“Try to hold onto this tissue,” the leader said.
The man took the tissue. The leader snatched it back.
“Don’t hold it. Try to hold it.” The tissue floated to the hotel conference room’s geometrically-patterned carpet. “Do you see the difference?”
The difference is clear for those wishing to change their lives and willing (and able) to pony up the money to do so. The personal empowerment seminars that surged to prominence in the 1970s are going strong, some with a twist. New Age pyramid schemes in the age of Instagram; hard-sell self-help seminars; online mediumship: These manifestations of spiritual hucksterism are commodifying the sacred in a time of unprecedented connection and despair.
On a leave from work one year, I signed up for a weekend seminar that promised to change my life. For three 12-hour days, I sat full-bladdered in the too-close chairs, hands empty, phone off; told my story of job dissatisfaction at the mic; made uncomfortable phone calls to family members and had the promised epiphany. For days afterward, I floated, colors vibrant, music brighter, my euphoria so pronounced, my partner signed up, too. I took seminars for several months, but eventually the money ran out.
Garage-sale self-improvement books had shaped my thinking as a child. The practicality and optimism of 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary—only 15 minutes a day!—How to Win Friends and Influence People, and The Power of Positive Thinking appealed to me, so I knuckled down to follow their prescriptions.
Minister Norman Vincent Peale’s best-selling The Power of Positive Thinking begins, “Have faith in yourself!” and ends chapters with lists of 10 actions that “you can do now to build up your self-confidence.” The actions include much repetition of phrases and many invoke a populist faith-based edict. The repetitions amount to a form of self-hypnosis and indeed theologians and psychologists have criticized them as doing more harm than good. Peale has a dark side, however: He is also known for having befriended Richard Nixon and has been credited as a source for Donald Trump’s relentless positive spins.
Motivational seminars, in all of their earnest, feel-good glory, also make money. Some work on a pyramid model that most rewards those at the top. Under the guise of genuine spirituality, they market platitudinal or pragmatic thinking though they may inspire feelings of improved well-being. Their structures are ripe for satire. A “peak performance coach” like infomercial-peddler Tony Robbins is easy to exaggerate or render ridiculous, evoking laughter to make a comment about our need for connection outside of religion or our desire to feel a sense of control.
In her novel Radiant Shimmering Light, Sarah Selecky satirizes sacred-based businesses like Danielle LaPorte’s Lighter and Marie Forleo’s B School, systems which operate much like Selecky’s own real-life online writing school. A glamorous woman at the helm of these enterprises promises an improved lifestyle: the opportunity to associate with other attractive aspirants with the promise of successful entrepreneurship. The novel’s charismatic leader, Eleven, markets a seminar called “Express Your Enlightenment,” complete with color palette, aphoristic tagline—Want What You Want—and alliances with New Age products like “conscious” truffles infused with positive energy. It’s a heady cocktail, and one I’ve drunk a couple of times (hello Spark Kit): one that blends business with core values, psychology with the bottom line.
As far back as the 1970s, the film Semi Tough skewered EST (Erhard Seminars Training), the cult-like, quasi-religious organization that evolved into Landmark Education. In Semi Tough, Bert Convy as Friedrich Bismarck leads a disturbingly (and hilariously) realistic seminar called BEAT (Bismarck Earthwalk Action Training): calling the participants “assholes,” refusing to let them go to the bathroom, insisting that they will know “IT” when they get “IT.” The bit is laugh-out-loud funny, and not just because of the presence of a laconic Burt Reynolds in a star-printed denim suit and 10-gallon hat dozing in an aisle seat. As Bismarck says, “Believing is shit. Being is where it’s at.”
As a young adult, my taste for self-help woo-woo continued unabated. Despite my graduate-level education, I devoured everything from Celestine Prophecy to The Rules to You Can Heal Your Life. Yet I struggled to put the fuzzy concepts into practice, sitting in front of a mirror in my junior one-bedroom apartment repeating, “I love and accept myself,” staring at trees and hoping to see their energy and not accepting Saturday-night dates after Wednesday. Then a breakup that coincided with a work drought and writers’ block plunged me into a depression. Among other salves, I bought A Course in Miracles—the text, workbook, and teacher’s edition, as well as a companion guide—and made it through 30 days’ worth of daily reading and incantations, fluffing over the claim that Jesus himself had dictated these muddled teachings to a woman named Helen [Schucman]. At a low point, I attended a church basement meet-up of random people, many of whom seemed as unemployed and unhappy as me.
