Two-Dozen Things I Learned Doing a 30-Day Yoga Challenge

10 Feb

1. I do better the more aware that I am.

2. The more aware I am, the more I discover; I notice things I’d not noticed before, I notice more subtle sensations, I become aware of the next layer, I notice interconnections.

3. The more I practice with awareness the better I get at practicing with awareness.

4. Strength is found in drawing to center, not in brute force flying out, wasting energy. It seems to be the movement principle that makes it possible to do movements that otherwise would require much more strength. I realize some people seem to naturally discover this efficiency in their movements and others have to be taught it. I did not know this naturally; I needed it pointed out to me, I needed to be coached how to apply it, and I needed to be reminded of it regularly.

5. I learned the importance of core strength in total strength.

6. I learned how strength (and development in other areas) builds in increments, often such small increments that I did not notice particular progress on any given day yet noticed it toward the end of the 30 days. A book happens one thin page at a time.

7. Ego throws me off. It seemingly can motivate and drive, and it also invariably leads me to try to go too far. If I let go of ego and settle in where I’m at, then I am stronger, more grounded, more settled, more aware, have better practice. I’m more happy.

8. Acceptance isn’t giving up. It’s simply being with reality, then moving from there at the right time.

9. Acceptance makes it possible to strive without ego. Intention naturally leads to moving on to the next place.

10. As often as not, less is more.

11. I only can get a complete picture, a better understanding, through the input of many others, different teachers, some whom I initially drew away from.  I came to learn movements better only from the diversity of styles and personalities, sometimes surprisingly so. Coincidentally, one such revelatory class came on a day when I had earlier read a quote from Miyamoto Mushashi, the great undefeated Japanese swordsman: “Unless you really understand others, you can hardly attain your own self-understanding.”

12. It is important to acknowledge and accept the physical who and what I am that I bring to the practice. This allows me to make the poses work for me rather than force me to the poses. There is no perfect pose, just moving toward the perfect pose for me. It’s the yoga version of “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

13. It’s not what it looks like, it’s what it feels like. (Thank you, Bryan Kest.)

14. Self-check: stay aware and never lose my breath.

15. I learned how acceptance can support perseverance: missing something, accepting it, being willing to come back to it again and again despite seemingly no progress.

16. I learned to be grateful for what I am able to do and for the gift of body and ability that I have.

17. I learned humility of being so limited in some things, particularly things that unlikely others can do.

18. I realized that humility and self-acceptance allows me to accept and respect others.

19. No matter how hard it is, how focused I am, how seriously I am approaching the practice, I need to keep a spirit of PLAY. Explore. Discover. Smile.  Approach what’s coming up with a mindset of, “I wonder if. . .” or what I’m in the middle of with, “Oooo, look at this . . .”

20. I learned to laugh when I fall over.

21. I learned to respect my limits.

22. I learned that I often can do more than I though I could do.

23. I learned that I often can do more than I though I could do, with the help of someone else.

24. I learned that, “It’s not what you do, it how you do what you do.” (Thanks again, Bryan.)

957 Words About Beginning and Staying

31 Dec

I recently unearthed from my personal library George Leonard’s Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment. I purchased the book 15 or 20 years ago because I’d come across an article by Leonard, a precursor to the book, in the May 1987 issue of Esquire magazine as part of their Ultimate Fitness series. (Follow that link to the issue in the Esquire archives, if only to enter a Wayback Machine to 1987.)

I only started my current, serious round of martial arts training in 1993 (at age 33) and came across that article sometime thereafter while digging back for that Ultimate Fitness series. I wasn’t terribly fit and was grasping for any secret fitness leg-up I could find. The mastery article presented concepts pertinent to me at that point in my martial arts journey. With perhaps a year and a half or so of practice under my (Purple-Trim?) belt I was at the point where many students might drop out, due to the “Brown Belt Blues” phenomenon.

Getting to Purple-Trim belt — or Third Gup — means I had put in consistent practice and had progressed through six belt levels in that time, testing about quarterly. I’d done a lot, learned a lot, and realized that now things were about to get real. In a way I felt I’d survived but a lot more was yet to come. The students I’d observed from other, older schools who were at these three levels before black belt (Purple-Trim, Brown and Red Belts) were serious, talented and experienced. Now I was entering into that group?

