second can we please all agree on which vegetables sit beside which other vegetables. Stores usually get the potato and onion brotherhood right but finding shallots can be like finding Waldo. And often as not bag-o-salad is nowhere near the heads of lettuce, but come to think of it maybe that’s because the assumption is there are two types of people: those that think salad comes from bags and those that are more culinarily advanced. Further, some stores do not subscribe to the concept that the produce section should contain a standard selection of items. Like, for example, the store I was recently at that did not believe in eggplant. Oh wait – maybe I should have looked in the Italian section (which is usually right next to the canned fish, which by the way is not where the anchovies live…)



I love a rainy night

Posted by Marlinee on Jun 15, 2017 in Houses

I don’t really love a rainy night except that if it is going to rain (and so far this summer promises to be a rainy one) it might as well rain at night rather than during the day. I don’t mind the straight down downpours that are kind of like a tropical rainy season drenching – quick to start and quick to finish – although a long slow drizzle is probably more appreciated by the tomato plants. But when it starts getting really dark on the horizon and thunder is rumbling around the lake things can never end well. That’s because all it seems to take is the hint of a thunderstorm to whack out the power.

Take last night for example. The sky was as clear as could be. The sunset was in ‘sailor’s delight’ mode. The Devil Wears Prada was cued up in the DVD player. And the power went out. All I can figure is that somewhere in the continent or hemisphere or planet there was thunder and lightning. It was out last Sunday too, with nary a hint of anything that could be considered inclement weather.

All of this to say that power outages for no discernable reason are the norm and likely to stay that way so there is no choice but to adapt. You would think the ultimate adaptation is a generator. You would be partly right. We do have a generator of sorts but the most you can really do is plug in the fridge to forestall freezer meltdown. And if you have ever heard a generator (indeed, the first inkling of an outage is the rising Greek chorus of sputtering hum in the air) or smelled a generator you will understand why it isn’t a good solution unless you go whole hog with the super-duper failover model that costs about ten times as much as the annual electricity bill.

A more practical adaptation is the side burner on the propane barbeque. Granted, in a pinch you could put a pot or pan on the barbeque grill itself but do not attempt this with cookware that doesn’t have oven-proof handles. Or if you do, you’ll only do it once, unless you are me and need a few remedial lessons for a concept to fully sink in. At least the side burner is designed for a stovetop function. The danger zone is the fact the barbeque (especially the big honking ones like mine) is geared to a certain minimum level of BTUs. Unless you turn the burner down to a bare whisper of flame you will incinerate the bottom of your pan and its contents. So make sure to heat things low and slow. And when you transfer the contents to a plate or bowl for civilized presentation at the table and it cools down while you wrangle the rest of the meal on the BBQ proper, don’t wonder why the microwave isn’t working when you try to reheat it.

The power will usually come on eventually, at which point it is time to run around and reset the appliance clocks and the clock clocks. Thanks to the 21st century, there is now an adaptation for this too. My new bedside clock is a wonder of modern science. It projects the time on the ceiling or wall so you know what time it is when you wake up in the middle of the night, which seems like a good idea except the brightness of the disembodied numbers does a good job of keeping you awake until the middle of the night. Fortunately, this is only a problem when the power is on. The more useful feature is the clock’s ability to automatically reset the time when power clicks back in. I am not sure I really want to know what extraterrestrial capabilities it contains that allow it to communicate to some subatomic clock that is probably located on a satellite somewhere. What I do want to know is why the time in outer (or maybe it’s inner) space is five minutes faster than the time here on earth (at least according to the official time signal, which I kind of thought was – you know – the official time). On second thought, let’s just leave this one in the realm of life’s mysteries for now. I don’t have time to figure it out. I’m too busy resetting clocks.



Counting crows

Posted by Marlinee on May 29, 2017 in Houses

I feel like I am about to become the Tippi Hedron character in The Birds – and we all know how that ends. This being spring (for a few weeks more), the birds are still returning. Although they don’t need to spend money on a condo south of the border, neither do they need to invest in cottage real estate. Anywhere and everywhere here is their summer home, and of course that is generally a good thing. Until you start experiencing the dark underbelly of bird behavior. There is a reason why we call them a ‘murder of crows’.

It seems that birds are much more territorial than I have previously given them credit for. And yes, I know I just ended a sentence with a preposition, for which I will not apologize. The large black birds currently staking a claim on my island sovereignty sound like crows but must certainly be ravens. I am not the most accurate judge of weight of bodies other than my own (and even in that case my wish might under-weigh my reality) but based on their choice of tree limb I would clock them in at five pounds minimum with wing spans of about four feet. And their underbellies are as dark as a new moon night.

