Children’s Parties, 21st Century Style

Back in the ’80s, which was my party-throwing heyday (the teenage ones I threw in the 90s are another blog post entirely, and I wouldn’t want my mother to have to read about them as the winter nights draw in and she needs something cheery to read), I had one main concern, focusing as I did on quantity over quality: that I could persuade my parents to stretch it to a three-hour stint – I’d even settle for 2 1/2 hours. There was no debate about where the party would be held – it would be in our living room, of course – with a possibility of a Pizza Hut party once I reached double digits and my guests were controllable in public. The same party food was trotted out year after year to an appreciative audience: sausage rolls, cheese and pineapple on sticks stuck into half an orange, wagon wheel crisps, jelly and ice cream. There would also be an optimistic bowl of something healthy like grapes or tomatoes that languished at one end of the table, passed over by the guests in disgust. Sandwiches were the mainstay: I forget what the fillings were but egg definitely featured (see ‘Mind The Gap’ for homemade bread trauma) and I remember the egg sandwiches at other people’s parties very clearly because I would not go near them with a barge pole. Eggs from other people’s houses repulsed me. Freud would probably have an ovum-related field day with that one.

These days, a party in one’s own home seems to be rare, and the cake has an inflated sense of its own importance – much more so than it did for me in my primary school days. There had to be one of course, and I remember one year requesting each guest’s name to be iced in green on the top, but it wasn’t the piece de resistance it has since turned into. I’m not alone in constructing elaborate sponge sculptures – I’ve seen some brilliant 3D dragons, zebras and other mammals, and I have been personally responsible for a dinosaur, a castle and a digger. My worry is that I’m building myself up for major failure at some point; my sons seem to think I can turn anything into a cake and at this rate they’ll be requesting scale replicas of the Eiffel Tower complete with moving lifts by the time they’re 10.

Next year will be an exercise in lowering expectations. Luckily Bigger has decided he likes cakes without icing and he’s also suddenly very interested in what I did when I was his age, so I’ll combine the two to provide him with a retro version of a birthday cake. It will be called a Victoria Sponge.

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We built this city on rock and (bacon) rolls

Well, this house – not city – but I couldn’t have put that in the title or it would have been taking the lyrics change a step too far. Just as actually finishing the work on our house appears to be a step too far for our builder, who has become somewhat slippery (since we paid him most of his outstanding fee, funnily enough).

It wasn’t always like this. There have been many times over the past year when I have salivated at the thought of the far-off day when he and his posse would be gone from our lives. In my mind’s eye I would turn the key in the front door (having changed the locks first) and then retrieve the waiting champagne from its ice bucket. But while the building crew no longer barge in each morning while we’re still in our dressing gowns, beating a desperate path to the kettle and sugar bowl, that joyous day is still as elusive as the day when we have a working towel rail in the bathroom, because it requires some complex concoction involving antifreeze that only our builder has the knowledge to dispense. Instead of the work being methodically finished, with a thanks and a satisfying shake of the builder’s hand (and a muttered “now eff off” from me…my mind’s eye can be an unforgiving one at times), it has tailed off in an unsatisfying slow drip.

I am not completely ungrateful or as harsh as I sound. We get along fine with our builder (when we see him) – he’s a nice enough bloke, and the transformation of our house owes a lot to him and his workmates. It’s just that I know several people in a similar position, and their builders all do the same thing:

Day One of the job – locate the nearest greasy spoon and sample the bacon butties to be sure one is at hand whenever the urge strikes. To complete the cliché, eat in van outside house, accompanied by red top of choice. Enter house and set up a dedicated tea area, preferably in a place where the tea stains will be hardest to remove at a later date (think marble mantelpiece. Our builders did.)

Day two – Enter house at 7am in SWAT team style. After a strong cup of tea containing a week’s recommended allowance of carbohydrates and a conversation about yesterday’s footie, start work in earnest. Get most lowly member of the team to boil kettle at regular intervals throughout the day, ribbing him about being only 16 as often as possible. Bugger off at half two.

Days three-180 – see day two.

Day 181 – repeat Day One, only at a different property, and put the previous property to the back of one’s mind.

