Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Along the Path

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Which begins at the edge of the parking lot

Easing me into wilderness

Conveying me from almost prairie

Into something like wooded seclusion

Where I’m surrounded by oak and ash and maple

sunlight dappling the ground

Viceroys commingling with grasshoppers

Flowers of yellow and purple and white

Spread into my path and merge with my thoughts

Compelling me to notice them

While the temperature drops ten degrees

The humidity rising

And the glandular trichomes spray out

Esters and ethers, terpenes and carbonyls

Aerosols that fly hundreds of miles

Or at least as far as their neighbors

Communicating chemically

Far above my puny understanding

Warning each other of intruders and enemies

Yet unable to adapt to the greatest threat of all

Sitting yonder at the edge of the parking lot

Where I now exit the trail

And spot the newfoundland nosing its way around the corner

Looking for the briefest of flashes like a bear

Until my brain recognizes the gentle giant

Connected by a leash to its owner

And my heart returns to its normal rhythm

I step toward my car

Not far from the yellow beasts that await their orders

The name upon their sides suggesting innocence

Invoking images of butterflies and milkweed

For the last time I depart this haven

Spending one final glance through my rearview mirror

At the Caterpillars.


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Shared Sacrifice

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We are all capable of great goodness, and yet we are all complicit in the killing of our neighbors. Everything we do, in some way, harms the world and the people around us. We buy soap, which contains chemicals that are harmful to the environment, hurting algae or bacteria, which then hurt other life forms and still other life forms.

Up the ladder we go, every action ultimately contributing in some tiny way to the premature death of someone or other. Yes, it’s usually a minuscule fraction. When a non-smoker dies of lung cancer, we don’t automatically assume we are partly to blame.

We assume the poor person got exposed to secondhand smoke or just got unlucky in the gene pool. We don’t reach back to actions we took – mowing the lawn or driving a car or buying a T-shirt or a cup of coffee – that added microparticles of pollution to the air. And we probably shouldn’t.

How would we be able to accomplish anything if we worried all the time about the effect our actions had on the planet? We would be trapped in a stasis of inaction, barely daring to breathe, sipping only water drawn from a well dug in the backyard and eating dandelion greens and acorns.

I don’t write this to make anyone feel bad. I’m not accusing anyone of murder. But some of our actions are more harmful than others. Some demand that we contemplate the ramifications of the fulfillment of our desires. There are small steps we can take to minimize the harm we cause.

We can’t stop living our lives, but we can live them more introspectively, more frugally. By cutting back on consumption, by using less energy, by choosing better options (like glass over plastic or wearing those old pants for another year even though they’re not in fashion anymore), we are preparing ourselves for the changes that must inevitably come.

Obviously, they’re not enough by themselves. But if we can be an example to our neighbors as well as to ourselves of what is possible, we can more quickly attain that tipping point that will allow us en masse to demand our leaders do what is necessary.

It’s a long road, of course. Look, for example, at background checks on the sale of firearms. Approximately 90 percent of the US population wants universal background checks and yet nothing happens because of the power of the NRA.

But one thing is certain. The individual approach won’t continue working forever. We need collective action by the vast majority of us. Sure, there will always be a few radicals who are only interested in themselves, our progeny be damned. Yet, if we figure out a way to act together, we can make our future (and our children’s future) better.

Shared sacrifice is coming. We can either embrace it soon or be dragged into it kicking and screaming in the decades to come. I vote we try the former.


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What is Good?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

What does it mean for something to be good? It seems pretty simple on the surface. Everybody knows what “good” means, right? Except that it’s actually a pretty difficult question to answer. Philosophers have struggled with it for centuries.

The first thing that often comes to mind when we think of something being good is that we like whatever that thing is. It has the qualities one expects of that particular thing. For example, a good tree is one that we like, one that provides the proper amount of shade or lumber or windbreak.

Or if we’re referring to people, we think a person is good if that person does things society approves of: selfless, generous, kind and honest. But it gets complicated pretty quickly. Someone can be good most of the time but do things that many of us consider bad once in a while.

