September 3rd, 2010

Useful information

Here’s a bunch of random stuff I’ve read on the web lately that might be helpful to you:

10 Mistakes Freelancers Make: I worked freelance for a while and made many of these mistakes, which probably contributed to how miserable I was (but not entirely; some people just have a set number of hours beyond which they NEED to have a conversation with someone). Now I work with/administrate for freelancers, and I see the best ones avoid this stuff. The piece is a bit general, but if you’re just starting out, probably exactly what you need.

Definitions of Different Kinds of Cousins: I’m from a small family and can generally define everybody by pointing and saying their names, but I can see the lure of wanting to know the exact title of your cousin’s daughter or your grandmother’s cousin. The folks from the Emily Post Institute finally set the record straight.

Q&A with Daniel Alarcon: Apparently the New Yorker does these little Q&As with their fiction writers as a web-only feature now. The questions are quite generic, but the writers that the New Yorker pulls are so good that their answers are still worth reading.

The Finding Time to Write piece is part of a writing advice column the Vagabond Trust has been running every Thursday. The best piece of advice in it is this–so true for some of us, but no one ever says it: “Maybe you can have your web browser open and keep an eye on your Facebook news feed while you’re writing. Maybe you can sit on the couch with your laptop and watch TV while the kids are screaming and playing in the room and you can still get your writing done. I don’t know, I’m not you. If you feel that you just can’t stop doing something to write, to to write while you’re doing it. If it doesn’t work, you actually are going to have to stop doing whatever that is for a little while.”

Hope that helps with…something or other. Happy Labour Day, peeps!

August 24th, 2010

Collaborations I Have Loved

With all this talk about the “How to Be Alone” video, I have strangely been thinking about times I’ve worked with others and it’s been wonderful. I am fairly decent at being alone–it would be very hard to write stories and not be–but sometimes the solo, non-social nature of writing bugs me. Sure, it’s nice to have total control over most of what I write, me being a meglomaniac and all, but sometimes it is nice to have someone to talk to about how it’s all working out.

So I’ve always been in writing groups and workshops. It helps to get feedback on my own work, as well as to see what sorts of cool stuff others are getting up to. It helps to keep the conversation about writing going with smart people I respect. Of course, I listen carefully to editors and try to really engage with them on what they think a piece needs. When someone is willing to share some of the heavy lifting of writing, I let them–it’s still mine in the end, but sometimes being drawn out of my hot little skull to a fresh perspective from someone else’s skull is wonderfully liberating.

I’ve also gotten the opportunity to take the process of collaboration farther, to actual shared writing projects. One writing group I was in collaborated on a murder-mystery anthology. I felt this was a pretty brilliant idea, and since it didn’t quite work out, I’m hoping some other group will want to steal it–do you? What we did was, we brainstormed a character and a bit of backstory, and then a scenario in which she is found dead in her apartment building. Then each of us individually wrote a short story for one other tenant in the building, in which each person had motive and opportunity for the crime. Then we were going to collaborate on a final story, revealing the true killer, but the group disbanded before that happened. I’m still rather proud of my piece, though I have to admit that without the context of its sister stories, it doesn’t make complete sense. Still it was a really fun process–everyone went in such different directions that it was really entertaining, as well as instructive to hear the stories presented every meeting.

Somewhere around then, I was also writing a satirical romance round-robin style, with about a dozen other people. A round robin is where each person writes a paragraph adding on to what’s gone before. It’s like improv in the sense that you need to work with, not against, anything you are handed when you enter: if the write of the previous paragraph says that aliens landed, and you undermine it by saying that it was a hallucination brought on by bad ham, the forward momentum and structure of the piece is imperilled–you’ve just wasted 2 paragraphs, basically. But round-robin writing is, also like improv, best suited to silliness! Our love story was hilarious, but not anything anyone could actually print or publish or even read seriously. I also don’t think it had an ending.

An even simpler–and sillier–version of such shared stories is Little Papers (Petites Papiers), a game that I think Fred introduced me to (right, Fred?) in first-year university. This is a blind round robin–you sit in a circle, each writes one part of the story folds it over and passes it on to the next person to write the next bit. We always played with 3-6 people, but I think it would be fun even with 2. Our stories had a standard structure, as follows (how many great novels can you apply this structure to?)
Woman’s name
Man’s name
Where they meet
What she says to him
What he says to her
What happens next
Somehow the results were never not funny. I think you could also play it with less structure, just sentence-sentence-sentence, but that runs the risk of, like our round robin, never ending.

