I got a rock

I didn’t ask for a kidney stone for my birthday, but that’s what I got!

About a month ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with a sharp pain in my abdomen. It tormented me for a while, then went away. I thought it was, perhaps, some sort of temporary obstruction or gas. It didn’t bother me again…

Until the day before yesterday. I was standing at my desk at work when the pain hit me again. Exactly the same, only worse. I figured, it passed before, it’ll pass again. So I walked around my office, and lay on the floor and sat. The pain came in waves. Never quite going away, but sometimes increasing in intensity. So, eventually, I called my wife to drive me to the ER.

The PA who triaged me said she would put in an order for pain medication. That was around 2 pm. It was nearly 5 pm by the time I got into a room and no one seemed particularly rushed to give me anything. All that time, the pain hadn’t relented. Worst I’ve ever experienced. They (even the female nurses) say that it is comparable to giving birth. I’ll never know for sure, but…ow.

Eventually I got a shot of morphine and all was well with the world again. I had a CT scan with iodine contrast and the doctor reported a moderate-sized kidney stone. I got prescriptions for medication to dilate the tubes and some pain medication and that was that. An 80% chance it would pass.

So far, it hasn’t. I’ve only had to use the pain meds once, thankfully, after a brief spell yesterday afternoon. I’ve been working at home these past two days and will probably do so again tomorrow. We’re getting more heavy rain, so it’s just as well not to be out on the streets when there’s no place for the runoff to go. I’m hoping this thing will decide to come out on its own, although I’m not exactly looking forward to the moment when it does. My father had several bouts of stones when I was a kid and I remember it as not being a happy time at all. Of course, the pain meds are probably a little better now.

We watched Our Brand is Crisis last night. It stars Sandra Bullock as a political consultant who has been off the grid for half a dozen years after some erratic and questionable behavior. Ann Dowd enlists her for the presidential campaign in Bolivia, where their candidate (who looks a LOT like Geoffrey Rush) is 28% behind in the polls. Billy Bob Thornton is working for one of the opposition candidates, the frontrunner. He and Bullock have history.

Through a series of savvy and shady maneuvers, Bullock turns the campaign into a tight race. It’s based on the real campaign that was managed by James Carville’s firm back in 2002, one that had a less than stellar outcome. Bullock is terrific in this film, and her badinage with Thorton is a lot of fun to watch. While it’s appropriate to the material, I can’t help but think the film’s title was something of a deterrent. It has lousy review scores and only made back about 1/4 of its costs during its theatrical run, so I guess it gets branded a flop, but we enjoyed it.

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Winter Isn’t Coming

The day after I was stranded in downtown Houston because of flooding rains, we got walloped by a second rainstorm of equal intensity on Friday afternoon. All the secondary roads leading south (toward Houston) from our community were under water by the end of the afternoon, as well as many feeder roads and exits off the interstate. (Click here to see some impressive drone video of these major roads.)

The picture to the right shows the Brazos River in Fort Bend Country (southeast of where I live and work). That area might not have received much rain, but it’s downstream from the places that did, so the water ran into the rivers and eventually crested and ran over the banks. A number of communities west of Houston were evacuated. People who didn’t leave are now trapped in their homes for the time being.

And it’s supposed to rain again for the next few days after today. With the ground so soggy already, there’s no place for the water to go. Fortunately, the community where I live has excellent drainage. When I went home on Friday, the ditches were raging torrents. Our front lawn was covered in water and the yard decorations were floating in the back yard, but by the next day the water was all gone and none of it got anywhere it shouldn’t.

I posted my review of Modern Lovers by Emma Straub at Onyx Reviews today. Now I am embarking on a journey to Westeros. Until now, the only thing I’ve read of the Game of Thrones material was the “The Hedge Knight” novella from Legends, and I’ve still seen none of the TV series. My plan is to read a novel and then watch the corresponding season. I assume that will work, right? I do know what most of the actors who play the parts look like from the frequent discussions of the series over the years, so that helps, in a way.