I had a glimpse of possibility, but also a sense of getting out while I could. I’d come this far OK; why chance it? Get out while I was on top, be happy with getting to that point, and gracefully exit. That’s what I’d done in my younger years: four different starts and stops in two different Karate styles and Tai Chi. A couple of belts in (or the equivalent time in Tai Chi) and then convincing myself that I should stop with whatever was the excuse of the moment. Maybe the excitement of the brand-new endeavor was gone; maybe I was chickening out. Had I stuck with my training back then, I might have been a multi-level black belt in Karate by my mid-thirties, with the lessons and gifts that would have provided, rather than a Third Gup at thirty-five.

The experience at the senior Gup levels is not one of only learning more stuff and more difficult techniques; it is also an experience of further-developing in the techniques and principles learned so far. More time is simply spent practicing and working to get better. There is more time between those last promotion levels and then to Black Belt. It’s work and time.

I shared a copy of Leonard’s article with my instructor and we talked about it a number of times. I don’t think I ever told him that I was toying with a graceful exit; I’m not sure I was even fully cognizant myself of my inclination at the time. He and I talked about the three archetypes whom Leonard describes when referring to people who either drop out of their practice or who end up “treading water”, making no improvement. (The Dabbler, The Obsessive, and The Hacker.)

To whatever degree I was considering quitting, I never really considered it further after those discussions about the article. That was partly because I realized the degree to which I’d been a regular Dabbler and Obsessive; I didn’t want to leave and have my instructor think of me as a Dabbler!

More than simply avoiding those archetypes, I was reoriented to continue on by the mastery concept Leonard presented. Mastery means living on the plateau, the long times of no discernible progress while simply practicing for the joy of regular practice. The path of mastery is practicing. More than simply hacking or messing around, it is intentional practice, with the vision to improve over time. The reality is that much of the time there is no discernible progress. Until there is. Then there’s another long plateau. One must simply practice to practice.

There is no excitement of the new endeavor (what attracts The Dabbler) and no rush of new techniques or new belts or regular, noticeable improvement (what keeps the Obsessive). There is no hacking, just showing up and going through the motions. There IS intentional, regular practice, with lots of time of nothing: no improvement, many bad days, no new techniques, no belts or awards. Just practice.

I realized all that was required of me to go wherever it is I might go with Taekwondo was to show up and give it my best shot that day. I had instruction, I had support, I had opportunity to push it to my edge. Most of all my part was to simply show up and train. Again, and again and again. Roundhouse kick, roundhouse kick, roundhouse kick again. I was to train with whatever intention I could bring that day, each kick, each class, each time — and to enjoy those cool new techniques when they are presented!

I’ve still slipped into dabbling, obsessing and hacking in different endeavors since then, including in my Taekwondo. Still, the path of mastery has remained in me, in Taekwondo, in my marriage, in my spiritual life. I have it in mind as I continue with yoga practice, and as I try to follow each breath in meditation sessions, and as I take intentional small, regular actions to improve situations I am in with people, in my work, at church, in community service: show up, take action with intention, accept the place, repeat, repeat, repeat, appreciate the gift when it comes, then keep at it some more.

You Make Me Feel Like a Natural . . . Klutz

26 Aug

I’ve been learning a new set of Taekwondo forms, the Taegeuk poomsae.  (Poomsae means form or pattern). My particular Taekwondo lineage used an older set of forms, the Palgwe poomsae, and never introduced the Taegeuk forms, even though they were developed as updated forms in the 1970’s. Given that the Taegeuk poomsae are now the standard for our worldwide associations it’s time to make the shift!

The Taegeuk poomsae are color belt forms, one for each of eight color belt ranks (gup), yellow (8th gup) through red (1st gup). Even as someone who practices five black belt patterns, I am challenged in learning these forms.  Memory is required; I find that I need to be patient and focus on one form at a time, otherwise things start to get jumbled. Equal to that challenge is performing new movements both individually well and in flow from one to the next. Ironically, I find the biggest challenge in what is the very first movement in the very first pattern for the lowest rank belt. That movement is the walking stance.

Walking stance. How can something that sounds so natural be a challenge? I walk throughout the day, every day, and have since about my first birthday. That’s fifty-six years of walking. I currently take at least 10,000 steps a day, thank you Fitbit. I get lots of practice walking. Walking is quite natural. Walking stance, not so much.