To give him some credit, our builder has just phoned me to say he’ll be here on Monday morning. On the other hand, he said that last Friday as well. So despite the hive of industry that our house once was, if our builder ever fits the gasket round our front door and sorts out the cracking plaster in the bathroom, I’ll eat one of those bacon butties.

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So long, America

I had intended to write this before leaving New York. I was going to give up this blog, now that my life has changed in many ways – but by popular demand (well, my mother and a few friends asking me to continue), I have taken it up again. In fact, those things that have changed in my life seem like a reason to continue, rather than to stop, as they will hopefully provide ample writing material: I have started working again as a freelance researcher after several years out of the workforce, while Mr Applepip has started a new business; we have moved house, more than once; my husband and I have renovated our home; Bigger and Littler have transitioned from New York to London life; I have made new friendships and refreshed old ones; and, after getting used to life the American way, we have acclimatised once again to life in England – all in nine months. It would have been easier to conceive, gestate and give birth. Except I have the consolation that I can get a full night’s sleep after each busy day, and I don’t have to puree broccoli and sweet potato in my spare time.

So, as long as I’m not holding a paint roller, flicking through catalogues searching for recessed downlights or interviewing people about their deodorant purchase habits, I’ll be blogging again. It will have a distinctly London flavour – not least because what makes life here ‘London’, and indeed British, has been heightened for me as a returning Brit who has something else with which to compare it.

One of the big changes has been the language I hear around me. I am no longer ‘reaching out’ to anyone (not that I ever did – I just made fun of people who said it), cooking with scallions or cilantro, or broiling anything I eat – even if I have removed the pits first. I will not be standing in line to buy mimosas or PnJ bagels, which I will be neither savoring nor favoring. I have realized that I will no longer generalize, though I may be jeopardizing any chances of getting a job requiring written American English if I don’t. I was never ‘psyched’ to be doing something, but again, amused at those who were. We are not taking vacations where we have to rent accommodations, nor eating applesauce, except with pork, and it’s back to pizzas for us (pizza pie? WHY? I’m fairly sure that ‘pizza’ does actually mean ‘pie’ in Italian, in which case Americans insist on eating ‘pie pie’.)

No more sneakers, rookies or pinch hitters for us – and just as well, as I’m not sure I ever really understood what the last two were anyway. If I were the sort of person who clips her hair back, I would be using a hair clip and not a barrette, which should surely be a small drinking establishment. My children will not be getting ‘boo boos’ or ‘ouchies’ when they fall over, and if they do, they will not be using a Band Aid to stop the flow of blood. They will be given a lollipop to make them feel better – you can forget pops or candy. I am looking forward to putting blinds up in our bedroom instead of window treatments, and I am very thankful that I do not live in a fourth floor walk-up. Diapers are a thing of the past, as is arugula, fava beans, fannies and bang trims, the last two not being as rude as they sound. My children, however, still insist on referring to garbage trucks and ladybugs, whatever I might say.

And never again, I sincerely hope, will I get to a store checkout and say ‘I’m sorry, I must have left my money in my other pants’.

Which all makes me a bit sad, because when I hear these words they are a comforting reminder of our brilliant time in New York.

But onwards and upwards. New adventures to look forward to in another brilliant city. And now I must go, because it’s 5.55 and I have a hard stop at 6. Period.

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Shepherds, Tea Towels and a Plastic Baby

Last week I went to my first nativity play in approximately thirty-one years. The last time I was at one, I was the girl in blue holding the baby, a fellow six year old sitting beside me in a brown curtain and tea towel as my husband. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a real donkey in the assembly hall, but in my mind it is there, leading our path through the audience as the rest of the cast sings ‘Little Donkey’.

So it felt like things had come full circle when Mr Applepip and I sat watching our little boy as Joseph, leading his Mary by the hand to their station behind the manger. Holding up my iPhone (as absent as the donkey in 1981) to record the precious moments, I held my breath and hoped he would say his lines clearly enough. Forgetting them wasn’t an issue – he only had two – but I wondered if a gathering of sixty adults might put him off his stroke. It didn’t. He had, after all, undergone rigorous training of a rehearsal per day for about two weeks, by all accounts, so utter tedium was more likely than memory loss. But he and his beautiful little classmates approached the whole performance with a freshness that suggested they were doing the play for the first time, and there were few dry eyes in the house.

