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Thread: A Dirty Little Secret

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    A Dirty Little Secret

    [Author's Note: The following essay that sounds like an impassioned "rant" is actually a result of eighteen months or so of thought, based on observations of the society in which I live -- or should I say "exist"? The piece attempts to argue against an aspect of American life that is promoted by what's called "both sides of the aisle," and as such is not a partisan issue. Even so, I respectfully remind any fellow NitLetters wishing to comment that political discussion is not allowed on this site. Thank you.]

    A Dirty Little Secret

    by Aunt Shecky


    Perhaps you recall from your high school days a force-feeding of this out-of-context tidbit from a cherished British poet: “[A] man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a Heaven for?” Under the assumption that the irrepressible Browning, the sly realist in an optimist’s disguise, would not have intended a blatant platitude be taken literally,* it’s a pretty good bet that the well-meaning teacher thought otherwise. She (or he) may have interpreted the lines to say “Setting your sights on the stars will almost bring you there.” The poet himself, however, seems to imply that while hope is a desirable –- indeed necessary -- thing, the chances of ever fulfilling all of one’s personal hopes are as remote as actually making it to Heaven (whether the observably celestial or the theological one). To put it in contemporary terms, the odds are about the same as arriving near Alpha Centauri in a twin-engine puddle-jumper.

    Disheartening, right? Boosters of American “Exceptionalism” like to show off upward mobility like a shiny new yacht, but recently that proud element of American machinery has gone – as old-timers used to say –“on the fritz.” Though little-publicized, the flaw is a serious one; one could argue that it has always been broken, and even if it’s possible to repair it, it might take moving both kinds of heaven and earth to have it fixed. The problem first arose when Americans were coached and coaxed into believing in the impossible, and steadily worsened with the very opposite of its original purpose; instead of fostering personal motivation and cultivating ambition, it has created a nearly-incurable sense of despair.

    The fact of the matter is that there are few things more insidiously cruel than abetting unrealistic expectations. It all began as a lie, perhaps to cover up a dirty little secret. Nobody wants to divulge the stark fact that many Americans have been duped into aspiring to success far beyond their ability to achieve it.

    Yet time and time again, explicitly and subliminally, we are fed the dubious message that fulfillment (which in this country almost always means “prosperity”) is an American birthright. The reality is, when we try to claim that birthright, we are thwarted by obstacles not of our own making, yet fundamentally devoted to blocking our progress.

    The United States of America embedded optimism in its structure from its infancy and had barely emerged from its adolescence when it started writing its uplifting autobiography, chock-a-block with dramatic examples of the American Success story, the time-honored rags-to-riches sagas with their dependably happy endings,the latter-day Horatio Alger testimonials to grit and stick-to-itiveness guaranteeing that a plucky go-getter will become an exemplary millionaire, the “m” replaced in recent years with a “b.” Just as equal rights expanded to include equal opportunity, our collective notion of opportunity also broadened to the point where Americans are led to believe that with “setting a goal,”“hard work,” “perseverance,” “a strong work ethic,” and similar Calvinistic virtues, they are all but assured of success.

    The provenance of this no-fault, no-fail national Life Insurance Policy are the widely-visible, glad-handing cheerleaders and motivational snake oil salesman spouting inspirational platitudes hard-wired in the American DNA:

    “If you dream it, you can do it.”

    “You can be anything you want to be, achieve anything you want to achieve if you’re willing to play by the rules and work hard.”

    And lest we forget, the perennial favorite: “You can make your own luck.”

    Such a mythology appeals to a misguided sense of poetic justice somehow. It stubbornly clings to our collective consciousness, because deep down inside lurks a sacred promise: This could be you.

