Thursday, October 27, 2011

The TV Conflict*

(*TV literacy required for maximum appreciation
of this post.)

If you want to make a parent get opinionated and righteous, discuss food.  

Or TV.   

It's the diet, both physical and intellectual that drives parents mad. And turns neighbor against neighbor. 

I live in a village of extremely well educated, professionally accomplished and on-this-side of crunchy people.  Most of my neighbors see TV at best, as a form of benign neglect, the equivalent of feeding your child a twinkie and a coke, and at worst as the equivalent of driving your child to the most Wire-esque neighborhood you can find, and leaving him alone in his stroller with a ready-to-smoke crackpipe.

A few months ago the subject of children's TV watching came up on our parent listserv, and folks took to the internet with virtual pitchforks.  People were chastised for being so unimaginative as to park their kid in front of the TV for a moment's peace or to get chores done, when instead, they could have their child build forts out of, say, empty tissue boxes or playwash the walls with a cloth diaper and made-from-kitchen-ingredients cleanser.  Opinions, studies, strategies were offered with a subtle “you-should-know”style reprimand.  As a TV lover, I felt guilty and scolded.

Soon after, I managed to make my peace with the fact that I love TV, and have always loved it.  I watched it as a child, I watch it as an adult and I'll watch it when I'm old enough to make Betty White look like Marcia Brady.  I affirmed my belief in monitoring my children's consumption of TV and all screen time in general.  I decided that labeling the entire medium evil, with nothing to offer a child, was bullspit and went on with my judicious channel surfing.  

Until, like a commercial for Ginsu knives the TV task force proclaimed, "But wait!  There's more!"

Last Wednesday, The New York Times featured an article   stating there is no such animal as educational programming for children under two.  For very young children, each hour spent in front of a screen results in less interaction with a parent and less creative play.  And small children simply can't follow a video.  Even for school age children, learning from a TV is slower and at a lower level.

Initially I was in awe.  Are there really children who will sit for an hour or two in front of the TV without chains? Who are these children and why did they not emerge from my womb?!?!?!

Seriously.  First of all, for parents who spend over 90% of their children's waking hours steadfastly devoted to physical, nutritional, social, emotional, intellectual and creative development, less interaction with a parent is exactly the point! We are exhausted.  We need a break.  Sometimes we need to get things done without having to stay up all hours of the night.  Sometimes we need to clean, cook and organize so that all this nurturing doesn't occur in something resembling a chicken coop.  All we want is for a well-chosen video or TV program to be our substitute for a bit.  

If the child isn't engaged with a video, because s/he has no idea what is going on, s/he will not just sit there and veg out!  She will find something more creative to do, thereby leaving mom or dad with the unfortunate choice of stirring the risotto or discouraging Precious from coloring the walls.  

As for background TV, I'll venture to say that most of us know it is not the best idea.  I'm going to give us parent porn junkies the benefit of the doubt here. Yes, it steals focus from books and play and imagination, from the involuntary choreography of our thoughts.  But sometimes I WANT the traffic in my head to come to a standstill.  Desperate for an escape from the minutiae of running a household with small children, TV is medicinal.  If the kids are around so be it.  If anything untoward suddenly flashes on screen I dive for the remote, hoping that that nanosecond of Grand Theft Auto 13 registered naught on their little brains.  

It’s worth it to me. There are days that without some screen time mixed with kid time, I’d go fix myself a nice ammoniatini. 

But with an appropriate program, it is ludicrous to claim that screen time can't be a learning tool, especially if parent-led interaction is involved.

Aria, at age seventeen months, never sits still to watch a show, but she joyfully points to objects she recognizes if she happens to catch something.  Riley, age 3, can sit still to watch snippets of Caillou, Thomas the Tank Engine or Bob the Builder and a very odd kiddie-pop concert show called The Doodlebops.  We try not to watch passively. We discuss what's going on, we draw associations between what we see and things we know from real life; if there's movement we dance along.  We talk about emotions that a character might be experiencing.   And if Riley's vegging out for a while, for a toddler who’s on overdrive most of the time, that's not such a bad thing. 

Naturally, TV watching is balanced with other things --reading, writing, playing and conversation.  Somedays he watches an hour or so.  Some days nothing.  And hey, we live in Chicago.  Winter here is long, cold and dark.  We - no I - need some slack.

