Caution – Danger Ahead

kiseljak

This is an excerpt from my memoir The Things We Cannot Change:

From my window, rooftops are visible against a ribbon of the almost-green trees muting the incessant drone of the highway. Everything appears serene and lovely this early spring morning but I cannot help and wonder what goes on inside these houses. What hatred, prejudice, violence might simmer under those roofs? Could this community in Connecticut combust? Might neighbors turn on each other in violence? Of course not – that seems impossible. We are sure we are different. That is not who we are. Yet I have seen what darkness can reside in homes with roofs just like ours and know such horrors are possible anywhere.

***

My apartment sat on the main road of this tiny predominantly Croat town in Bosnia. I heard everything. Nights, I hid under a ridiculous number of blankets for warmth and to try and drown out the drunken shouting and yelling of local soldiers in the street. The next day at work, I knew I’d be reading UN military reports of Moslem families being bullied from their homes, men taken away in the night. It could not just be me listening but doing nothing about the evil soundtrack of those sleepless hours? What about my neighbors? Under the veil of darkness, families were forced from homes they’d lived in for generations. The Croats were ‘ethnically cleansing’ the town of Moslems – right on the UN’s doorstep.

Man’s inhumanity to man being played out so close around me, overwhelms what should be memories of my excitement of new love. Instead, an icy fear and anger clutched at my throat and tightened with every night.

Years later, I remain haunted by that Bosnian-Croat town – the dark secrets and nights of violence spilling into daylight.

destroyed-village

Each chapter of my memoir begins with an italicized section of reflection in the present before launching into my past story. This chapter selection is from my time there when Central Bosnian villages were being ‘cleaned’ out. During the day, from the safety of the UN armored car, what from a distance looked sweet bucolic cottages, up close became surreal scenes of horror. Windows smashed – ruffled curtains flapping like surrender flags flown too late. Some houses burned. Doors left open – chickens wandering the yard, a dead dog. No human in sight. Eerie. The village had clearly just recently been ransacked – the people fled, taken prisoner, killed? Any of those was possible — all of it happened. We sped on to our meeting.

kids-in-sarajevo

The beauty of the places I lived and visited in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Slovenia during my four years there is unforgettable. But the hatred between those cousins wore my soul out. In 1996, I was ready to come home and glad to settle in the diverse, welcoming community I now love and call my own. While racism and prejudice has always existed in the United States, in my experience, it was rare to encounter it as shameless. There was at least a sense of being wrong and certainly some modicum of legal protection against hate crimes, discrimination. That’s what I thought in 1996 as I packed my bags to move back to create a life with my new family in my home country.

I’ve gotten a glimpse of what can happen when government leaders and their propaganda machines fan the flame of fear and hatred. I’ve seen what happens when citizens feel free – even encouraged – to harass (and worse) their neighbors with impunity. It’s more terrible than you can imagine. Let’s not go there.

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Dark Season

Just a week ago we set the clocks back an hour. I’m not crazy about this time switching. Sometimes I pass  all my hours in a windowless office with barely a glimpse of nature’s light. Those are sad days. The beat of my heart is connected to the sight of clouds, birds, the changing light. I need to see the sun, to feel even the wannest of warmth from winter rays on my face. I don’t do well in the dark.

But I will learn to function in the new reality of this season, to embrace this chance to shift inward, to reflect. I’ll make it work. When necessary, I will rage against the night, plan for the future. Spring will come. I will gather what I need to enrich the soil in my garden. I’ll gather friends and fill my house with laughter, ply them with good food and drink to sustain us through these dark days and take comfort and strength in our solidarity. And tonight – there’s a promise of an extraordinary moon to light the way through the dark. I’ll take that as an offering of hope.

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Bird Quarrels and Peace

Summer photo - but still windy!

Summer photo – but still windy!

Last weekend, ferocious winds blew in a taste of winter. Bright and sunny with cold gusts that turned the leaves inside out and off their branches. I took my cue to get my winter nest ready and washed and aired flannel sheets and heavy blankets, letting them flap dry in the crazy wind.

