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Great Presents

I recently sold two of my short stories to two different online publications: Everyday Fiction and HauntedMTL. As a complete coincidence, both stories dropped on dates important to me.

“The Zombie Dinner” appeared on Everyday Fiction on my wedding anniversary: https://everydayfiction.com/the-zombie-dinner-by-kathy-sherwood/?fbclid=IwAR3Eo7rzy5WZVkL9baQOUWDm-kdS_m5OALAxu1RzhLqmgvNqv8CU-cHntYA

“From the Papers of AvH” became available on HauntedMTL on my birthday: https://hauntedmtl.com/originals/haunted-mtl-original-from-the-papers-of-avh-kathy-sherwood/?fbclid=IwAR1dVnoWRGsmxqCzlTQbN8hakJjT2J05rpZwQ4YDqlDx2jHnR3WJsLYJL5k

It’s exciting for me to see this bit of progress, and I plan to keep submitting. Comment here, if you want, or on the publication sites themselves.

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Authors at a Distance

Anyone who has read my musings before would know how strongly I feel about the various art and media I consume. Therefore, it might come as a surprise to learn that I’ve always made a habit of not knowing much about the artists/creators themselves.

Oh, I know everybody’s birthdays (any excuse to have cake), astrological signs, and goofy things like that. But I never wanted to know much more than that, for reasons Twitter has spent years making all too obvious.

It doesn’t always work. I love Errol Flynn movies, Chinatown, and Charlie Chaplin’s comedies. And I have to deal with that.

But that’s old news.

As a young, maladjusted misfit, the Harry Potter series was very important to me. I made up all kinds of stories (of admittedly very poor quality) about the adventures I’d have in that world. My brother even made me a very nice wand (magnolia, 13 inches, unyielding), even with a core.

It’s not as much of a thing in my life now, though. I still think about it (see my essay on Sirius Black, and defense of happy endings, for instance), but it has faded. “Grown out of” would not be the right descriptor for it. “Beaten to death” might be more appropriate– my mother absolutely refused to listen to anything but the Harry Potter books on tape from about 2002 to the present, driving everyone else in the house various shades of crazy.

This leads into my not feeling necessarily betrayed by J.K. Rowling’s turn to the Dark Side. Disappointed, yes. Definitely. But my parasocial relationship with the material was always with the characters, never the creator. Other online critics might argue that that bit of compartmentalization isn’t possible. And they might be right. (I know I’m weird.)

But my separation doesn’t go all the way. I condemn her thoughts, words, and deeds. And when my beloved, dog-eared copy of Prisoner of Azkaban finally falls apart, it will not be replaced.

I am keeping it, until it falls apart, though. Selling it to 2nd & Charles won’t change or help anything, since Rowling already has my money. Getting two bits resale won’t change that. And that’s part of dealing with it.

In my opinion, it’s fine to enjoy the memories of what you had. You don’t need to (and probably shouldn’t) go back through the material looking for “signs” like a conspiracy theorist. The fact that Harry becomes an Auror has nothing to do with Rowling’s trans-misogyny.

Trans-men are men. Trans-women are women. There are things we can do to help them from the animosity society inflicts on them that don’t involve Twitter fights (voting, donating money, pressing your politicians to make just laws, etc) and have long-term benefits.

So let’s sweep up the hippogriff feathers, take positive action, and try to survive this hellish year!

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Happy Ever After

The Beatles song I took inspiration for the title from paraphrases the cliche fairy-tale ending, “and they lived happily ever after.”

I like a happy ending; I like a bittersweet ending, and I like a sad ending.

So I was surprised to find an attitude in the wonderful Inter-web that happy endings are inherently inferior to tragic ones. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, because, as my husband and I have grown fond of saying, “the web is dark, and full of terrors.”

But let’s put the Red Woman back on the shelf and think about what a happy ending even constitutes. Traditionally it involves a wedding– especially if the story is a comedy. Sometimes a birth, or at least a pregnancy. If nothing else, order is restored. The bad is often, but not universally, punished.

The Importance of Being Earnest pokes fun at these ingredients with an exchange between Cecily and Miss Prism. Said the governess, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”

And Prism (Oscar Wilde) isn’t necessarily wrong, but there is more to it than that. There are gray areas.

The Golden Age of Hollywood presents many of these. One of the rules that movies had to follow to be released was that bad had to be punished. Initially, the protagonist wasn’t even allowed to kill people (see a lot of silent westerns, or even The Man Who Laughs for examples). Film noir classic, Double Indemnity, technically has a happy ending. Walter and Phyllis die, therefore being punished for murder, and restoring order. But the story is still at its heart a tragedy.