For example, we generally think of an honest person as good, but when that person says something cruel (however honest) we tend to be critical. Take abortion (or any other political hot potato). Most folks feel strongly about it one way or the other, so those on the opposite side have to reconcile their views on the matter with their views of the person who sides against them.

If you strongly believe in a woman’s right to choose, you might have difficulty accepting someone like Pope Francis as good given how he feels about it. Or consider the Second Amendment. You might have a hard time thinking of someone as good if they strongly believe in the right to bear arms, including semi-automatic weapons.

You can pick virtually any issue and find “good” people on both sides of it, even something as mundane as artwork. I know several people who think Jackson Pollock was a terrible painter. They look at his abstract work and think anyone could spatter colors around like that. Others find deep meaning in his paintings. They consider him a good artist.

So it turns out that “good” is difficult to nail down precisely. One way to determine what is good is to examine one’s visceral reaction to it. On an instinctive level, we can often tell what is good and what is bad. Snakes may be good snakes but we still generally consider them to be bad for us. Same for spiders.

Most of us don’t like either of them regardless of how good they are for the environment. And even though we’ve largely come to like bees because they do so much pollinating, most of us don’t want them living in our yards or near our homes.

As for people, we have to employ a different system. I think we only need to consider two things: truth and generosity. First, truth. Without it, there can be no trust. If people lie to us, we don’t know what to believe. So truth is vital. And truth means more than just speaking truth; it also includes living truth, being true to oneself and to others. Spotting what is right and fighting for that.

Second, generosity. People who are generous lift us up. They make us more inclined to like them and the world around us. They make us want to be generous too. That doesn’t mean we should give away everything we have, but we shouldn’t be parsimonious either.

There are other qualities, like fairness, loyalty and humility, that people often cite. But those qualities, it seems to me, are subsets of truth and generosity, so I would define a good person as one who is true and generous. Now if only I could tell who was honest and generous at a glance. 😊


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The Gold Doubloon

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

You might not believe this but I found a gold doubloon the other day – an old Spanish coin dated 1537. It had been dented by a musket ball fired at Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. How do I know that? Well, again, this is somewhat unbelievable, but the doubloon was sitting atop a document detailing its provenance.

This coin is priceless. And I just happened to stumble across it in a wealthy neighborhood a few blocks away from where I live. Actually, it’s more of a gated community a few miles away from where I live.

I enjoy going out late at night to exercise, avoiding the heat of the day. I sometimes climb a fence and explore the rich part of town, keeping to the shadows as much as possible so that the residents won’t freak out if they see me, a stranger, moving through their fiefdom.

And I don’t just walk or run either. I like to vary my gait, sometimes sauntering along, other times sprinting. It’s well known that exercising in this fashion is more effective than simply going at the same pace all the time.

They call this kind of movement a fartlek, which is Swedish for “speed play” and just means that you intersperse quick movements with slower movements. It looks weird, however, so that’s one of the reasons I do it at night.

Another thing I do is work on my upper body. I bring along a rope and a grapnel folding anchor that I sometimes throw into tree branches, whereupon I pull myself up, working my shoulders, arms, hands and chest muscles. It’s great exercise.

But cops, even private ones, frown on this behavior. They assume you’re a criminal just because you like to engage in activity that isn’t the norm. I happen not to like softball or swimming or tennis so I do unusual athletic activities. What’s so strange about that?

At any rate, I left home shortly after sunset and drove to this neighborhood where I’ve been exercising recently. I climbed a fence – well, more of a ten-foot wall – using my grapnel anchor and rope to haul myself over. Tucking that into my backpack, I began a slow jog down tree-lined streets.

I ascended a few trees and edged across a sturdy branch onto one roof, where I noticed that an attic window had been left open, so I decided to be helpful. After I closed it, I departed the scene. But my thoughtful gesture must have triggered a silent alarm because within just a few minutes, several cop cars appeared, searchlights detecting my presence almost immediately.