I have to look at myself, a child of the 70s, who grew up watching HOURS of the Brady Bunch, What's Happenin', Looney Tunes, Superfriends, Josie and the Pussycats, and the list goes on.  I will never be up for a Nobel, and if you catch me on the wrong day I'd curse out a kitten, but I think I turned out okay. As an only child, I had lots of friends. I went to a fancy university and made a career as an artist.  Growing up with me, a dancer/teacher and with my husband, a former physics and chemistry teacher, it is unlikely that my children will be undone by a few hours of TV.

But, then again, what if that's not true? What if somehow Mommy’s and Daddy’s agenda not only fails to produce a wunderkind, but fails to produce a child who loves learning? What if despite our efforts to raise a kind and empathetic child we wind up with a brat or bully?  What if despite ballet/soccer/tennis/violin/piano/gymnastics/Latin/chess, punctuated by deliberately unstructured play, Riley or Aria develops a marked and unshakable screen attachment that continues into his/her teenage years?  What if this addiction produces a materialistic, self-involved, intellectual dullard who has little chance of happiness or success in a hyper-competitive, yet sagging economy? 

All the anti-TV studies keep whispering in my ear,  making it impossible for me to write them off completely. 

It’s that whisper that makes me reach for the remote. It’s that whisper that gives me a fleeting desire to cancel the cable and sell the damned TV altogether. 

While those children whom the TV studies most aim to save, watch on.  

Friday, October 21, 2011

Mom in the Spotlight: Stacza Lipinski

STACZA LIPINSKI works at a long, wooden table in a long, barbell-shaped apartment in a three-flat on Chicago’s South Side. She has an impressive collection of scissors, but she cuts the pieces of her large-scale paper constructions with X-Acto blades. Sometimes, she works in a closet-sized studio at the back of the apartment, which overlooks an alley that is frequented by cats, stray and otherwise. At least one such cat has made its way into the apartment and never left, growing to a rather alarming size and developing a penchant for moving furniture with his head. Other times she works in the living room at the other end of the apartment, making intricate gouache paintings while her husband writes lesson plans and her son dances.  

Detail of Dregs, acrylic on vellum,
 cut and attached to fishing line, 2011. 

Her work has been exhibited at Noyes Cultural Arts Center (2005), Las Manos Gallery (2006), the Evanston Art Center (2006 and 2007), Hyde Park Art Center (2007), Artworks in Cincinnati (2008), and the Elmhurst Art Museum (2009). 

Stacza will be showing Dregs, along with other work at Gallery 175, located at 175 West Jackson, in downtown Chicago.  There will be an opening reception December 2, 2011 from 5-7pm.  The show will be up until the end of January. 

How many children do you have?  Boys?  Girls?
One very energetic boy, Albrecht Dode Lipinski.

How old?
3 years, 5 months.

I love asking this question of all interviewees.  How much sleep do you generally get?  Are you good about setting your own reasonable bedtime, or do you carve out downtime, social time, creative time from sleep?
Now I get between 7 and 8 hours a night. For about the first 18 months of Dode’s life I didn’t get more than 3-4 hours in a row. I do not compromise a good night’s sleep to work in the studio. I am no good without sleep.

Where were you in your career when your son was born?
I have no idea how to measure this. I was mostly showing my installations in local spaces. I think I will be an “emerging” artist at least into my sixties.

How much time do you currently devote to creating work?  How are you managing to stay viable as an artist? 
I try to work in my studio every day during Dode’s nap. A precious hour and a half. Sometimes 2. A recent development is that Dode is going to preschool so I get to work in my closet sized studio in the back of my apartment for some serious making.

Mothers often feel as though they are torn between motherhood and the part of them that misses doing, being or having something else.  Can you speak about this a little?
I feel that this is the one of the toughest parts of parenthood. For me, I often think about what I should be doing, making, or learning to be a better artist while I am playing cars or Thomas the Tank Engine. I have three years of Art in America to read. I have missed many art openings. I rarely get to the MCA. I can’t remember names of artists. One thing that has helped me is knowing artists who have grown children. They are evidence that everything is temporary and you can have a family and be an artist. Just not always at the same time.