A week later it’s summer again and I sit on my porch in shirtsleeves watching two red- headed woodpeckers follow each other back and forth between the trees. I am reminded there is a bright side to bare branches: the birds! Winter is prime bird watching time.

See the little profile there in the left?

See the little pecker-profile?

A drama unfolds between these two birds – one is noisily berating the other who ignoring the complaints without a peep, focuses on worrying the bark. And now a jay has announced himself with a shriek. He lands in the bird bath, eyes the empty feeders and leaves wanting no part of the fracas.

They’re still at it. If they were weaving a web as they flew between the trees, it would be impassable by now – they have passed back and forth between the trees so often.

The aggressive one just attacked the other, falling with a thud onto the lawn beside me. “Whoa! Easy guys!” I called out as if breaking up a schoolyard fight. Another bird – a catbird briefly lands and after noisy commentary, flees the scene. What’s wrong with them? It’s not mating season – maybe it’s time to claim their winter home. I have prime bird real estate in a good size stump snug up against another tree.

Battle for the stump?

Battle for the stump?

My bird show just took a dramatic turn with the sound of heavy flapping wings – I look up just in time to catch a large hawk or falcon chased by a smaller bird. I did not see if the bird of prey had scored a meal but I’d wager the scrappy bird chasing him will not be lunch.

This is what I miss when I leave here every day to go to work. If I won the lottery, I’d be content to report to you on nature’s news from out my window or from my porch and at the end of the day, I’d feel satisfied. Well, I’d punctuate this with walks and beach romps with the dog I would get.

I love observing the buzz of nature. The busy efforts of creatures and plants to survive and thrive on this magnificent earth. I am content to watch the birds and fattening squirrels on my tiny patch of land within earshot of the highway to New York City less than an hour away. An hour or two with this world on my doorstep is enough to bring me back to some essence of life well beyond the hamster-wheel that can be my life: my job, paying bills and worrying about this depressing election. I find peace in paying attention to the feel of the air, the smell of the seasons and the quarrels of birds.

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Crazy Lies

I lie to my dentist. Isn’t that crazy?

My dentist asks ‘Problems with any of your teeth?’ while poking at fillings with the creepy metal hook. I can’t speak with someone’s hand in my mouth. I answer with a negative uh-uh grunt and immediately a wave of heat shoots through me because I’m lying. I almost never lie. There is a tooth that bothers me and has for at least 3 of my past visits  – that’s every six months thanks to my good insurance that covers 2 cleanings a year. I never miss one.

I’m not exactly in pain but I often have a weird metallic taste in my mouth that I suspect is my ancient mercury filling leaching out from a crack in one of my bottom molars. The taste is unpleasant and some days, especially when I can’t stop worrying the damn thing with my tongue, it starts to hurt a bit. Why do I lie about it like some sneaky third grader?

Part of it is the money. I suspect that there’s not enough tooth left to be fill-able so I’ll need a crown and I gather those aren’t cheap. But hell, I recently shelled out almost 2K to replace an oil tank for my house which was depressing because there’s so much this old place needs and you can’t even see the thing. Not like the windows or a new garage door that would be nice but are not urgent. There was no question of risking a basement full of oil so I sucked it up and took care of business. I need to do the same for my mouth.

Usually, when I know there’s potential physical pain or trouble ahead I strike preemptively. I had my wisdom teeth out a few years ago because of signs of decay not because they hurt but because I knew they eventually might. And when there was something suspicious on one of my ovaries I had them out without a second thought rather than dilly-dally with tests. (it was nothing – both the thing and the surgery) Surely it’s just a matter of time before what now feels unpleasant becomes excruciating? What if that’s during the early hours of a Sunday morning when no dentist can be found?

Like everybody else on the planet, I hate, hate, hate getting dental work. It’s all I can do to get through the scraping part of a cleaning. My dread of dentist has given me excellent oral hygiene that wins me praise when I’m in the chair. I didn’t mind getting my wisdom teeth out because it didn’t involve any high pitched drill noises or smells of smoking tooth. (And he gave me laughing gas.)

I have a dentist appointment in about a month. This time, I’ll tell the truth. And ask for drugs.

What crazy lies do you tell?