I know what you’re thinking but no, they didn’t find anything on me. What am I, a common criminal? I surrendered without incident, explaining my exercise routine, and after eight hours of questioning and a fruitless search of my person, home and vehicle, I was released with an admonition never to return to that community.

But old habits die hard and a couple weeks later, I found myself back there, up a tree, near the very top, where few would ever dare to climb. And there, to my surprise, I discovered the doubloon and its provenance beneath a black backpack containing a grapnel hook and some rope. Since they didn’t seem to belong to anyone, I liberated them and took them home with me.

I don’t think I’ll be returning to that neighborhood again.


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Our Faith Is Our Downfall

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Most of us believe strongly in either God or Science. A few of us believe strongly in both. That ought to be a comfort, but it really isn’t.

Christians see the world through the framework of the Bible, Muslims through the Koran, Jews through the Torah. Same God, different books and beliefs. There are many other religions with many other devout followers, each ascribing meaning to the world through the lens of faith.

They believe God (or Gods) will ultimately act to save the world and them. Whatever mistakes we make, God can fix, so we needn’t worry too much about the vicissitudes that alter our reality.

This is the kind of thinking that leads to thoughts and prayers following mass shootings, for example. If we just think and pray enough, God will make everything better. We simply need to put ourselves in his hands and let him heal us.

Science births a different kind of faith – that we can understand the world and ultimately master it. So far, this has generally proven to be true.

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, warning that hundreds of millions might die of starvation in the 1970s. And in that decade, China instituted a one-child policy. But advances in fertilizers and agriculture allowed for greater efficiencies; we were able to produce more produce on fewer acres. The crisis was averted.

Or look at the “ozone hole,” which was reported in 1985 by Joseph Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin of the British Antarctic Survey. Their work showed that CFCs were to blame. CFCs were eventually banned, and the ozone hole (which protects us from deadly radiation and makes life on land possible) began to heal.

Whenever there has been a life-threatening challenge, we have been able to overcome it, so we begin to feel like that will always be the case. But decay doesn’t always happen in a linear fashion. You get a few small earthquakes, and then a few more, and then one day you get a massive temblor, causing horrific destruction.

But we don’t expect that. We don’t really plan for the worst-case scenario. We assume science will find a solution when we need one. So instead, we march on like we always have. We give ourselves permission not to act because we believe we’ll ultimately figure out a way to fix whatever breaks.

We continue to engage in industrial capitalism, striving for exponential growth. We decide that we can manage the side effects of our current lifestyles with future developments like geoengineering.

If the world warms too much, we’ll just build a shield in space to deflect some of the sun’s rays. If the water rises too high, we’ll just construct a better dam and levee system. If more and more wildfires occur, we’ll just invent better fire-resistant buildings. And ultimately, we’ll move out to Mars and beyond, where we’ll be able to survive even if Earth becomes uninhabitable.

We presume we can keep living the way we have for the past few centuries, making more stuff, taking more resources, excreting more waste. Technology will save us from ourselves, we think. So we don’t change. We don’t pull back from our acquisitive hedonism. Full steam ahead. We’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow.

And if it’s too late then? Well, we tried. We gave it our best effort. Except, of course, that we didn’t.


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Summer Heatwaves

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Here we are in the swelter of a Minneapolis summer, temperatures reaching the 90s, dewpoints in the 70s, humidity suffocating, hot breezes offering no more than the hope of relief as they ripple across our bodies while we pretend they’re cooling us off. Lethargic and dull, we seek out shade.

This was what we yearned for in January and February as we shoveled snow and urged our cars to start just one more day, as we scraped windows clear of frost and rime, as we cursed the darkness of sunsets in the afternoon.

Back then, we promised we wouldn’t complain about summer’s furnace if only we could be warm for a little while. We sat before our largest window in the early afternoon, taking advantage of the weak sunlight streaming in at an acute angle, and pretended we were on a beach, closing our eyes, imagining the feel of the sand beneath our feet, the sound of water lapping against the shore, the call of a seabird in the distance.