Author Denis Johnson took a unique approach to incorporating New Age spirituality into his work, throwing random quotes from A Course in Miracles into his novel Already Dead: A California Gothic. In his author’s note, Johnson writes, “In some passages, the dialog is sprinkled with quotes from the text of A Course in Miracles in a way that distorts their intent.” He goes on to recommend the text, workbook, and teacher’s manual to readers. Already Dead ends up the worse for these insertions, which muddy an already confusing book and send readers (if they choose) on a wild goose chase rather than into an immersive experience.
More appealing is Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers, which features characters who’ve turned to a cult as a valid means of coping with the unbearable. In The Leftovers, a Rapture-like event disappears millions of random people all over the planet in a single moment. In response, a cult called The Guilty Remnant forms under the premise that those who remain didn’t make the cut in what the government has branded “The Sudden Departure.” Their business card makes their position clear: “WE STAND BEFORE YOU AS LIVING REMINDERS OF GOD’S AWESOME POWER. HIS JUDGMENT IS UPON US.” Members sell their businesses, donate the money and cut themselves off from their families. Yet there is a logic to the Guilty Remnant in the wake of such random loss on a massive scale. The group provides a template for how to respond to the unreasonable—a surrender, even.
Later in life, I sought any method I could find to remove whatever was blocking me from getting pregnant. On a naturopath’s recommendation, I ended up in a hotel conference room in Ottawa as a white-haired woman in a blue caftan led me through a garden-variety meditation down into a cave to (mentally) confront someone from my past. The visualization came through very clearly (visualizing has never been a problem for me) and the energy of the crowd was stimulating. I left ready to drop multiple thousands of dollars to take a cruise with the seminar leader (and hundreds of others) just to continue the teachings. Like many, I didn’t have enough in my bank account, so I settled for the CD, which would allow me to enter the cave on a daily basis and which I didn’t listen to once. I returned home no more or less fertile than I’d been before I left and hundreds of dollars poorer.
George Saunders takes a buoyant satirical approach to the motivational seminar that turns on a protagonist’s weak-moment humanity, often walking that fine line between the desire for the lottery-like promise of “success” and the realities of mental illness, responsibility, and family ties. In his short story “Winky” from Pastoralia, Saunders jumps into a head-on satire of self-help seminars complete with characters playacting negative emotional labels like “Whiny” and “Self Absorbed.” The leader’s patter soon reveals familial issues with a brother disabled by a drunken motorcycle accident. The leader has based the resultant book and seminar, the proceeds of which are able to fund a wheelchair ramp, on avoidance of responsibility as much as he has on helping others.
The seminar Yaniky attends in a hotel ballroom includes many trappings that induce the character to feel important. Inside he carries deep shame about his parents—their poverty and ignorance and inability to stand up for themselves. He deeply resents having his sister live with him and determines to kick her out. His self-talk—“Ho, man, he was stoked! He wanted a Jag, not a Benz!”—parrots the hollow, unattainable promise of the seminar. More poignantly, he thinks, “If Dad could see [me] now. Walking home in a suit from a seminar at the freaking Hyatt!” The seminar’s promise of a better life and his determination to attain it are underscored by his sister’s story of potential brain damage and the heaviness of our responsibilities to each other.
That desire for a better life is not unreasonable, and motivational seminars provide a non-religious, low-commitment access to self-improvement. They also dovetail nicely with capitalist principles: You are paying for a service—in some cases, as with EST/Landmark, a semi-abusive leader—and you will see change. The catch: The change comes from you, your effort. Another truth: As with “Winky,” the leader often carries a full share of trauma.