    Never mind that the inspirational fables are – as cable news pundits like to say “anecdotal,” the tale of a “disadvantaged” kid coming up from nothing to gain the whole world (through hard work, perseverance, etc. etc.)is the rare exception. These are flukes-- “outliers” if you will -- presented as the norm, designed to make Americans “feel” successful, even though by no evidence found on God’s green earth have they ventured anywhere near that exalted place. As John W. Gardner puts it, “For every talent that poverty has stimulated it has blighted a hundred.” A lucky few may very well have made it to Alpha Centauri, or even a more glorious paradise in the far reaches of the universe, but most working class folk find themselves stuck on the launching pad.

    The highly-touted egalitarian ideal in this country requires, like ground rules for a professional sport, a so-called “level playing field.” The American establishment takes pride in “Playing Fair” (or saying so, at least.) The mantra which gushes from the mouths of social arbiters in every section of the social/economic/political spectrum is the assurance of Equal Opportunity.

    A glaring omission is the explanation of the barriers which thwart the path of equal opportunity, the dirty laundry list of downsizing, outsourcing, the continuous collapse of the public education system, and preferential treatment for the children of those who’ve already “made” it, the impenetrable “old boy network,” the all-too-real cliché of “it’s not what you know, it’s whom you know.” This is not the kind of thriving economic environment which would endow working class people with an easy climb up the economic ladder. No one thinks of giving aspirants a leg up, let alone a map or the proper tools. Other than the encouraging words, we’re on our own.

    Like the view of earth dims the farther into space one travels, the possibility of economic success grows faint with aging. The optimism of youth fades with the stark realization that - regardless of hard work, perseverance, the vaunted promises taken to heart – if one is born poor, most likely he will die that way.

    A working class poor person has plenty of company, but a short visit to a “better” neighborhood makes him feel like an anomaly. The shrinking but still extant “middle class” just a couple of rungs up the economic ladder has much to show for its “hard work,” and “perseverance,” if not a set of generous parents staking the down payment on a one-family house, as opposed to so-called “affordable” rental housing. Throw in well-crafted and modern furniture rather than mildewed sticks culled from yard sales. Not to mention the cars (which seem to come in pairs) instead of unreliable public transportation, the more than merely presentable clothes, the up-to-the minute technical gadgets, the vacation trips and all the other symbols of relative affluence, the lack of which the “less-fortunate” working class person is acutely aware.

    It is no secret that world’s population suffers poverty to such an extreme that starvation is no mere abstraction but an everyday occurrence. The average working class person in the U.S. seems almost rich by comparison. Even so, a poor person in America carries a different kind of burden not shared by his destitute counterparts elsewhere on the globe. This may be what deTocqueville meant with his observation that America is the worst country in which to be poor. In countries where poverty is pervasive, everyone is more or less “in the same boat,” not that it mollifies any of the misery but at least precludes the aspect of shame. One facet of the American mind-set holds that if a person is poor, it is his own fault, that he has failed to make the most of opportunities (which, of course, knock down his doors daily), or perhaps he is just plain “lazy.” Such mythical yet widely-expressed opinions tend to compel poor people to blame themselves.

    Yet the member of the working class has always been told that if he “played by the rules,” he will move up in the world. With the almost-inevitable failure, the working class person begins to question -not the system – but himself. “ I must be doing something wrong. I just can’t reach my goals. Maybe I should work a little harder. Give a little more time. Success is just around the corner.” Perhaps he needs a different job – a “better” job. Maybe he should learn some new skills, take a few technical courses as well as taking out another set of loans, thus stepping into a never-ending cycle of Hell in which his current job (if he can find one) never generates enough income to cover both his living expenses and his loan payments. Not only does he fail to strike it rich, he doesn’t even manage to get ahead.

    And what happens when an observant member of the working class notices that the emperor is naked and calls attention to the stacked deck, the rigged game? The whistle-blower becomes chastised for fostering “class warfare,” or dismissed as having a bad case of sour grapes, for it’s obvious that this “unAmerican spoilsport” is operating from a “false sense of entitlement.”