As is often the case with Shakespeare. With the exception of King Lear, which is just bleak down the line, even in tragedies, order is restored and there is some sense of hope. The Montagues and Capulets have agreed to put away the knives and make peace, for instance.

Of course, this type of hopeful ending doesn’t work everywhere. Back to the noir tradition, take Chinatown. It ends in chaos. Jack loses at every turn, and Noah Cross gets to take his daughter/granddaughter, and, well, nobody wants to think about that. It’s just bleak.

But there’s no other way that story could have ended and retained its power. If Jack had really done “as little as possible” there would have been no story, and it would be our loss.

So, the best ending of all is an ending that fits it story.

That may seem to contradict what I said before. But what I’m really getting at is every ending has its own place, and its own merits. A sad ending doesn’t improve a story that’s already lacking, and neither would a happy ending. Only a better basis for the ending to stand on would improve it.

And remembering that, we can live much more happily ever after with our literature and media.

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Oh, Good Grief!

Charlie Brown - Wikipedia

My dad gave me a book of essays analyzing (and in some cases psychoanalyzing) Peanuts for Christmas last year. Some heavy-hitters, like Umberto Eco, contributed. Needless to say… it was kind of a slog to get through.

That’s not to say it was all bad. Some I enjoyed very much. But a lot of the essayists seemed to come at it from completely the wrong direction. More than half, for instance, insisted that Peanuts comics are not funny.

The worst offender called Schultz a “nihilist” and accused people who laugh at Charlie Brown and his friends of being “horrible.”

Of course insulting your audience is always a terrific idea, but I’ll rebut anyway.

To use the example of good ol’ Charlie Brown being the only person in his class not a receive a Valentine from the ephemeral Little Red-Haired Girl– I’d argue that the humor there doesn’t purely arise from Charlie’s pain or Schultz’s talent for drawing exaggerated, melodramatic expressions, but from empathy.

In some way, we’ve all experienced it. And not necessarily from a romantic disappointment. My most similar experience stemmed from being the only student out of four classes worth of archers not to receive some sort of prize. I was the only one out of forty who could not hit the bulls-eye (the requirement for a ribbon), and I was so embarrassed and jealous of my classmates. So I identify with Charlie Brown’s crooked, sad smile as the paper bag of Valentines is crumpled up and thrown away.

I would probably chuckle at my own expression, if I traveled back in time to that moment.

That being said, for all the recognizable in Peanuts, there is a healthy dose of the absurd in its humor. And it isn’t necessarily just Snoopy using his ears to fly around like a helicopter. Excuse me, a whirlydog.

Anyway, take school. The gang are all in kindergarten to 2nd grade, yet they are expected to read and report on books like War and Peace and Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a gag used by other cartoonists (Bill Watterson springs to mind), but more for STEM-related assignments than literature, these days.

Or, you could just argue Aristotle’s line about comedy representing people as worse than they are, for Peanuts doesn’t shy away from the darkness of children’s personalities.

But it is more than that. I go to Peanuts for the laughs, most of the time, but I also identify with the characters, varying from day to day. Some days I feel like Linus, especially when I’m anxious. Or Schroeder, when I feel like I don’t have enough time to write, draw, or otherwise practice my arts. And sometimes I feel like Charlie Brown, with the universe and myself against me.

And this is where I have to return to that nihilism nonsense. Even though Charlie Brown fails in his own right, or is kicked down by some other force, he always gets up again. Even if it is “offstage,” so to speak. He doesn’t reject everyone and everything around him. He lays on his pitcher’s mound in shame after he lets another run go, and the opposing team wins, but the next day he’s back in time to feed Snoopy, because he recognizes his obligations. And in spite of everything, he has hope, which is why he keeps trying to kick that football.

And if you think that letting a kid hope he’ll one day succeed in life is a bad thing, well… good grief!

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Build a Villain

I’m back! 10,000 years, crick in the neck, burnout, all that.

Now that that’s out of the way… as I’ve been reading (all I’ve had much energy for recently), I noticed a weird little trend among some memorable literary villains.

There seems to be an autocrat-themed measuring stick for their appearances.

Big Brother from 1984 is based off of Stalin, even though George Orwell never mentions Uncle Joe by name.

Alright, alright… Big Brother isn’t the main villain in 1984. That role is really O’Brien, the more immediate source of danger, pain, and eventual defeat.