I thought it would be heavy going, but I read more than a third of the first book yesterday. There are a lot of characters to keep track of but, man, what an imagination. This is an amazingly developed world with an intricate history. Looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about.

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The Tide Is High

My latest entry in Stephen King Revisited is now available. Titled The Two Princes, it deals with the publication history of The Eyes of the Dragon. While some may think we jumped ahead in our chronological sequence, the book was published in limited edition a few years before the more familiar trade edition, so that’s why it appears where it does.

Yesterday was interesting. Two bookstores and a bar within shouting distance of each other sponsored a block party to celebrate the publication of The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin, the final book in his Passage trilogy. (Cronin lives in Houston and a lot of the action takes place in Texas, so these books have been a big deal ’round here. My review can be found here.) Cronin appeared first at Brazos Bookstore, where he read for about fifteen minutes and then did a fifteen minute Q&A before migrating up the street like the Pied Piper, luring fans along with promise of a steamier passage at his second reading at Murder By the Book. Following the second reading and Q&A, everyone gathered across the street at Under the Volcano for the signing event.

I don’t go into Houston very often, and when I do, it’s almost always for a book signing. Early yesterday afternoon, the weather alerts started. Bryan/College Station got walloped by a tornado. The storm was migrating south towards us, so I got an early start and could see the dark clouds in my rearview mirror most of the way into town. In the city itself, the weather was fine. The skies were dark and ominous, but there was little more than the odd sprinkle of rain. I had an umbrella, but I never had to use it.

North of I-10, though, the situation was much different. Brenham, about 60 miles from where I live, received 14-16″ of rain in a very short span of time (their previous one-day record for rain was 6″). The community where I live got 6-8″ and there were reports of inundated roads (mostly feeder roads and intersections at the interstate). The local Emergency Management System admonished people to stay off the roads, especially after dark when it would be impossible to judge how deep the water might be in some places.

So, after getting my book signed (Cronin always makes fun of how much I appear in his Twitter feed), I consulted with my wife, who was at home. It wasn’t raining cats and dogs—it was raining horses and cows. So I decided to hole up in a motel for the night rather than risk the 50 mile drive into uncertain terrain. If it hadn’t been dark, I might have been more adventurous, but I didn’t want to get stranded somewhere unfamiliar. It’s funny—in this world of information technology, I had a lot of info, but not the specific information I needed, which was whether I could make it home or not. Complicating matters slightly was the fact that I didn’t have a phone charger with me and I was already on the low side of 50%. So I found a place and checked in.

It wasn’t a restful night, what with phone calls from the Emergency Warning System every couple of hours throughout the night and the fact that the room above me was occupied by Godzilla, who stormed around like a lumbering elephant. I was up before 5 a.m., which is my normal waking time during the week, and I checked out the situation on the various news channels. Another wave of rain was passing through, this one involving Houston proper, and it was still dark, so I waited until that storm exited my path and it started to get light before setting out for home. It was an uneventful drive. No high water anywhere. But there are threats of more storms later today, so I figured I’d better get while the gettin’ was good, as we used to say.

But I got my book signed!

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Let’s do the Lindy Hop again…

I finished Justin Cronin’s City of Mirrors this morning. It’s an amazing end to a remarkable trilogy that spans centuries, nay, millennia. There’s a lot of back story about Zero in this one, which at first seems like a huge digression until you realize that humanity was destroyed because of the actions of a star-crossed lover. Some brief and intense conflict scenes, and oh, what he does to Manhattan! I’ll be seeing him at Murder By the Book in a few days. Looking forward to hearing what he plans to do next.