Has being a mother changed your creative approach or point of view?
I kind of wish it had changed my approach. Most of my work is fairly labor intensive and it has been for years. Before Dode I worked about 30 hours or more a week in my studio. Now I work about 6 hours a week if I am lucky. The scale of my work has gotten smaller, the materials simpler, and my expectations more realistic.

How do you stimulate Dode's artistic side or love of art?
My philosophy with Dode’s interest in art is to just try to say, “Yes” anytime Dode asks to paint, use PlayDoh, dance, sing, or tell a story. I try to have lots of materials available and easily accessible, so we can make something on the spur of the moment. Sometimes it gets messy, but everything is washable.

How would you feel about Dode choosing a career in the arts?
Great! I just hope he chooses something that inspires him.

Biggest piece of advice for driven artist moms?
If you are driven, you don’t need my advice.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pacifier, Withdrawn (Part II)

I was motivated.  I downloaded a (free!) PDF file of Bye Bye Binky, which described the psychology behind the method and gave specific daily instructions.  If done properly your child would declare his/her pacifier broken and unpleasant, the whole episode ending in a gentle surrender of his/her formerly beloved oral fixation.  

So, I poked a few holes in the paci.  Then either because I felt guilty, am the poster child of enablers worldwide, or just got lazy, I let things go for a while - weeks, I'm ashamed to admit.  Then my fear of orthodontia,  resentment of my own passivity, and my frustration with my kid’s tenacity, i.e. inability to bend to my wishes, spurred me to poke again.  Obviously, I was helping him adapt to a less substantive pacifier.

By the time of our vacation to Michigan, we had four weeks until our return to the dentist, and two weeks until the start of school - an adjustment that would surely be a source of stress for Riley.

This really needed to end. 

The paci now looked like a Rottweiler’s chew toy.  It had gashes in it, and was clearly a choking hazard. How ironic would it be if our efforts at appeasement wound up in catastrophe?   Yeah, um, we didn’t want to go through the stress of taking away our son’s paci, so like, it was totally in shreds, but we let him have it anyway.  That’s why he choked, okay? 

On Day Four, Thursday, of our weeklong vacation,  I became particularly disgusted with this epic de-pacifying process. The pacifier, in addition to being torn, was the color of an aquarium that hadn’t been cleaned since the heyday of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. At 1:30 p.m., just before naptime, a particularly moody and annoying Riley began whining for his paci, which lay buried in the detritus of lunch on the kitchen counter.

DING! News flash. I could end this now.

The urge grew clearer and stronger.

End this now. End This Now!  END. THIS. NOW! 

Thinking I could cut the jagged edge off in one elegant motion, I grabbed a knife from the drawer.  I turned my back to Riley and cut.

The tough silicone and the cheap, dull knife conspired against me. Instead of the singular deft move I envisioned, I was hacking and sawing away like someone cutting a side of beef with a pair of nail scissors. If Benihana had been so inept, he would have succeeded only in peddling stir-fried slop from a roach infested Toyota.  

Riley had seen the entire act of butchery. All that remained was a centimeter long stump.   

I handed it to him. “Here, you can still use it,” I said feebly, praying it would still work.

He grabbed it and brought it to his lips.  He threw it down. “MOMMY RUINED MY PACI!  MOMMY, PUT THE TIP BACK ON!  PUT THE TIP BACK ON!  I WANT MY PACI!”

“I can’t.”

J came and picked him up.  He sat down on the sofa and held and rocked his devastated little boy.  J looked beaten.  I felt sick. It was what we had wanted for so long, and it was all wrong.

Over and over, Riley cried, “I want my paci!”  I began to hate myself for what I’d done and how I’d done it.  I pondered getting in the car to hunt down a new set of MAM pacis and starting anew once we got home.  I was an idiot and a monster. I’d ruined my vacation and sent my son down the path of emotional ruin.  I began racking my brain for major acts of self-flagellation that might erase what I’d done.  If kissing the bare asses of the entire lineup of GOP hopefuls would have eased his suffering, I swear I would have gladly puckered up. 

We promised him gifts, which he didn’t want.  We were just shy of offering him a pony.

He kept howling.

