Sunday, September 25, 2016



~ “A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” ~

~ Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (Benjamin owned the print for many years)

Paul Klee: Angelus Novus

But we have also seen much real progress, not just in technology but also toward gentler child rearing, which I think is the greatest revolution — the shift from the religious view of man as a sinner deserving eternal damnation to a psychological view of man as wounded and in need of healing.

We’ve seen a movement toward less racism and sexism, in spite of the recent setback that shows us how much bigotry still remains. Just in my lifetime I have seen so much progress, at least in the realm of the laws (and that’s huge; also, some of you may remember when Harvard did not admit women and women did not normally go to graduate school or become lawyers or MDs, only nurses and secretaries) that I agree with FDR, speaking in the darkest times, who pointed out that in spite of setbacks, the trend in civilization is toward betterment.

Gwynn: Benjamin's statement, “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned..." reminds me that I once read that the ancient Greeks imagined that we travel through time not facing forward to the future, the direction in which we are traveling, but facing the past, watching it recede as we travel “backwards” into the future.

Oriana: Yes, that makes sense. All we can know is the past — which keeps on changing because our understanding keeps on changing, and the stage of life determines so much. Another famous saying about it is: “Life can only be understood looking backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

So that’s our dilemma: we can’t predict the future. As if we didn’t know any better, we keep thinking it will be just like our recent past. Oh, in the abstract we know that we’ll be older and thus probably have less energy and more aches and pains, and our interests and  tastes won’t stay exactly the same. But in practice, we don’t keep that in mind — we just can’t imagine that future self. Studies have confirmed that we assume the current self will continue, our interests and priorities exactly what they are today. 

And that makes each human being an “angel of history.” We are the angel of history, each of us, propelled into the future though we can only see the past.


Fortunately, there is always beauty to help us keep on living: the beauty of nature, and the beauty of art (in modern art, it’s not the idealized beauty, but beauty comes through nevertheless). Beauty and the good prevailing in the end. Here is an inspiring story:

Jacqueline Picasso, the painter's last love and second wife, was the model for these two watercolors. The Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev handed them over to the French authorities, saying he was unaware that they were stolen from Picasso's step-daughter.

* *
This kind of humor woks on multiple levels.  One level is the  “bliss of the familiar” as we recall the scene in the movie when Death first appears to the knight, and then delight in the new version. Bleak horror is transmogrified to comedy. There is the absurdity of “modesty” and our hopeless ways of trying to deal with a medieval mentality. “Gender issues” — we have a marvelous case of cross-dressing here. And there’s the delight of having the kind of brain function that gets it all at once in a fraction of a second, the effortless mental leap.


We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person. ~ Somerset

Klee: Head of a Man


Stage of life rules. It's an incredibly determining factor. But one learns that only after passing through a few stages. 
In youth, even middle age was inconceivable, much less old age. Now youth seems a time of incomprehensible lunacy, and true old age isn’t yet real. Surely medical advances etc etc — we were promised that fifty years ago, weren’t we? All disease was supposed to be eradicated by the year 2000. 


Yesterday I heard a rabbi say, "I've searched all sources, ancient and modern, for the secret of a happy relationship, and found nothing." Well, he (on his fourth marriage, btw) didn't consult us, the birds of the Goddess of Wisdom. But we'll tell you the two-fold secret: 1) I'm flawed, you're flawed. Accept yourself and your beloved completely and don't be secretly waiting for The One 2) Love is mutual nurturing. Don't criticize. Be deeply supportive.



~ “By declaring our Prophet infallible and not permitting ourselves to question him, we Muslims had set up a static tyranny. The Prophet Muhammad attempted to legislate every aspect of life. By adhering to his rules of what is permitted and what is forbidden, we Muslims suppressed the freedom to think for ourselves and to act as we chose. We froze the moral outlook of billions of people into the mind-set of the Arab desert in the seventh century. We were not just servants of Allah, we were slaves.” ~ Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I'm absolutely thrilled that Moses was never declared infallible. Otherwise we’d be studying stories like this one as sacred texts:

Numbers 31:13-18

~ Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. 14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle.