The round robin and little papers exercises are probably best suited to goof-off activities for word nerds, or classroom activities to teach kids of have fun with writing and enjoy working together. As serious fictional enterprises, maybe they won’t work so well (though I’d love to hear an example where 30 people wrote the great Canadian novel in round robin or some such). And also, these are a projects where collaboration is limited: everyone creates singly and contributes, rather than creating collectively. Creating collectively, as we know from marketing campaign brainstorms, focus group film endings and themed bridal showers, often ends in inane results, no results, or hand-to-hand combat.

So the only time I ever wrote something in full collaboration with someone–no “my-part-your-part”–was with someone I have always been comfortable throwing shoes at or biting*, my younger brother. We wrote three episodes of a sitcom together a couple years ago, mainly because we both laugh at the same stuff and have the same strong opinions on how sitcoms should be. Who knows it is actually a good idea to try to write something funny with someone with a similar sense of humour; certainly, not everyone agrees with us and perhaps it would help the universality of our show to have someone on the team who did not collapse in hysterics at our elaborate clowns-at-Starbucks setup.

It wasn’t all hilarity and delicious snack items, though–ok, it was mainly. We wrote it for no particular reason except it’s nice to have an activity sometimes; basically, to entertain ourselves. That certainly worked, though we did nearly come to blows about how to turn off track changes (on Word for Mac, apparently, you just never do). But I do think it was a good exercise in making a single unified work out of two disparate views (even if the disparity is only slight). Maybe next time I’ll work someone who is not a blood relative, even someone I wouldn’t chase with a stick. The sky is the limit.

But actually, I really liked working with my brother.

*What, like you weren’t hard on your siblings?

August 8th, 2010

The only freedom is choice

After working myself into a mini-rage, I’ve calmed down and decided not to expend many blog inches over Leah McLaren’s column in the Globe yesterday. It’s about a study she read on primary childcare. McLaren’s point, illustrated by this study plus “the overwhelming anecdotal evidence of [her] peers” that it is “absolutely not…good for the mental development and behaviour of most new mothers” to stay home with their children.

Of course, the study doesn’t say that–the study says the kids will probably be fine whether care is provided by mom or someone else, provided the family is pretty stable. What I might draw from this is that adults need to make the best decisions they can given the specifics of their own lives, be they financial, cultural, intellectual, whatever. What McLaren draws is that since mothering is “unpaid labour” and if you are home all day you are “[l]ess able to make small talk at a cocktail parties,” call the daycare centre and get yourself a job.

I guess I haven’t met them, but I doubt McLaren’s peers constitute a statistically sound sampling of all economic, geographic, social and cultural demographics. Many people want many things from their lives. A choice is a choice: in 2010, women don’t have the “freedom” to have careers; we have the freedom to do anything we want, provided we can make it work within the context of our own lives and loved ones. The quality of the entertainment we provide at cocktail parties never enters into it.

I don’t know exactly why this article made me see red; I don’t have kids and this isn’t an issue I’m dealing with. Maybe the idea that there is any one right answer for any aspect of life–hurrah for the pluralistic society! And then there’s the fact that my mom stayed home with me, after a fascinating career that involved, among other things, teaching a university course on the sociology of women. I am happy to think it was an educated choice. Both my grandmothers worked, as did at least two of my great-grandmothers. You can bet they didn’t do it so they’d have amusing anecdotes to tell at parties. We all make the best decisions we can with the lives we have.

March 15th, 2010

Brothers and Sisters

When I was a young whippersnapper student writer, somewhere in later undergrad years, I won a place in a one-day seminar with the novelist/short-story writer Audrey Thomas. It was a cool honour and an interesting day, but the organizers overbooked the workshop a little, and Ms. Thomas wasn’t really able to comment specifically on much of the student work. She may havesaid one or two other small things, but the meat of what she said about my story was how nicely unexpected it was that the close friends in the opening scenes eventually turn out to be brother and sister.

