Monday, 24 February 2014

Solid Amidst the Noise

I have made some big changes in my on-line reading, posting, and social media activity.  I identified with this piece by Charlie Brooker when he describes the noise of the media in our world and even with his realization that such a post was "Olympic naval-gazing":

Yes, there's just too much noise for me, too.   There is too much clever strategy in creating and advancing images, making contacts and connections.   My friends on Facebook really don't need (or want) to hear my thoughts on daily events or news events.   At times, in the blogger world, it seems there are people in little circles getting all worked up over something that is going on in those little circles while the vast majority of the world isn't even aware of the situation or the people talking about it.   I didn't want to be permanently sucked into the orbits of those little worlds.   Plus, any on-line reading takes time away from reading my never-ending and always-growing pile of books.   Oh, and there's this life of mine I'm supposed to be living and experiencing.   So, I post less on this blog and my food blog.   I pulled back from deadlines and commitments as a contributor to sites.   I still have bursts of time when I pin on Pinterest, but I use the ideas.   It's so much less clutter than my old method of cutting out pictures and articles from magazines.

I still read the personal family blogs of friends, but as for other blogs, there is only one that I read regularly: SHIRT OF FLAME by author Heather King.   I even check it nightly for new posts.   Her latest post is almost a summary of why I seek out her writing amidst all that is out there.   There is her true talent as a writer (who also has a blog), her honesty, and her knowledge of when she has really gained insight.   She understands deep truth and the long periods of time it can take to come to such truth.   That alone sets her memoirs apart from so many others.   It always surprises me when someone tells me I should, or could, write a memoir.   I know I haven't reached a point of really delving deep into what my life has taught me.  I've barely reached below the surface and my posts on this personal blog are part of those excavations.  

The beginnings of my spaghetti sauce: it's not much until it's simmered for six hours.

If I tried to highlight the best bits of the latest post by Heather King, I'd just have to cut-and-paste the whole thing, but this part, especially, is so true, and something for me to remember:

I have a huge ego. I'm overly, some might say, morbidly sensitive. I feel every slight, doubt, criticism keenly. I'm very much aware of status, or lack thereof: professional, social, literary.  When I first converted, I was approached by a major publisher to write my story. I dripped my blood, sweat and tears over a proposal which, after many cliff-hanging months, was rejected. My disappointment was bitter. Yet the more time elapses, the more I see that nothing could have been more damaging than having received attention and acclaim early on simply for having converted. Converted to what? The fruit of conversion takes most of us many years, preferably of relative failure and invisibility, to even begin to form. (my emphasis added)

 Thus, over the intervening eighteen years, I haven't curried favor; I've made friends. Not because I'm such a great friend, but because I NEED friends. Because at the end of the day, you need friends way more than you need success. Because friends are both a gift and a responsibility, and if you are not on a two-way street that requires you to give and to receive to the limit of your strength, you're missing out. 
The interesting thing is that while you consent to appear out-of-step, irrelevant, and weak, your house is built on solid rock. You're marginally humble (if for no other reason than that the evidence overwhelmingly points in that direction) and you also have a weirdly unwavering sense, even if no-one else much does, of who you are IN CHRIST and of your worth.  (my emphasis added)

Read the whole piece:

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Happy St. Valentine's Day 2014

Now that I'm Catholic, I can share the whole story with my children:)

I'm not sure why Mama made a big deal out of Valentine's Day for me.   In elementary school, she and I would make sugar cookies the night before.   During my senior year of high school, I worked in the child development lab of our Home Economics department.   It was a working preschool for children of teachers and others in the community.   Mama felt like she knew each child from the stories I brought home.   She and I decided to make special cookie stacks for each child on Valentine's Day.   They were a huge hit and I like to make them for my children, too.   Sometimes we share them with friends and neighbors, but this year, I did well just to make them for us.   The recipe and instructions are here.


I love the simple sweetness of Valentine's Day in the elementary years.   I have fond memories of addressing my valentines the night before and of class parties with red punch, sugar cookies, and obscene amounts of candy.   In fourth grade, we had a mailbox contest and I decorated a beautiful shoebox.   We also had a poetry contest, which I won.   I loved Valentine's Day when I taught elementary school, but how I dreaded that day when I taught middle school.   So many arguments, tears, and hurt feelings!   It really can turn into the tackiest day of the year as any walk through the floral department of your local supermarket (especially in a college town) on February 14 will prove.   So, I am savoring these sweet years and doing what I can to have our own fun at home.