Finally, after an hour of violent sobbing, J put Riley down and he fell asleep.  I went on my brand new Kindle to see if I could get a nice book to help Riley understand the big step he was taking.  I thought I’d found something fabulous.  In the story, when a little worm lost his pacifier,  his friends informed him he was too big for such a thing, and besides, his paci was with him all the time. Brilliant!  I was elated! What’s the internal paci?  I wondered.   It was Jesus.

I returned it.

Riley woke up, and began wailing instantly.  We convinced him to stop crying, by promising him a fabulous new train set at the toy store in downtown St. Joe's. 

At the toy store we bragged about Riley’s amazing milestone to the owner.  She fawned over his achievement.  Riley, contentedly playing with the Melissa and Doug train table arrangement in the middle of the store,  puffed up at her compliments.  He was thrilled with the set we purchased for him, and couldn’t wait to get home to play with it. 

In the days that followed, Riley still cried at naps and was more tempestuous, but by the time we got home he seemed proud of himself and knew he had crossed a milestone.  He was one step closer to becoming a big man, the big man that he became in the stroller. (I know. Don't ask.)  Most likely, a part of him was relieved to be done with the warnings and drawn out threats.  He was aware of his own resilience, having seen at this early stage that life does indeed go on. 

For a time, Riley derived a vicarious thrill from touching his sister’s paci, even putting it in her mouth like a cured smoker who relishes lighting others’ cigarettes. Throwing Aria’s paci or stepping on it, was and is still a favorite passive-aggressive activity. Bedtime remains a nightly two-hour purgatory.

On September 16, 2011, Riley’s dental appointment was a huge success, his teeth and bite pronounced in good shape. 

And after all that drama you would think I would be making immediate plans to get rid of Aria’s paci ASAP.

You would think…

Monday, October 17, 2011

Pacifier, Withdrawn (Part I)

It was hopeless. It was cruel. To all of us.  Riley's pacifier gave him comfort, and more than that, it helped him sleep. Sucking vigorously on his beloved paci,  he would practically put himself to bed, after a story and some cuddles. And after months of wondering if a decent rest would ever be ours again, we felt we had earned - it was owed to us really - an easy sleeper.

But we knew the end was coming.  The parenting police -- you know the ones who say your child should be off the bottle by age one, walking by fourteen months and should be able to read War and Peace in Mandarin by five -- stated that by age one at the latest, a child's pacifier ought to be history.  

We were way overdue.  

In March 2011, when Riley was 2 years and 4 months old, we went on our first dental visit.  We chose a lovely Bucktown practice that treated children only.  Dr. M was fabulous - sweet, gentle and thorough, and Riley was perfectly happy and compliant.  His paci affinity, however, had begun to show itself in some slight abnormalities in his bite. Dr. M advised us to stop the paci ASAP, with a definite deadline of his next appointment, six months later.  Upon leaving we scheduled the end date.  The paci would be given last rights before September 16, 2011.

Riley seemed on board, at least at first.  For the first few days he went sans paci completely. Then he couldn't get into a nap without it, so we gave in.  What harm could it do?  This was a daunting task! We had six months; we could afford some leeway. 

We enlisted the help of the Hyde Park Parents Support Network, a listserv that every community should have.  You can get advice on anything parenting or household related. Within minutes someone will let you borrow, buy for cheap, or test out any baby related item, and it is a wealth of parenting punditry. The winner by far was the Paci Fairy scheme, where the child leaves his/her paci(s) in a box, to pass on to the world's paciless babies, and in return receives a gift.  The other method, desensitization, however worth consideration, was given the thumbs down by most. Poking holes in the paci and cutting it shorter and shorter, rendering it as appealing as sucking on goose droppings, was condemned as out and out trickery.

As kind, enlightened parents, we agreed.  We wanted Riley to make his own decision to give up the paci. We hid his stash and limited him to one green MAM. We borrowed a book called The Binky Fairy and read it to Riley whether he liked it or not,  or rather, as much as possible. 

Some days he said he was ready to give it up.  Some days he said he wasn't.  

But in reality, WE couldn’t give it up.  We had an excuse for everything.

We had no red box like in the story.  We had no adequate gift.  And those were just the tangible parts of the equation. Where night-time put down used to be a dream, we were now living the nightmare of Go the F--- to Sleep.  The thought of every nap put down being a battle of wills made us want to lie down in the middle of Lake Shore Drive. 