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Back on the Bike

my-bike

I bought these sweet wheels at a tag sale for $50 (with a basket!) in early summer and $30 for a very unflattering helmet.

I wish I could tell you that I regularly made the 5 mile roundtrip to the beach. I did not. It was so hot this summer! And to get to the bike-lane route I have to go up a hill. Such poor excuses. The fact is, I’m inclined to be a slug – what can I say? But the other day the light and temperature were perfect so I took a spin to the beach. Speeding down-hill the wind whistled in my ears and my heart lifted with a forgotten joy. On the way back, I push-push-pushed until breathless, I leapt off to walk.

dragonfly-on-bike

A hitch-hiker I picked up in Kyoto.

Biking gives me a sense of being a participant – not just moving through in the bubble of my car. My body reacts to terrain, blood pumping, breath quickening. I easily stop to watch a bird, follow a slant of light, inhale the scent of a boxwood hedge, the musk of low tide, a gyro joint. I have a sit-upright, tootling-around kind of bike – not a speed-racer that requires dressing up like a lycra-bumble-bee to ride. My bike inspires cruising. I love spinning down a hill but speed doesn’t interest me much. I’m definitely a tootler.

I used to be more of a functional biker – it was how I got places. I didn’t own a car until I was in my late 30s.

My Cincinnati studio with bike.

My Cincinnati studio with bike.

When I graduated from college and became a banquet waitress at a hotel (Yay art degree!) I lived in a dicey part of Cincinnati and rode my bike to work at all hours. Leaving at 4:30 AM for a breakfast shift, I’d speed down the middle of the empty street – a little frightened by the shadows of the odd hour.

From a bridge over the Kamogawa - Kyoto.

From a bridge over the Kamogawa – Kyoto.

When I lived in Japan I rode everywhere. I pedaled to English teaching jobs, to shop for groceries, meet up with friends. More often than I should admit, I made my way home on wobbly-wheels in the wee hours of the morning. Everyone rides bikes – multiple babies will be tucked into attached seats and the very, very old will easily balance the day’s groceries in baskets. It’s a biker’s heaven. One of the things I miss most about Japan is exploring narrow streets, popping into Temples for moments of peace, making my way home along the river running north to south through the city. I can conjure the crunch of gravel beside the Kamo river – perhaps one of my all-time favorite stretches anywhere in the world.

For a time I also had a bike in Zagreb, Croatia. I zipped through the city streets on my mountain bike, hoping the tires were fat enough they would not catch in the treacherous tram tracks. For fun I pedaled through a nearby park, riding along dirt trails and bouncing over rocks. I became pregnant with Molly there and sold my bike.

Being a mother made me into a chicken. From the moment my daughter was a whisper within me, a new sense of vulnerability took over. Navigating through the world became a little more frightening when life became no longer just about me.

In Zagreb, the only helmet I owned was UN issued kevlar for when I traveled to active war zones. I did not wear this biking. Nor did I wear – or ever see one in Kyoto. Do cyclists wear helmets there now? Now, although it hurts my vanity, I wear my dorky helmet. While the city I live in is making an effort to be more bike-friendly, too many people stare at their phones while driving. I choose not to chance my mortality to look a tad cooler.

Maybe it’s because my daughter is 21 and capable and launching off on her own adventures, I’m getting my courage back. I’m ready to risk getting toppled for the pleasure of the wind whistling in my ears. And I need the exercise.

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Hedge

before hedge 1There are a million things to do around my house and corner lot. This summer Molly and I focused on cathartically clearing out decades of  debris from our basement and garage and ignored the ragged hedge. It went wild.

Last weekend the weather cooled and I propped the hedge trimmer beside me while I put on my gloves. A man walking by nodded at me in greeting and asked, “You’re going to do all that?” Five hours, lots of scratches and many sore muscles later, I’d finished the whole damn thing. Okay, it’s not perfect – but it’s better.

after hedge

After 20 years living on this corner, memories are woven through every inch of privet. As I wield the vibrating, noisy weight of the clipper along the length of it, I remember.

There – Tetley dashing under the woody branches to check out a passing dog, me running around to the street to catch him, scooping him up in my arms with apologies.

