The Importance of Not Reading Being So Cool

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The Importance of Not Reading Being So Cool

“So, what are you reading these days?” I ask a ten-year-old customer at the shop. He is accompanied by an avid-reader sister and parents who are enjoying digging through tons of books.

“Uh, I don’t read,” he proudly announces, working hard to look cool and macho at the same time.

“You mean you can’t read at all?” I ask, faking sympathy.

“Er, no, I know how to read,” he replies a bit disdainfully.

“He knows how to read, he just doesn’t like to read,” his nearby sister explains patiently, thumbing through a Nancy Drew book.

“So, you don’t read anything?” I persist, knowing that what he really means is that he reads everything he wants to read, but never in the form of a book, which would not be cool.

He doesn’t know how to answer, so I say, “You did not read street signs on the way over, to find out where you are…you don’t read anything on the internet…you don’t read video game instructions…you don’t text or facebook or tweet…you don’t read comic books…you don’t read the sports page to see what your favorite team is doing?”

He admits he does read these things.

“Then, I guess what you mean is that you just don’t read books, right?”

He nods.

“OK. Follow me for a second,” I engage his gaze and trap him for a moment or two. “What would happen if you hard-copied everything you read this week–you know what a hard copy is?” He nods, a little hypnotized now. “Then,” I continue, “What if you made a hard copy of each and every thing you read and placed it in a stack after seven days. Do you think the stack would be about this thick?” I measure out 1 1/2 inches with thumb and finger. He agrees that’s about right.

“Well, if you took that stack of paper to Kinko’s and asked them to bind it together with hard covers, that would be what we call a Book.”

He gets it, I can tell.

“So…you read at least one book a week…so you do read books!” I smile. His parents are paying attention but hiding this fact from the boy. It’s obvious they have tried to work through this with him in various ways but have never thought of the “book” approach.

I smile again and say, “Thanks for reading books. They are quite fun to read!” He kind of relaxes and continues to wander the shop. His sister is grinning. And I relax because I can see that he is not offended or embarrassed—thank goodness! A fine line to walk.

As I head to the front of the shop to assist other customers, I quote Mark Twain to his sister and parents because it’s my store and I can do things like this: “A man who doesn’t read has no advantage over a man who can’t read.”

I know—I’m a tad overbearing. But dang it, I just have to sermonize now and again.

By the way, this happens at least twice a week in the shop. Sometimes it’s a forty-something man who brags about never reading books, once in a blue moon it’s a young girl, but the scenario is always the same—someone brags about never reading books as if it is the politically correct thing to do in the modern South. And I, the avid bookseller, try to demonstrate in various ways that books are everywhere in every form, ready to be read, even if they are in no way called books

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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The Obscure Man of a Certain Gait Moves Unnoticed Through the Drenched City

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The Obscure Man of a Certain Gait Moves Unnoticed Through the Drenched City

The friendly extroverted chatting customer grabs his change from me and heads waving toward the door. “Thanks…I’ll be back!” he grins over his shoulder.

Browsers like this jolt me into a reluctant good mood on a slow day, or they confirm what I sometimes suspect: every day is good if you approach it the right way.

I am playing the role of successful, kindly shopkeeper. The customer is playing…well, is he playing or is this his true nature, this chipper, goodfellow facade? Am I faking it or is he?

I file the thought away and go about my morning duties in the aisles of foundling books. When I leave the store for lunch, I wave to Marie, and she takes over.

New York Times under my arm, I stroll toward the diner and prepare for twenty minutes of solitude—just me, my paper, my lunch plate, some really loud static-filled music, and other diners who leave me alone to my dome of solitude.

I glance through the large street-view window, munching away as I turn the paper inside-out, and see, walking along 22nd Street, the jaunty customer who had been in the shop earlier. But he’s somehow different now.