    A few voices may be quick to add that this country offers “Equal opportunity, but not equal results,” which, while registering complete faith in a optimistic starting point, amounts to a craven cop-out, hedge-betting of the most cynical sort. If there is reluctance over the possibility of the desired outcome –“ success” in some degree – why bother mentioning this golden opportunity in the first place?

    What possible reason could there be for promoting the opportunity of success while simultaneously withholding the means to attain it? One answer could be the insidious marketing of profit-making diploma mills propped up by a billion-dollar predatory student loan industry. Another motive might be to insure a steady stream of cheap labor. Over the decades thousands of manufacturing jobs have been shipped to the aforementioned poor countries, but it is impossible to ship retail, food service, and lower-lever health care jobs overseas. The demand for workers for these traditionally low wage jobs has never been higher. And perhaps it’s more than a conspiracy theory to speculate that a dearth of well-paying jobs might have the effect of providing a de facto pool of available recruits for military service. (It should be noted, however, that there have been reports that the various military branches are experiencing difficulty in finding a “few good men,” due to ineffective public education as well as the national epidemic of obesity, aggravated by the typical poverty diet of high calorie fare that fills up the belly but fails to nourish.)

    The working class person, trapped indefinitely into a low-paying job (if he has managed to land one in the first place), is liable to becoming resentful, if not bitter. That’s where the pep talks come in, promising a brighter, albeit nebulous future in order to tamp down any incipient stirring of public protest or insurrection. The little shot of false hope keeps the economic engine running smoothly.

    Despite the bleak outlook, individuals can escape total despair. There is a way out of this, provided one can find a way to keep soul and body together. The opportunities to be seized are not Royal Road to Riches scams or self-defeating lottery tickets but opportunities to support others in similar circumstances. (As the old saying goes, if you believe nobody has it worse than you, look around.) Doing what one can to dispel the income gap and to convince society to adopt a realistic living wage can go a long way to brightening one’s attitude.

    Finally, a positive step would be to redefine “success.” Religious authorities, such as every Pope from Leo XIII to the present-day Francis, have warned against the evils of rampant materialism. The more obvious an idea is, the more likely it is to be ignored, yet we cannot dismiss the fact that the things that one can or cannot acquire are not nearly as important as the things one can offer.

    In E. B. White's “Second Tree From the Corner,” included among The Best Short Stories of the Twentieth Century, a doctor asks his troubled patient, “What do you want?” The patient, Trexler, lobs the question right back at him. The doctor says he wants a new wing on his house in Westport, as well as more money and more leisure. It’s only after Trexler leaves the doctor’s office and starts walking along Third Avenue that he realizes what he does indeed want:

    “Trexler knew what he wanted, and what, in general, all men wanted: and he was glad, in a way that it was both inexpressible and unattainable, and that it wasn’t a wing. He was satisfied to remember that it was deep, formless and enduring and impossible of fulfillment. . .Trexler found himself renewed by the remembrance that what he wanted was great and microscopic, and that although it borrowed from the nature of large deeds and of youthful love and of old songs and early intimations, that it had not been isolated or pinned down, and that a man who attempted to define it in a doctor’s office would fall flat on his face.”
    This - not reaching the top of the money mountain - is the ineffable truth behind reaching beyond one’s grasp. Hope is not some manufactured notion of success imposed by society but the indefinable yearning within the individual soul, or, as Browning puts it, “[I]ncentives come from the soul’s self/the rest avail not.”


    *
    As Browning scholar Daniel Karlin puts it, “It is a mistake to assume that Browning is advocating, or practiced himself, a literal-minded realism.”
    Last edited by AuntShecky; 06-13-2014 at 06:50 PM.

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    Some very good points on the American Dream, Aunt Shecky, but, I think what made America great were two things. One was the work ethic, and the other was ingenuity. By ingenuity, I mean the ability of entrepreneurs and business magnates to take ideas and to build enterprises in the free market economy. In the post-Industrial age, many small business owners have successfully carved out their piece of the American dream. You may be right that most Americans can never obtain the entrepreneurial fruits, but if dreaming and scheming allows an individual to attain even just a little bit more than they might possibly have attained, then isn't it worthwhile? In many European countries, the mode or method of living is more important than the standard of living (material gain).