‘It’s not far now, Mary’, said Joseph, his voice as clear as a bell. Sure enough, it wasn’t – two metres, to be exact – and he and Mary sat down in their school chairs behind a box filled with straw. Someone shoved a plastic Jesus into Mary’s hand, and ‘here’s baby Jesus’, she announced. Not quite labour as I remember it, but just as well if you’re stuck in Bethlehem with no ventouse to hand. ‘Come and see him,’ said Joseph, thereby completing his acting requirements and sitting back with Mary to relax.

The rest of the play was sweet and amusing – a star who did forget his lines, a trio of wise men depositing their offerings haphazardly at the happy couple’s feet, angels fiddling inappropriately with white dresses. One shepherd was so relaxed in his role that he sat down at the end of the play and plunged his hand into his Y-fronts. I might be a little biased, but it was one of the best plays I’ve ever seen, and Mr Applepip (Joseph, 1977) agrees.

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Labor (Day) of Love

This past Monday was Labor Day in the US, a national holiday that started about 130 years ago to celebrate the contribution that workers make to society. Most workers are given the day off and the usual suspects make an appearance – parades, picnics, barbecues, fireworks. It is generally seen as marking the end of summer. It is the last weekend before schools start, the sprinklers in the playgrounds are switched off, New Yorkers who shot off to The Hamptons some time back in June scuttle back to The Big Apple and vacation rentals suddenly become affordable. Meanwhile, retailers miss the point and take the opportunity to make their staff work harder than usual by putting on Labor Day sales.

My family and I spent the weekend doing as little labo(u)r as possible. Thanks to some lovely friends who invited us to their weekend rental, we spent two days on Fire Island, which has become a favourite place of ours during our time in New York. The hardest Mr Applepip worked was turning some burgers and a couple of sausages over on the grill (although apparently the amount of skill involved in the perfect barbecue is not to be underestimated, according to many (male) people. It also requires several onlookers, also male, and preferably with beer in hand. Female onlookers are not possible, as they are too busy in the kitchen putting together a wide range of salad choices, sweetcorn, relishes and other accompaniments, although they are allowed a brief look as they rush outside to provide plates to the barbecuing males. But only if they also comment on how well the males are doing). Anyway, I digress. Obviously the barbecue was a hive of activity, but other than that I didn’t do much either. At one point I looked up long enough from my book to put sunscreen on the kids.

Fire Island is a long, narrow island south east of Manhattan, just south of Long Island, and in many ways it feels like it belongs to a different era. Life is simple there: the houses are wooden constructions with simple interiors and functional furniture; there are no cars on the island so paths take the place of roads; there is just a handful of restaurants and shops; the only thing to do, really, is to go to the beach. This means that wherever you go, whether you are on the beach or not, there is always a pile of sand. You spend the whole time with it stuck to some part of your body. You have to make your peace with grainy bedsheets very quickly.

Bigger and Littler splashed delightedly in the sea, screeching with joy as they got drenched by the waves. Mr Applepip and I swam, chatted with our friends and relaxed in the evening with glasses of wine in our hands and sand stuck to our feet.

The weekend wasn’t without incident of course, there being two four-year-old boys and two two-year-old boys in the party. Each of them faced their own unique brush with danger: one fell off a bench and only avoided plunging four feet to the ground because his head got wedged between the bench and the wall behind him on the way down; another came face-to-face with three curious deer on the beach, thereby putting himself in danger of deer ticks and potential contraction of Lyme disease; another almost got washed away by a particularly forceful wave, and the last one nearly got left on the beach at the end of the day. The moral of these stories, of course, is that parents must not allow themselves a single moment’s relaxation. That way lies trouble. Even on Labor Day, parents must not stop labouring – but on Fire Island, it doesn’t feel like that much work.