He is usually bright, has good eye-contact, has a ready smile, is joyful and friendly…but when I see him walking outside his environment unnoticed, there is something slightly obscure and unsure about him…his head is slightly cocked to the side, he looks down, he is serious, he is in a hurry as if he’s afraid someone might spot him. He’s not carrying his recent purchase.

His dome of solitude transmogrifies him and makes him nearly unrecognizable. In the bookstore, he was one person, now he is another. He shapeshifts with his locale. What is he at home? Who is he at church on Sunday? What does he become in heavy suburban traffic? Is he a kindly father, a giving neighbor, an angry insurrectionist, a future Nobel laureate, a sentenced felon?

I’ll never know, nor will he ever know who I am and when and where.

To me, it’s enough to know a good customer. To him, perhaps it’s enough to be in the  sanctuary of the bookshop for a few minutes before he bolsters his courage enough to brave the disguise he must don to re-enter the city byways.

I return to my paper and my munching, leave my paltry tip on the table, wave to the cashier, and open the door to the street, where I become that other person, that pedestrian who would be unrecognizable to the customer who views me as just the kindly old bookie

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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Speak Softly and Carry a Small, Old Book

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The Word Scribe purposely trod the street of the big city in the mid-morning hour. Looking left, right, below and above, he attempted to imprint his surroundings in a secure place in his mind for later reference. He felt the need to remember everything in sight. He loved the notations he constantly refined inside the small book he always carried apocket.

This particular day, the Word Scribe entered the quiet confines of his shop, locked the door behind him, and began reviewing and recording his impressions.

He wrote these words:

Thoughts are precious.

Thoughts must not be allowed to fall listlessly from your mind and tumble to the floor, eventually rolling under something where you can’t get to them.

Thoughts are mysteries and revelations unto themselves. The mysterious thoughts must be retained for later surgical examination. The revelations must be carefully described and regarded as if they constituted an index to Life Itself. 

The Word Scribe completed his ritualistic notations, closed the small book and placed it in his pocket.

What did I learn today? the Word Scribe asked himself in particular.

He smiled and realized that he was not quite prepared to explain what he had learned, that more writing and editing would have to take place before that could happen.

He was comforted by the fact that his thousands of notes, his hundreds upon hundreds of stories, were already released to the cosmos and floated around encased within notebooks and stacks of paper and software programs…existing as tweets and books and facebook entries and blogs and blasts…carrying on into the air as broadcasts, as echoes from the many speeches and performances he had delivered.

But the Word Scribe also knew, as all word scribes know, that regardless of how many places his words and stories were sequestered, no matter how many banks of red clay held them close, no matter how many people now living would remember and repeat these words and stories…he knew that there was always a chance that, once he faded from the trodden streets, those words and stories might disappear with him.

The Word Scribe used to worry about his Legacy, whatever that was.

But now that he had written so much, performed so much, related and recorded so much, he was beginning to realize that the Legacy meant nothing. He was beginning to realize that the pleasurable and exciting and roller coaster  life he had led and was leading, was all that really mattered.

He knew at last that the trip, the exploration, was the thing.

And if, someday, an inquisitive graduate student working on an obscure literary subject should find his words and think them important enough to turn into a footnote in a soon-to-be-filed-away thesis…that would be acceptable.

The joy he felt simply living his words was the one thing he hoped others would discover on their own

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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Listening Through Touch to the Oh So Soft and Vibrant Radio Speaker

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Listening Through Touch to the Oh So Soft and Vibrant Radio Speaker

Somewhere amid the lonely wilds of the late-1950′s, the lone listener of all things jazz begins a solo quest to find the music of musics…

I am lying abed on my left side late at night carefully turning the tuning dial of the cast-off family radio, hoping to hear tonight’s episode of MOONGLOW WITH MARTIN.

Some evenings, the signal is clear and dramatic and rounded, so that I can lie on my back and listen through both ears to things I have never heard before. Sometimes, the signal drifts here and there, crackles into muffles, snaps solidly, then fades again. During those moments, it is acceptable to listen with only my right ear, since there’s really nothing of substance to be absorbed.