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    MANICHAEAN MANICHAEAN's Avatar
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    You should rant more often Aunty.

    I arose this morning at 4.25am, (an hour at peace with the incipient weekend) and read with interest the above. Thus, formatively stimulated in the addled cranium along with the coffee, let me say first of all how impressed I was regards the thinking itself and in the lucid manner of it's presentation. Gone was a lot of the "Aunty" throwaway asides, and this was the real deal.

    As a limey, I should perhaps not comment on the American dream, but for what it's worth here is my take.

    1. I have always had in my mind an image of the reality of what it took to be part of the original opening of the American frontiers. Wave after wave of immigrants of new hope in a new land. "Bliss," it was not, "that very dawn to be alive." Every human sense and emotion must have been raised to new highs in those immigrants, to have initially survived and subsequently prospered. So where did it go wrong, as it
    appears so much to have done today? I think, in general that Americans have become victims of their own initial material success, (a fickle false god to worship). Have they gone soft? Can one recognise today nationwide the main character in Henry James "The American." There is, as you so eloquently argue, a case against.

    2. I have never really understood the American need, (if that is the correct word) to constantly reassure themselves as a nation. It is akin the canned laughter in the "I Love Lucy" shows I remember as a child, and becomes the mantra of every US politician today. That is why the reality checks of situations like the Vietnam War become so important. And please don't think I'm playing the snotty Brit, for as a nation we likewise have had to come to terms with who we are.

    Please excuse my early morning ramble, as the light attains with remorseless strength it's grip on dormant Albion. Once again, thank you for an extremely enjoyable piece of writing.

    Best regards
    M.
    Last edited by MANICHAEAN; 06-14-2014 at 01:07 AM.

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    Registered User Emil Miller's Avatar
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    Americans' might have done better in following this excellent advice:


    http://youtu.be/4beu98l9w2s
    "L'art de la statistique est de tirer des conclusions erronèes a partir de chiffres exacts." Napoléon Bonaparte.

    "Je crois que beaucoup de gens sont dans cet état d’esprit: au fond, ils ne sentent pas concernés par l’Histoire. Mais pourtant, de temps à autre, l’Histoire pose sa main sur eux." Michel Houellebecq.

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    Justifiably inexcusable DocHeart's Avatar
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    My dear Aunt,

    Reading your pieces brings onto my balcony an insoluble fragrance of days gone by: when I first joined this forum, and started perusing your thoughts and your comments and your art. It's a go-back-in-timer, and as such of immense value for a guy rapidly descending into middle age but wishes he had another shot at youth.

    As you know I'm not an American. But I've been over there and I've met people over there, and I still work closely with people over there through email, Skype, and other collaboration tools. And from these travels and virtual meetings I have gathered this: America is not a place where everyone becomes rich, but you're sure as hell free to give it a go.

    There will be obstacles, and some may be insurmountable: you might be ugly, or a bit stupid, or ill-educated, or from a poor family that had nothing to do with doing business and therefore with limited entepreneurial ability. The society you live in might be unfair, uncaring, or even downright sadistic. The food that is made available to you is malodorous, unhealthy and of zero nutritional value, state education sucks the big one, the films they show on TV are crap, and the news reports lie to you. You might one day, out of the blue, lose your job and then your house and then your wife and your dog. You might get sent abroad to get killed for political reasons. You might get shot driving through a neighbourhood that is neglected and impoverished and insanely hostile to anyone and everything they haven't smelt before. You might get shot at school. And if you're lucky enough to make it to old age, make sure you die without getting sick: it's not 100% certain that the country will find a hospital bed for you to live out your last days in relative dignity.

    But hey, give it a go!