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The saying ‘having a finger in every pie’ most definitely applies to my two boys, although in their case the meaning has little idiom involved. You wouldn’t want to eat anything remotely cake-like if they’ve been hanging around it unless you like fingerprints in your icing. Bigger Boy is getting much more aware, at the ripe old age of four, about what he should and shouldn’t have his hands in, but I can’t say the same for Littler.

Littler Boy has a knack of being precisely where he shouldn’t be at any given moment. As we wrench him away from the freezer or trip over him as we’re trying to make it from one side of the room to the other, Mr Applepip and I lament ‘he’s always IN something!’ If he’s not in the fridge, extracting something unsuitable like a tray of eggs, he’s in the knife drawer searching for the most lethal weapon available to cut up his food. (Why use a plastic child-friendly approximation of a knife when you can have a meat cleaver instead?) I’ve just finished reading ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ and although we never find out what the grandmother is referring to when she says she saw something nasty in the woodshed, my guess is it was Littler.

He spends a lot of time in my way (flattening himself against the door as I try to open it; teetering at the top of the stoop as I try to nose the pushchair past him) and he very often ends up in trouble (most recently he touched a masterpiece in the Museum of Modern Art; we heard a sharp intake of breath from the security guard and made our apologies. To be fair, the work in question was a canvas painted entirely white, so Littler probably couldn’t believe it was being displayed in an art gallery and needed to touch it to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him).

When he’s not in something he shouldn’t be, he’s putting other things in places they shouldn’t be. That jagged, flesh-piercing object between the sofa cushions? A stray piece of Lego. That red substance oozing from his mouth? A crayon. (That one actually happened last night. I asked him how much he’d eaten, where he’d got it from and why he did it, and all he said was ‘Mmm. It was yummy.’)

Sometimes I feel like I’m constantly trying to get my children away from things they shouldn’t be in. Then when they’re at preschool and I am without them, they have a habit of pushing themselves into my head and I can’t get them out. That’s one place I don’t mind them being.

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Independence and Dependants

Having missed the Fourth of July celebrations last year because we were visiting the land that the USA was celebrating its lack of dependence upon, this year was our first experience of Independence Day in our foster country.

It’s no secret that Americans love a public holiday, and the Fourth of July is the mother of all public holidays. The country’s official national day, it’s a stars-and-stripes extravaganza, an all-American celebration of family, friends and the beloved homeland. It’s uplifting, exciting, and it’s hot. Not just because it’s summer, but because everybody adds to the heat by firing up a barbecue.

Mr Applepip was out early on his bike in the park and he came back with reports of people marking out their barbecue territory from 7am onwards. Folding tables were unfolded, bags upon coolbags of food were stacked up, deckchairs were put out and barbecues themselves were set up. The barbecues ranged from the disposable type capable of grilling little more than a couple of sausages and a burger to full-sized gas constructions wheeled from home to feed parties of twenty or more.

Bigger Boy and Littler Boy decided to mark the day by demonstrating their own independence even more vehemently than usual. Littler insisted on putting his own butter on his toast, which without adult intervention would have resulted in his consuming the recommended weekly intake of fat for a two year old in one sitting. He and his older brother then ‘helped’ us put sunscreen on them, so that the experience was more like an oil wrestling contest than a simple application of cream. We would have walked out of the apartment, but it was quicker to slide along the wooden floors and down the stairs.

The rest of the day was leisurely: a barbecue with friends in the park at lunchtime, and a barbecue on our deck later that evening. I think it is fair to say that we embraced the barbecue tradition.

Despite the inordinate amount of meat, bread, corn and coleslaw we had eaten, Mr Applepip and I still managed to climb up onto our roof to see the fireworks over Manhattan. As we watched them, I reflected upon what they symbolised. Americans are loyal to their country and they welcome an opportunity to celebrate what it stands for. You can’t blame them – even in these turbulent times, just as the British showed their fundamental loyalty and national pride during the jubilee, Americans love to feel they belong, even if the country has failed them. I was reminded of this earlier in the day when I greeted the homeless man who sits outside the deli at the end of our street. While his country celebrates its independence, he remains acutely dependent upon it, as do millions like him. Given that he has been sitting outside the deli for the last 18 months, it seems that his own independence is still a distant hope. In some ways, America and Britain are not really that different. And the fireworks still go on.