I had the kitchen table ready for making valentines when the girls came home from school.   Dollar stores and after-holiday clearance helped me do these on the cheap.


Clare's valentines were little plastic frog jumper toys.   I wrote the tags and she placed the stickers and signed her name.   We did our part to add a non-candy dimension to the class party.

Emmeline's valentines included a notepad and pencil.   She wrote the tags: "Take Note: I'm wishing you a Happy Valentine's Day!"   Again, a non-candy option!


They each made good 'ol construction paper cards for their teachers.   The cute banner was only $1 at King Dollar!   I have one for St. Patrick's Day and Easter, too.

Sweet little brother looking on

I went to Wal-Mart to buy Granny Smith apples so I could make mini pies for the girls' teachers with a note attached: "You are the Apple of My Pie!"   I walked in through the garden center and found these little pots of tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils for only 98 cents each.   Good-bye, pie-baking.   Hello, plants!

I wrapped the pots in brown craft paper (only a $1 a roll at Dollar Tree!), tied them with pretty ribbon and attached felt heart tags to each one.

I'm a big fan of brown craft paper (and brown craft paper bags) for gifts.   You can use it for any occasion, for any person.   I buy ribbon on sale during the year, so I have it on hand to dress up gift bags and packages.    To make pretty bows, the key is wired ribbon.   Below is a birthday package I recently gave a friend.   Both ribbons were left over from rolls I used to decorate the table at  Emmeline's First Communion party.   The sprigs were season-end clearance sprays from a craft store.   I separated the stems, put them end to end and wrapped them with tape at the middle.   Then, I slid them under the bow for a pretty accent.  

The gift tags on the teachers' plants were Christmas ornaments I bought on sale for at least 75% off; I think they were probably cheaper than that.   I bought them for Valentine's Day.

The girls, with sun in their eyes, loaded with their Valentine's goodies, and ready to go to school:

The after-school picture, so I could see their cute heart shirts:

Presents waiting for them when they came home, but they had to wait for Daddy to get home so he could watch them open up their bags:

I have made my children homemade chocolate mousse, cannoli, etc., etc., but what made me their hero?   I made Jello jigglers for the first time!   They had those and heart-shaped rice krispy treats and then a heart-shaped pizza from Papa Murphy's for supper:

My pretty gift for Valentine's Day.   I prefer a plant to cut flowers most of the time.   I told Joey not to get anything (and I really meant it).  This is from my favorite floral department in our area which is located in a locally-owned, non-chain grocery store.   They wrap pots in brown craft paper:)

This is my favorite Valentine's Day decoration, painted by Mama, who always made the day special for me.

Mama didn't sign everything, but this is one of the pieces with her painting signature:

Monday, 10 February 2014

Yo, ho, Mateys: A Pirate Birthday

About a year and a half ago, our then next-door-neighbor showed up on my doorstep with a huge bag in her hands.  "Could you use this?   I'm just going to throw it away if you don't want it."   A big bag of free?   Always.   "Sure," I said.   Then, I stuffed it in the closet, without looking at its contents, just knowing it was pirate stuff left over from a birthday party.   Every time it was in my way, I considered, for the briefest of moments, throwing the whole lot out.   But then I remembered it was free and I shoved it aside as I looked for the latest lost item.
Last fall, Netflix added Disney's Jake and the Neverland Pirates to their line-up and Thomas was an instant fan.   At Halloween, he wanted to be Jake, specifically.   I nudged him toward a cheaper costume so he was a pirate, generally.  
 For the next two months, he told us all about his Jake and the Neverland Pirates (you have to say the whole thing, not just Jake or just Pirate) party he was going to have for his birthday.   Since his birthday is New Year's Eve, he had our little family cake and gift day on his actual birthday and then waited another month for his big party.   Our kids have simple, family-only often, parties, but on the big years--1, 5, 10, 16--I make more effort and the theme is carried further.   According to Pinterest, what I call big effort is what some people consider average.  
And that big bag of pirate party supplies from our generous neighbor?   Awesomeness in a bag, they were!   The bag was filled with decorations, favors,complete craft kits, and unopened packages of plates and napkins.   Even better, my friend, Amber, is hosting a Jake and the Neverland Pirates party next week for her nephew, so I packed up the decorations and supplies for her to take home.   That's the way to do children's birthday parties.