But on a clear night I can hear forever.

Tonight is one of those nights.

MOONGLOW WITH MARTIN is broadcast from the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, and host Dick Martin smoothly introduces me to Miles Davis playing flugelhorn, pianist Oscar Peterson challenging bassist Ray Brown to a romp through some unfamiliarly familiar tune, Ella Fitzgerald scatting through Gershwin, pianist Errol Garner grunting and giggling through his own riffs, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan inviting you deep within his mood piece, singers Mel Torme and Frank Sinatra and Billly Eckstine and Bobby Troup pulling you into the stories behind the lyrics, leaders Stan Kenton and Gil Evans standing above it all to show you the classy part of jazz.

And so on.

There are so many composers, voices, instrumentalists, arrangers, personalities to experience that it takes another fifty years to truly appreciate their art, their craft, their focus, their playfulness.

I am enchanted by Zen keyboardist Ahmad Jamal, insurrectionist saxist John Coltrane, improvising pianist Thelonius Monk, and all those sidemen and sidewomen who remain nameless till later, when I get to read their liner notes.

Often, I drift off to sleep with my left hand touching the smoothed burlap-textured radio speaker, becoming one with the soft vibrations the music injects into the cloth, feeling the slight warmth of the glowing radio tubes, remembering years back, when I imagined the jazz combos actually playing in tiny versions of themselves inside the wooden console.

MOONGLOW WITH MARTIN introduced me to the world of one-on-one listening, a world where there is only the Listener and the Sound, a world cleansed of all human interaction and temporal conflict, a world where peace and harmony and harmonics meld into some quirky but pure idea of how good the world could be if only we could learn to behave toward each with only the best parts showing

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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Stalking the Century-Old Wilds of the Cracking Plaster Caves

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The old home is missing its people this evening. As I open the creaking door to enter, I become its sole inhabitant, since my wife is away at a meeting.

The ancient Persian rug in the foyer deadens the sound of my shoes, but the high plaster ceiling still echoes their presence. My breathing comes back at me, as does the sound of a wobbling plastic toy on a bookcase shelf, reacting to the ever-shifting foundation of this house atop limestone caves near Red Mountain. The foyer is airy, darker than the adjacent living room, where outside light beams in from three directions.

I hear the perpetual bark of a dog some two houses away, the beep-beep-beep of an alarm system waiting to be silenced, the click-clickety-click of several solar-powered figurines lining the window sills. An air conditioner creates its own ambience. Entering the kitchen, I ritualistically PLOP my bags onto counter chairs, flick and re-flick the overhead light till resident fluorescence decides to awaken, go to the sink and rinse my hands, the sound of a misty rain forest spray taking me back to another time, another clime. I pull the grumbling refrigerator door open, am embraced by the cranking ice maker and the mumbling motor, look long and hard into the incandescently lighted interior in hopes of finding something remarkable to eat. I settle on a sealed Diet Coke can which clanks against its buddies in the cardboard case in fond farewell to the closed quarters from which it is being liberated.

The metallic CLICK frees a certain amount of carbonated mist and the friendly fizz sound amplifies as I hold the container to my ear in remembrance of long-ago sea shells on sparkling white childhood beaches. I hold the drink high for a moment in a toast to the disregarding world and take my first noisy and quite satisfying sip.

The rest of the evening is spent traversing the caves of cracked plaster, each cave opening into another cave. The stairwell noisily welcomes my ascent, the first-landing double window splays images of the next-door house, the grassy alley below, the green and brown tree limbs, the ever-present phone lines and cable lines and electricity lines serving to feed the ancient hovels on this Birmingham street. Liz’s paintings adorn the walls and I find myself smiling at nothing in particular.

