Ethics, Chaos, Grief, Godzilla & Other Absurdities
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/8/02
As I begin
this essay on Friday, 6/7/02, it is 11 days since my lovable little cat Chia
escaped when my wife, Jess, unfortunately thought she could bring our little
girl out to play on the front lawn. Hopefully, in the few days it takes to
finish & post this essay we will have retrieved her. The date was Monday,
5/27/02, Memorial Day, about 3 p.m. CDT. I was on the computer working on my
website when Jess came running in, screaming that Chia ran away. I 1st
thought that she had gotten out an open front door, but Chia has never expressed
a desire to go outdoors- unlike her male cat buddy Shadow, or our older 12 year
old female Sassy. Jess then relayed that she brought Chia out because Chia mewed
from the kitchen window, out to Jess, who took this as an expression of
interest. Once outside, something frightened Chia & she dashed off to the
heavily wooded area behind our chain link fenced backyard. I was furious with
Jess’s irresponsibility, as I’ve repeatedly told her not to let the cats
out- all 3 are fixed & declawed. But I’ve tried to leaven my anger with my
heartache & knowing Jess feels the same, plus a guilt I don’t.
We looked all day for Chia but to no avail. Out alone, Jess said she saw Chia within a few feet of her, back in the woods, but could not get her as Chia darted away. At night, Jess said she got up in the middle of the night, saw Chia on our front driveway, went out, chased her into our gated backyard, grabbed her tail, but was scared when Chia hissed, lost her grip & Chia got away as Jess came in to wake me. Again, I was furious that Jess didn’t wake me so the 2 of us could get her. By the next night- a Tuesday- we had gotten flyers out in a 2-3 block radius. We got a couple of calls but it seems there was a doppelganger cat that folks had been seeing over the previous month. It had ended up at our nearby Vet clinic- a place Chia was well-known & beloved at- but it was not Chia, as it lacked a microchip in its ear. By then we had gotten 2 humane traps at the Bloomington, MN Animal Control Department, plus bought 2 others at Home Depot. Now we are up to 8 traps- Jess even borrowed 1 from a co-worker. We bait them with cat food & leave bowls of water outside. That Wednesday a woman whose house is 100 or so yards in back of ours in the woods said she heard a cat hissing in the woods early that morning, that Wednesday- about 10 am a couple 2 blocks away saw a cat resembling Chia- perhaps she’d been scared & ran away? They said when they saw her she made a beeline back in our direction. That morning & the next I caught 2 raccoons- we let them go. By the weekend we’d also caught a rabbit & let it go. By the end of last weekend I was despairing. Chia may have left the area- our only hope would be if she was brought to a pound & identified. This past Monday morning we caught another coon & dumped him a mile away near the Minnesota River. On Tuesday morning we caught a coon & dumped it by the river. On Thursday morning we caught another coon & right by our house an opossum- off to the river. 1 of our traps had the food eaten- the trap unsprung but the back smashed outward- the trap had been broken so we returned it. This morning another coon was caught & dumped. We have been hampered by a lot of rainstorms 4 of the past 7 nights- the water floods the cat bowls & decreases the scent. We have neatly depopulated our backwoods area & are now concentrating on trapping solely inside our gated backyard & a couple of traps out front. Our reasons are 1) Jess has gotten alot of useful info on trapping cats & cat stories from a # of people who’ve lost pets for up to a month & from several websites: www.lostapet.org & www.sonic.net/~pauline/search.html. 2) The traps in the woods attract coons only. The coons seem loath to enter our gated backyard. 3) But Chia seems to have paid us a visit in the 2 clear night’s between Tuesday morning’s & Thursday evening’s storms.