Frank TJ Mackey’s scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Magnolia are a trenchant send-up of motivational speakers, addressing the cocktail of arrogance and vulnerability unique to a charismatic individual with a life-changing process to market. Mackey (played against type by Tom Cruise) enters to Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra.” The backlighting, greasy, shoulder-length hair, and tight vest give Cruise the look of an erect penis about to take flight. From the flopping sound of the “Seduce and Destroy” banner dropping to Mackey’s sleazy, snake-hipped, Elvis-esque sex-mime, this parody has all the elements of a motivational seminar pushed to the extreme. Cruise sells it: His “respect the cock” is believable if laughable, and if the Youtube comments below the snippets are any example, its contents sincerely, if disturbingly, speak to some people. As with Radiant Shimmering Light and “Winky,” the satire bleeds into the real.
Ross Jeffries, known as “one of the biggest names in pickup,” purveyor of Speed Seduction, whom Anderson claims inspired the Mackey character, speaks about “manipulation” in an interview with Hayley Quinn, defining it as “the act of moving forward deliberately.” His interviewer agrees with him despite his glossing over the nuance of the word’s meaning, the aspects of unfairness and unscrupulousness. His offerings include webinars, home-study courses, and one-on-one coaching. He is using manipulation to sell the secret of manipulation and becoming wealthy in the process.
Mackey’s techniques, from his repetition to his booklets to his appeals to the hard-done-by nature of his pre-incel audience members, are Jeffries’s techniques exaggerated out to just a little beyond impossible. Like firewalker and “neuro linguistic programmer” Tony Robbins, he sports a head microphone and uses language to convince audience members to spend more money on his tapes, his CDs, his DVDs, his vitamins—whatever he tells them they need to make them attractive to women.
Serial TV show The Americans picks up on the need to connect that drives many of us to motivational seminars while resisting the urge to mock. When Russian spy and brutal killer Philip Jennings attends an EST graduate seminar on sexuality in 1983, he finds he can open up more readily in the context of Werner Erhard’s teachings. When discussing why he is there, Philip’s friend Sandra parrots Erhard: “Everyone comes here thinking they’re here for someone else but they’re here for themselves.” The props are the same—the chalkboards, the PowerPoint axioms, the microphone, the crammed-together chairs—but so is something else: participants baring their feelings in a roomful of strangers.
In her recent Netflix show Nanette, Hannah Gadsby speaks about how the reliance of comedy on the setup and the punchline is ineffective for comedians like her. Jokes depend on tension, may derive from trauma, and by their nature freeze the story at the moment of trauma. Motivational seminars promise a way forward from trauma and despair, one whose odds of success seem commensurate with how much one can afford to pay. Yet as Gadsby says, “You learn from the part of the story you focus on.” In satire of motivational speakers, we focus on the rube, the hopeful, easily fooled desperate person willing to surrender money to make a difference or make a connection. But the story freezes there.
A bout of nausea, precursor to a migraine, signaled the end of me taking seminars. It hit me as I sat in the front row of a weekend workshop sneak-eating salted chocolate. As I was leaving, the head coach reminded me of the agreement I’d signed the first night promising to make up any time missed. I consented to complete that day at my expense, a decision which meant I’d have to go fly to another city. I chose Vancouver. To friends and family, I dressed up the reason for my trip, calling it an “opportunity,” telling them (if I told them) I was going for “a conference.” Was this how it felt to belong to a cult? Vancouver felt significant, as if not going would pass worse judgments on who I was. I’d set out to hold onto the tissue. In the process, I missed the funeral of my partner’s well-loved nephew.
Beyond a few selfies in front of rainy windows, my Vancouver photos were generic: trees, nests, totem poles, beaches. Not so much those of a tourist, but those of one from a cold-locked place admiring the soft warmth of early spring. Embarrassed, I stayed for less than 48 hours, connected with no one, worried that others would think me a zealot.
Completing every minute of the course, as I told the seminar group the following week, even half a continent away, did increase my sense of my own integrity. Yet I didn’t take any more seminars, the cost too great. Our nephew had taken his own life. My cousin had died the same way. I’d dreaded being triggered and chose to heed the rules of a self-improvement seminar instead of canceling my plans, taking the financial hit and supporting my partner. Had I really improved? This is the story I am left with.
Every new year, my husband and I quit drinking for the month. Sober January is a healthy and smug time, filled with sparkling water and peppermint tea and discussions about what kind of red wine would have gone well with the lamb shanks. This year, we’ve also given up sugar for the month. We joke that we should also take away bread, dairy, meat, salt. Anything with flavor, anything that makes us happy. Next year we will consume only paper towels soaked in water for 31 days.