Here – heaving the scraggly growth aside, clutching my barefoot, half-asleep 8 year old’s hand, pulling her through behind me – taking this weird detour rather than go near the garage where I’d just discovered her father.

That’s awful, isn’t it? I pause, doubting whether I should include this here out of concern for you. I am sorry for the possible shock of it or for the moments you’ll maybe now spend feeling sorrow. But this memory crosses my psyche like a passing cloud, moments of recognition in a tangle of shrubbery. Time does magnificent healing.

I continue trimming.

A bit further down, I find the nest that caused me to abort my attempt at maintenance earlier this summer. A frantic robin flew squawking out at me and I dropped the clippers and retreated in horror, sure I’d just beheaded one of her babies. Stupid thing! Why didn’t it  chirp or flap at me before I nicked it? I did find a feather in the trimmer but I don’t think any birds died — although I didn’t peek into the nest to check for skeletons.

Almost to the end is the gap Molly regularly slipped through when she was little – a short-cut to her friends’ house or down to the track across the street. While now overgrown from lack of use, I managed to crawl through dragging the electric cord behind me rather than walk all the way around to get to the outside.

Even with the little step stool and throwing myself across the springy-bulk, I couldn’t quite reach the final stretch of it. But I did what I could. And I thought about the different meanings of  ‘hedge’. What I did was enough.

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Carving a Life

wood 1

The other day I was visiting a friend with enviable wood piles stacked around her house. One stack in particular caught my eye. I took a few photos of the wood and asked my artist friends to help identify it. Sure looks like cherry (most agreed) although the bark is birch-like. See how it curls away like paper? For the first time in forever I had an impulse to get my chisels out and start carving again.

wood 2

I used to identify as a sculptor. To pay the bills, I waitressed and in Japan, taught English, working as little as possible so I might have time to hack at some piece of wood or stone. Mostly wood. After I left Japan, I moved to NYC and by necessity, worked in less noisy mediums like painting and collage. Then I went on mission with the United Nations, got married, had a baby, worked like a dog to hang onto my house and clothe and feed my daughter as (virtually) a single parent. I still count my pennies to hang onto our beloved home but Molly is a Senior in college now and starting to feed and cloth herself. We’re both at the cusp of something. And that beautiful wood stacked for burning, called to me.

seed

I still have my incredible tools given to me 30 years ago by a remarkable Sensei in Kyoto – that’s another post entirely – a beautiful story. I have space in the basement and nobody would be disturbed by the repetitive thwonk-thwonk-thwonk of my mallet hitting my chisel into the wood. Even if I just get a piece and set it up and sharpen my tools and then — sit… just sit. That’s a lot of what carving entails for me: sitting and staring at the wood or stone. It can take days, weeks, before I want to touch it, before something comes over me, like a spirit – a weird force and I go at. The thing is to wait for that moment. It’s magical.  At least that’s what I remember.

me carving

Behind my house in Kyoto – with bad hair and worse shoes.

I have this feeling of being on the brink. Of what, I don’t know how but it feels exciting and mysterious. Maybe this is just what I need now — to go back to that mystical contemplation until I recognize something and can excavate – that’s the experience I remember from carving. And the sheer physical, emotional joy of that spirit moving me.

I thought I wouldn’t sculpt anymore – I have enough big wooden things collecting dust around my house (shipped all the way from Japan – oy!) and I discovered how much I love writing and that when it’s going well, I also can reach a kind of ‘zone’. And honestly, I don’t want more stuff and that’s what you end up with. But that wood caught my eye – like a chance at love and I don’t ever want to say no to love.

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Out of Shape: A Ramble

My writing muscles have atrophied from lack of use. Here’s what happened today when I decided to sit down to blog:

I’ll wash the dishes first. Is that a cloud? I better take the laundry off the line. Phew, it’s hot! I need a cold drink. I better refill the ice tray. Now I have to pee. I’ll text Molly and see when she’s heading back from her weekend jaunt out of town. I’ll just read the first section of the newspaper…

You get the idea. In the end it took me nearly an hour to finally hunker down. This is typical these days as is using the delete key like crazy, backspacing out as many words as I write, sometimes clearing away full paragraphs so I’m facing the same blank page I began with. Left to ferment, my perpetual inner-critic has grown bigger than ever.