That stuck with me–not so much the compliment, although that was nice, but the pointing out that brother/sister relationships are not the most popular topic for stories, and that may well be because not everyone *has* an opposite-sex sibling, especially one that they are close to. It was a good reminder that I needed to check my work carefully for that sort of autobiographical creep–it may be that almost every one of my main characters in my earliest stories *did* have a close sibling. Maybe.

This goes back to that teenager centre-of-the-earth thing–I wasn’t entirely sure how people without such relationships functioned, and I suppose I suspected not very well, even though I know some people who didn’t, and did (something went wrong with that sentence). I’ve met a lot more people since then, only children, people estranged from their families, people perfectly polite with their sibs but just none-too-chatty, mainly all perfectly functional, and thus I’ve gotten over the urge to give every character a brother or a sister.

But I’m still immensely fond of my brother, and I guess I’d like to see our vibe represented in art a little more. I say this because the two of us just finished watching You Can Count on Me, a film that everyone in the world recommends as a great brother-sister films, and that we both loathed. I’m so disappointed, especially since every critic in the world (see the above link) loved it. Not sure what the misfire was there.

We loved The Savages and even Home for the Holidays was pretty good (I think I liked it more than B. did) but…are there others? Because I really can’t think of any, and would love some recommendations if anyone has any… (yes, I make a point of watching these sorts of things with B.–what, it’s the same as watching romantic movies with your SO, isn’t it?)

I’m probably just blanking out of panic, but I’m having the same trouble with books. Of course there’s Franny and Zooey, and I want to say Holden and Phoebe in Catcher, but that’s kids and I’d actually like adult relationships if possible (being as I’m adult and all). What else… Oh, dear. Maybe I’m having this problem because it’s late. I’ll try again tomorrow, but if you have ideas, please share!!


February 9th, 2010

Be nice to everyone week!

Longtime Rose-coloured readers may know that I hold the wildly unpopular position that Family Day is fascist. I’m less alarmed about Valentine’s Day because it’s a Hallmark initiative, not a legislative one–if the government gets involved in telling people how to woo, I’m moving to Sweden–but it’s not my favourite occasion.

I am certainly very fond of the concepts of both familial and romantic love, and don’t think there’s anything wrong with celebrating them–I just think that since not everyone finds themselves in a situation where a celebration is possible or appropriate, maybe the government might stay out of it (especially since they’re really just trying to keep Ontario businesses from inconveniencing American sister offices by being open on Presidents’ Day).

But I’m not going to prevail on this one, and I’ve (largely) stopped ranting. As you’ll see in the posts above, I’m trying to use this week for a more relevant campaign of affection–for strangers and friends and acquaintances, whoever doesn’t have a socially prescribed position in my life. Taking out my earbuds at the cashier and saying “How are you?” like I care about the answer (I do!) . Giving my seat on the subway to whoever looks tired. Taking down my garbage early so it’s not a hassle for the super. Tipping generously, giving to charity, baking for bakesales (Thursday!), noticing new haircuts, and carrying the heavy stuff–I’m always trying to remember to do this stuff, but this week I’m trying extra.
When I start the “Family Day/Fascism” stuff, friends always point out that I have an awesome family, and I do; I know I’m lucky. It just seems weird that we would have a day where those who are lucky celebrate that, and those who aren’t so lucky get to feel extra bad about it. I think maybe my viewpoint is somewhat skewed because I volunteered for several years talking to people who didn’t have anyone else to talk to, but I do feel that more people are isolated and lonely in our society than us lucky ones care to think about. And those people might not be feeling so great about the weekend o’ mandated emotion coming up. A little niceness might go a long way for them right now–or anytime, really.

January 31st, 2010

How I Learned to Read

I am loving Kerry’s Family Literacy Week posts so much that I want to play. However, most of my knowledge of kidlit comes from when I *was* one, so I’ll be writing about that. My story actually fits in perfectly with the theme, since it’s about family and reading (also two of my favourite things).

All authors seem to have some seminal story about the moment they realized the words on the page made a story, and they could have that story, right then and there, by reading. You see such anecdotes in all the big bio interviews with writers, and they’re often tales of dweebish precociousness–“Oh, I couldn’t speak clearly or run without a helmet, but I was reading novellas by the time I was in kindergarten.” Or preschool. Or out of the womb.