On Wednesday afternoon Jess noted a pile of dried shit in our backyard- 5-6 nuggets that I recognized immediately as probably being a cat’s- they resemble the nuggets I clean from the litter box every morning. That morning, I also swore I heard a mew as I checked the traps in the woods- it seemed to be a distinct 1- Chia’s. She seemed within 30 feet or so. Later that day we found the nuggets- they were plump, tapered at the ends, beige colored with a leaf & dead beetle in 1 nugget- & a hairball in another- which, when twisting the ends, opened up like a corkscrew. I recognized this phenomenon from our litter box too. Luckily, the coon we caught (with the possum) the next morning left a shit in the cage- it was dark brown & much more smelly. Online we found out the difference between the 2 species scat: coons shit darker & smellier & they tend to have communal latrines, while cat shit is like the pile we found. That it was out in the open grass in the center of the yard & not buried under dirt by a tree also conforms with a cat staking out & marking its territory- a sign it plans to return! Other people’s stories, of cats lasting over a month & then returning, or being trapped buoy us. We hope Chia will eventually get hungry enough to have her hunger overwhelm her caution & enter a trap. It seems that Chia is following a textbook pattern- she knows her home, has marked it, & we have to wait out till she’s hungry enough. The online expert Kat Albrecht, www.lostapet.org, has been supportive & helpful with Jess’s & my situation.
Jess grew up owning 2 cats, Spunky & Snoopy. Last year Spunky died & Snoopy is very old. My family, too, has owned cats ever since we got our own home. The 3 we currently have are Sassy (aka ‘Chubby Girl’)- a 12 year old, orange & white, chubby, spayed & declawed, shorthaired female. She came out with me from New York City. She can be crabby but loving. When we got the 2 other cats last year it was an upset to Sassy because it had been about 6 years since Sassy had a companion [although the prior winter we’d catsat Don Moss’s decade-old orange & white, longhaired, neutered cat Mango (aka ‘Da Boss’ Moss)]. Last year, in April, we went to a local Humane Society & adopted 2 cats- the already named Shadow (aka “Boy’)- a lithe black & gray, longhair that we neutered & declawed. He was about 2 years old. He is the most affectionate cat I’ve ever known. That love extended to Chia (aka ‘Little Girl’, ‘Chi-Way’, ‘Chispanic’, etc.)- whom I named. She was a 6-8 month old kitten & we later neutered & declawed her too. She & Shadow were very loving & affectionate- even as they ignored Sassy. But Chia was not a healthy kitten. We noticed a limp. Turns out she had had her hip broken at a very young age & it never healed right. The vet we saw at the Humane Society- a Dr. Kim Culbertson- prescribed Rimadyl- a pain-killing drug known to kill big German Shepherds. Chia became a zombie & we thought she would die. But she remarkably survived that & the hip/leg operation. When we brought her home, even with a limping leg, she zipped down the stairs. It’s this kind of feistiness we hope bodes well that she will survive outdoors & return to us when hunger overwhelms. Shadow would come & sleep under the covers with us, while Chia would sleep at the foot of the bed & then nuzzle between our pillows & purr. In the morning all 3 cats would follow me into the bathroom & kitchen until I filled their food & water bowls. It was such a familiar & welcome routine. I miss Chia’s turn of the head & her distinctly inquisitive mews. Of all my cats- all whom I loved & had unique personalities (thus my preference for cats over dogs)- Chia seemed to be the most distinct & intelligent. Her personality was totally unpredictable vis-à-vis Shadow’s or Sassy’s. My heart is really low. The only vaguely decent thing to come out of this, so far, is that Chia’s loss has taken away my attention from other current woes in my life.
Mainly, my other worries have been work-related aggravations, but Chia’s absence has caused me to ponder, even more deeply than I normally do, ideas, things, events- in short, life! A few days ago I called my best friend Joe to tell him of my work & Chia woes. He was taken aback that losing my cat caused me such grief. Joe & his wife own a cat they don’t much like so I guess he could not relate. They do have a daughter, though, & I stated I felt as if losing Chia were like his daughter being lost. To some, that may seem an inapt comparison. Non-pet lovers cannot relate. ‘They’re not human!’ is the retort. Well, yes- but they are more capable of love than your average newborn, & unlike children they do not willfully cause aggravation or lie. Animals are amoral, but capable of affection deeper than most humans know & abide. Don’t get me wrong- I am not some PETA-fanatic, animal rights activist. I recognize the necessity for certain types of animal testing- as long as wanton cruelty is avoided. While not ‘sentient’ to a human degree I believe most life forms deserve at least respect from we human stewards, who are capable of that thing/idea we call ethos.