15 “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. ~

So only female virgins get to survive as sex slaves. Now, maybe similar things took place and it was just the military custom of the times, but if we classified the Torah as mythology (as even some Orthodox rabbis do) then at least we wouldn't try to sanctify this sort of thing as piety. Nobody would have to try to justify Moses in his anger that women and young boys were not killed. 

The story is usually dealt with by simply being omitted. And that’s fine. More and more stories should simply be omitted. But best of all, they should be declared to be mythology. If there is a relevant life lesson to be learned from a myth, great, let’s explore it. If not, let’s just note that those were brutal times, give thanks for having been born much later in history, and move on to something inspiring.

Moses and the Burning Bush


~ “The Yahwist (because he was the first author of the Hebrew Bible to use the name Yahweh for God), most clearly set out his anti-Canaanite views at the beginning of his version of the Ten Commandments, in Exodus 34:12-15, where Yahweh warns the Hebrews against associating with the Canaanites, intermarrying with them, and worshipping their deities; Yahweh also orders the Hebrews to tear down Canaanite altars, pillars, and asherahs (wooden poles (stylized trees) in sanctuaries that were the cult object of their goddess Asherah (in Hebrew pronounced ah-shei-RAH) and symbolized her). Against this background, the anti-Canaanite polemic in the Eden story becomes apparent, especially that against the goddess Asherah, who at the time was widely viewed by Israelites as Yahweh’s wife or consort. As official Israelite religion trended toward monotheism, the other local deities had to be eliminated (Asherah in particular), and Yahweh appropriated their powers and functions. Insofar as this process affected Asherah, I call this “Yahweh’s Divorce,” and the proceedings began in the Yahwist’s Eden story.

Before the rise of Israel, Asherah was the wife of El, the head god of the Canaanite pantheon. According to the archeological evidence, the people who became Israelites were mostly native Canaanites who settled in the hills of what is now the West Bank, while it seems that small but influential groups also migrated there from the south in the Midian (in and around the Araba Valley in Sinai). As the Bible itself testifies, that is where Yahweh veneration appears to have originated, and, in a process that in this respect resonates with the Moses story, the migrants introduced Yahweh to the native Canaanites who were becoming Israelites. Over time, El declined and merged into Yahweh. As part of that process, Yahweh inherited Asherah from El as his wife.

The Yahwist and the other biblical writers could not accept the presence of this goddess as a deity in Israel, much less as the wife of Yahweh, who they specifically depicted in non-sexual terms. So they declared war on her, in part by mentioning her existence sparingly in the Bible, by referring to her and asherahs negatively when they did mention her, and by waging a polemic against her by allusions that would have been clear to the Yahwist’s audience. These tactics are apparent in the Eden story, from the kinds of symbols used and the trajectory of the narrative. These symbols include the garden sanctuary itself, the sacred trees, the serpent, and Eve, herself a goddess figure. In ancient Near Eastern myth and iconography, sacred trees, goddesses, and serpents often form a kind of “trinity,” because they have substantially overlapping and interchangeable symbolism and are often depicted together. Let’s examine each of these symbols briefly.

The Garden. Originally in the ancient Near East, the Goddess was associated with and had jurisdiction over vegetation and life, which she generated herself. People partook of the first crops (including fruit) as her bounty – indeed her body and her divinity – and set up her sanctuary with garden of crops for this purpose. Such a sacred garden sanctuary was “estate” over which she exercised jurisdiction. Examples include Siduri’s vineyard with a sacred tree in the Gilgamesh epic, Inanna’s garden precinct with sacred tree in Sumer, Calypso’s vineyard sanctuary in Homer’s Odyssey, and Hera’s Garden of the Hesperides.