A more pleasurable new year’s resolution is one that adds to your life rather than subtracts from it. One year, for instance, I vowed to wear more dresses. I did, and it was a fabulous (and feminine) year. Reading resolutions, if they aren’t too onerous, also fall under this category. For example, vowing to read a poem a week isn’t a huge challenge and, wow, how it can render a Saturday morning more ponderous and magical! A couple of years back I devoted a summer to E.M. Forster, and, aside from the splendor of reading Howards End and Maurice, I loved saying, in my best mid-Atlantic, Gore Vidal-inspired accent, “I find myself on a Forster kick lately.”
This year, I resolve to read James Baldwin’s nonfiction, in particular The Fire Next Time. The desire to read Baldwin emerged from discussions, both in-person and online, about Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I own but haven’t yet read. Beyond the obvious similarities between the two books (the letter writing device and race in America as subject matter), I’m interested in other ways these two texts interact, and where and how they diverge.
I also resolve to read David Copperfield. I’d already planned to read it this year after spending 2015 with one contemporary novel or another, and then I read Meaghan O’Connell’s Year in Reading, wherein she not only recommended many of the same books I had read and loved in 2015, but also mentioned that she was waiting for the Charles Dickens to arrive in the mail. This seemed fated. We have agreed to tackle the book together, in a kind of two-lady book club, this February.
In figuring out my own reading resolutions, I realized how much fun it is to hear about what others plan to read this year. In this spirit, I asked some people I admire to share their 2016 bookish resolutions.
David Ulin, former critic for the Los Angeles Times and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, always writes about books with such perspicacity and grace. He told me he generally doesn’t believe in resolutions since he almost never follows through with them. He went on:
But when it comes to reading in 2016, my main goal is to relax. To step back from the treadmill, and to read in a more integrated way. In part, this will mean as a critic, since I plan to continue writing about books; in part, as a writer, reading books that connect to, or address, various projects; and (perhaps most importantly) in part, as a reader, reading for no agenda other than my own. I’ve long believed that reading as a writer (and certainly as a critic) condemns one never to read for pure pleasure again. What I mean is that we are reading, inevitably, from within our own processes, with an eye toward how the sausage is made. I don’t imagine that will change for me, but I want to read recklessly this year, to put books down in the middle, to start and stop and start again. I want to read old books, new books, books by friends and books by strangers, books from all across the globe. Next to my bed, where I am writing at this moment, there are two piles of books, each about a foot and a half high. I’d like to read down those stacks, which include memoir, poetry, short story collections, detective fiction, books I wasn’t able to get to until now. Will I be able to read all of them, or even most of them, this year? Unlikely. And yet, they perch there like a promise or a dare.
My friend Tess Taylor, who is the poetry critic for NPR’s All Things Considered, and who will publish her second collection Work & Days this April, also plans to follow her bookish desires, wherever they may take her:
My biggest goals in 2016 are to read deeply, to read works as a whole, and to read off the grid. I think in the whole buzzy Facebook news-cycle thing, we get caught in a book-of-the-moment phenomenon. That is totally fine for the engine of selling books but maybe not as great for the part of us that makes us hungry to write them. Wearing my book reviewer hat, I am often reading for deadline or for money. I’m glad I get the to write things, truly, but this can be far from the wayward, unplugged feeling that made me a bookworm as a kid. So this year I want to get lost more. It can be very sustaining to engage one artist deeply, for pleasure, to get the measure of the craft and the life. Right now I’m reading all of Ted Hughes. I admit that this started out of a journalistic assignment, but the poems and the letters and the mind caught my attention and suddenly I’ve been ploughing through them almost obsessively. It’s a big private enterprise, and I mostly do it late at night or first thing in the morning. For now it’s not for sale. It feels really dreamy, like it feeds the writer in me. I want to do more of that.