This got me
thinking about some of the things we define as ethics- especially some of the
absurd situations that college-degreed types often waste incredible amounts of
time wrestling with, while collecting nice sinecured paychecks. The profession
is called ‘ethicist’. You know who I mean- these are the people who appear
on news shows, talk shows, & documentaries, to tell us what this or that
scandal represents to the fiber of our nation. They reveal such startling things
as murder’s wrongness, politician’s immorality, or sexual abuse’s
deleterious effect on the victim. Often their situations are absurd: should 1
feel guilty about not returning a $20 bill found lying on the sidewalk? Should 1
ponder the moral implications of swatting a mosquito, fly, or gnat? [Dare we be
frozen with fear over the dread Butterfly Effect?] Of course not. A few
days ago I read syndicated newspaper & film review columnist Richard
Roeper’s column about such an ethicist’s wet dream: RR posited 3
(paraphrased) situations/dilemmas. The 1st was, would you return an
excess $10 bill from a local store? The cashier had mistakenly assumed a $10
bill given was $20. Therefore your change contained $10 not yours. Dilemma #2
was you are walking behind a real styling guy, he whips out a big wad of bills
& errantly drops an unnoticed c-note (or hondo, if you’re hip; $100 bill,
if you’re not!). Do you keep it or return it? The 3rd dilemma was
you go online to buy airline tickets- normally you know your flight was several
hundred dollars. You see a supersaver for $5. YES, $5! Do
you book it, since they legally have to honor it?
RR tried to add a twist to this tri-partite conundrum by stating that #3 actually occurred a few weeks ago & hundreds of people booked the flights, & the airline had to honor the tickets. RR said he would give $5 to anyone who could disprove his assertion that the flyers were morally wrong. He also stated that the 1st 2 dilemmas were also black & white ethically. Not so fast, Dicky! Let’s go at each dilemma. #1 is not so cut & dried. 1st off, all businesses pay insurance for what is called ‘shrinkage’- merchandise & equity that is lost, destroyed, stolen, etc. These premiums are set to an industry standard that assumes certain percentages that most businesses never meet. This is how insurance companies gouge your local retailers. Guess what? Your local store raises the price a few cents on each product to cover the added cost of the insurance. De facto, every customer is paying the insurance for the merchants’ dishonesty, incompetence, or accidents. You & I are paying, already, for something we get no benefit for. Wanna bet that the person who sees that $10 gift has already paid far more than that in insurance on things they would never even dream of buying? Each & every purchase they make is a de facto ripoff that increases insurance companies coffers. The consumer sees zero benefit, even though they pay for the whole system! Why should the recipient of the $10 feel guilt? They are merely getting a small payback for the unfair ‘insurance tax’ they have never even been told they’re paying. & that does not even include the often sizable markups on products that benefit the retailer alone. There is no reason for guilt.
Still, it would depend on the situation as to what I would do. If the $10 came directly from the company’s error, I would not think twice- how often have you been overcharged, gone through (or attempted to go through, but gave up?) the hassle of being refunded, or not even known you were overcharged? By directly from the company I mean that an item is $20 & it’s wrongly rung up as $5 in their scanning system- no one can be blamed but the computer. Advice- keep the dough! However, RR’s hypothetical situation, is slightly different because the loss of $10 would come directly from the cashier’s till & might get them disciplined or fired. I know this as I once handled money as a teller & appreciated the return of a $10 bill I mistakenly overchanged a customer. That loss would gnaw at me, while the loss to a faceless company that is ceaselessly gouging me would not. In essence (& fact) the 2 situations are different. The store’s loss is a little bit of karma, while the cashier’s loss is a real source of potential pain. Even so, the person who would keep the $10 may not feel guilty- after all, the cashier is paid to do their job to a certain standard; if they fail that standard so be it. It’s probably not the 1st time it has occurred & the benefit is still a payback from the company that is stealing from you. Just because I might twinge & return the $10 does not mean I am right in damning the person who would keep the money. The company’s loss presents no ethical dilemma, the cashier’s a slight 1. This is often damned as ‘moral relativism’. Well, sorry, folks, the cosmos is mostly relative- although to be such absolutely requires some black & whites. In 600 or so words I have clarified something that a sheepskinned ethicist might spend a career in paralysis over. What a profession!