We went to see Money Monster (which my mind insists is Monster Money) on Saturday. The plot is highly improbable (no way the cops would let a guy strapped with a bomb walk out into the open streets), but it is redeemed by fine performances by George Clooney and Julia Roberts, not to mention Jack O’Connell, who I’ve never heard of before. Clooney plays the host of a cable TV show where he makes wild predictions about the viability of stocks and companies. One of his featured “buys” went so far south it has penguins, and O’Connell bet the family fortune on it. So he’s a little miffed. He sneaks into the studio during live filming, armed with a gun and a bomb vest, which he makes Clooney’s character put on. It’s a little Network—he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it any more. He doesn’t want his $60,000 back: he wants everyone who lost a total of $800 million to get an explanation for the trading glitch that caused the stock to tank. Curiously, the CEO (Dominic West) is nowhere to be found. So Clooney, with the aid of his research team, some Icelandic hackers, and his intrepid camera man, producer and director, set about to get to the bottom of things, all live, all under duress. Directed by Jodie Foster, it’s entertaining but doesn’t have the power to get you all fired up like The Big Short did. It also stars Giancarlo Esposito from Breaking Bad as the police officer in charge of the hostage situation.

We also watched The Royal Night Out, starring 11.22.63‘s Sara Gadon as a young Princess Elizabeth, and Rupert Everett and Emily Watson King George and the woman who we’d come to know as “the Queen mother.” The story takes place on the night of V-E day. The war in Europe is over, and everyone in England is taking a moment to celebrate, even though the war continues elsewhere. Elizabeth and her younger sister, Margaret, beg to be allowed to go out amongst the populace, incognito, to join in the revelry but also to hear what the people think about the King’s speech and the monarchy in general. It is to be a tightly controlled excursion, but the two women manage to slip their handlers and have a number of experiences. It’s very loosely based on reality. Maybe 10%. The real night out was nothing near as exciting as what the movie portrays (Margaret was only 14 at the time, though she’s played older in this movie) but it’s a fun romp and Gadon is charming and radiant as the future Queen. Plus she gets to put the Lindy Hop skills she acquired filming 11.22.63 to use again.

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Deleting series

Since finishing my responsibilities for the Shirley Jackson Award, I’ve been back at the process I think of as “clearing the desk.” This involves making a list of everything that has an imminent deadline and knocking them off one at a time, preferably in chronological order.

The big one at the top of the list was a series of eight articles I agreed to write for Matt Cardin’s Horror Literature through History. I’ve participated in a couple of these before, and have always enjoyed the process, although there can be quite a bit of work involved. Typically I like to pick topics to cover where I am reasonably familiar with the material but haven’t necessarily written about them at length before. My biggest piece for this book is a 2000-word entry on Ray Bradbury, which for a while was kicking my butt. Bradbury is a huge topic, even when narrowing the focus to the more horror-oriented side of things. But I finally have a polished draft that I’m happy with and ready to send in to the editor. So I can cross that project off the list, pending editorial requests.

Next up, I’m going to put on my thinking cap to try to come up with stories for two forthcoming anthologies. Maybe I’ll try Bradbury’s concept. He wrote a story a week every week. First draft on Monday and revisions for the next few days (always on a typewriter in his case). On Saturday he sent the story off to a market, took a breather on Sunday and started again on Monday. He would create a list of nouns and then interrogate himself about why he had chosen those particular words and what they meant to him, hence the preponderance of story titles of the form THE NOUN, especially early in his career.

So, Castle came to an end. To my way of thinking, it wasn’t a series that needed a grand finale. Castle and Beckett could just keep on keepin’ on. The series finale was a patch-up job and the show deserved better. One more episode to tidy things up and send it on its way. It’s clear that they intended the shooting in Castle’s apartment to be the cliff-hanger, but once the powers-that-be decided that Beckett wasn’t going to survive, the wheels fell off. Sure, the show was named for Fillion’s character, but it wouldn’t have been the show it was without Stana Katic. I loved watching her, right from the very beginning. She’s the kind of actor who is totally present in the scene, all the time. Even when the focus is on a different character, you can see her reacting. She’s not upstaging—she’s just living in the scene. I always appreciated it. Plus I liked her clipped Canadian accent.

Anyhow, they shot this “and they lived happily ever after” clip that was only necessary because they couldn’t leave us with the Escape from the Planet of the Apes finale they’d written themselves into. It was okay, but oh-so-rushed, and we deserved better, after eight years. It always feels a little strange to delete a series like this from the DVR schedule. It’s so final.