Meanwhile, using the binky fairy method, two of Riley's fellow paci-addict buddies ditched the habit quickly and easily.  A day or two of weeping, and then boom, done.

Months passed, with Riley having a paci only for the five naps he took at home, as opposed to at daycare, where somehow, without being drugged or beaten, he slept paci-free. We rationalized that we had made some progress.  Every child is different! we told ourselves. Riley had a baby sister who sucked on her paci constantly.  It was in his face all the time!  It was taunting him! How could we just cut him off?

By August it was clear that we were wimps.  We had totally wussed out.  We now had less than six weeks until our return to Dr. M.  Riley hadn't been in daycare since May and was sucking the crap out of his paci for every nap, as well as whenever we were home and he felt out of sorts, which, as with most two year olds, was always.  I began having visions of having to turn tricks down by the Chicago River in order to finance the orthodontic scaffolding my son would need for his jacked up teeth.  

We had to DO something.  

Trickey, schmickery, bring on the pins and scissors.  If that was what it was going to take I'd cut that shit up like Benihana.  

(To be continued)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Unthinkable

It’s our code word.

We have parallel lives, Nicole and I.  Two small children for each of us, a boy and a girl, did-you-mean-to-do-that? close in age.  We’re former professional dancers who now teach.  Our footwear is now somewhere between Goodwill and Mad Mel's followers in Braveheart.  Based on our clothing alone, our friends should stage an intervention.

Most days we merely get through. Some days we're rockstar mamas.

And other days, from wake-up to bedtime, it’s a nineteenth century amputation, with a swig of whisky and a leather strap between the teeth.

On those days we send each other a text.


Urban Legend. Charlotte was a woman my maternal grandmother knew in HarlemNew York City, back in the 1930s.  Her exact motivations are unclear, but as the story goes, Charlotte abandoned her husband and children.  But as a poor African-American woman, just a generation or two from slavery, and already a refugee from Jim Crow, her options were limited.  So, instead of moving to another city, Charlotte simply moved several blocks away and began a new life.  Maybe this way she felt she could see her children, at least from afar.  People swore they saw her on the subway, or going about her business now and again.

Charlotte sightings – as if she were a ghost.

What exactly caused Charlotte to make such a desperate choice?  A drunk and/or abusive husband, angry about his plight as a black man in America?  Her disappointment that life up North was not the pretty picture she had hoped to slide into? Maybe she had had more children than she wanted and knew that for a number of reasons, they would never become the adults into which she had hoped to shape them.  

We can only wonder.

What hell Charlotte must have been living to desert her family, and especially her children.  As far as her littles were concerned, her act was just shy of suicide. 

The thought of my children growing up without me is enough to make me bolt upright out of a dead sleep.  As forgetful, volatile and disorganized as I am, I am a good mother, dammit! ( I do my best every day to nourish my kids intellectually, emotionally, and physically while keeping myself from downing a bottle of Wild Turkey. Sometimes I fail miserably (and drink wine or beer, not Wild Turkey). And while there are many things I could do better - many more things I’d like to be for my children, to give them, to show them - but even with all my faults, I’m essential in their lives.

As they are in mine. 

One day I caught Nicole sitting knee-deep in papers in her parked car, around the corner from work.  Presumably, that was the only place she could do any quality preparation for class.  I knocked on the passenger side window.  She cleared a space for me.  The second my ass hit the bucket seat, a Thelma and Louise-ian thrill crept over me.

“Let’s do it.  Let’s pull a Charlotte,” I announced.  “Eff this s--t. Let’s go to O’Hare and get a one way ticket to Fiji.”

“Can you imagine?” Nicole asked.


But entertaining the thought feels good - it's therapeutic, albeit unthinkable.  Just admitting it helps Nicole and I grit our teeth and go back to whatever inconveniences and setbacks we were facing; it reminds us to plan and plunge into escapes that are much, much less permanent.  

Thursday, October 6, 2011

GUEST STAR: Anna Sapozhnikov

I try to take care of everyone.  

My kid, my husband, my dog and my cat.

For most of my waking hours, I dance. 