Now – and mind you, we’re not officially complaining – we dream of winter, or at least November, when we can always put on another layer to stay warm. In this summer sauna, we are limited. You can’t take off any more clothes than all of them. And of course we don’t take all of them off anyway.

We wear shorts and wifebeaters maybe, flip-flops on our feet. We dance from air-conditioned office to air-conditioned home to air-conditioned restaurant or movie theater, telling ourselves it could be worse; we could live in Phoenix or Baghdad. Just as in winter we congratulate ourselves for at least not living in Fairbanks or Moscow.

We have become indoor people, like pets, going outside when we have to, but no longer comfortable out there for any length of time. A few of us note that we’ve spent thousands of years making our indoors better and more luxurious. Why go outside when our indoor spaces are so enjoyable?

And we’re likely to become even more attached to our indoor places with every succeeding generation, partly because we’ve grown more accustomed to our devices, our smartphones and our tablets, offering new games, new diversions, new applications.

But the bigger reason we’re likely to become more indoorsy is because our climate is changing. For the past 12,000 years or so, it’s been remarkably stable, with swings that haven’t gone too far in any direction. However, global warming is already making itself felt.

As the arctic warms, the jet stream weakens, and weather patterns become more persistent. Dry areas become drier. Wet areas become wetter. Some places will experience day after day of flooding rain. Others will be stuck in week after week of drought.

Even cold air patterns will linger for longer periods, though they will be far less numerous than hot weather patterns. The relatively mild days we’ve grown accustomed to are rapidly vanishing, at least by geological time.

In 20 or 30 years, we’ll look back at these good old days as we struggle with harsher climatic conditions. Stuck in the middle of 20-day heatwaves of 90-plus degree weather, we’ll reminisce about these mini heatwaves and wish we could return to them.

Disaster-FrontCover-230x335 (1)

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Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Lately I’ve been feeling like I’m waiting for something, as if some important event is about to happen and I need to be prepared for it, but not knowing what that event might be makes it difficult to gather the necessary accoutrements.

I wonder if this sensation is a reflection of age or whether it’s an unease that derives from our collective angst. Is the divide we face merely political or do we have greater differences than seem apparent on the surface? I don’t feel much different than I did 10 or 20 or even 30 years ago.

It seems like I’m the same person. Just older. Perhaps a bit wiser. And yet, I detect more tension in the air, more dissension, more circling of the wagons by the various tribes that populate our world, as if we’re all under attack by some foreign mob – a figurative one.

I remember when Ronald Reagan was elected, a lot of democrats were concerned he’d start a nuclear war, and yet his policies helped take down the Soviet Union. And when Bill Clinton was elected, a lot of republicans thought he’d torpedo the economy, and yet his policies helped usher in tremendous prosperity.

I’m not necessarily praising these presidents; they did some bad things. Both of them. I’m just saying the things we feared did not come to pass, the doubts we harbored turned out to be unfounded, at least to the extent we prognosticated.

Fast forward to the era of Obama and Trump, and the unsettled emotions have only intensified. The “Muslim” president did not in fact install Sharia law and, so far, the orange blimp has not destroyed democracy, though he still has time to corrode the institution.

We have learned that the brains of conservatives and liberals are slightly different. Parts of each are more or less highly developed, triggering responses that are almost Pavlovian, which we seem unable to transcend.

Will those differences accelerate over the years? Will we essentially become two different species? That sounds insane to my ears and yet who knows what kind of changes might ensue from small differences if they’re allowed free rein? Perhaps in a few millennia, we might split into different subspecies.

But I digress. What concerns me is the fear that we’re working at cross purposes without being aware of the long-term consequences. We get wrapped up in short-term arguments over issues that will be meaningless in twenty years. Meanwhile, the plans we ought to be making for our progeny remain undrafted.

It feels like I ought to be doing something to solve at least a few of the intractable problems that face our world. And yet, what can I do? I’m just one person, one voice. For the moment, I speak about it; I write about it. But I’m not a fool. I know that counts for very little.