Perhaps the cats have prompted this display of avian dominance because they have been alternating between sunbathing on the front deck and cooling off in the shadows of the woods – mostly in full view of any airborne potential predators. Dennis seems to believe he can certainly take them on, and his weight class would normally bear that out except that his lift off capacity leaves something to be desired.

The birds I really wait for are the woodpecker(s), the heron(s) and the owl(s). It is always so hard to figure out how many of each variety actually exist or even which generation is currently in residence. We always call the heron ‘the heron’ although there must be more than one and it must include both a Mr. and Mrs. Heron. Regardless, he/she/them are present and accounted for and hopefully working on next gen herons.

I have not seen my favourite classic Woody Woodpecker yet but I have heard him. This is not a good health report for some of the trees but all part of the cycle of the forest. Yesterday I incinerated some tent caterpillars, which on second thought may not have been the environmentally correct thing to do because I think Woody might have liked them. My bad.

But (with all due apologies to the loons), the owl is at the top of my hit parade. He/she is rarely seen but often heard in the wee hours hooting away with a general air of entitlement. When Henry was young and skulking in the night I was a little concerned I might see an orange fuzzy blur being whisked across the night sky to provide a tasty snack for tiny owlets. I no longer have delusions of owl felineicide and wait in anticipation of that first owl ‘hearing’ on a still, soft night.

The cat chattering and raven mocking all ended in a temporary détente. I am pretty sure they are regrouping to wake me up at four in the morning. If Dennis doesn’t beat them to it.

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Sitting at the dock

Posted by Marlinee on May 21, 2017 in Houses

I am pleased to report that the dock spider(s) have successfully emerged from hibernation. At least I assume they hibernate because surely nothing could grow that big in the few days without frost running up to the long weekend. I have no idea where they go for their long winter’s nap. It can’t be under the dock because I don’t think the ice and snow would be a very habitable place. And actually, I don’t really want to know where they hang out in the off season, except if I did know I could torch them into oblivion while they were helplessly snoozing until spring. But on second thought that would be a waste of time because there is some sort of weird jungle drum communication system between docks and dock spiders and a new family would move in while the vacancy sign was still swinging. Unfortunately, the dock didn’t survive the winter as successfully as the spiders. But don’t be too concerned about the spider habitat – only one section suffered ice damage so there is still ample real estate to go around to much relief for everyone concerned.

The mice also seem to be sticking to their normal habitat after their entry point was thwarted last fall. No rampant mouse winter partying this year. Unfortunately, contrary to popular belief, mice do not automatically detect the presence of cats and run the other way. Our mice brazenly steal cat chow and hide it for future use in the stove, under the furniture and (my particular favourite) in my shoes. The cats on the other hand are oblivious to any mouse that breaches the perimeter. Good thing they never fulfilled their birthright as barn cats because that would not have ended well.

In other news, on the gardening front I am overjoyed to have produced enough rhubarb to make a pie for Thumbelina. In everyone else’s garden rhubarb runs rampant. Or at least I hope this was the case for everyone else because then I would get enough castoffs to last all summer. The chives are happy though, and the cats will be too if the catnip decides to germinate. Still way too early to tell if the new raised bed garden will rally forth with produce abundance, but surely at least one of the forty tomato plantlets will survive to adulthood. I may be having a giant BLT party in August. Either that or a giant pity party.

Otherwise all is well in cottage land. True to form for the May long weekend, the fireplace is lit, the sky is dark with drizzle and the air rings with the sound of power tools trying to right winter wrongs. Too early for the onslaught of pleasure boaters buzzing the shoreline. Too early for late night bonfires. Too early for sweaty jumps into the lake. But just the right time to sit with a cup of tea, gaze out to the spring green forest and be sure that summer will be on its way and then gone faster than you can roast a marshmallow.



Doing the wave

Posted by Marlinee on Apr 23, 2017 in Middle Age

The home version of the microwave oven turned fifty this year. Although the industrial microwave oven has been around since 1947, we did not get the chance to add it to the list of standard kitchen appliances until 1967. The delay in ‘retailization’ was of course due to getting the price down to consumer budgets, although at $495 U.S. you could hardly argue that a microwave was not a luxury item except they did argue that it was a kind of a patriotic necessity during the energy crisis of the 1970’s.

And aside from the respite offered for the electrical grid, the microwave was also touted as a time saving device. Imagine being able to cook a roast of beef in half an hour instead of two hours! Unfortunately, the ‘roast’ ended up looking more like a light grey blob than a mahogany crusted masterpiece, which meant the fantasy of cooking and entire dinner from scratch in the microwave was very short lived.