It wasn’t a series finale for NCIS, but it was definitely a watershed moment for the series, with the departure of Michael Weatherly’s Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo. It was a powerful episode (that featured the final departure of another character, off screen) that gave Weatherly the chance to show some serious chops, especially early in the episode when he’s all rage. Then along comes this little girl, and, my, what a cutie she was (actually she was twins). It will be interesting to see where they pick up next season. Whether there’ll be any additions to the cast. Apparently they’re going to get some mileage out of Joe Spano’s character’s injuries, which could be good.

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Fangs for the memories

My featured review of Joe Hill’s The Fireman went live at Cemetery Dance online this morning. The review will also appear in the Hill special double edition of the magazine, together with my interview with the author.

You know it’s been raining a lot when the egrets and cranes start looking for fish in the ditches in front of the house…and finding something! I’m not quite sure what the egret found so yummy last night, but it put up a fight. Perhaps a crawfish or a frog. We had pea-sized hail on Saturday afternoon, and it has rained significantly each of the past couple of days and will probably do so for the next few.

We watched a strange and intriguing movie on Saturday night called The Family Fang. It stars Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman (who also directed) as the children of a couple of performance artists (dad is played by Christopher Walken) who used them as kids in most of their public performances. They filmed the reactions of innocent bystanders to some outlandish behavior to capture the essence of life. Once Child A and Child B grew up and left home, the elder Fangs fell on hard times creatively, and they want to get the kids back in the game again. Child A (Kidman) is an actress who has a reputation for outlandish and unpredictable behavior and Child B (Bateman) had a successful novel and a less than successful sophomore book, and is currently blocked to the extent that he’s willing to go on assignment to cover a bunch of rednecks who like to shoot potato guns into cornfields.

The story takes a strange twist when the elder Fangs go missing. Their car is found at a rest stop in a region where a number of people have been murdered in recent years, and there’s blood in the car. Kidman is convinced this is another bit of performance art and doesn’t take it seriously whereas Bateman is somewhat convinced they may have been murdered because he prefers that to the possibility that their parents want them to think they’re dead. In the ensuing weeks, the siblings delve into their pasts and make some discoveries. I’d never heard of the film, but it’s quite good. Kidman is spectacular, as usual, Bateman is solid and a fine director, and Walken is, well, pretty much Walken.

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And now it can be told

Now that the contract is signed, I am pleased to announce that I will have a short story published in a forthcoming (yet to be determined which) issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which has long been one of my dream markets. I already cracked their sibling publication, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, so I’ve had my eyes set on this one for some time now.

I was invited to be part of the Literary Track at Comicpalooza in Houston next month. I’ll be sitting on two panels, one on “Horror Explorations in Literature” on Friday afternoon (Lee Thomas and Nate Southard are two of my co-panelists) and one on “Writing in the Thriller Genre” on Sunday afternoon. I’ll also have a signing at the Barnes & Noble booth on Friday afternoon immediately after my panel. This is quite a growing concern, this convention. Among the actors who will be attending are Sigourney Weaver, Paul Reiser, Kate Beckinsale, Sean Patrick Flannery, Norman Reedus, Bill Paxton, Tara Reid, Lou Ferrigno, Lennie James, Walter Koenig (!!), Peter Mayhew, and David Prowse. Not to mention the extensive slate of authors, musicians, and people from the comics and gaming worlds. Should be a blast.

We saw Mother’s Day on the weekend, directed by Garry Marshall. OK, so it’s not Wuthering Heights, but we enjoyed it. There were several parallel storylines, some of which interlinked. It stars Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudekis, Kate Hudson, Timothy Olyphant, Margo Martindale, Hector Elizondo, Britt Robertson (Under the Dome) and others. Lots of preposterous and unlikely situations, but it was fun. The “bloopers” with the closing credits were amusing, too. We got a kick out of the one where Olyphant’s character is trapped in a collapsing inflatable backyard slide and Aniston looks to the camera and says, “Justified!” The movie has the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score I’ve ever seen (7% from 98 critics) but it fares better among the general audience. We’d shared a bottle of wine before seeing it, so that may be the recommended approach to it.