My memory of the early years cuts in and out–I don’t think I’m missing much except a lot of apple-juice spills, but dates are distinctly sketchy. I know my mom taught me to read, and I can remember bits of the process, but I can’t exactly slot it into chronological time. I never asked about this, blithely assuming that I had been an early reader too–I certainly did well enough in the early grades, although some of those good marks may have been for not eating play dough (anyone who doesn’t retain a residual longing for play dough obviously somehow got hold of a can when no one was looking and *ate it all*, thus finally slaking that hunger all children experience).

Anyway! One day, and I think this might have actually been in support of an interview I was doing for *Once*, I asked my mom whether I too, had been a magically advanced, obvious-writer-to-be infant.

“Did I learn to read pretty early?”
“Oh, no, not really.”
“Like, only average?”
“I guess you were about…eight or so. I really had to push you, you didn’t want to learn.”

I was a single-digit illiterate! Oh, the shame! I finally managed to extract from my mother that I had in fact been able to read sentences in grade 1. But those were 40-word stories read aloud to the teacher, and my mom equated being “able to read” with being able to sit alone and turn pages, to immerse oneself in the story.

Which I had actually had no interest in doing, so readily available were adults to read to me. Of course I really liked stories, all stories (but especially those about plucky orphans or Laura Ingalls Wilder)–I just didn’t associate them with something I could do on my own. It’s funny, trying to remember the experience of learning to read now, because the sense I recall most from childhood reading now is physical–the feeling associated with reading is *snuggly*, because when I was read to I was held in someone’s lap, and when my mom began teaching me to read that’s where I remained.
I certainly watched television, and actually often with my parents, who liked to keep an eye on things. But I sat alone for that, or at least could. And playing outside or games or whatever (yes, I did occasionally go outside)–those could be independent, solo activities. But reading was interactive, intimate.
So when (apparently the summer after grade 2!) my mom said I was old enough to read chapter books, I had to start by reading the first page of each chapter of *Little House at Plum Creek* and *Charlotte’s Web* before she would read the rest to me. I do *not* recall a lightning bolt moment when the words became a story for me–I recall it being extremely hard and *dying* for my mom to take over. But it’s still a positive memory, and it is weird that I can recall exactly how my head fit under her chin and my legs sprawled on either side of her knees.
I am not at all suggesting that I was a lazy reader because I was read to too much–that might be impossible, I think. Of course, this is biased, but I am of the opinion that the way I learned to read was the best way possible. It was never a school subject for me, or any kind of subject at all. Reading was just a tool I could use to get at the best things in the world, stories–getting meaddicted to those was a far better goad to learning than any phonics book ever could be.
And by the time I started grade 3, I could read myself to sleep, and have been doing so ever since.
I like this topic, and would love to hear other reader-creation stories–how did you learn to read?

December 8th, 2009

Not by any other: on names and naming

I have stolen a rose. It is in a glass water on my kitchen table, and I look at it as I eat breakfast. It’s pretty and I like looking at it, but I also feel a little guilty. I’m pretty sure no one misses it, but it was still not my rose to take.

Except there is a part of me that feels that all roses are mine. Because of my name, you see: when I see a rose, a tiny part of my brain says “mine” or, sometimes, “me.”

I identify very very strongly with my name. I have a strong interest in all the other Rosenblums in the world, of which there are not that many. There are more Rebeccas, and I always enquire after them if I hear the name mentioned–I want to make sure they are upstanding women and not doing anything under the aegis of Rebeccaness that might sully our reputations.

But I am willing to admit that their ways of being Rebecca, whatever they are, become the definition of Rebeccaness in their context. Names are tautological–whoever you are, that’s you! For that reason, as soon as I know a person slightly, I have no trouble keeping him/her straight from other people with the same name: the personality hooks into whatever the person is called (at one point I knew 13 Jasons). I have never met a person whose name didn’t seem to me to suit him or her; everyone simply becomes the embodiment of that name to me.

The only people whose names aren’t a simply tautology to me are, ironically, my parents, because I don’t know them by their names (although of course I know what they are). I have been known to obliviously introduce them as simply “my mom and dad,” and leave them to give their proper names themselves, which in fact sound strange to me, though I don’t honestly expect people to address my mom as “Rebecca’s Mom”–I just forget that that’s not actually her name.

I have known people who changed their names when they married, when they immigrated, when they broke away from their families, or when they began writing. They seem just fine with the change, learning to identify fully under the new rubric. I imagine that must be a huge transformation of self, a serious mental and emotional change. It’s enough for me to even remember to call them what they now want to be called.