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Stitched Up

I once heard a mother say that looking after boys is easy – you just need to know if it’s serious enough to go to ER. Littler Boy is a walking (or tripping, falling or stumbling) specimen to be held up as a prime piece of evidence here. And I do often find myself holding him up, generally after he’s just lurched into something.

Littler is a natural adventurer. Lots of two year olds are, but I can tell he has a particularly strong streak of daredevil in him by the way he assesses anything over three feet tall for its climbing potential. While the rest of the family walks down the street admiring Brooklyn brownstones purely in architectural terms, Littler points to the four-storey frontages and says ‘how do I get up there?’ Just to clarify that he was actually thinking about scaling them, yesterday I asked him if he wanted to climb up the facade he was pointing to. ‘Yes, I do,’ came the reply. ‘We don’t usually climb up buildings unless we’re repairing them or we’re window cleaners,’ I said. ‘Oh, maybe I just need a really long ladder then,’ said Littler, with uncharacteristic consideration for safety.

Littler’s exploits have landed us in ER three times over the past nine months. To be fair, he was not doing anything overly ambitious on any occasion, so maybe he’s just a bit dim. He fell against a coffee table and ended up with a gash on his eyebrow and then three weeks later ploughed into a metal door on the Staten Island ferry and split his lip. Then, a couple of weeks ago, just as I was sitting down to my Mothers’ Day scrambled eggs and toast, Littler decided to give me a lesson in what motherhood is all about (i.e. sacrificing anything you might be doing for more than thirty seconds for your own personal happiness in order for your child to have your full attention) by walking into the dining table and cutting his cheek. I knew as soon as I saw it that it was a stitch job, so I spent the rest of the morning in ER with him.

I was glad to get back home with my newly sewn-up son, and, vowing to keep a better eye on him and blaming myself for thinking he could do a simple thing like walk round the kitchen unsupervised, I relaxed in the assumption that we wouldn’t see another doctor for a while. Another lesson in motherhood: don’t assume anything. Twenty-four hours later and there we were in the doctor’s surgery with Littler and a nostril full of pumpkin seeds. Of course: he gets me on high alert for sharp and protruding objects, then decides he’d like to experiment with stuffing food up his nose. And it would have to be some right-on wholesome snack, of course – I don’t know whether I was more embarrassed that I hadn’t seen my son do the deed or that it wasn’t fragments of Oreo cookies with which he was doing it. Having managed to extract four seeds with my fingernail and then tried numerous ways of coaxing out the remaining ones (tickling his nostrils with a feather, asking him to blow his nose, putting my mouth over his nose and sucking), I had to phone the doctor and ask for advice. And so it was that for the second day running I found myself holding down a screaming child’s head while a medical professional poked around his face. The doctor tweezered out two more pumpkin seeds from the nostril that had already produced four and said she thought the other nostril was clear. Off we went, yet another lollipop in hand as consolation (at least they don’t fit up two-year old noses). That evening, as Littler sat in the bath and sneezed, we greeted the seventh and final pumpkin seed as it finally emerged from its resting place.

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Receiving You Loud and Hear

Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck in that old joke – ‘It’s windy today, isn’t it? No, it’s Tuesday.’ Except that joke’s set in an old people’s home, whereas this one is set in Brooklyn.

I had only been here a week when my request for ‘tomartoes’ at the local farmers’ market was met with a baffled stare. I wouldn’t make that kind of schoolgirl error eighteen months down the line, and should have thought harder before opening my mouth back then, given it’s the most oft trotted-out example of differences in pronunciation between American and UK English. But at the same time, if an American asked me for tomaytoes, I like to think I could take a wild guess at what he meant. Much as I love most of the New Yorkers I mingle with, I do think on occasions they could have a more flexible ear.

Take the word ‘water’. Here, there is no ‘t’ in it. Unless you ask for ‘warder’, you will not get the drink you ask for. For self-professed Anglophiles who go weak at the knees and start slobbering whenever they hear an English accent, I find this strange. When they say ‘I love your accent! It’s so cool!’, do they actually mean, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I love the way you’re saying it!’?