In the older Palgwe poomsae there are no walking stances. In the five black belt poomsae I practice, there is only a handful. Further, the original way I learned to perform the walking stance (again, what’s with the learning walking?) is apparently not the way it should now be performed. What the heck? How does one even need to learn to do such a natural stance in the first place, and then be instructed to do that natural movement a different way? Can’t I just do what’s natural?

I’ll be honest: moving from one walking stance to the next, turning into a walking stance, doing the simplest of arm and hand techniques while moving into and out of a walking stance has been making be feel like a klutz. It feels to unnatural.

I’ll be honest again: nowhere in any writing I’ve come across or in any instruction I’ve been recently given have I been told to just naturally step into a walking stance; it is a natural-sounding stance that one has to intentionally move into.

In all of the other poomsae I’ve practiced, we are in stances that are not natural stances to everyday life, except that they are natural to completing the action at that moment so as to make it effective. This could be the case with an elbow strike or a baseball swing:

 

 

If this way of standing might be natural and effective at that moment, I certainly don’t walk around all day like that. I walk more naturally all day.

This morning during my spiritual time it occurred to me that natural is not natural! That was fresh in my mind because in the leadership seminar we started conducting this week we worked with the participants to recognize and identify with their driving purpose, their deepest-held values, their true self, and to begin to act in accord with that. To act according to their true nature, or act naturally, if you will.

Every spiritual tradition I’m familiar with leads me toward living according to my true nature. As my true, or natural, self I can live and interact with the most freedom, the most joy, the most honesty, and even the most effectiveness.  In order to accomplish certain ends (e.g. to get someone to do what I’d like) or meet certain needs (e.g. to feel and appear smart and capable) I might want to contort myself into certain ways of acting, certain situational stances, that might feel right at the moment but which are certainly not in accord with my natural self. The difference between my everyday postures and the front stance example above is that I might think I am doing the most effective thing, but my stance is actually wrong. To be most effective in life I know I need to be most natural. For living, natural comes by speaking and acting according to my driving purpose, my deepest-held values, my truest and best self.

Now there’s the rub: just like in the Taekwondo walking stance, natural is not natural! I have to be intentional about doing natural. I must pay attention and practice being natural. I have to be honest about the discomfort I experience in being natural. I have to be honest about the times I fool myself about being natural. I have to be courageous to step out into a natural stance and trust that it will work for me, and when it feels awkward to come back and step into it again.

If being natural was natural, and everybody was being natural, everything would be more perfect in life’s interactions. If my Taekwondo walking stance was natural, my poomsae-life would flow smoothly and be more perfect. But it’s not. So, I act with intention to be natural, until it’s natural.

 

In the Pink (in 473 Words)

9 Aug

Every morning, one of my gratitudes is to have the health and physical capability that I do. Rather than think in the context of limitations related to birth, genetics, and age, I try to take a moment of thanks and appreciation for what I have and what I am capable of. I also throw in a “thanks” for the health and well being of those I love as well. You could say we are all in the pink.

As I think of being in the pink I also am now wearing pink. It’s a good reminder of how fortunate I am with my health. But it means more.

Beginning today, publicly, it shows my role as one of the Northland’s Real Men Wear Pink ambassadors for the American Cancer Society. Please, click that link. Between now and September 30, the day of the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, we men are tasked with not only showing up places to raise awareness about breast cancer but also to raise at least $25,000 toward the cause, at least $2,500 each. It’s a bit of a fun contest among us.

This isn’t for me. This is for the women I know, love, care about. The women that you know, love, care about. About a year ago Bonnie and I gave deep thanks that the lump in our 23-year-old daughter’s breast was of no consequence.

To make my minimum goal, I need your help, and I ask some of you to step up in a big way: I need 25 of you to gift $100 each. (In fact, 24; I gave the first $100.) If you can give, or stretch to give, that amount, please do. Let’s get this done. Think about the women you know, love, and care about, and help me in my challenge.

Any gifts will add up to an amazing contribution to the cause. Of course, it will all help me show up well in the competition! (aka Win With Me!) If you can’t be one of those 24 donors, then please give something. In Taekwondo we learn that in self-defense, with the challenge before us, regardless of our capability, we do something. We do what we can. We act. We don’t just stand there; we respond, regardless of what we can do. Cancer sucks. It may hit women we care about. Please do something to help.