So I am not one of those authors who takes great joy in researching names, keeping lists of cool names, or matching the meaning of the name with a character (my name means “bound”–not even close). To me that’s not how names work: the person inflates the name with his or her being, not the other way round. Because real people come to me with names in place, in my mind so do characters. I generally think of an appropriate name within the first few paragraphs of writing about someone, and then that’s it–it becomes who they are. I almost never alter the names of characters once I’ve been writing about them for a while, and though maybe I can fiddle with a minor character’s name if she’s only on the page briefly, the characters I know well would disturb me greatly by another name. It would be as if my mom suddenly demanded I call her Barbara.

So the fact that I now need to change a character’s name is making me bonkers. It’s a coincidental reality/fiction overlap, and since I have no wish to edit reality, it’s fiction that’s going to have to take the hit, so as to avoid confusion. I thought I would avoid upsetting myself by writing the story with the original name in place and then search’n’replace it right before submitting the piece for publication–I wouldn’t even have to see this alien name on the page for very long.

But my attempt to pull this clever trick on my own brain isn’t working: now that I know this guy isn’t keeping his name, he’s shifty on the page whenever I try to write about him. “Who are you?” seems to be my question for him, although I thought I already knew. It’s really slowing down the writing, as I stare at the paragraph where he drinks the soda and think, “As Paul took a sip of his soda,” “As Nick took a…” “As Dave took…” We can’t spend 20 minutes on the soda-drinking paragraph!! It’s only two lines long! This problem remains unsolved, and in progress.

I love my brain–it is a very interesting place to live, but sometimes I wish it were just a little more flexible. Even my father, who has been living under the Rosenblum rubric the longest, is baffled by my enthusiasm, and claims to “not really think about it.” He does sometimes give me roses, though.


June 19th, 2009


Until my late teens, almost everyone I knew had not only the same area code but the same first three digits in their phone numbers. It was a very small town, but as far as I was concerned it contained everyone it needed to. Sure my extended family and parents’ old friends lived in the faraway U.S., but so they always had, and it was hard to miss people whom one rarely saw in two consecutive years.

Nevertheless, I delighted in post from such farflung correspondants, and a few made an effort to write to my young self on a regular basis. I was a far more ardent correspondant than any one recipient could handle, however, so whenever the elementary school penpal program circulated, I signed up again, winding up with a worldwide network of fascinating penpals, all of whom I would exhaust into silence within a year or two. I also wrote a family newspaper for distribution within my household, with articles on such topics as whose birthday it was that week, and what we needed from the hardware store (oh, this blog was so clearly presaged). I was also likely the only kid in the world who didn’t have to be nagged to write thank you notes for gifts.

I went away for the summer I was 17, made no friends, and used up half a dozen books of stamps. I went away the summer I was 18, wrote only slightly fewer letters but did finally actually make genuine friends who didn’t live in my township. They were older than I, already in university and conversant in the ways of university email addresses. I had no idea about any of this, but when I returned home, I tried to figure it out.

We’d had a computer in the house since the end of the eighties, which my brother and I used to play endless video games of steadily evolving complexity, and occasionally to do schoolwork. I had no idea what my folks were doing with it, or with the shrieky dialup “internet”; work of some sort, it seemed.

So the fall of my last year of high school, my dad taught me about email. I don’t know if freemail accounts hadn’t appeared on the scene yet or I just didn’t know about them, but my father generously shared his work email account with me, leading to a whole new form of household nagging (“Did you email Amanda back yet? That note’s been in my inbox all week? You really should…”) Everyone was sad when I moved away for university, but at least I got my own damn email account. By then I was hooked.

Far away from my area code and all the relevant people it contained, I started emailing my friends and family constantly–minutia about school and new friends and food and weather and clothes and health…and people *emailed back*. Letters had become old-school and boring: you had to buy stamps and envelopes and remember to walk past a mailbox, so I very rarely got post, but email still had the gloss of novelty to it, and I was thrilled to get email every day.

More than a decade and several technological revolutions later, I’m still pretty excited to see that Inbox (1) bar pop up! Letters have largely gone dormant for most people, though I can’t resist that heart-leap hope when I unlock my mailbox that today will be a day that one of the six people on earth who still use post will have sent me something.