As well, anyone who has done anything other than reheat a cup of coffee in the microwave knows that its claim as a time saving device is rather dubious. That’s because you are a slave to the timer countdown for the duration of whatever you are trying to cook, courtesy of the constant stirring, rotating and readjusting required in order not to end up with frazzled food on the roof of the oven or searing hot edges and tepid middles. In contrast, once you throw something in the regular oven you can get right back to your Harlequin Romance and not give dinner another thought until the buzzer goes. Or even better, the slowcooker plods away from morning to night giving you the satisfaction of being ‘busy’ cooking while binge watching Orange is the New Black.

And yet the ubiquity of the microwave prevails. By 1986 – roughly when I got my first massive microwave and when the price had dropped considerably – 30% of all households had one. Now it is positively weird to see a kitchen without a microwave shelf or cubbyhole built-in. But when you think about it, the amount of kitchen real estate relegated to this appliance is inversely proportionate to its role in the food processing and preparation continuum.

The things I do with my microwave probably look a lot like the things all of us do: reheat soup, reheat yesterday’s leftover mac and cheese, reheat the dregs of my tea, melt chocolate and melt butter. I do branch out for more culinary purposes by making scratch white sauces (try it – it is awesome) and packaged sauces (Swiss Chalet experience at home – a party in your mouth) but that is pretty much it. Doing the math, I would have to say my microwave gets used about three minutes per week. The extended math would place the cost per use at something like 50 cents per minute, which mean my microwave earns the equivalent of 30 bucks per hour based on a standard work day.

When Amana introduced the first ‘radar range’ for home use, they called it “the greatest cooking discovery since fire”. Thanks Amana, but I think I’ll stick to fire.

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All the colours in the world

Posted by Marlinee on Apr 2, 2017 in Middle Age

I swear this is not related to April Fools. Indeed, if it was a joke it is far too cruel a one to be played on April 1. In case you missed the news, Crayola is retiring the ‘dandelion’ crayon from the box of 24. Apparently, this is only the third instance of booting a crayon off the colour chart since 1903 when they first came on the market, which should be a general indication that Crayola doesn’t commit crayonicide with abandon. But when you delve a little deeper into the history of crayon ‘retirement’ things take a bit of a sinister turn.

Dandelion is of course a yellow hue. The list of previously ditched colours reads like this: maize (sounds pretty yellow to me), raw umber (usually connoting a yellowish brownish colour darker than ochre), and orange yellow (which even has yellow in its name!). It does not take advanced powers of deduction to see what is playing out here: a yellow-toned fatwa.

A new box of crayons is a thing of beauty. All those pristine cones of colours in fresh colour-coordinated wrappers just waiting to be ground to a grubby nub. Or at least some of the colours end up ground to a grubby nub and others languish in the box, unable to find a purpose in life. Over their lifetime of availability, crayons have been packed in boxes of 2 up to 200. The 200 package was a bit of an anomaly as it also contained ‘special effect’ versions like glitter and neon, which of course have no business even calling themselves crayons. But I digress. Currently the sizes available are 8, 16, 24, 48, 64 and 120, or all multiples of eight. I don’t know what is wrong with 32 or 40 or 56 or 72 or 80 or 88 or 96 or 104, or you get the gist of my logic, but I guess they had to choose a reasonable number of sizes and call it a day. Although, I think it can be argued that anything above 24 is a little excessive (does the average colouring book really require an accurate selection of orange-red versus red-orange?)

Anyhow, back to the fate of dandelion. Further research has revealed that if you need this particular hue of yellow you can just buy a bigger box. Or even better, get on the marketing bandwagon associated with the retirement announcement and buy a 2 pound dandelion mega-crayon or if that isn’t enough yellow wax to suit your artistic purposes, order a limited edition box of 64 dandelion crayons, which is surely enough to out last even the most fanatical crayoner’s lifetime needs for a yellow that falls somewhere between goldenrod and just plain yellow.

Come to think of it, I do remember goldenrod being one those crayons that had a particularly extended lifespan. It is kind of orangy but not quite as orangy as orange-yellow. Not really yellowy enough for respectable rays of sun. And maybe that’s where dandelion missed the mark. So I was perhaps too hasty in accusing Mr. Crayola of an anti-yellow bias. Sorry about that.