I really need to keep journals of my party planning because they would make for hilarious reading, for me, anyway.   When I first begin, I have the most outrageous ideas which are always tamped down by reality.   On Pinterest, I saw a table made to look like a ship.   The table was covered in a black fabric tablecloth.   On top, fabric and dowels formed sails.   I got as far as a black plastic tablecloth.   Really, that is a purchased party tablecover, not a garbage bag.   Thomas was surprised to wake up and find everything decorated.   He woke me up and told me I had to come see what had happened as if I would be surprised, too.  


All of the food was inspired by Pinterest finds, except the coleslaw in the far left corner.   Emmeline had the idea to call it Mr. Smee's Seaweed, which I thought was pretty clever.   I am now known for my cheese balls (HEB Extreme Cheese cheese puffs).

The Pixie Dust bags were from the wedding favors section of King Dollar.   Run, don't walk, to King Dollar for your next children's party!   I filled them with star-shaped confetti, also from King Dollar.

For the centerpiece, I stacked books (French Polity, anyone?) at varying heights beneath the tablecloth.   Varied heights is what makes a pretty, or interesting, serving table.    The copper mug was just something we own (because we would), along with the sea-colored stones.   The chest, compass, and doubloons were part of the free items given to me by my neighbor.   The sword was from Thomas's Halloween costume.

The fish bait was the most popular thing on the table.   I have three of those mini tubs and I use them often, lined with wax paper for serving food.   The fruit was easy to serve on skewers and it lasted longer that way.   I made the sails from scrapbook paper (on sale!) and bamboo skewers I already had on hand.  In the background are "Cubby's Carrot Sticks."

"Make Your Own Pirate Hat, Eye Patch, and Sword" Station: totally F*R*E*E, compliments of my neighbor:)

Those balloons and banners have been hanging in my kitchen since December 31.   That's what we usually do for the kids' birthday.   We knew he'd eventually have a party.

Treasure "chest" w/party favor bags

The garland on the window is made of bandanas tied together, with foam swords between each.   The garland was left over from Clare's Jessie cowgirl party.   Some cute kids, aren't they?

I went Old School for his cake, with a yellow sheet cake, cut into simple shapes to form something that everyone recognized as a ship.   Licorice whips and Life Savers candies were the details.   Emmeline drew the map on craft paper.   That was a last-minute idea of mine.   She also made the treasure hunt (to find the piñata) for the guests.   She and her friend, Ellie, led the kids on the hunt.   How awesome are big girls?!   Pretty awesome.

Joey and I realized our kids had not eaten a boxed cake at home.   We were both craving that particular taste, so I made a boxed cake, with some doctoring.   I used buttermilk in place of the water, added an extra egg, increased the amount of oil, and added a teaspoon of vanilla.  It did cut the chemical taste.   I'm not a foodie snob.   When Emmeline was allergic to milk and eggs, boxed cakes weren't an option, so I only made cakes from scratch.   They're not difficult so I continued after she outgrew those allergies.   I will always make homemade frosting, though.   I won't budge on that one.   The chemical list on the ingredients of frosting is even worse than that on a box cake.

I love to watch how shy children become when everyone is looking at and singing to them.

Presents???!!!   This is only the  second time we've had guests for his birthday, so this was pretty exciting.

My Aunt Betty, my mother's older sister, drove in from Austin.   The kids loved being "grandmothered" and some of my friends and I took her out for a girls' night that evening.   It was a special memory to treasure.   Aunt Betty stayed up with me until 2:00 in the morning before the party and she washed every dish I used almost as soon as I set it down.

Clare does not normally have a tattoo...

Aunt Amber, my dear friend since my senior year of high school,  always comes for birthdays, making the 3- hour drive each time.   This time, she couldn't leave work early, so she drove in the day of the party.   I was so excited that she could just enjoy the party and that she didn't have to help with preparations, since she does so much for us all.

It was a great party and the best part of all was that guests stayed most of the day.   The adults milled around the kitchen, visiting and then we settled in the living room.   The kids played together beautifully, the sun was shining, and it was just a relaxing Saturday.   Thanks be to God for the blessings of family and friends!