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The Lottery

I’ve probably sunburned most of my body at one time or another in my life. Rarely much of it at the same time. There was the time I forgot to put sunblock on the back of my knees when I was walking around the beaches of France. Or the time I sunburned (severely) the tops of my feet while I was writing my doctoral thesis. Or the time I sunburned my scalp when we were driving around northern California in a convertible. Add to that list my shins, which I managed to sunburn this past weekend.

We spent four days at our favorite beachside getaway, Surfside Beach, which is less than two hours away by car. The place we usually rent is no longer available, so we tried a new rental property, which was quite nice. Centrally located, good view of the beach, nice big outdoor deck—two of them, in fact. After the first day, we limited ourselves mostly to the lower deck, where we were afforded the shade of the upper deck. Although it was hazy (the threatened torrential rains never materialized, thankfully), the sun was still doing what it does best, which is to fricassee exposed flesh.

We treasure these getaway weekends. They’re a kind of reboot. The sound of the crashing waves does something for the soul. Plus the chance to be completely off the grid for a few days is rejuvenating, too.

This year I was a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards. The nominees for 2015 were just announced this morning. Congratulations to all those who made the final cut. I still have a little reading and considering to do as we prepare to vote on the winner. It’s been an interesting experience, which has exposed me to a number of works I probably wouldn’t have otherwise read.

My latest post at News From the Dead Zone went up on Friday while we were off the grid. Amazing how that happens. I was greeted by an enormous box on the front porch when we returned. It contains over 1000 sheets of paper needing my signature for a project that has yet to be announced but is really cool, I think. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

A couple of weeks ago we watched an interesting documentary called 1971. It was about a group of “radicals” who decided to break into an F.B.I. substation in Media, PA and steal every document they could find. Which they did, successfully. They then began to dole the documents out to the media, exposing illegal surveillance activities by the agency and ultimately leading to the first Congressional investigation into the F.B.I. They were never caught, despite an intensive search for the culprits. Now that the statute of limitations is long expired, they are telling their story for the first time. I thought it ended a little abruptly, because I would have liked to have known more about the reactions among their friends and colleagues and family members to the truth coming out. I would also like to have heard a little about any discussions they might have had with the ninth conspirator, who dropped out before the plan was executed, about whether he or she would agree to be named. Still, it is a fascinating look at a moment in time. Interesting, too, how these activists have become more conservative over the years. Also fascinating that The Washington Post was the only one of several involved newspapers that agreed to publish the documents. All the other papers, including the New York Times, turned them back over to the FBI.

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Patience; the virtue of

You get used to rejection letters after a while; in fact, you even grow to expect them. I know that when I submit something, the odds are about 10:1 in favor of it generating a rejection versus an acceptance. So, when I see a response to a submission, my gut tells me to prepare for the worst.

Last night, I received an email response to a submission that had been out for quite a while. So long, in fact, that I had deemed the submission beyond salvation and I had sent the story to a new market.

The original submission was to one of my “bucket list” markets, one I’ve been trying to crack for as long as I’ve been writing. And, lo and behold, the email was not a rejection but an acceptance. What was the first thing I did (after a brief but energetic happy dance in the living room)? Get on my computer and withdraw the submission from the more recent place I’d sent the story. Happy ending: the editor wasn’t the least bit put out that I’d withdrawn the story.

The story in question has an interesting genesis. I originally wrote it for a themed anthology, but it didn’t make the cut. So I made a second pass at it and de-themed it, which didn’t actually take very much doing. I changed the story’s location at the same time. And off it went, 323 days ago. Yes, that’s right—the story had been in the queue for about 11 months. In this biz, 3-6 months is the norm.

If the story had been accepted by the original market for which it was written, or to the more recent one that I sent it to, it would have earned 1/8 to 1/4 of what it will make in its new home. But it’s not specifically about the money. The story will have far greater visibility in its new home, and that’s even more important.

I hadn’t read the tale in a while, and my wife had never read it at all, so I read it to her last night. It pleases me immensely that she liked it a lot, and I still like it a lot, too. I’m very proud of it, and I look forward to seeing it in print, though that might take a while.