    Don't hold your breath that the US government will go out of their way to help you. But at least they will not paperwork you and tax you into extinction, and they won't pay a small group of privileged citizens called state employees to function like the mafia and bully you day-in-day-out to give them everything you've shed tears and sweat and blood over. They won't hire other Americans and put them behind desks for the purpose of blocking your efforts ONLY. Give it a go, and if it's brilliant like computers and the internet and Facebook and Firefox and Google (real reasons why America remains great, nothing to do with your governments' fondness for military escapades), you'll make it. Nobody will demand that you bribe them to put a stamp on a piece of paper, nobody will continuously change the rules of the game in order to claim everything you do for themselves.

    I don't know, Aunt. Maybe I'm just becoming an ultra-liberal in my old age.

    Or maybe it's the fact that my own country doesn't allow me to give it a go. My own country is really two societies: those who work for the state, and those who don't. The former have been systematically oppressing the latter for over 30 years now, and they're doing everything in their (huge) power to keep it that way. Greece is a good old-fashioned communist bloc country in a flimsy, laughable disguise of a European-minded one.

    From where I stand, therefore, my response to your beautifully written piece has as follows: be grateful that your country says "give it a go" and actually allows you too, no matter how slim your chances of success may be. There are places where you start being investigated like a criminal the minute you apply to register a company.

    Have a great Sat night

    DH
    Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine...

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    Dis un interesting thread, especially because Auntie wrote it and it's good, and Doc's wrecking reply is adding a peculiar depth to it.




    J

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    "The art of true living in this world is more like a wrestler's, than a dancer's practice. For in this thing both agree, to each man whatsoever falls upon him, that he may be ready for it, and that nothing may cast him down" (Marcus Aurelius Meditations VII: XXXIII).

    For those of us who are neither wrestlers nor dancers, the future looks bleak...

    Live and be well - if they'll let you - H

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    Maybe YesNo's Avatar
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    Perhaps one can remove the addiction to the materialist video-game by simply wanting what one already has.

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    Registered User 108 fountains's Avatar
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    Thanks, Auntie, for a truly thought-provoking essay. It was also really interesting to read DocHeart’s and the other Europeans’ reactions. I agree with just about everything you say.

    The economic system we live under is inherently unfair and continues to divide society with ever increasing disparity between the working classes and the wealthy. From Theodore Roosevelt to Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, we’ve seen government play an increasing role in the country’s economic system to attempt to “level the playing field” – or at least to protect society’s most vulnerable, and I do believe that in a modern capitalist economy, that is an appropriate , even a necessary, role for government to play. But that is a political topic, so I’ll leave it at that. (Well, no, I’ll make one comment about that – it amazes me how upset people become when their taxes go up two percent, but accept credit card companies’ sixteen, twenty, even twenty-four percent interest rates without complaint.)

    I do agree that it is disheartening to see Americans deluding themselves into believing that the system itself is fair and that hard work is all it takes to get ahead. That belief makes it all the easier to blame the poor for being poor and for believing that those who are down on their luck are just lazy. (It is interesting for me to see that the economic class who has the least sympathy for the poor are those who are just one step away from being poor themselves.)

    There are misplaced values in our society, too. Seems to me there is something wrong in a society where the board of a company can give top managers millions of dollars in compensation while the majority of employees earn less than ten dollars per hour or when the average salary for professional baseball players of $3.2 million is more than sixty times the average high school teacher’s salary of approximately $50,000.

    Well, now I am starting to rant, or at least to ramble. My final thought is to look at the other side of the coin, so to speak. Despite the most recent economic downturn, we are still better off economically as a society than we were 75 or 100 years ago. For all its faults, it appears the modern capitalistic economic system is probably the best that 21st century society has to offer – as long as we recognize and make efforts to minimize the inherent dangers, inequity and unfairness of the system.
    A just conception of life is too large a thing to grasp during the short interval of passing through it.
    Thomas Hardy

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    I'm quite humbled by the thoughtful responses to this. It's truly gratifying. I do believe that I am fortunate to live in one of the "better" countries on earth, but all too often America, known in some quarters for its collective "generosity," often forgets to remember the Golden Rule. One corollary to the "dirty little secret" is many folks personify the "dog in the manger" role --"It's not enough that I can strike it rich -- I want my neighbor to be poor."