Sacred Trees. Sacred trees were thought to connect with the divine realms of both the netherworld and the heavens, and therefore were considered conduits for communicating with and experiencing the divine and themselves are charged with the divine force (thought of as “serpent power”; see below). In harmony with the seasons, trees embody the life energy and symbolize the generation, regeneration and renewal of life. Therefore, they are associated with the source of life, the Earth/Mother Goddess. Accordingly, sacred trees were venerated in Palestine in sacred sanctuaries known as “high places,” as means of accessing and experiencing divinity, principally the goddess Asherah. (Similarly, the divinity of the male deity was accessed through vertical stone pillars, e.g., the one set up by Jacob at Bethel.)

And at the end of the Eden story the tree of life is clearly designated as Yahweh’s, being guarded by his trademark symbols, the paired cherubim.

Serpents. In the ancient Near East, serpents had both positive and negative connotations, and in the Eden story the Yahwist played on each. In its positive aspect, the serpent represented the divine force itself, responsible for creation, life, and rebirth, as symbolized by its constant shedding of its skin. This and the fact that it lives within the earth (the netherworld) made for a natural association with the Mother Earth Goddess. As a result, the serpent was venerated as having divine powers and was used in rituals, including in marriage (to secure conception of children) and to maintain health. Serpents were also considered wise and sources of knowledge, and thus were used in divination. (The Hebrew noun for serpent (nāḥāš) connotes divination; the verb nāḥaš means to practice divination, and observe omens/signs.) Hence the serpent’s connection with transmission of the knowledge of good and evil in the Eden story. This “good” serpent was typically depicted in an upright or erect form, as in the case of the Egyptian erect cobra (in the illustration above), Moses’ bronze serpent on a pole, and the serpent on Asclepius’ staff (now the symbol of our medical profession).

But the serpent also was represented negatively as unrestrained divine power, which produces chaos, which is evil. Therefore, in creation myths the serpent/dragon represents the primordial chaos that must be overcome in order to establish the created cosmos (known as the “dragon fight” motif). This primordial chaos serpent is most often a serpent goddess (e.g., Tiamat in the Babylonian Enuma Elish) or her proxy (Typhon was the creation of Gaia). The serpent in this “evil” aspect is most often depicted horizontally. In the Eden story our author used this negative aspect, while parodying the traditional positive associations, which Yahweh appropriated. Thus, in the story, the serpent connoted chaos and symbolized the chaos in Eve’s heart as she deliberated. At the end of the story, Yahweh cursed the serpent and flattened its posture (compared with the upright/erect posture it had when talking with Eve). As a result, Yahweh was victorious over the serpent and chaos and, by implication the Goddess, in a mini version of the above-mentioned dragon fight motif.

The Goddess. As noted by numerous biblical scholars, the Goddess is also seen in the figure of Eve herself, the last figure in our trinity of tree-serpent-Goddess. In the Eden story she is given the epithet “the mother of all living,” an epithet like those given to various ancient near Eastern goddesses including Siduri, Ninti, and Mami in Mesopotamia and Asherah in Syria-Palestine. Eve’s actual name in Hebrew (ḥawwâ), besides meaning life (for which goddesses were traditionally responsible), is also likely wordplay on an old Canaanite word for serpent (ḥeva). The name of the goddess Tannit (the Phoenician version of Asherah) means “serpent lady,” and she had the epithet “Lady Ḥawat” (meaning “Lady of Life”), which is derived from the same Canaanite word as Eve’s name (ḥawwâ). At the end of the story, Eve is punished by having to give birth in pain, whereas goddesses in the ancient Near East gave birth painlessly. Further, in Genesis 4:1, Eve needs Yahweh’s help in order to become fertile and conceive, a reversal of the Goddess’ power and function. (Indeed, Eve is even created from Adam!) Adam’s only fault was “listening” to Eve in order to attain divine qualities. Here the Yahwist may be alluding to Goddess veneration, saying not to worship her. This seems to be one reason for the punishment of woman’s subjugation to man in Genesis 3:16.