The upstairs hallway has a different humidity, a different temperature, a separate feeling. It is the gateway to a small bedroom that has served through the decades as kids’ room, art studio, ironing room, meditation room, guest room, catch-all room. The largest room, complete with unique colors and textures and soundings and fragrances has served as master bedroom, kids’ room, bookroom, closet room, video and audio room. The original  servants’ room has shifted purpose over the years, once a small child’s rainbow-bedecked bedroom, now a combined clothes closet and makeup-application and hair-do room.

Each cave is a special solitude, each worthy of notice, each deserving observation and contemplation in its own unique  way.

In the deadened hours of the night, walking from cave to cave, I am overwhelmed by the variety of stories these special spaces have absorbed over the past century or so. As I tread each floorboard, special occurrences shout their memories at me, each inch weaves a tale I am likely to miss if I don’t stop to reflect.

There is so much to learn and remember in this cave of caves, so much exploring to do, so many artifacts to examine and appreciate.

It is an exploration that will never really end

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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The Genuine Automatic and Guaranteed Profanity Cut-off Switch

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The genuine automatic and guaranteed profanity cut-off switch has served me well in life. For sixty years, it has kept me out of much trouble…and maybe caused more trouble at certain times.

Let me expound briefly.

First thing I learn on Day One of being an actor—at the age of 13—is, don’t carry who you are onto the stage. Save it for backstage.

This means that if you flub a line during a live performance, you don’t curse aloud. To do so, back in these olden days, will mean instant dismissal. Flub a line, just keep on talking till you find that line, thus making the other actors breathe sighs of relief. When something—anything—goes wrong during performance, don’t burden the audience with it. The show must go on!

I carry this bit of wisdom with me when I begin appearing on live radio shows, then again on live television programs. Flubs are acceptable. Losing It is not acceptable. It is easier on the radio, since you can simply flip a switch on the microphone, burst forth with a profanity or a sneeze, then switch it back on and continue as if nothing happened—the audience being none the wiser. During television shows, you can’t control the sound, so you just repress the urge.

In later life, after the broadcasting career, this little bit of enforced behavior stands me in good stead. When speaking before customers or in front of audiences, I am unable to curse involuntarily. To do so would make the audience uncomfortable, cause the subject at hand to become sidetracked, and generally ruin my timing and pacing—both of which are key to good conversation, good expounding.

To whom do I owe this early wisdom, this enforced behavior? Well, in early  broadcasting, my mentors were Harriett Rowand, Don Rollins and Joe Langston. In The Theatre, there were folks like Marian Gallaway, Frank Stallworth, Bill Fegan. I at least got to thank Joe Langston and Don Rollins for their help. I am guilty of never going back to thank the rest.

It seems that these tiny bits of knowledge, almost unnoticed when born, become bigger and more influential as time goes by. Therefore, in my lifelong archives of columns and stories and true tales, let it be known that my thanks is sincere.

Just saying

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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The Itsy Bitsy Red Clay Spider Takes a Shower on the Web

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I groggily open the shower door as part of my zombie-esque morning routine, prepared to permit the Hot Water Spray Gods to blast me awake and drive my adrenalin rush. It’s the only way I can truly come alive each day.

But today is special. Even without my glasses, I can see that there is something different about the shower stall.

Just above eye level, right over the nickel plated controls, there rests a large, red-clay-hued wiggling spider.

Thus, I am frozen in the metal pedestrian-sign pose of a man who has just heard an alarm go off.

Suddenly, all the moral and philosophical arguments of the ages rush together in my mind, and I am conflicted for a moment.

Is this a poisonous spider? I have no idea. If not poisonous, does this spider bite anyhow? Even if it is not poisonous or bitey, do I want to trust it not to leap upon my face while showering?

I have trouble killing anything at all, much less minuscule critters who are more pesky than dangerous. But I do know that if I don’t do something about this spider, Liz will be hysterical should it introduce itself later. I have to be The Man.

Where are my weapons? Uh, I don’t own any because I never have the desire to weaponize anybody or anything. But basic instinct prevails. Hoping the spider won’t leap upon my naked body as I draw near, I grab a box of Kleenex and solidly WHOMP the intruder.