The Debut Novelist
Would this desire to “get lost more,” as Tess puts it, extend to someone just stepping into the publication game? The year I published my first novel, I bought and read so many other recently released first novels because I was curious about what my colleagues were writing, and because I wanted to feel like I was in solidarity with my fellow debut novelists. (Class of 2014 in the house!) I asked fellow staff writer Hannah Gersen if the impending publication of her first novel, Home Field (out in July, y’all!), was affecting her reading resolutions. Yes, she said, but in a different way. She told me she’s planning to read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:
Or maybe it’s better to say I’m planning to finally read the whole thing from start to finish without skipping sections. I’m not sure how much this impulse is related to being a debut novelist, but Proust is definitely comfort reading for me because I’ve read and reread certain passages at different points in my life. The idea of reading the entire novel, knitting together all those favorite scenes, a little each day, feels very grounding. Maybe I also need a break from thinking about contemporary literature, to have a kind of cork-lined reading experience.
The Book Editor
I envy Hannah’s plan and the break she will get from the now-now-now! of our contemporary book-making machine (even as she gets to be a part of it.) It also made me wonder about those working within the industry. Do you make reading resolutions if you read and edit manuscripts for a living? Turns out, you do — or at least Laura Tisdel, executive editor at Viking, does. Every year, she told me, she attempts such a resolution.
Three years ago I read nonfiction titles to bone up on an area of reading, and general knowledge, I was woefully uneducated about (I tackled mostly history stuff, including Operation Jedburgh by Colin Beavan and The American Revolution by Gordon Wood). Two years ago, I focused on classics I hadn’t read as a student (Middlemarch and Giovanni’s Room? Check and check!). Last year, I had a baby (*crickets*). As a relatively new mother, one with just enough sleep to begin regaining some self-awareness, I’ve found myself missing the conversations I used to have with my friends catching up over a beer or even just disappearing down the rabbit hole of a text message thread. So this year, I’m going to read books that my friends recommend to me. I know darn well I don’t have the time in my schedule or the capacity to be a book club participant, but I’m going to make a sort of book club of one: I’m going to ask the people I care about and respect to recommend a book they loved, and then I’m going to read that book and write to them about it. I’m starting the year with Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object by Laurie Colwin, which a dear friend recommended to me just before the holidays when we grabbed a long overdue coffee date together. I’m thinking of this project as a way to commune with my friends, and to discover stories and writers that might never have surfaced in my nightstand pile otherwise.
(I now have strong motivation to start texting recommendations to her!)
I get the sense that Tisdel, like the others I asked, wants to step back from the machine. Not with a beloved classic, like Gersen, and not by reading “recklessly” as Ulin suggests, or associatively, like Taylor. But by reading a particular book for, and with, and because of, a particular person. It’s reading, and talking about reading, as intimacy.
Mary Williams, the general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, is another integral member of the book-making machine, and her resolution echoes those of the others:
Free books are one of the perks of being a bookseller. But they are also a curse; there are just so many of them. I have never been able to keep up with all the books coming out each season that I want to read. Cue desperate feelings of inadequacy. Also, the world is full of great books that came out before I became a bookseller and my professional obligation to stay current began. So my resolution is to forgive myself for the new books I can’t get to (wish me luck), and to make some time for the aging heroes lodged in the middles of stacks of unread books in my apartment. Already Dead by Denis Johnson. Stoner by John Williams. More short stories: especially Lorrie Moore and George Saunders and Lydia Davis. Basically, more reading without deadlines.
While Mary is tossing off the shackles of professional obligation to read Stoner in the break room (Oh, how I envy her! I’d love to read that for the first time all over again!), Dana Spiotta’s next book, Innocent and Others, will be released. It comes out in March, which is motivation for me to finish that stupid Dickens as fast as I can — and for Mary to put those shackles back on. While every smart person is reading her novel, what books will Spiotta herself turn to? She told me, “When I was in my teens, I loved to read any kind of novel about growing up. he Bildungsroman(s), the sentimental educations, the coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence stories. It was the job at hand, and I needed help.” She continued:
This year, since I am reaching the milestone of what is optimistically referred to as “middle age,” I want to return to those books that I read so long ago. From The Red and the Black and Jane Eyre to Manchild in the Promised Land and The Basketball Diaries. And many more books that I remember loving. Will I still love them? They are the same of course, but maybe it will be a measure of how much I have changed. What I now think is engaging and moving and beautiful. What I think is funny. What I think is true (with all my experience as a person and a reader). Or maybe not, maybe my connection to these books of my youth will be exactly the same. I wonder if my young self will be in those pages, waiting for me.