If the more than 700 people in my contact sphere each gave $4.00 I’d surpass the mark. Go to my personal page and donate. $1.00, $3.00, $10.00, whatever. There is tremendous power in everyone acting. What can we all do together? Perhaps many acting together is how I’ll reach my goal.

I’m also having some fun with this in my Taekwondo realm.  I’m taking a risk to step up, in the pink, very literally. It started on vacation at the Mackinaw Bridge and will continue throughout this challenge. Old, slow and — for those who know —obviously forgetful. But really grateful I can!

Master Po and Mad Eye Moody Meet Up in Minnesota

30 Jul

I’ve noticed it a lot more the past three years or so. I’ve noticed people talking to me and not looking directly at me, in the eye (well, they are, but they’re not). I’ve realized people whom I’m not looking at sometimes think that I am (and I can sometimes tell they may find it disturbing). I’ve noticed people, mostly younger, not looking at me at all after looking at me; something seems to bother them.

What’s up? My eyes are messed up. My right eye tracks off to the side. I’ve been blind in that eye since birth. It’s always been off-kilter but as I’ve gotten older it’s gotten worse, particularly when I’m tired. I’m in a perfect position to be that old, creepy-looking Walmart greeter guy in fifteen years. Heck, I could be Mad-Eye Moody by then. (I should be so lucky!)

I’ve even got a friend of many years who seems to not as often look right at me when we talk, and who definitely spends more time glancing over his left shoulder where my Mad Eye is pointed. (Actually, Mad Eye Correia sort of has a ring to it.)

These things also happen in Taekwondo classes, particularly with younger students and newer students. I can be talking to one student and they think I’m talking to some other student to their left.

The vision in my “good” eye is really poor, and I also have bad astigmatism. About three years ago I needed bifocals for the first time. I’d always worn a contact lens for athletic activity, and sometimes for daily wear, but since the need for bifocals arose, I wear my large, thick, expensive glasses during normal activity, and wear the contact lens only for Taekwondo class or other aggressive athletic activity, but it kind of sucks; when I wear it I never see anything quite right.

If the eyes are the window to the soul then my window has mud on it. As I have adapted to seeing more poorly and with greater inconvenience, I’ve also more often felt disengaged with others because of the sometimes change in eye contact. Here’s the thing: I have lost confidence these past few years because of this. Yes, the mature Taekwondo master has lost confidence. It’s the thick bifocals. It’s the self-consciousness of the Mad Eye. It’s age. It’s change.

When I was a kid growing up, I was totally into the David Carradine Kung Fu TV series. As a very husky kid with bad vision, I was particularly taken with Shaolin monk Master Po who was old and blind, but amazingly capable, and wise. I felt maaaaaybe it was possible for me to be a master someday. Really, I did think that.

As a kid I was neither capable nor confident in the physical and sports realm: overweight, poor vision, blind in one eye, no dad or other male role model to mentor me, no siblings. I was on my own. Couldn’t hit a moving ball, couldn’t catch worth a crap, couldn’t shoot a basket, slow, always picked last.

At least as I grew, some of those skills came along as my body and brain figured it out better, but I was years behind the curve. I became passable, and occasionally competitive, in the recreational realm, particularly once I lost some weight. I learned to drive a car, I did different jobs that required some physical skill (some were even risky, given machinery and such), I tinkered with martial arts a couple of time, and then started serious — meaning I never quit — Taekwondo training at age 33. Why had I quit those earlier times? I didn’t have the confidence to stick around until I might hit the tough stuff, or maybe fail. The irony is that I usually seemed to do well.

When I tested for Fifth Dan in 2010, I’d recently turned 50 and the two guys I tested with had both just turned 30 or so.  They were testing at an age that was younger than when I’d even started training. I peaked around age 50, while those two guys were complaining that they were past their prime. We did the same test and accomplished the same challenges, with them 20 years younger and each with two good eyes!