The tale is over. The spider is now in that big web site in the Cloud along with all the other spiders we humongous humans have dispatched over the centuries.

The murder is swift—but painless? The only way to know is to interview the spider, who is no longer in any condition to reply. Did I  just set my Karma back a thousand years? Will all the insects I’ve encountered be waiting for me when I take my place beside them Up There?

I resolve to accept the fact that I am a serial killer. Won’t do me any good to continue the inner dialogue right now—there will be plenty of time to face things after something WHOMPS me down the road.

For now, I will merely take my shower, ask the spider for forgiveness, and go about the day with a touch more humility than is customary.

Now to get to work and face the REALLY dangerous realities, the ones you can’t solve with just one red clay WHOMP

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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Memory of a Father Long Gone: Your People and My People are Historic Downtown Birmingham

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My friend, the late Marie Stokes Jemison, always had the same thing to say when she met somebody new, “And who are your people?”

Marie recognized that everybody was connected to everybody else. She just wanted to know exactly how.

When I drive around on this side of what we in Birmingham call The Mountain, I can’t help noticing how connected everybody is, and how every thing, even though inanimate, is connected to everybody, every living thing.

That philosopher guy, Emerson, said, “There is no such thing as history. There is only biography.” If you don’t believe it, try looking at a historic Downtown Birmingham structure without connecting it to somebody, lots of somebodies, as a matter of fact.

For the past 45 years, each time I pass by a certain building on Highland Avenue, I remember my father. Even though the building has been face-lifted and revived several times over the decades, one thing cannot be changed: my father helped build that building. And it is that fact alone that makes me realize how people-connected all the Downtown buildings are.

My father was a construction supervisor way back when, and his project was to build that building, and build it he did–with the help and companionship of a great diversity of people. Each brick in that building is engraved (but only in my mind) with the names of all the people who dreamed the building, who made the dream come true, all the people whose scraped knuckles and bruised fingers and dusty palms and stretched sinews made that dream come to life, made it last, down all the years.

Even one day in the future, when that building comes down, when that building is replaced with a new dream by a new diversity of minds and muscles, the essence of that structure will remain, as long as I and all the relatives and friends of those red-brick names remember

We all come from red clay and will return to some version of it. But in the in-between period, it’s good and right to recall the people who made Downtown come alive, who nurtured it for a while, who treated it with respect, who infused their dreams into its girders and bricks and planks and asphalt.

Become a tourist for a few minutes. Cruise Downtown. Look at the buildings. Look beyond, at the friendly ghosts who remain a presence here.

Don’t forget to wave and smile and nod

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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New Treatment for Restless Mind Syndrome

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New Treatment for Restless Mind Syndrome

I can’t stop my brain.

Maybe you know what I’m talking about.

Whether it is 3 a.m., when I am so full of ideas, thoughts, reflections, excitements and nutty dreams that I cannot remain aslumber…whether it is while driving along, dictating loose and rambling thoughts and considerations into my tiny recording device…whether it is during a long and boring conversation with a long and boring bureaucrat who just will not get to the point…no matter where or when I am, I cannot stop my brain.

Maybe we should term this Restless Mind Syndrome and find a cure for it.

Now…never again will Restless Mind Syndrome keep you awake at night. Just two doses of MINDTAMP and you can rest at ease and blithely go through life like the Pod Person you always wanted to be.

Some time ago, I found my own way to deal with Restless Mind Syndrome. I just write it out. I allow my fingers to do the therapy…but why not read what I wrote back then?

Here it is:


HE WAS COMPLETELY OUT OF JUICE, COMPLETELY OUT OF THE force that fed his muse, completely out of the running for cosmic insight and understanding.

He sat limp, dumbly staring at the keyboard, hoping that words would come and rise up and take over his fingers and make syllables, then sentences, then paragraphs, then Great American Novels galore.