From lack of use, I struggle to find my voice again. And then there’s the existential part. Why do it? This is what I’ve been wrangling with.

Last autumn I experienced a big change – I felt like a rock at low tide – upended to reveal things I never imagined beneath me. I’ve yet to process it all and will not do it here except to say I ended things with the man I’d lived with for 10 years. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a brief statement about the break-up of her marriage that resonated with me. “…I trust that you understand how this is a story that I am living—not a story that I am telling.” I can write about my late husband because he’s dead and because my daughter’s okay with it. Thanks to the gift of time, I do so from a loving place. But this new chapter in my life, put my writing life on pause.

Did you see Everything is Copy the excellent documentary about Nora Ephron by her son? I flinched more than once at how meanly, even if brilliantly, she wrote about people in her life that she’d once cared for. I don’t have the stomach for inflicting pain with my writing. My blog once went ‘viral’ read by thousands a day for a few days. Part of the blog was critical about someone I didn’t know, who I never imagined would read it since I usually had only a few dozen followers. My thrill at having so many hits was eclipsed by a sick feeling when the person (not identifiable except to her) read it and let me know. I was mortified, deleted the reference and still feel badly. I could never be a critic! And where does that leave me as a writer, period? Am I brave enough to write without restraint? I grapple with that.

tet

Then there are safer subjects – my meanders through the world, observing nature through the seasons. Without the sweet ritual of morning walks with Tetley who died in early Spring, I have floundered. My quiet time out on the street at the beginning, the end of the day, to look at the sky, smell the change of seasons, search for the songbird in the wood, feel the grit or slip under my feet. This discipline put me in a good place to write from – all senses alert. I miss that, but no I’m not ready for another dog. For one, it’s not fair to leave a dog alone all day and I haven’t won the lottery yet and must keep my day job.

Why write? Why blog? Even an inkling of those questions will halt my presses and the less I wrote these last months, the more I questioned.

I started this blog years ago on the advice of someone in publishing who said I should ‘establish an internet presence’. Initially I was reluctant thinking it self-indulgent. I hesitated to reveal myself to complete strangers – or even friends. Ironic since I’m also flogging my very personal memoir.

But in blogging I discovered the joy of being read. And of reading other blogs. And the tremendous benefit in regularly excavating, spewing and honing and finally letting go of something, surrendering it to the world.

Ultimately I know getting in shape is like any exercise: it’s about discipline. I also know it’s worth it. When I am in the flow of writing a piece, even if only for 30 minutes before going to work, I get to carry it with me as I go about my day, incubating my piece. It almost feels physical – a sense of well being, excitement.

That’s it, I guess – why I write at all. I feel better for living a creative life. In examining the unexpected world beneath that rock at low tide, I learn things about myself. Writing helps me figure out where I am, where I to go. Sometimes I think you, my dear readers, find it interesting too. I cherish that and frankly – wouldn’t do it without you.

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A Silent Witness Is Not Enough

February in 1992 I was waiting to cross the road to my UN peacekeeping job in a very small Bosnian-Croat village when 3 men in uniforms pulled a lone man out of his old Yugo, pummeled him with their fists then tossed him into a snowdrift before driving away in his car. I watched the whole thing in silence.

I crossed the street as the bloodied man pulled himself out of the snow and walked on. Fighting sobs, I flashed my ID at the distraught Danish UN soldier who was manning the gate and by UN rules was only allowed to use his gun for self-defense. I recognized his tears of shame – we’d watched and done nothing. We followed the rules. Of course this event was benign compared to the atrocities perpetuated under our watch during the Balkan wars.

It happened so quickly. That’s one thing I can tell myself but it doesn’t make me feel better. I was silent. I did not yell or curse at the bastards. Shock? Fear? I can’t recall. But here’s what I do remember: the shame of my silence, of being a small part of that terrible chapter of Peacekeeping history.

I feel it again, that sick feeling, as if I’m standing on a corner watching while history repeats itself faster and faster. Now it’s not even days but hours between white men in uniforms killing innocent black men while we watch. Now, it is being part of my race that causes me shame.