During these past 24 years I’ve had to train in fast action, turning action, turning to my blind side; I’ve had to hit and break boards and put out candles with turning and spinning kicks; I’ve had to judge distance and hit small moving targets, such as the wrist on opponents in Kumdo sword arts; I’ve had to wield a sharp sword to bare torsos; I’ve had to do a version of this. I’ve done all kinds of stuff with no acknowledgement, never mind preferential treatment, of anything being different. Just like Master Po!

I’ve done quite OK. So why the heck would I be losing confidence now? Granted, I’ve had a tough three years with all kinds of life and livelihood challenges and changes, stuff that made me tired and shook my inner self deeply for a time. I’m also less practiced in Taekwondo technique and have let my conditioning slip as well; so now I’m now older, slower and suckier.

Still, there has been something uniquely discouraging and disorienting in the vision changes. In both the athletics and overall life, seeing, judging, and adjusting is harder and less reliable than it used to be. I’m not as confident in doing things as I used to be. Further, not insignificant is the entire change in engagement with others related to the Mad Eye situation, be it their posture or my self-consciousness.

So what? Well, I’m not sure. Maybe I just want that all off my chest, to write it so I can better process it.

What’s next? Well, I’m beginning to take on some new challenges, physical and professionally, which will push me out of my comfort zone and which, achieved or not, will lead to growth and development. Regardless of vision, age, physical capability, or Other People’s Reactions (now to be known as OPR), I’m stepping it up, pushing forward, taking control, and choosing my attitude. We’re rolling into new territory and making new commitments with our new business. I’m preparing to take on a promotion test for 6th Dan (in New Jersey, for heaven’s sake!). I’m getting reengaged in physical training. I’m focusing on personal and spiritual work in new ways. I’m starting a new Rotary Eclub; we’re going to do great things together and have some fun in the process. (Interested in finding out more? Email me!). I’ve committed to being an ambassador as part of Real Men Wear Pink (click to contribute, please!).

Maybe that’s the So-What point: regardless of challenges and circumstances, regardless of things outside of our control, regardless of other people’s reactions, we can always choose our attitude; we can always take action in the realm of what is in our control; we can always respond to other people in a positive and supportive manner; we can always be grateful for what we can do and for what we have. And, we can always stretch ourselves beyond where we are, because without stretching we don’t grow.

Ya think this all explains why I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for the underdog Taekwondo student? And just so you know, I own the entire Kung Fu series on DVD.

When What Is Isn’t (Like a White Pizza)

21 Jul

This is and isn’t An Unlikely Master blog entry. (Insert your preferred emoticon here.)

I’ve begun a separate blog so that I can freely write in the spiritual space without feeling I need to hold back for fear of being too spiritual or religious. Even if the difference between what I might write here versus there could at times be subtle, I feel I need the freedom and safety to “just go there.” I envision the new blog as a bit of my own online spiritual journal along with sometimes just sharing the prayers, readings, essays and thoughts I encounter.

For those of you who would like to read and follow my pizza creation in process —because I really don’t know what ingredients will get thrown on top during the preparation — I introduce you to Be Cool to the Pizza Dude. I’ll still be writing An Unlikely Master as well. Maybe the two will come together some day, a precursor to my retirement work ( “Whoa! It turns out the pizza dude was this old tae kwon do master leadership guy . . .”)

Fly Like an Eagle . . . If You’re An Eagle

28 May

A couple of weeks ago I came across reference to “The Tortoise and The Eagle“, one of Aesop’s Fables. (It’s really short; read it now!) It got me thinking about my fitness mindset that’s been evolving over the past year or so.

Beginning last Fall I started paring back most of my other fitness activity and started concentrating more solely on yoga. This focus is the funneling of a number of considerations, all filtered through one primary lens: I’m 56 years old. Before you think, “Oh, aging Taekwondo master starts wimping out” let me explain.

Before starting Taekwondo at age 33 I’d never been an athlete or fitness enthusiast of any sort and, beyond practicing Taekwondo, I really didn’t start any broader physical conditioning activity until age 42. That’s when I had my first opportunity to take part in a training trip to South Korea, along with a team of other black belts of various ages. We were led by our Korean Grand Master, about 60 years old at the time, former competitive athlete and military veteran, a true phenom. Our invitation letter welcomed us to “Hell Training” and stories from those who took part in earlier trips affirmed the accuracy of that expression. I had less than four months to get ready (crazy-short time) so I got to it: running (in fifty-below wind chills), training with weights, dropping fat (nearly 20 pounds). I went to Korea and did pretty darn well, actually, surprisingly. I returned home and kept up the training in good measure (not nearly so the running).