Perhaps that’s a good thing. Changing the world ought to be difficult. Otherwise it would change often – for the worse as frequently as for the better. Maybe any change should require a broad consensus of actors who care enough to make the necessary sacrifices.

But I still feel frustrated. I still feel like something is coming, something big. And I’m not prepared for it.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Summer Memories

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

As a kid in the upper Midwest, I used to revel in summer. I looked forward to the last bell of school and the opportunity to wend my way through my days with minimal structure for the next three months.

Sure, I engaged in some team sports and took swimming lessons, but the bulk of my time was spent playing outside with kids in the neighborhood, most of whom were like me. We played ditch and tag and other games too, I’m sure, though I think we mostly explored.

Living in a suburb near land that had not yet been developed, we had a large area to wander and study. One of our neighbors was a farm boy named Paul who knew a great deal about nature and who wasn’t shy about explaining it to us. He was a couple years older too, so he had a natural authority about him.

We’d climb trees and collect wildlife, looking for new creatures. At one point, we became intrigued by tiger salamanders. Paul told us they sometimes fell into window wells on their way to the pond, so we went from house to house, rescuing them from their prisons, collecting perhaps as many as 200.

If only the story had stopped there. Unfortunately, however, we piled them into a discarded bathtub, leaving them overnight, intending to play with them the next day. The following morning we discovered that a lot of them had died, crushed by their comrades.

We guiltily released the others, but the damage was done. For years afterwards, we rarely saw salamanders in the neighborhood. We did learn, however, from our mistakes. We never took another salamander. We still collected butterflies, fireflies, frogs and even garter snakes, but always in reasonable numbers, and we began letting them go at the end of our day.

Curiosity compelled our actions. We bore our captives no malice. On the contrary, we found them fascinating. We wanted to study them, to see how they navigated their world. If we killed them, it was accidentally. Yet in our enthusiasm, being ignorant children, we harmed many of our subjects.

Perhaps that’s why I never became a hunter, or much of a fisherman, for that matter. I feel like I’ve already committed my share of damage to the world. I look still, but I no longer touch.

I grow milkweed and other insect-friendly plants. I refuse to fertilize my lawn. I lower my thermostat in the winter and use only a small window air conditioner in my bedroom in the summer, just so I can sleep.

Guilt runs deep, even if it doesn’t run all day.

I still live in the neighborhood where I grew up. The ravine where we spent the bulk of our summers is now a freeway, a concrete divider between my home and the Mississippi River, where the only wildlife I can discern are the crazy motorists who talk and text instead of focusing on what they’re supposed to be doing.

And I have two window wells that I check every so often, looking for the elusive tiger salamander, hoping to find one that I can free from its prison and set on the path toward the pond behind my house.


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The Garden Seal

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I got a garden seal the other day. I’d been looking forward to it for quite some time, having ordered it months ago, and it finally came, shipped by FedEx and left on my front stoop, blocking the door.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I opened the crate, sure enough, there it was: a garden seal. What, you may ask, is a garden seal? Well, as I’ve since learned, it’s kind of like a Hawaiian Monk Seal or a Mediterranean Monk Seal. It’s a subspecies of earless seal genetically engineered specifically for gardens, or more precisely, for fountains in gardens.

My fountain had previously contained just a few sculptures, and I thought it a bit boring. Yes, the statue of Donald Trump peeing on Russian prostitutes brought lots of laughs from visitors, but I wanted to class up the place a little so I ordered the garden seal.

What I didn’t realize when I ordered it was that it was going to be alive. I thought it was just another statue. I guess that’s why it looked so realistic. And I didn’t read the fine print. When I went back and checked, sure enough, there it was – practically impossible to find – a disclaimer that the seal was both a living creature and nonrefundable.

So I have a garden seal now. It took me a while to warm up to it. First of all, you wouldn’t believe how much fish it eats. Secondly, it barks at all hours, for reasons that are often indecipherable. And third, it doesn’t seem to care for me very much. It tolerates me, of course, because I feed it, but it mostly stays away from me, looking out at the street, searching for pedestrians.