My friend Tony

Posted by Marlinee on Mar 16, 2017 in Houses

Six Mile Lake is a lake in the Muskoka region of Ontario. I should note this location is definitely not chopped liver but certainly not the foie gras of THE Muskoka lakes frequented by Goldie Hawn, Cindy Crawford and various NHL hockey players (although Martin Short does have a place on Lake Joseph so Canadian content is not out of the question on prime Canadian Shield properties). But I digress.

I have not done a statistically valid survey, but for the most part Six Mile is a seasonal destination, mainly because many cottages are boat-in or otherwise not conducive to winter. Those with benefit of plowed drive-in locations or who wait patiently for full ice-in and fire up the snowmobile to embrace the winter season laugh in our general direction and enjoy the beauty of the lake 3.5 or 4 seasons of the year. Going a step further, several have chosen to spend their retirement at the lake 24/7 and 365 (not withstanding any winter vacations, for which none of their peers would quibble). And our friends Tony and Julia did just that: settle into a glorious second act in a cozy house nestled on a peaceful bay with full road access, garbage pickup and mail delivery (which is to say, unlike many of us seasonal people, they managed to realize some value from their property tax, but I digress yet again…).

There are about 600 cottages on Six Mile and it is a very spread out lake (actually more than six miles spread out, but that’s another story) so it isn’t out of the question I’d never met Tony and Julia until about four years ago when luckily our paths finally crossed and we became friends. As many things go, there were surprisingly few degrees of separation. Among them: their previous cottage on the lake was right next door to the cottage of a family friend where we had spent a bunch of time, they had myriad mutual friends in the photo industry, and we shared the same financial advisor.

Unfortunately, Tony got sick with the kind of sick that is annoying, undeniable and just plain inconvenient for a bunch of time until you get the short end of the stick. His response was to just live his best life as long as he could. I think we could all benefit from what I have observed about Tony’s approach to life:

• Shirts have a place and time and that time is not in the summer (or spring or the fall or even not the winter, circumstances willing).
• There is no single malt scotch that does not deserve a chance.
• The glass is always full (see above).

Tony missed seeing this year’s official spring by five days but the fact he went out the same day as Julius Caesar is not that shabby in my book. And to my dear friend Julia: When the hummingbirds appear at the feeder and the loons are swimming with their young and the summer evenings melt into languorous, sultry, star filled nights, I hope you will find it a comfort that Tony will be watching it all through your eyes.



Wondering where the lions are

Posted by Marlinee on Feb 26, 2017 in Travels

I somehow missed the news about the lionfish invasion of the Caribbean, which has been a thing for at least 15 years. Forget about Johnny Depp – these are the real marauding pirates. Lionfish are particularly attractive saltwater fish and that is where this whole problem started. Apparently, people with salt water aquariums liked their esthetic appeal but then realized the error of their ways when the lionfish ate all the other inhabitants of the aquarium for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Because that’s what lionfish do: eat anything that swims or even just lies there in the sand. And that’s not the worst part. They are also incredibly good at reproducing. A single female releases up to two million eggs per year. So when some of those aquarium enthusiasts with buyer’s remorse set their lionfish free all hell broke loose.

Here is another fun fact about lionfish: they cannot be caught by baiting, trapping or trawling. My extensive research did not explain why this is and I find it baffling that something that acts like an aquatic vacuum cleaner would ignore bait, but apparently they do. That means the only way to kill them is by old fashioned spear fishing. Oh, and did I mention they are venomous? Not even Stephen King could invent anything more horrifying.

However, fortunately the one redeeming characteristic of a lionfish is that it is very very tasty, a fact to which I can attest via lionfish tacos, lionfish curry and lionfish fritters recently consumed in Grand Cayman. And that is exactly the path many Caribbean islands have taken to put as much of a dent in the lionfish population as possible – encourage eating lionfish. Should you wish to try it yourself without needing a plane ticket, Google says Amazon will ship lionfish fillets directly to your door. Oh wait – on further examination, they only sell a decorative silicon lionfish as an aquarium decoration or a mug with a picture of a lionfish on it. Never mind.

But this is just another example of life being better in the sunny south. Our local invasive water critters do not appear to have any redeeming qualities. I don’t think being steamed in white wine sauce would make zebra mussels palatable although the equally troublesome round goby seems to like them. And even though they look kind of like some species of harmless native fish, eat goby at your own peril if you want to avoid botulism.

I also learned It isn’t just fancy fish that cause problems when set free. Who knew that even the goldfish is an official member of the invasive species club? I wouldn’t except for a very informative government website about all things invasive. It even tells you how to recognize a goldfish at twenty paces in case your primary school didn’t get to that part of the curriculum. And that’s how it goes with invasive species: harmless in one context, dangerous in another. Come to think of it, kind of like Donald Trump.

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