If they don’t know what an English person is saying, Americans often just look bemused and stare, or ask again, hoping that next time you’ll say it with an American accent. On other occasions, they panic. Mr Applepip experienced this last week on a flight back to New York from LA. The air stewardess, having made her way down the aisle offering passengers a choice of snack – ‘cookies, chips or a healthy mix of fruit and nuts?, sir?’; ‘cookies, chips or a healthy mix of fruit and nuts, madam?’ – arrived at seat 25B and asked my husband the same question, for the 25th time on her journey: ‘cookies, chips or a healthy mix of fruit and nuts, sir?’ Now, bearing in mind she had a good idea of what he might say, there being only three possible responses, her reaction to his request defies belief. ‘A healthy mix of fruit and nuts, please,’ he said. She looked at him, startled, and said, ‘popcorn?’

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Turn On, Tune In

I have a confession. I’m not even sure I should be admitting it, but since it’s online and many people don’t know my identity, I feel I can take the risk.

This could be incendiary, but here goes: I LET MY CHILDREN WATCH TV!!! Sometimes Bigger Boy watches more than one programme at a time when Littler is having his nap and I need to sort out non-child-related matters (such as feeding myself – an indulgence, I know, but I like to reward myself now and again). I only confess to like-minded mothers who thank the God of Children’s TV for The Wonderpets, Peppa Pig and Sesame Street. Where would I be without Linny, Tuck and Ming-Ming? It is thanks to them that I can have a blissful demand-free half hour here and there, when I can treat myself to something like cooking the boys’ supper or putting the laundry in the tumble dryer.

Living as I do in an uber-liberal neighbourhood, I can’t admit this kind of thing in public. Reaction from some quarters would be such that I might be lynched, tied to the Brooklyn Bridge and made to eat my own body weight in organic blueberries while being thrashed with locally-sourced kale. I cannot and do not wish to generalise, but some parents around here talk about TV as if it is an incarnation of the devil. Yes, I am an educated parent who knows that children should be spending most of their time involved in active, imaginative play, but really, I hold no truck with parents who ban TV from their children’s lives.

A recent post on our local online parents’ forum was from a parent complaining about the television in a recently-opened burger place. Drawn there by the excitement of meat from grass-fed cattle and walls made from recycled cork, the mother was outraged that her three-year-old might be subjected to evil Tom and Jerry. I don’t remember the exact wording, but she said something along the lines of: ‘My son never watches TV at home. He has only ever seen a couple of YouTube videos and he once watched Shaun The Sheep at his Granny’s house.’ ‘WHAT?!’ I shouted at the computer. If you want to shroud TV in mystery, thereby making your child determined to watch it even more, you’re on the right track. And if you want him to be teased by other kids when he can’t join in their conversations about popular TV programmes, go right ahead. I, too, do not want the TV on more than two hours a day (God knows I barely watch it myself), and I don’t want a house drowning in TV-inspired merchandise, but I also know that trying to live in a bubble unpenetrated by popular culture is not a realistic option in today’s world.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of the TV programmes I used to watch. Play Away, Playschool, Fingermouse, Rainbow, Bod…then later Rentaghost, Take Hart and Blue Peter, among many others. They ground me in that era, and when I think about them they take me back to the 80s – but I feel similarly nostalgic about everything else I used to do – ballet lessons, the never-ending stream of stories I wrote, drawing, crafts, playing with toys, making dens, kicking around the street with other children, playing tennis, horse riding… TV was just a part of it, and a valuable one at that. I have no doubt that it was an inspiration to me in the childhood games it triggered and the stories I produced.

Littler Boy isn’t yet particularly interested in television (though we hold out hope for the future). For Bigger, it is a wind-down activity after preschool or at the end of the day. He learns an incredible amount from it in the process, and talks excitedly about his new discoveries. It is from television he has recently learned how a sailboat works, what Vikings are and why some animals hatch from eggs. These are not subjects that I naturally broach on a daily basis, and I like the fact that a source other than myself can introduce new topics to him. If I get half an hour’s wind-down time as well, everyone’s a winner.

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