On to dilemma #2. The rich guy who drops a wad. I’d probably stop him & return it. But what if I knew the money was ill-gotten booty? Or that the guy was a drug addict? Or abused his girlfriend? Do these 3 factors have any cogence? Maybe. I could actually put some positive use to the ill-gotten stash. In that case- keep it. Drug addict? Keep it. I’ve often offered to buy panhandlers a sandwich or coffee, so I know they’d not spend it on booze nor drugs. I’ve never been taken up on my offer. See? An abuser? Keep it. What the hell- he may be more pissed & treat his gal better when he discovers it, or he may be shaken, & be sweeter. Still- a little loss would serve him right. But, if a total stranger? I’d return it- it’s not large enough to set me up well. But I’d not chide someone who’d keep it- especially since the guy was garishly flashing his cash like a territory-marking beast. After all, finders-keepers, losers-weepers. The question gets more intriguing if it were several thousand or million dollars. If there is nothing in the news of a lost fortune I might just keep it- it would depend on the situation. Again, I could probably put that money to greater use than the probable criminals that lost it. No real dilemma.
Now to RR’s #3 situation. Airlines also pay insurance for shrinkage- this accident falls into that. When I worked in a New York supermarket we had to make sure every item was correctly priced with a sticker- it was a consumer protection law. If a $5 item was marked or had a sign for $.05- we legally had to give it to them. Of course, we’d quickly correct the pricing. Think of how often you’ve paid 3 or 4 times the cheapest rate for a flight because of an emergency need to get somewhere. What goes around comes around. I would not sweat for the airline. They pay insurance for their screwups. No need to sweat out a dilemma like this- this is exactly the same as the $10 overchange situation due to a scanning error. No guilt involved- &, furthermore, were the airline to try & weasel out of not honoring the $5 tickets the smart shoppers would have EVERY right to claim foul play. If a batter swings at a 3rd strike dropped by the catcher, reaches 1st base safely, & eventually scores the winning run in Game 7 of the World Series, do we ask the winning team to forfeit their championship? No. The winners still won by the rules. Most state laws protect consumers who cash in on retail errors- as well they should. Those are the rules known by both sides. To dangle a dilemma where none exists is wrong, if not a case for the ethical dilemma file, itself. &, even if not, most of the so-called dilemmas are absurdities.
But, back to
more cogent ethical situations. Do I value my little cat Chia’s life more than
a human being’s? Should I? Can I ethically do so? Well, yes. But it’s a very
contingent thing. Chia has brought me joy & love for over a year- the pain,
brought on by medical conditions & Jess’s losing her are not Chia’s
fault. Chia is a 100% positive force in my life. How many human beings can claim
that #? But, I might sacrifice Chia’s life for that of a person I know, or a
stranger with a good reputation. But, your anonymous soul living in Topeka,
Warsaw, Johannesburg, or Beijing? No. Chia’s more important to me. Is this
selfish? Yes. So what? Would Chia stand a chance against the life of Jess, my
pals Joe or Pam, my mother? No. I’d regret the lack of power I had to change
the framing of the question’s situation- but these are people who mean
something more to me. & it’s not their sentience that’s important- but
the sentience they have communed with me. It’s more than Chia ever could. But,
suppose my 79 year old mom were gonna be dead in a week- then would Chia’s
life be more valuable? Yes, I’d say. How about a stranger? If Chia’s life
meant that a scientist working on a cure for cancer would live?- yes. Or the
life of a great artist whose work touched many?- yes. But your average schlub-
no. Now, were I to get to know that schlub the situation would change- he/she
would not be that schlub- but my schlub. Again, a selfish
decision. So? How about if a deific being came up & offered to return Chia
to me, but a planet in a galaxy far away would be destroyed (along with its
sentient inhabitants & biosphere) in exchange. However, I could preserve the
planet (or maybe just its civilization’s collected knowledge) if only I would
agree to not doom Chia’s life- but worse- never know (good or bad) what became
of her. Now we get tougher queries. I honestly do not know what I would do in
the 1st example. Again, Chia’s a 100% positive in my life. Is the