As a result of these events, by the end of the story Yahweh is supreme and in control of all divine powers and functions formerly in the hands of the Goddess, and Canaanite religion in general has been discredited.  The serpent has been vanquished, flattened, and deprived of divine qualities, and thus is not worthy of veneration, and enmity has been established between snakes and humans. The Goddess has been discredited, rendered powerless, and is eliminated from the picture and sent into oblivion. Yahweh’s divorce from her has been made final.


And here is Neil Carter’s (Godless in Dixie) take on the myth of Eden


IN THE FIRST CHAPTER OF GENESIS WE LEARN THAT ALL LIVING THINGS WERE CREATED TO BE VEGETARIANS. No animals were made to eat other animals, nor do humans kill and eat anything else, at least at first. As a young Christian, I accepted this with such a naive deference that now it embarrasses me. I recall a conversation I had once with my own elementary-aged child during bath time in which she said her Sunday School teacher suggested the same—that all animals were once vegetarian. I replied that I have a hard time imagining a fierce lion lounging around the African savanna, using his gigantic carnivorous chops to chow down on a spear of broccoli. I’ll never forget how much it upset her for me to say that.

[“If God has made us in his image, then we have certainly returned him the favor.” ~ Voltaire]

The God of Genesis 2 and 3 is greatly concerned with maintaining innocence. He isn’t too fond of critical thinking skills, and he would prefer that mankind rather blindly trust his edicts. As we read further into the text of Genesis, we will soon learn that he’s also not too fond of technological innovation. It’s the people who don’t know him—who don’t “call on his name”—who invent tools and develop better housing methods and create art and culture. We also learn from Genesis that Yahweh is particularly averse to very tall buildings, and that he would even resort to “confusing our language” to make sure human beings don’t advance too far in our intellectual and technological capabilities.

I would argue the God of the Old Testament is resolutely anti-humanistic. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself. If you want to know more of my thoughts about that, you can read my post entitled “Anti-Intellectualism and the Bible.”

What strikes me reading the second creation narrative (most would agree it’s clearly a separate story from the one we find in the chapter before it) is how insightfully it represents developments in human evolution which I cannot imagine the earliest Hebrews could have possibly understood. In this narrative, mankind goes from not knowing what “naked” means to being suddenly ashamed to show their naughty bits. Humankind goes from being naked like all the other animals to being ashamed of having visible genitals. After they eat from the tree from which God told them not to eat, “their eyes were opened” to see that they were naked. From that point on, they want to hide who they are.

This ancient story is replete with amusing nuance: First, God tells the human couple not to eat from this one forbidden tree which presumably he himself put there in the middle of the garden. Evidently it was permissible for them to eat of the Tree of Life, which we learn at the end of the passage would have made them live forever. It seems to me that would have been a remedy for the consequences of eating the other tree, which Yahweh insisted would kill them “on the day that you eat of it.” But let’s skip that discussion for a second.

The serpent, whose presence and identity are never explained in this text, speaks to them (!) and informs them that they will not in fact die the day they eat of it. Rather, after eating of it, they will become “like God” knowing good and evil. It will make them wise. This to me speaks of moral awareness, critical thinking skills, and logical analysis. It seems Yahweh isn’t in too much of a rush for humankind to acquire these traits, so he tells them to lay off of it.

The story tells us that the woman made the first move, a fact which the man points out when they get “called on the carpet” by their creator.

    “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
    The man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” (Gen. 3:11-12)

Would you look at that? Right out of the gate, the man shifts the blame to the woman. As if that ever happens.

The story says that man’s curse for disobeying God was that the ground would be much harder to tend from that point forward. Evidently entropy is entirely the fault of human beings. Once I even heard a preacher say that God originally designed the planet to not experience seasons, but that “the fall of man” tilted the earth on its axis, producing the climate extremes we experience today. And that’s not even the weirdest thing I’ve heard a preacher say about this story. I once heard televangelist Benny Hinn report that the Holy Spirit revealed to him that women were originally designed to give birth out of their sides. That’s quite a picture.