In truth, I think the bloom is off the rose a bit with email, too. Most people’s jobs require them to send and receive dozens per day, and most of those are of the “Please reconfigure the pages completely and within the hour” variety that rarely causes heart-leaping, even in me. I’m sure I know a lot of people who, off the clock, would like their computers firmly silent and email-less.

Not me. I’ve never gotten over my childhood desire to hear from those distant, and much as I love to talk, I still feel my best self-expression–most coherent, most thoughtful, most amusing–is in writing. I like to think over a letter/email/story, rewrite a line or two, delete (some of the) extraneous stuff. I think I have a career as a writer that I could never have had as an “extemporizer,” and I think you’ll agree if you’ve ever gotten voicemail from me.

So I’m an email junkie. I send and receive dozens a day in a professional context, and although fewer in personal context, I’m still ever-emailing. I do get that not everyone wants to write long discussions of life, the universe and everything in their off-hours. Actually, I’m sort of amazed that some people (other than myself) do, and that I can be the recipient if only I continue to respond in kind.

All this email-relection has been brought on by the fact that I’m headed out of town this weekend to a cottage, on an island…with no internet. This has never happened to me before, really–not since that critical turning point back in the late nineties. I think it’ll be good for me, although challenging. I think the lake water, sunshine, friends, tofudogs, boardgames, actual dog, boat, bonfire, and coleslaw will help.

But I’ll still miss you, interent, and all my lovely far-flung friends that live inside you!

You just can’t do that again

June 15th, 2009

On free will

Mom: And the cheese has been in the freezer since January, so we’re all set.
Rebecca: I don’t think you can freeze cheese.
Mom (indignant): You can freeze *anything you want*. It’s whether it will survive the process that’s the question.

Reachin’ for the stars

May 15th, 2009

Shocking News: I’m in Tokyo

I am sure I’m the only one who had doubts that this would happen, especially after I paid for the ticket and renewed my passport. But I suffer from a certain lack of faith in the future and when the wheels touched Tokyo tarmac, I was genuinely agog, and couldn’t have been prouder if I had piloted the plane myself. I turned to my charming Korean teenage seatmate, with whom I had exchanged no words in 13 hours, and I beamed and beamed. “Isn’t this amazing?” I would have said, had we shared a language. (on the mutant interantional dateline day that was Tuesday-Wednesday for me, I said almost nothing other than, “Excuse me,” and “Do I stand in this line?” and “I don’t eat beef.” It was a very very hard day for me.)

Even more amazing: after a horrendous half-hour on the tarmac being checked for swine-flu (apparently I don’t have it), they *let us off the plane* and into the rest of Japan. Which turned out to be significantly better than the plane. I guess I have only been here for 36ish hours, but I have seen so much so far. Including:

–dozens of beautiful women wearing smocks. Smocks are all the rage in Japan. It’s sort of a good look, actually.
–teeny little hole-in-wall bars on labyrinthine side-streets that are over a hundred years old. Drinking and hanging out here seems an almost mystical art.
–hundreds of Poe-style crows, cawing and skulking about and being generally terrifying. There are crows everywhere, and they seem to want to eat you. One of my brother’s roommates said there is a rumour that 5 or 6 ganged up and killed a cat.
–My brother!!! Tokyo’s great and all, but I would have visited Ben in Kentucky. With who else could I have a conversation like this:
(peering over the side of a bridge into a river at a bunch of carp)

Me (pointing): Those two are in love!!
Ben: Ah, all fish are male.

–giant Uni-Qlo (I’m sorry, this computer’s crap so I can’t deal with doing links; google to see the wonder that is Uni-Qlo and you won’t be sorry). I bought a smock.

Much more to do after I take a shower and my bro comes back from his run (I wussed out early to post this missive) and we head for Yokahama, where there is a beach and trees and a Ferris wheel from which you can see far away.

I’ll try to report back, although due to computer issues I’m not too sure about posting pictures. Very important: unlike every other time ever, I am not up on anything like other people’s blogs, Facebook minifeed, the general Toronto news, etc. But I am reading email. If something important happens to you, be it fame and fortune, crow attack, or giving birth, you know I wanna know.

Oh, and they put shredded potato on pizza here. It’s shockingly good.

I’ve been meaning to call you

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