civilization like the Klingons or Borg from Star Trek lore: ruthless
Conquistadores? Does it matter, since human civilization will probably never
encounter it- & certainly I would not. In that case, I take Chia. Just
don’t show me photos or artifacts from that world- do not give me reason to
doubt. Ignorance truly is bliss (or, at least, a decent night’s sleep) in this
In the latter case, do I take mere knowledge over life? Or, more tellingly- alien certainty over personal ignorance. Toughies they are! Uncertainty, more often than not, is far more trying than even a gruesome definite. In truth, these are all abstractions & abstractions are nearly impossible to codify, even in some pseudoscientific way. Thus, the near totality of ‘ethicism’ is, itself, a farce- if not an outright scam. But, let’s take another tack at an ethical situation- not whether or not 1 thing is more valuable than another, but wish fulfillment. Say that same deific being who offered me a choice between personal reunion with my cat or anonymous planetary Armageddon says to me that in reward for my decision (whatever it may be- at this point it’s past & irrelevant) it will grant me a wish- it suggests, perhaps, world peace. It assures me that just as it can deliver me Chia, or smite Planet X, it can guarantee me that, in perpetuity, no human being will ever war with another- individually or nationally. Well, that’s a no-brainer! & just compensation to ease my heart (heavy with loss or guilt)- right? Well, I guess none have you have ever watched old Twilight Zone episodes, or are aware of Ursula LeGuin’s The Lathe Of Heaven. So, you take the deity’s assuagement to your soul. Bam! You turn around & all is peaceful, alright! It turns out some incredibly advanced alien race has conquered Earth, views us a animals, & enslaved us up in pens to be used as beasts of burden & a food source. We are fatted up in seclusion like veal. Males are ‘milked’ for semen, & worked till they die of exhaustion, & females impregnated non-stop from puberty to menopause- whereby they are ground into a foodstuff. Never again will humans war- once a child is weaned it is penned up in darkness & raised in muteness & dumbness. Humans are completely docile & dumb, but also domesticated beasts. Peace comes at the price of liberty & sentience. Uh….that wasn’t part of the deal, was it? No one ever said it was not part of the deal! The Trickster can dazzle with false light. Do you still opt for peace? Of course not! Now, step back & think over the eternal conflicts between the oppressed & oppressors throughout history. How many have had a good reason to reject peace? Is that a twinkle in your eye or are you sweet on me?
Again, most often these dilemmas are abstract- but they can obviously (if occasionally) connect to the real. there is a really good scene in Woody Allen’s film Interiors where, at a family gathering, the pseudo-intellectuals ponder a play’s characters’ terroristic motivations & 1 character, Renata (Diane Keaton), decries the play’s dilemma as nothing but an abstraction. A 2nd character, Mike (Sam Waterston), retorts- so you would choose 1 life over many? Then Renata says that without specifics it’s all abstractions & meaningless. Then a 3rd character, Pearl (Maureen Stapleton), professes ignorance to the play’s insights & says all she saw was a play about a guy who squealed on others & she did not like the squealer. Pearl’s reply may be the most insightful, but the whole premise of the conversation is a mirror of what their conversation is. A 4th character, Joey (Mary Beth Hurt), & Pearl sum up the debate thusly:
Joey: How do you figure out the right thing to
do? How do you know?
Pearl: How do you know? I don’t know. You just....know. I mean you feel it. I mean....you just don’t squeal. I don’t know.
A more apt
& real philosophical debate occurs in another WA film, Crimes &
Misdemeanors, where a doctor, who bought a contract on his rebellious
lover’s life, returns to his family home & confronts the ghosts of his
family, who debate the ethics of death via the example of the Nazis. A male
relative concludes that faith is the only way to go to hope that the evil get
their due. A female relative counters that the Nazis got away with genocide,
& only armed resistance brought them justice- otherwise they, like our
peace-bringing alien conquerors, would have paid no price. because the character
has just committed murder the pique is up on the debate, within the film’s
fiction. Since it is still just a film it’s as hypothetical as Interiors’
debate- or most of the other debates we’ve looked at.