Curtains: Not Just Window Dressing

If you've watched much PBS Kids programming lately, you'll notice there are quite a few programs whose focus is vocabulary development.   I have a story from my teaching days to give you an idea of why that emphasis is so heavy in educational television.   One day, when reading to my fourth graders, one of my students raised his hand.   When I called upon him, he said, "What does that mean?"   I had just read a description of a curtain being drawn across a stage.   My first thought was that he had never seen a stage or any production performed upon one.   So, I began to explain what a stage was.   "No, not that," he said.  "The "C" word.  What's that?"  

Curtains?   I started to explain what curtains were.   Some of the children spoke up and began to give their own descriptions, but many of them were describing blinds or shades.   After I described fabric to cover windows and how some people sew them or buy them ready-made, my student who asked the question just frowned and shrugged his shoulders.   "Well, that's stupid," he said.   "You just put towels on your windows."   Several students nodded their heads in agreement.   No one laughed.

He had a point.   When your parents are immigrants, working multiple minimum-wage jobs to pay for rent and food, curtains would not be a priority.   They would seem stupid, or foolish, certainly not necessary.   So, I realize this post seems frivolous and maybe a bit stupid.   I always think of that student and his comments when I am in the middle of the luxurious act of hanging new window coverings in our home.   I also feel a bit guilty that I have such luxury, but I try to make wise purchases that will last a long time.   It's meant waiting several years to cover some windows and that was not a problem because of the very nice blinds that were already in our home.   This blog's main purpose is to be a family record and thoughts about decorating decisions are things I'd like to hand down to my children because I learned so much from my mama.   Joey and I lived in apartments and a rent house for the first seven years of our marriage.   Mama gave me window coverings that she no longer used or sewed them for my windows in those homes.   I still have the red and white check gingham curtains she made and I plan on using those in a new way in my current kitchen.   Even when she and my dad were struggling to live on his graduate assistantship, she would find bargain fabrics and sew some sort of dressings for her rental windows.   Plus, let's be honest here, I have the pictures of the befores and afters.   Foolish as it is, here are my thoughts on relatively inexpensive curtains and other window coverings!

Lord, may I always be thankful for my many blessings, and never take them for granted.   May I use your gifts wisely and order my priorities properly.

E's Bedroom

Last week, I finished the last layer of Emmeline's room.   It is still surprising how much more cozy her room feels.   Big--huge--windows are common in the homes built over the past twenty years in our area.  Big windows  let in large amounts of intense Texas sunshine and heat and they take up a large portion of a room.   Emmeline can't open her blinds during the summer because the room gets so hot.   I love sunlight and I open blinds around our home each morning, but a wall of blinds is not the most attractive sight.   Curtains serve the double purpose of softening the window and reducing the heat and intensity of the sunlight that enters the space.

For Emmeline's room, I used a standard double curtain rod.   I like how closely the curtain panels fit to the wall compared to the fit of a decorative rod.   Plus, it is cheaper to go the standard route.   On the inside rod, I used four sheer panels in white.   These cover the blinds, filter the sunlight, and add depth to the window dressings, with their full appearance.   For the outer layer, I used two green thermal curtain panels.   The sheer panels were about $4 each at Wal-Mart and the green panels were on clearance at Target for $11 each.   So, for about $40, I was able to lessen the strong heat and light in the room, while giving the room a complete and finished look.  I bought the sheers and waited for curtains until I found a great deal.   The curtains and sheers are high quality and machine washable.   The sheers are classic and can work with any décor style.   I still use sheers that were in my teenage bedroom.   Sheer panels also look great from the outside, as they soften the look of blinds.   The green is a color that can work as Emmeline gets older.   She loves bright green and curtains were a much more subtle way to bring in the color rather than using it as the paint color.

For a smaller window, sheers with a window valance would have been an option, but for this room, with its 12 ft. ceiling, I felt the full-length panels were the best choice.   It is also an option to buy sheers and hang them on a standard double rod.   Store the outer rod to use later when you find the best deal on a valance or panels.   Sheers alone will still soften the look of a window and give a room a finished look.   Hang the rod so the bottoms of the panels just touch the floor or puddle slightly on the floor.   