Yahweh goes on to tell the woman one other punishment she will have to endure as a consequence of her disobedience:

    “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16b)

Well, how about that? This passage actually suggests that the subordination of women underneath men in a hierarchical (whoops! I mean complementarian) alignment isn’t really the way Yahweh originally intended the sexes to relate to one another. It suggests that this is a punishment for disobeying the word of the Lord.

But does that really wash his hands of the matter? Does it really absolve the biblical God of this suboptimal arrangement for him to say, “You did this to yourselves, folks. It’s not my doing.” As much as I want to support the progressive readers of the text in their forward-thinking endeavors, I can’t get away from the rest of the story in which Yahweh says, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife…” (v.17).

It All Makes Sense If You Don’t Think About It

Even when I was a kid, it struck me how much these stories read like mythology. You’ve got a story of a woman being made out of a piece of a man which then concludes by saying in essence “this is why we marry.” You’ve got another story with a talking serpent (which we’re told now must be metaphorical) but after he misbehaves, he loses his legs and he’s cursed to crawl on his belly (which now sounds like an explanation for how literal snakes move the way they do). You’ve got ground that used to be all soft beds of clover, flowers, and ripe fruit now cursed to bear thistles and thorns. Then you’ve got women suddenly experiencing pain in childbearing as a consequence for disobeying a command.

By the way  yes, I know broccoli doesn’t grow in the African savanna. Lighten up, will ya? We’re analyzing fables about vegan predators; I figure I should be allowed some creative license.

Masaccio, Expulsion, c. 1425 (Brancacci Chapel, Florence)

Oriana: The nakedness of Adam and Eve, though inaccurate in terms of the biblical narrative (they would presumably be wearing animal skins at this point), heightens the pathos. Eve's face is particularly expressive. I think Masaccio was wise not to show Adam's face: less is more.

A very good article on the “culture of toddlerhood”

~ “Suffering and failue begin in the Toddler brain, the volatile limbic system, which reaches full structural maturity around age three. When not under stress, we’re able to turn pain and failure into growth and accomplishment in the Adult brain - the prefrontal cortex, the most profoundly evolved part of the most complex organism in the known universe. In the Adult brain, which reaches full maturity around age 28, we have the mental capacity to construct a solid sense of self. There we’re able to improve situations, connect to others, protect all that we value, and appreciate people, ideas, nature, and creative beauty. There we can stand for something, learn from mistakes, forge a legacy, and make the world a better place.

When we retreat to the Toddler brain under stress, we create conflict and almost invariably act out self-defeating behavior. In the Adult brain, we create value, meaning, and purpose.

The signature process of the limbic system is to sound alarms. This more primitive part of the brain lacks reality-testing, which is why we can get alarmed when we’re dreaming or when nothing is happening outside of an active imagination. The prefrontal cortex regulates limbic alarms by testing them against reality (is there really a fire out there) and by assessing the threat (how serious is the fire, how much damage). It then chooses a course of action - put out the fire or evacuate or declare a false alarm and go back to work or play.

Unfortunately, the assess and improve modes of the prefrontal cortex are often hijacked by habits that were forged in the Toddler brain, when those habits are repeatedly reinforced in adulthood. Instead of regulating alarms with reality-testing, thought processes amplify and magnify them. Intelligence and creativity go to justifying the alarm. Commandeered by Toddler brain habits, the prefrontal cortex can reduce the alarm only temporarily by blaming it on someone or by denying responsibility for it or by avoiding it with distractions. That's right, it employs the toddler coping mechanisms of blame, denial, and avoidance.

Although most self-defeating emotional habits were initially formed in toddlerhood, they would do little damage, were they not so vigorously maintained by cultural reinforcement. When a pervasive pop-culture promotes living and loving in the wrong part of the brain, we can hardly escape ubiquitous toddler dialogues of “Mine!” and “No!” Politicians sound like stubborn toddlers overstimulated by a 24-hour news cycle. We seem surrounded by power struggles, overreactions (temper tantrums), and resentful pouting, to which we respond with powerless frustration or worse, react in kind.