But nothing happened.

He sat limp, staring morosely at the blank computer screen, feeling the faint radiation seeping into his brain and attacking his enfeebled thoughts and sucking them dry of life.

And nothing happened.

He sat limp, hoping that profundities would stir inside him and dribble over onto the machinery and create beautiful thoughts that would cause little children to clap their hands and old grumpies to chuckle and hide their mouths.

Lots of nothing continued to come forth.

He sat limp, wondering why his mouth was dry, his palms damp, his ears ringing, his mind racing, his thoughts crusty and useless. With blankness on the screen screaming at him.

He sat limp, admiring those who could always express themselves in ringing tones and glowing words.

And at that moment, he realized that what was going on was his writing, what was going on was what he had to say, what was seeming to be void was exactly the right thing to put down on screen on paper for comrades in writer’s block hell to share and find comfort in.

His fingers started to move and move and move



© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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When you wish upon a book, you dream of getting a review such as this

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When you invest all your dreams in writing a book, you never expect to receive the Ultimate Revew—you know, the review of all reviews, the review that shows that the reviewer not only read every word, but that the reviewer understands the book, actually gets what you are trying to say.

I’m lucky to have received enthusiastic reviews from people I respect. They mean so much to me. Just a few of these folks: Ray Bradbury, Abigail van Buren (Dear Abby), John Shelby Spong, Fannie Flagg, Robert Inman, Charles Ghigna, Irene Latham, Howell Raines, Allen Johnson Jr., Martha Hunt Huie, Paul Zahl, Pat Bleicher…and on and on. I am grateful.

But I want to share with you the Dream Review, the review that is so honest, negative and positive at the same time, that it sweeps you off your feet. The review that indicates your book forced the reader to FEEL, to RISE UP, to REACT, to CHANGE DIRECTION.

Here’s Kellye’s review (for my book, HOW TO BECOME YOUR OWN BOOK):


Dear Mr. Reed,

I have spent the afternoon contemplating the purpose of this letter, among distractions, and concluded that my true intent is simply to share with you the effect your book, “How to Become Your Own Book: the joy of writing for you and you alone” has had on my little world. I have read it, shut it, written in it, threatened to rip it to shreds, and cried into its pages. I guess I thought you should know.

I have experienced a roller coaster of emotions. I put in on the shelf for a while because there was an invisible shield that reflected a blinding light any time I saw a prompt about family secrets. Then one day, I opened it and discovered a light and whimsical side to it…I took colored magic marker pens and doodled on a few pages…I allowed myself to write outside of the provided boxes. There were times of laughter and color and music, there were times of bitter, painful remembering, when black ink spilled into the margins like ivy. I hate this book. I can’t wait to turn the page. I love that quote! I want to burn it…yet I am afraid of forever losing the previous parts of my life that seeped into the pages and hardened, past the point of no return, bled with ink confessions. So instead of torching it I throw it across the room, having to lunge across the room soon after to smooth out the bent and crinkled pages because that drives me crazy. So I put it on the coffee table and stack four or five books on top of it (also to help with the crinkled pages) and pull it out again only when I am compelled to. Like now…because I know there is a page inside where I can impeccably articulate the last few days, and all that I felt and remembered and smelled and tasted. Where I can describe how Birmingham has opened me up in indescribable ways. Birmingham Festival Theatre, Horse Pens 40, Lake Logan Martin, my little studio in Forest Park and under four books on my coffee table…Reed’s Book.

So here is my feedback: I love your book and I hate your book. I cherish it and I loathe it. I wonder if other purchasers have had similar feelings…the wretched torture of breaking through fear in writing…in an unassuming place. It has been a wonderful and horrible adventure. Thank you for sharing what you write and for sharing your charming store with me. Birmingham and I wouldn’t be the same without it.


Kellye Marie Whitmer


See what I mean? How can any review of any of my writings, past or future, compare to this outburst?

I’m a lucky writer

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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