I try to distance myself, prove that I am not racist, that I’m different because I come from generations of leftists including my grandmother who voted for Jesse Jackson back when he ran for President. I can tell you how I proudly live in an economically and racially diverse community, how I struggle financially and raised my daughter on my own after losing her father to addiction and suicide. I will tell you that to distance myself from the oppression, to let you know that mine has not been just a life of privilege since I am a woman. I will tell you these things as if to prove I am an okay-white person. But how ridiculous – I will do this to make myself feel better. It doesn’t let me off the hook from the collective truth.

I am waiting to cross while the street is exploding.

And I just don’t know what to do.

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Forgetting and Remembering a War

UN helmet

Excavating memories of Bosnia, I stumble on buried sadness and shame. Since my husband’s death there is no one who shares this time of my life with me, no one who understands – and so I can forget. Even when the Balkan war was raging, like any war that’s not yours, it was more than most can fathom so questions do not get asked, stories are never told. But the recent conviction of Karadzic and the new novel by Edna O’Brien – The Little Red Chairs (beautifully reviewed here) launched me into emotional archives.

I arrived on New Years eve and heralded in 1993 by drinking too much beer with British and Danish soldiers in the basement of a hotel-turned-UN base in Kiseljak, just 20 miles outside of Sarajevo. UN Peacekeeping seemed like a chance for me to make a difference – an idea quickly squashed by hopelessness and a murky mandate. I followed orders and stuck to the rules like a good neutral, well-paid international civil servant.

My job was to take notes at meetings with now-convicted war criminals. In bombed-out factories and airport hangars, freezing schools devoid of students, the men smoked, drank slivovitz and monologued about ancient grievances. On the way to one meeting, we passed burning houses, doors open, laundry flapping – the people fled – or worse. As I watched the thugs suck on their cigarettes, it was the smoke of the village that made me cough until tears ran down my face. The reports I wrote up were received on waxy paper that faded within weeks. At night, when I hid under my covers listening to the HVO (the Bosnian-Croat army) moving through the streets and thought of the violence of neighbor on neighbor, I wept and felt guilty for being there and doing nothing, ashamed for being part of the human race.

Whenever I could I spent the night with my husband-to-be at the Holiday Inn where he lived with the rest of the International Committee of the Red Cross. I envied them the good work they did, delivering tangible results – reuniting families, bringing in relief supplies. Neil brought cigarettes to prisoners and did his best to make everyone laugh. A natural rule-breaker, he looked to save lives, smuggling people out of the city more than once. I fell for him because of that and for the laughter. Also at the hotel were the many journalists who passionately exposed atrocities and relentlessly pushed for the world to see what was happening on their doorstep. I was quiet at these dinners, not wanting to identify myself as part of UNPROFOR – the Peacekeeping Operation regularly under fire by them – for me – doing nothing. I felt a fraud.

On one snowy day, I sat in the back of the armored car driven by the sweet young British soldier who’d been assigned to drive my boss. The 5 ton vehicle strained to get up the winding hills over Sarajevo. The view was incredible –  the hills from where the Serbs lobbed thousands of shells into the city, torturing their former neighbors for more than 3 years. One big gun erupted – as if shot for our benefit or warning – just as we passed. The massive car lifted and we continued up the road deafened, to the well-fed town in the hills above the city they were strangling.

My boss and I sat across the table from him and his wife and between bites, chatted about their work as psychiatrists, the time they spent in my old neighborhood not far from Columbia. She made some comment about New York being a good place for psychiatry. He mentioned the poets Charles Simic and Kenneth Koch as if they were friends. He asked how the food was where we were based. Only after the crumbs were swept off the table did he discuss his map – getting up with a toss of his hair to point out his version of the future – using the word ‘cleaned’ in referring to entire area of Bosnia and into Croatia. Cleaned. Of the many men I met who did terrible things, he was most clearly evil.

Perhaps forgetting makes sense for what is there to do with such guilt? Who do I ask for forgiveness? So I bury it and wait for the discomfort, the sickening feeling to fade. What is to be gained by remembering? Or what might be lost in forgetting? There was little I could have done – but I did so little.

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