I won’t pound the point into the ground. But, it might be worth looking at how many people, or cultures, deal with ethical questions. Americans are long familiar with the moral pummeling we have received over the 2 atomic bombs we dropped on Japan. Would it have been more ethical to let 2 or 3 times the # of American soldiers die in the mile-by-mile conquest of Japan? Or untold millions more innocent Japanese civilians in said conquest? [& don’t believe any of the latter-day propaganda that denies the conquest of Japan would have been a bloodbath- all the counterclaims have been built on spurious ‘evidence’ & propounded by folks with political axes to grind for Japan &/or against America!] However, on an ethical scale, the Japanese refusal to admit the atrocities they committed in WW2 (which equaled & sometimes surpassed Nazi Germany’s) is a far blacker stain- even if 1 were to ascribe darkness to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki. Yet, look at 1 of the most evident ways Japanese society dealt with this ethical question: the Godzilla films. Often it’s been commented on- in Japan for sure (where the films are all still blockbusters), & occasionally in the West- how the films reflect Japan’s dealing with things nuclear. Godzy is seen as the spawn of the bomb in the 1st & early films, & an avenger against Man, in general, for loosing such forth on nature. By the early 60s there was a more direct hostility toward America, which had recently ended its post-WW2 Occupation. King Kong vs. Godzilla was the result. In the original Japanese version Godzy thrashes & toasts the American monsterial interloper. In America they had the ape whack the lizard. Nonetheless the hostility was there. A decade later the flower generation made a belated entry into Japan & the result was the biophilic Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster. By the 90s Hollywood tried its own version of the icon, which was alot better than the critics thought. Implicit in all the films (save for a few of the campier 1s) however, is the notion of Japanese blamelessness & victimization, usually at the hands of Americans- directly or indirectly (who do you think is the chief fouler of the environment, after all?). There is no room for admission of Japanese guilt & complicity in bringing about their country’s ruin. Nor does there ever seem to be room to admit the general human powerlessness in the face of the arbiter of many choices: chance.
such sway over existence. Ethics is based upon knowing the reasons behind
things. Without the reason most choices default to chance. The most vexing &
unplumbable question is always why? We can answer many of
the other queries but why is an endless thread going back ultimately to the Big
Bang, Creation, or whatever caused all things- be it the random fluctuation in a
void, or whatever. Even if we can chart what happened, & how, the why will
ever elude. At its root there seems to be no real answer to why. Thus we invent
gods to succor us where the unknowable rips at us like the status of my little
lost kitty does at me. We ask why things occur. In my case: Why did Jess take
our housecat outside? Why did Chia bolt? Why doesn’t she just come back to
where she was loved? etc. But chance is the great answer.
Sometimes we call it because, or some other such word/phrase, but
chance- on a gut level- seems no real reason, a copout. However, at a
fundamental level, chance seems to be both the best (& often the only)
answer that makes sense. Randomness (or chaos, in the
scientific parlance) is the only thing that can account for everything, if taken
back far enough. All of you reading this essay are doing so through billions of
chance happenings- from accidentally hitting upon my website, to the union of
many sets of ancestors, to- possibly [ALERT- THERE IS A BUTTERFLY SPREADING
ITS WINGS, DANGER IS IMMINENT!] the brand of cereal you liked to eat in the
afternoons after you got home from 6th grade! It is the powerlessness
in such a face that terrorizes us. You know of Chia by the total randomness of
things that happened seconds ago, back to a second after Creation- if there ever
was such a thing. Chance is the reason for reason- in all its definitions. Most
humans feel a need to deny this at all costs. Why? Here’s the answer: Why
not? That’s not to say chance is the only reason- but when all else
fails it is the perfect default reason.
I apologize for such seeming nihilism. It should be obvious to most of you that the reason I am writing this essay is not by chance (although, by extension of Chia’s loss, parts of my reason are), but by my own need or desire to combat the terrible mien of chance that has swiped into my existence. Perhaps, by getting these feelings out I can help another relay or distill feelings they have had in similar (or not so similar) circumstances, & this enlightenment will pay off in a karmic way to help my little Chia find her way home to Jess’s & my love. It’s totally irrational, perhaps weird, but I think you understand what chance can force a person to do. Not to mention love.
As I end this essay, more quickly than I thought, on 6/8/02, I would do anything to have never been spurred to it- but I often make lemonade from the citrus life bonks upon my head. &, despite how much I value all my writing- essays or poems- I would gladly trash this essay to be holding my little girl in my arms again. Would I trash my collected written works? Mmmmmmmmmm….There I go again with those damned ethical questions- most of which devolve to being chance events. Of more cogence are questions such as if our attempts to trap Chia will be hindered by the on & off weather forecast of more rain next week. Then, again, that’s chance too. Here’s hoping that the breeze from some butterfly’s wings far away & long ago (+ the scent of sardines) will help nudge little Chia into 1 of our traps. I can use the vacation from why? for a while.
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