    Even so, you seldom find a prosperous person who doesn't in some way "cry poor." He knows it's "good to be rich," but on the other hand, deep down he realizes that wealth per se isn't the paragon of human virtue. "Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle", and all that.

    Some well-meaning activists have experimented by staying overnight in a homeless shelter or living for a month on SNAP benefits formerly known as food stamps, a supplemental program that most often runs out after three weeks. (Recently some states have proposed requirements other than low income for SNAP, such as drug testing to be paid for by the recipient himself! Most food stamp recipients are children, btw.) These gestures are dramatic, but they're short-lived. It is very clear to yours fooly that nobody can really discuss poverty is unless he or she has experienced it personally over the long haul, over a lifetime.As is said in the vernacular, don't talk the talk unless you walk the walk.

    Pundits in government and Academia often make pronouncements over what policies would best serve "the Poor." By that they mean the so-called "deserving poor" -- a loaded expression if I've ever heard one. Everybody sees Education as a remedy, and that's partly right, but the trend in recent decades is to adapt schooling around job preparation. That's not in itself a bad idea either, BUT the motive for this isn't as much to help the kids themselves but to get them off the public --you should excuse the expression --teat.

    I would like to know why the jobs they train these people for are low-level, minimum wage jobs, for instance home health aides, highly necessary for our aging population, but the occupation itself is not valued as much as it should be. Some students are steered toward and other "skills," such as auto body painting, which soon will become obsolete, if they haven't already done so. The irony is that even steady work at these jobs does absolutely nil about conquering poverty. Many of these workers, even those who are "lucky" enough to work full-time still need help with food, health care, etc, because the wages are dismal.

    There is much hypocrisy in policies such as these. The students themselves are pumped up with self-esteem-- "You can be anything you want to be," "this the land of opportunity," etc, but the administrators of the programs set the bar really close to the bottom, with low expectations. God forbid a poor kid should be encouraged to go to college.

    Here's what I'd like to see in a less- perfect world:
    --Everybody who wants to go to college should be admitted It's up to the public school system to step up for once and provide solid literacy, as well as a solid math, science, and liberal arts background to enable motivated students to excel.

    --Dump the predatory student loan trap! If we can allocate billions for military weapons the Army doesn't need -- or want!-- why can't we provide free tuition for everyone? A well-educated populace would do more for national security -- not to mention preparation for the future --than military equipment.

    --Until we fix the income gap and everyone truly has an equal shot, stop the lying.
    Last edited by AuntShecky; 06-17-2014 at 03:59 PM. Reason: noun/pronoun agreement--Auntie should practice what she preacheth

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    Registered User Iain Sparrow's Avatar
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    Excellent essay!

    Here are some dirty little statistics supporting your article. All men are created equal... then divided.
    http://www.business-management-degre...income-divide/

    Unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move, except plain lies.

  12. #12
    Maybe YesNo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by AuntShecky View Post
    One corollary to the "dirty little secret" is many folks personify the "dog in the manger" role --"It's not enough that I can strike it rich -- I want my neighbor to be poor."
    Who wants their neighbors to be poor? I had to look up "dog in the manger" since I never heard of it before, but it has a long history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dog_in_the_Manger

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    Quote Originally Posted by YesNo View Post
    Who wants their neighbors to be poor? I had to look up "dog in the manger" since I never heard of it before, but it has a long history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dog_in_the_Manger
    A variation on this appeared in my Sunday paper a week or so back when some self-important big wheel in business said,"It's good to travel in first class, especially when my friends are back in coach."

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