Toddlerhood is the first stage of development where children become aware that their emotional states differ from those of their parents. Now they must struggle with an inchoate sense of self prone to negative identity, i.e., when they feel bad or willful, they don’t know who they are, but they know who they’re not – they’re not whatever you want. Thus we have the favorite two words of the toddler: “Mine!” and “No!”

The Toddler brain cannot tolerate uncertainty because it provokes too much anxiety.

The media discourage and suppress complex adult dialogues that focus on cooperation and reconciliation of disparate views. Adult dialogue makes for poor sound bites, lousy tweets, and boring blogs. No wonder it's hard to have an adult conversation with your significant other.

Polarization, fueled by Toddler brain splitting, has taken over the media and, by extension, political discourse. Angry, resentful, contentious, and rude emails, blogs, and tweets, like heavily negative political campaigns and governmental gridlock, are here to stay. And they're certain to get a lot worse, until we change the Culture of Toddlerhood.

We give more importance to personal feelings than personal values and to expressing how we feel rather than doing what we deeply believe is right. People are now entitled to express every feeling they have, without regard of the effects on others, just as they felt entitled to litter a few decades ago and to smoke in public buildings a few years ago. The result is a culture that elevates superficial feelings over the deeper meaning of experience.

In the most tragic circumstances, we choose to blame rather than heal. A hallmark of our toddler culture is “victim identity.” A plethora of media call-in shows and self-help books seduce us into prolonging feelings of injury to illustrate how badly others have treated us. Like lawyers for the plaintiff, we try to prove damages, as if our suffering would hold offenders accountable or healing and growing would let them "off the hook." The cruel cost of victim identity is a perception of the self as “damaged,” which lowers the likelihood of healing and growth.

Substituting Power for Value

Much of the psychological suffering in the world comes from substituting power for value. When they feel devalued, many people confuse the decline in energy and wellbeing that result from a deflated ego with physical threat, which floods them with adrenalin and cortisol. These stimulating hormones make them feel temporarily more powerful and primed to exert power, either overtly or passively. A lot of the excess cortisol typically blamed on “stress” comes from Toddler brain egos perceiving continual threat and insult.

TV and movie screens are rife with displays of aggression in response to petty ego offenses. Nowhere is there a model of what every person needs to know: WHEN FEELING DEVALUED, WE MUST DO SOMETHING THAT MAKES US FEEL MORE VALUABLE, NOT MORE POWERFUL.

The good news is that many, if not most, of the problems that seem like emotional disorders or childhood issues or relationship incompatibility can be viewed as mere Toddler brain habits. With self-compassion - and lots of practice – habits can be changed in the Adult brain. Every adult has a supremely developed, growth-oriented, upper-prefrontal cortex, capable of brilliance, compassion, and basic humanity. Accessing it under stress is just a matter of self-care and practice. [We must learn] to access the Adult brain [when we are] under stress.” ~

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live...We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” ~ Joan Didion

Oriana: But the complexity of the stories and ideas depends on how developed our adult brain is. The toddler brain can deal with only simple stories and ideas. It has no attention span for complexity. It’s terrifying to consider that the attention span of adults seems to have gotten shorter.

Kandinsky: For and Against, 1927

~ “A group of researchers from the University of Copenhagen found that eating cheese could help to improve health by increasing our levels of "good" high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol - thought to offer protection against cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.

This isn't the first time a study has linked cheese to good health. A recent study from Japan found that cheese consumption prevents fat accumulation in the liver and has the potential to improve serum lipid parameters — how we measure for cardiovascular risk.

Meanwhile, a small 2015 study found that cheese could be the key to a faster metabolism and reduced obesity.” ~

ending on beauty

Not that I want to 

be a god or a hero.
Just to change into a tree, grow for ages, not hurt anyone.

~ Czeslaw Milosz

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