Another After added since I posted this: I found this ruffled bed skirt for less than $5 on Clearance at Target.   I put it in my cart when I saw the $9 Clearance tag and when I looked at the other side of the package, I saw a further reduction.  It matches the quilt much better and it shows what a difference something like a bed skirt choice can make.

You can really tell how bright that green is in this picture!

Living Room

In the living room, window valances were left by the previous owners.  They were good quality and attractive, but I did not keep them because detracted from the beauty of the windows.  The valances chopped the length of the windows, took away from the "dormer" feature and covered the pretty trim mouldings.   Also, the sides of the valances which hang above the mantel would interfere with mantel decorations and make it impossible to use candles on either end.   I have all Mama's brass candlesticks and they need a place.   The windows serve as a real architectural element in the space, so I wanted window treatments that accented their beauty.   We took these existing valances to our previous home and used them to dress the house for sale.   There, they fit our dining room window perfectly.  

Before: I liked the color, but the paint job was badly done & the separate wall color made the room feel unbalanced.

After, at Easter
After we painted the wall to match the rest of the room, we left the windows bare, except for the blinds.   I think it was an improvement over the look of the valances.   Then, I waited two years, while I looked for the curtains I wanted.   I did not want sheer in this case because the windows are narrow and the blinds are a component of their look in the room.   The blinds look structural and are broken up by the fireplace and wall.  

Last spring, I found the panels pictured above, in the After shot,  at Target.   They were on sale and because it was part of a new line, Target sent me a discount coupon on any items from that line.   Hanging one panel on either end of the windows allows a slight softening without distracting from the interest of the window.  The panels also frame the fireplace, which is the focal point of the room.    There is an elegance to long panels that works well in living rooms and dining rooms.   The fabric is light and resembles linen.   The pattern incorporates the gold, red, and green, while also bringing in a touch of blue that I like to have in every room.   The pattern reminds me of the natural inspiration of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic, while it also makes me think of the British Colonial style.   I chose very simple, inexpensive dark-finish decorative rods.   In this case, a standard curved rod would have been very visible and that would not have been attractive.   I also considered white sheer panels, hung in the same manner, for this room, but once I found these curtains on sale, I bought them.  


I love the mix of patterns in my living room.  Rooms with a mix of color, texture and pattern are warm, inviting, and have the look of a room that was built over time, instead of the character-less look of a matchy-matchy room that looks as if it were just plucked up as a whole from a showroom floor.   The loveseat and chair and a half are covered in a tweedy fabric that is actually microfiber.  Suede is no longer the only look available in microfiber.   The fabric will hold up well to wear and the microfiber is easy to clean.   The pillow was from the same line as the curtain panels and I use them during spring and summer to lighten the room.   The lamp is inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement; it works well with the colors and organic feel of the panel fabric.  

During the winter months, I start to worry the room is too brown, but the rest of the year, especially in the hot months of summer, the room is cool and calming.   See the whole living room make-over here.
Lots of textures: uneven brick pavers in warm shades, smooth medium color wood floor, tweedy fabric on couches, leather chairs, wood finish, tile fireplace surround: my intention is that they all work together to create warmth
Due to our floor pan, the curtains in the living room and kitchen need to coordinate.   The kitchen panels are made of a heavier fabric, with the classic stripe pattern.   The red in the stripes is the same as the red in the living room panels and the background colors of both curtains is the same.   I love the look of stripes and florals.   My kitchen panels were made by friend Amber.   I found a fabulous deal (75% off) on a tablecloth at Dillards and Amber just cut the tablecloth in half, opened up the ends of the seams to form rod pockets  and hemmed the bottom for the correct length.   I say Amber "just" did this and that to make them, but since I can't sew, what I mean is she performed some kind of magic and turned my tablecloth into curtains.   The panels are durable and machine-washable.   I never hang sheers in kitchens because of the grease, grime, and grub and dirty hands in the kitchen.  These tablecloth panels brought the whole kitchen together.
The cabinets originally had no handles or grooves in the door for opening them.


My kitchen curtain panels are classic, but they coordinate well with my vintage fabrics, like the tablecloth pictured below.   See the whole kitchen make-over here and here.