These past several years I haven’t kept up with the weight training on nearly the same basis; likewise, my dog walks largely have become only walks, without the running/sprinting part quite as frequently. This easing-off happened because I was finding that I had to keep myself fresh for Taekwondo classes in case I was the guy who had to lead training and set the pace. I had to keep some gas in the tank. I couldn’t find a balance of activity that worked for me for all contingencies. Age seemed to be weighing in on the matter.

About a year ago I heard an interview with Christopher Sommer, former U.S. Junior National Team gymnastics coach. He talked a lot about people’s tendencies to go at things too hard, particularly before setting a proper foundation. These quotes came out as Sommer talked about easing into training and small steps of progress over time: “We need to go slow now in order to go fast later” and “If you want to be a stud later you have to be a pud now.” The bottom line: don’t let ego screw things up.

I was particularly struck by something Sommer said: “I like yoga.” In 2017 many of us know a lot more about yoga’s challenges and benefits than the years-ago impression of skinny dudes from India folded over backwards.  A lot of it  seems similar to gymnastics and a lot of it is hard. You can get stronger doing yoga, and do so in a way that adds to, rather than subtracts from, other qualities such as flexibility and mobility.

In my prime of weight training and conditioning work I never really hit the results I’d hoped for. That’s because I either wasn’t clear on my goals or had competing goals.  I was doing both too much and not enough of different stuff. As Confucius (maybe) said: “The man who chases two rabbits catches neither.” Why would someone even try to catch two rabbits? Because they think they can. Back to ego. Perhaps I simply needed to be smarter, know more, but my ego kept me from using information in front of me. Others’ information and experience. Because . . . I knew better.

Five to ten years later I have new goals to consider and a new balance to find. I need to think about the one rabbit I need to catch in order to eat tonight, and get clear on how to do that. I have to drop the ego so I can see the smart choices and take the right actions.

My goals are to be able to move well for many years to come — even Taekwondo level, as best I can — and be strong enough to allow me to do what I want to do, in the dojang, at home, on the trail, with kids and grandkids. I want to be THAT grandpa, the one who can still move smoothly, crawl around, hop across rocks, climb trees. I want to be a role model of an older Taekwondo practitioner, or of a former one. I want to fix or strengthen weaknesses I have, still undergirding for the future. The comprehensiveness — and requisite patience — of yoga seems to be a tool to get me there, one of them at least. Still, Chris, remember: one rabbit. Remember: pud now, stud later.

This doesn’t mean I won’t add in some other goals or training tools at some point. It doesn’t mean that I won’t do something competitive and push things to a limit (hopefully, with smarts, to avoid injury). But, since I’m beginning to stretch toward THIS and THIS, that’s more than enough for quite a while, combined with yet-improving my Taekwondo abilities. That, and some occasional sprints that leave Eko behind when I’m walking him, and hopping rock to rock up and down the trails around Enger. And an occasional tree climb (don’t tell my wife).

Perhaps most prominent for me going forward are two truths that have formed in my heart during prayer. One is the importance of joy being a motivation, in this case, doing physical activity that meets my needs and challenges me, yes, but which brings me joy. I shouldn’t work at something I don’t like, or go about something in a way that steals the joy of doing it. I don’t want to let ego take me places or lead to results where my motivations are somehow rooted in impressing or appeasing others, or to pat my own ego-self (sometimes known as younger-self or master-self, in my case) on the back. Find the way of joy and freedom.

The second sentiment is that my current body and its potential are gifts and I am to use them in service to others, both now and in the future. When picking an activity or setting a goal, when doing an honest, ego-free assessment of the potentials and risks to my body, the benefit or drain to my spirit, my commitment of time, I should ask myself, “Will this allow me to better serve others?” The alternative is to let myself become wrapped up in some ego narrative and rationalize away all kinds of conditions and consequences. With the gifts and opportunities I’ve been given, I want to make it about being able to better love and serve others.

It’s 12:50 on a Sunday. Time for this turtle to move along and work on that stud thing.

PS: As always, visit our North Shore Taekwondo site and ask yourself (not your doctor) if Taekwondo might be right for you.

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