Spiotta, too, is stepping away from the publishing hoopla. She will re-read; she will look backward as a way, perhaps, to look forward.
I’m sure that all of us will succumb to diving into the latest hot new book, because it’s fun to join those conversations, and because who doesn’t want to experience what promises to amaze and rearrange us? But I hope we also fulfill our personal reading goals, too, even if it’s to not have a goal: to read for pleasure, for comfort, for connection, for knowledge about the world and ourselves.
What’s your reading resolution for 2016?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
For me the best, most moving, overwhelming novel of the year was Hungarian-American Les Plesko’s No Stopping Train. Lyrical in style, tough in mood, enigmatic and structured through series of interlocking love triangles, it spans the end of WWII to the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Its publication comes tragically on the heels of Plesko’s death by suicide in 2013.
No Stopping Train propelled me headlong into a series of Eastern works, old and new. Nobelist Imre Kertesz’s Liquidation was the perfect follow-up, a bracing, formally inventive short novel of love and betrayal among the literati in the 1980’s in Hungary, treating many of the issues of Plesko’s book. Then I reread Sergei Dovlatov’s The Suitcase, a collection of breathtakingly funny and poignant Russian short stories which consider the provenance of eight objects he brought to America in the 1980s — rather the way Primo Levi wrote on the elements in The Periodic Table.
Looking around for something big to plunge into, I found American author Josh Weil’s first novel, The Great Glass Sea, an elegant, lush work set in a slightly alternative-future Russia, about separated twins — one, a “New Russian,” trying to get ahead in the capitalist system; the other, whom you might see as “the Russian soul” just wanting to get back to the land and reunite with his brother — in a land dominated by a corporation using sky-mirrors and enormous glass greenhouses to eliminate the night. Weil is a gorgeous writer on the sentence level, and creates the feel of myth and perfectly captures the texture of Russian thought.
More Russia please. American Ken Kalfus’s short story collection Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies fit the bill. My favorite stories were the title one, concerning a nuclear disaster with Chernobyl overtones, and the last one, “Peredelkino,” in which a member of the official Soviet literati straddles the fence between collaboration and independence, while his wife, the ultimate reader, retreats to their treasured dacha in the writer’s village best known as the home of Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova in later years. This and Liquidation spoke to each other in my reader’s consciousness in the most serendipitous, exciting way.
I admit to being the last person in America to read Denis Johnson, but I knew Les Plesko admired him. After the Josh Weil book, I craved another big one, so started with a book you don’t hear much about, Already Dead, a love song to the northern coast of California, and discovered a lush, populous, intricate work I could not stop reading — a suspenseful, landscape-rich, emotionally accurate and often dead funny novel.
Now I was ready for contemporary novels. Three of them brought it home. Dylan Landis’s edgy short novel-in-stories Rainey Royal had me jumping out of my seat. I knew girls like Rainey in school — beautiful, bohemian, seductive yet dangerously unpredictable, your best friend one minute and then, a straight razor slashing you to bits. But who were they from their own point of view? Landis shows us — in tight, brilliantly faceted language — in a 1970’s New York that had resonances with The Flamethrowers.
Nayomi Munaweera’s gemlike novel of the Sri Lankan civil war, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, I would best describe as a “mini-epic.” The short intense novel took me deep into the life of that island nation through its girls on both sides of the conflict, daughters of intertwined families and their histories ties, which are then torn apart by the worst of all possible wars. Everyone’s a casualty in some way, even those who seem to have escaped. Deservedly shortlisted for the Man Asia prize.
Lastly, a book which practically vibrated off my bedside table for the beauty of its language and the intensity of its story was Ruby by Cynthia Bond. A girl returns for New York City to her hometown, the all-black township of Liberty, Texas, only to be undone by the restless spirits of the past. Powerful and hard to shake, it lost nothing by its thematic resonances with Toni Morrison’s haunted Beloved, as well as its streak of humor in the depiction of its small-town yokels, which reminded me of later William Faulkner. I love a book that tears me to shreds — and, on the sentence level, soars to the heavens.
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