Experiment: Mama made this valance for us when we moved into our rent house in 2003.   I'm thinking about using this red and white check valance during spring/summer and using the panels during fall/winter.   Changing the look for seasons will give a nice change.   This valance will definitely need to be ironed if I keep it up.   I'm not sure if the proportions are right for the window, but Mama made it so I would like to use it.   I can imagine her looking at it and saying that they should be as long as the line of the window pane line above which the valance hangs about two inches.

Our table in use

Dining Room

If you stand in the middle of my kitchen and look to one end, you see the striped panels, deep red on a golden-ecru background against a light golden paint color.   Look to the other end and you see the coordinated reverse in my dining room: golden thermal panels on a deep red wall, pictured below.   While the dining room curtain panels and rod are formal, they still coordinate with the classic striped panels at the other end of the kitchen.   See the dining room make-over here.

After adding sheers to the window

Closer view of thermal panels from Lowe's.  I didn't realize Lowe's sold curtains and they regularly discount patterns as they bring in new stock.   The banner was for a birthday gathering:)   I am going to add sheer panels to cover the blinds soon.   Sheers will also help with the intense morning sunlight.  

From the outside, it's a subtle change, but it's more obvious to me when I'm driving up the driveway, or looking at the house from the road.   The sheers seem to soften the look of the window, in addition to adding privacy, even at night, while the blinds are open.   Window treatments have to be practical.

Before sheers were added in the middle


Master Bedroom

 In our master bedroom, we are blessed with a cozy corner nook which is the perfect space for a cup of tea or coffee and a great book.   The feature of the space is a set of three narrow, but long windows.  The only trim is found at the bottom of the windows, so their real beauty is the light and scenery they afford.    If I had designed them, I would have shortened them and built a window seat below.

The previous owners hung three separate valances, along with single panels below, which were knotted at the end.   The valances alone would have been better.   I started looking for window treatments that would fill the whole space.   Look at how the spaces between the windows is narrow.   It makes the lack of trim around the windows really stand out.   It starts to appear as just a corner full of blinds.  

My solution came with credit card rewards and a great sale at   I found these sheer patterned panels which feature a solid element at the top that resembles a valance.   They puddle on the floor, which is a look I like in a bedroom.    They let in the beautiful light and view of the backyard, but the space is softened and cozy.   They nearly touch , so the space is unified, instead of just three windows spliced into separate rectangles.    Long windows can be tricky; I think shorter windows are much easier to dress.   The panels cost a total of $31.50.   Ecru sheer panels would have also been pretty, but I was looking for the look of lace.   I'm still a little stumped by the windows on the other side of the room.   They are over the bed and I don't want fabric around the bed as it will just collect dust that leads to sinus issues for me.

Close-up of panels

C's Room

I do not have a before picture, but in Clare's room, there are only two windows.   They are narrow corner windows that are low to the floor.   My first consideration was practical here.   I already had the pink set of panels.   They are very high-quality thermal curtains that I needed to re-use and I only had two.   I decided they would work to frame the corner, which is an interesting window placement.   I used my old sheer panels and hung the curtains on a standard double rod.   Another option would be a corner rod, with two more sheer panels, so there would be no corner exposed between the windows.   That would be pretty, but I did not want to invest more money in these curtains.   I would not use decorative rods here, because they would touch in the corner.  


Master Bathroom

In our master bath, I was able to re-use the rod that came with the house.   At our previous home, I had intended to dress up our master bath by hanging two curtain rods on our shower and having a valance in front of the shower curtain.   When our Linens and More store went out of business I bought a curtain panels and valance set for about $10, but never I never used them on my shower as I intended.   In this home, our window above the tub was the perfect place for that bargain valance.   It matched the existing wallpaper border that I am not going to remove.   For shorter windows like this (I love short windows), a valance is economical and it looks great.   It is hard to get a good picture in this room.

Candle holders on either side: $1 each at King Dollar, still had price tags from Bed, Bath, and Beyond with original price of 3.99 each (tip: hanging votive holders are a safe way to have light during a power outage)

Close-up of fabric

I really like this piece that I found at a Family Dollar store.

Final thoughts

Check out your window options at stores like Family Dollar and Dollar General, especially if you live in a small town or are travelling through one.   The stock at a small town store is better than that in a larger town because the residents are more dependent upon the store.   You can get standard single curtain rods as cheaply as $1 at a true dollar store (King Dollar in our town).   

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