To the car, to the daycare, to work, at work, in the bathroom, back to the daycare, back home.

Then I dance myself to sleep.

I'm tired. 

And I suck.

I used to be good at sucking things…getting all the juice out of the CapriSun juice box, the frozen artificial icees that were presented to me as a child, long pieces of spaghetti, and of course, I never left a man unhappy. 


But I've now discovered a new type of ‘suck.’ 

How about walking out on stage at thirty-five years of age, post-baby-out-of-shape body, jaded and weathered, and presenting my lackluster modern dance skills to a whole bunch of past colleagues and artists that I admire. This type of ‘suck’ has now become my reality. 

I have spent my whole life on stage, dancing away, trying to be myself while portraying this and that. I remember being pretty good at it; I thought of myself as a quirky dancer, one without all the technique, but with a special something that made up for that deficiency. 

Of course, my mother was my biggest supporter. 

She came to every show, near and far, sat in the 100+ degree room known as Links Hall too many times to count. And after every performance, she conveyed her positive and supportive comments to me… “Anna, why weren’t you in that ‘ballet’ piece? Those were beautiful,” or “I think he/she could have lifted you a few more times,” or “You were only in half the show?” 

She’s a gem.

Anyway, she knows I’m performing this week, and I haven’t invited her to see the show because, well, I’m only in one piece.

And like I said before.  I suck.

My mothering ain't so hot either.  At 5:30 a.m., I remembered that there was no milk left in the fridge for Oscar's wake-up bottle.  I guess I forgot about this in my exhausted state the night before.

I suck.

Anna wrote this piece after her performance in Week 3 of Chicago's Other Dance Festival - an annual performance series showcasing the city's best modern dance companies and choreographers.

According to some very trusted and very critical friends in the audience, she decidedly did not 'suck.'  

In 2008, Anna Sapozhnikov founded the dance program within the Performing Arts Department at York High School in Elmhurst Illinois, where she is currently on faculty. Prior to York, Anna had the pleasure of working on the faculty of such institutions such as the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's MAP Program, and the Youth Performing Arts High School in Louisville, Kentucky as well as the Louisville Ballet School. Anna received her MFA in dance from the University of Illinois in Champaign, where she was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance during the 2005-2006 school year. 

Her company MOYAMO DANCE, has produced various works in venues throughout Chicago, including Links Hall, Hamlin Park, the Athenaum Theatre, and in Thodos Dance Chicago's “New Dances” at Ruth Page. Outside of Chicago, Anna's choreography has also been produced at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Champaign, at the American College Dance Festival at the University of Michigan and University of Iowa, and various venues throughout Louisville, Ohio, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Colorado. Anna is the recipient of numerous grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Arts Council.

Over the last decade, Anna has enjoyed collaborating with dance partners Erika Randall, Sara Hook, Elizabeth Johnson, Nikki Pinchott, the girls of Thread Meddle Outfit, Mysteriam, RE/Dance, Keesha Beckfordand New York City based David Parker & the Bang Group. She considers herself lucky to have been part of the dance community in Chicago over the last decade, and hopes to dive back into the waters soon.   


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Ma-thematical Equations I Need Formulated and Solved STAT

  1. How much snack will keep them quiet without ruining dinner?

  1. How much screen time is enough to give me a break, yet not enough to make my child grow into a combination of Rick Perry/Son of Sam?

  1. How many times must I be rebuffed by that mom at playgroup/the park/school, before deciding officially that she is introverted, doesn’t like me, is a complete bitch?

  1. How much sprinting around the playground to catch your toddler from falling, being hit by a swing or trampled by a sugared-up, obliviously rambunctious grade schooler (plus the accompanying anxiety attacks) equals an acceptable workout?

  1. Based on food intake, sleep, mood, the weather, yadda, yadda, yadda, exactly when is my kid going to wake up?

  1. Similarly, how much time do I have before the next meltdown?

  1. If I leave the kids alone with certain toys at their disposal, how long before we’re going to wind up in the ER?

  1. S/he ate x and drank y.  How long before that diaper is toast?

  1. How many times in a given time period do you have to cave before your kid knows that a duckling is tougher than you?

  1. How much bathwater crawling with poo-particles and pee-ecules would my child have to drink to actually become violently ill?
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