I haven’t received the contract yet. That should take another 30 days or so. I’ll announce it more officially once that happens.

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A Rancher and a Gentleman

We don’t often get snow days here in Southeast Texas, but rain days we get. Yesterday we had the (according to one source) rainiest day ever in the Houston area. Harris County, the county that contains Houston and comes to within a few miles of where I live, received enough rain yesterday alone to fuel Niagara Falls for three and a half days.

The rain started Sunday night, and thunder and lightning occurred throughout the night. When I got up at my usual time and looked out the window from my exercise machine, the water was flowing fast and furious in the ditch out front, and the yard was soggy. Our subdivision must be just a few inches higher than everywhere else around us, though, because we’ve always been able to withstand these heavy storms (10-12″ in one day, apparently) without any threat of flooding. Lots of people in the vicinity weren’t so lucky. At least five people died, many in their cars when they were inundated or attempted to drive through standing water. The city came to a standstill. All schools closed. All government agencies closed. The IRS is going to try to extend the deadline for people who waited until the last moment and then couldn’t make it to the post office to file returns.

I’m always amazed by how much water is involved. Imagine looking out your front window and seeing six, eight, ten feet of water and then try to figure out how much water that involves everywhere around you to achieve that level! That’s what it was like in downtown Houston, which is prone to flooding. Apparently we’re going to get more rain today and tomorrow—nothing like what we got yesterday, but with the ground saturated, it probably means more flooding. A lot of schools are still closed today because feeder roads and surface roads are still covered in water in a lot of places, and the rivers and bayous are still rising.

This from a storm that didn’t even get a name. It wasn’t even a tropical depression.

My wife and I like Sam Elliott, so we decided to give the new Netflix series The Ranch a try. Elliott is the patriarch, Debra Winger plays his somewhat estranged wife (they live apart but they still hook up regularly), and Ashton Kutcher plays the prodigal son who left to pursue a pro football career but now has to slink back home to small town Colorado and nurse his wounds and ego. The “responsible” brother is played by his That 70s Show costar Danny Masterson, whose brother Chris I met when I visited the set of Haven a couple of summers ago.

The humor is fairly sophomoric, but it’s Debra Winger who saves the show. Elliott is good, but Winger is the only one who plays it straight. She gets some good, funny lines, but she doesn’t play them for laughs, with a deliberate pause for yuks. She delivers them like they’re normal, regular dialog, and that works so much better. We’re five episodes in (out of ten) and we’ll probably watch the rest. Not “must-see” TV but it’s okay. Sitcoms seem to have left me behind over the years. The lafftrak on this one gets on my nerves. The only sitcom we watch regularly is The Big Bang Theory and even that one is starting to wear thin. We also came to realize that sitcoms aren’t really binge-able. Two episodes in a row is about our limit.

I’m not at all happy to hear that ABC has decided to not renew Stana Katic’s contract for Castle. I’m hoping it is a ploy to build suspense at the end of the season. Nathan Fillion is fun, but Katic has always been the bigger attraction for me. She’s the kind of actor who I enjoy watching when the focus is on another character, because she’s always doing something interesting. Not upstaging, but she’s present in the scene, not waiting to say her lines. The show won’t be the same without her. In fact, I can’t think of any way for them to have her leave that maintains the show’s premise for another season.

Funny thing—we saw a guy wearing a t-shirt that said “Muir” something or other, which led to a discussion of the TV show The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, which led to the mutual realization that neither of us had ever seen the 1947 movie on which it is based, so we queued it up on Amazon video last night. The TV show was set in Maine, but the original is on the British coast, with Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison, George Sanders, and a very young Natalie Wood. Tierney is a feminist in 1900, unwilling to let anyone tell her how she should feel or live. The score was by Bernard Herrmann, which lends the movie a Hitchcockian atmosphere. It’s not perfect: Mrs. Muir ignores her daughter for huge chunks of time, and it leaps ahead twice at the end to a kind of saccharine finale, but it was pretty good, if you can adapt to the glacial pacing of the era.  The “coarse language” (blasted this and blast that) is amusing.

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