It’s become a bit of a nuisance frankly, begging for treats from everyone who wanders by. So I’ve taken to selling pieces of fish like some street vendor, letting my neighbors fund part of the expense. And why not, since they’re the ones benefitting the most from its presence.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the seal would just stay in the damn fountain, but lately it’s been in the habit of exploring the neighborhood at night, flippering from house to house in search of better grub.

The woman across the street told me it invaded her backyard the other day while she was trying to enjoy a picnic with her family. The seal somehow opened the back gate, barked at their dog to scare it away, then plopped its head down into the chocolate cake, snuffling and grunting happily as it devoured every last morsel. She generously refrained from calling the cops because her children found the experience delightful, but she warned me not to let the beast loose again.

Yet every time I try to chain it up, it attacks me, baring its fangs and charging me. I tried everything I could to get rid of it. The company that sold it to me went out of business. The zoo said they’re full up of seals and then reported me to the humane society.

Other people have called the police multiple times the past few weeks, and they threaten to arrest me every time they show up. They probably would have if they could have found someone to care for the creature. Instead they’ve ignored my entreaties to take the animal with them and issued me several citations for harboring a nuisance.

That said, I sort of like having the seal now. After all, it’s a friggin’ seal! In my yard! In my fountain! I wanted something that made a statement and I got it. So I really can’t complain. Seals are awesome! Everyone should think about getting one.

Oh, by the way, if anyone out there is interested in a garden seal, I’m sure I could find one for you cheap.


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The Dandelion Yard

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

People put a lot of attention into their yards, using them as a way of defining themselves and a way of presenting themselves to the world. Yards aren’t just yards for most people; they’re statements.

They plant shrubs and flowers, trees and pools, boulders and sculptures – but mostly they plant grass. Fescue and rye, bentgrass and kikuyu, zoysia and bluegrass. Different shades of green that they water and fertilize, nurturing the sod and obliterating the weeds that dare show themselves.

Infestations of dandelions and creeping Charlie, crabgrass and quackgrass, clover and broadleaf plantain: all these must be destroyed so as to display the most perfect lawn for the world (or at least the neighborhood) to see.

This conception of a beautiful lawn arises from the lawns we’ve seen of European gardens, like Versaille and Buckingham Palace, where tremendous effort has produced amazing vistas and lush growth, grounds truly worthy of the royalty who reside therein.

But a few people see their yards differently; these people like dandelions and creeping Charlie. They see the proliferation of color – yellow and purple and green – and wonder why anyone wants to settle for a lawn that’s only green, only grass, regimented and fertilized and groomed to within an inch of its life.

They’re willing to incur the wrath of their neighbors over the windblown seeds of destruction that emanate from their tiny but oh so numerous weapons.

Another group concedes that green lawns look prettier to our conditioned eyes, but they refuse to put chemicals on their lawns, not wishing to contribute to increased algae growth in lakes and streams. The fancy word for the problem is eutrophication – excessive richness of nutrients in a body of water that can cause dense growth of plant life and the death of animal life due to a lack of oxygen.

According to NOAA, 65 percent of US estuaries and coastal water bodies are moderately to severely degraded by excessive nutrient inputs, which lead to algal blooms and low-oxygen (hypoxic) waters that can kill fish and seagrass and reduce essential fish habitats.

Most of the problem seems to be nitrogen and phosphorus, which often comes from fertilizer runoff, septic system effluent and atmospheric fallout from burning fossil fuels. These nutrients cause increased algae growth, which blocks sunlight, eventually killing plants, which are then eaten by bacteria, which use up the remaining oxygen and give off carbon dioxide.

I live on a small lake (more of a pond) that gets covered in algae by early June, essentially becoming a swamp. I watch my neighbors fertilize their yards, preserving their precious grass, criticizing my dandelion and creeping Charlie-covered lawn as an eyesore while they bemoan the sorry state of the lake, wondering why someone doesn’t do something about it.

I no longer engage in futile arguments with them over the proper way to maintain one’s property. I just smile and walk away.


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