But move onto the James Bond novels, and we find Ernst Staravo Blofeld. According to Ian Fleming (Thunderball), Blofeld possesses “doll eyes, like Mussolini’s.” And the baldness is taken for granted, I suppose, going off of most of the actors who played the head of SPECTRE.

Hannibal Lecter also fits into this pattern. In the novel, Hannibal, Harris describes him as having a “nose with an imperious arch, like Peron.” (Sidenote: I read the novel before I’d ever seen a photo of the real Peron. So when I saw one in something I was reading for a history class, I burst out laughing. The man had quite a schnozz.)

I see a formula, or at least an entertaining flavor of Mad Libs developing here. To play one will need a descriptor, a body part, and an established autocrat.

Here are a few I’ve come up with.

the fierce, heavy brows of Castro

an obstinate jaw like Tito

a ponderous nose, similar to Alexander VI

Comment any more you may think of!

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Dumbo, Dreamland, and Dreams

I’ve been writing a lot about movies lately. But that’s kind of my thing. And I’m happy to get to Tim Burton again… haven’t done that since I wrote about Dark Shadows what feels like a hundred years ago.

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The Farriers and Dumbo

There’s lots to say about Dumbo, which I don’t have time to get into right now. But let’s just all agree that this one really needed to happen. The original Dumbo is just unpleasant to watch, has lots of plot and continuity problems (most of which probably could have been solved if Disney had had more time), and has overall aged terribly. The remake, while not perfect, fixes pretty much all of the original’s mistakes.

But to get to the point… I want to talk about how the movie handles dreams. Children’s movies focus on them a lot, and it’s tricky to do. Everybody’s going to hate how you handle it. But I think of the past few year’s crop, Dumbo does it best.

Let’s go back to Zootopia. In the first few minutes of the movie, Judy’s parents tell her to give up on her dreams and settle, like they did. The movie, rightly, portrays this as not great, although Judy doesn’t listen to them and is ultimately vindicated by her actions. But the movie still got flack for framing the “just settle” message unfavorably (looking at you, Cinemasins). Now speed ahead to Coco, which goes in the other direction. Family is more important than your individualistic dreams. You can make an argument for that, and do it well, but Coco… doesn’t. Even though Miguel eventually gets to enjoy music with his family, he still had to promise to give up music in order to live. And everybody seemed fine with that. It’s amazing that he loves Hector that much, but seriously, Imelda… that was a cruel thing to do! And it kind of messes with the overall theme of the movie.

How does this relate to Dumbo? Well, Milly wants to become a scientist like Marie Curie, but her dad, Holt, tells her she needs to do something practical to help in the circus (something immediate, and which does not require years of expensive education). And it’s a frequent point of conflict throughout the movie.

Enter Michael Keaton as the flamboyant, sinister V.A. Vandevere. He immediately sympathizes with Milly’s dream, assuring her that she can be anything, but the audience very quickly realizes he doesn’t mean it. As soon as there’s a problem, she’s no longer a wonder-in-the-works, and it’s “why are there children in my office?” It works thematically with the movie (also setting up Vandevere’s villainy a bit), and it’s also quite realistic. Who remembers being told “you can be anything” by authority figures who clearly didn’t believe it, or got upset with you when you said you wanted to be the wrong thing?

But Milly and Holt come to a compromise. Before Dreamland burns down, father and daughter have a quiet moment in the Worlds Fair type exhibit, where he finally acknowledges that she might be able to discover things like she wants. And in the end, she does something practical for the circus, but is still satisfying her interests in science and new technology… running the circus’ nickelodeon. It’s helping with the need for new acts in the short term, but Milly is still young enough that education might still be in her future. Especially since the circus now has a permanent residence.

The movie doesn’t say don’t dream. It doesn’t say your dreams will always come true. But it shows a practical middle-ground, work and compromise, and keeps a door open for improvement.

In a way, Vandevere is right. Nothing is impossible… but you should still listen to the electricians when they say don’t throw that switch.

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Silence

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My husband created the tradition for himself of watching Martin Scorsese’s Silence every Good Friday.

I commend him for that. My Good Friday tradition, aside from church, is putting on the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Our traditions each involve a controversial piece of media, and that’s where the similarities end. But it is his choice I want to discuss today.

Two things make Silence a topic of controversy. The first is that Martin Scorsese directed The Last Temptation of Christ. And to that, I say so what. It has literally nothing to do with Portuguese Catholic priests in 17th century Japan.

The second topic is the ultimate outcome of the movie. The two surviving Portuguese priests apostatize (or renounce their faith) when their congregations are tortured in such a way that they remain alive. The old Japanese Inquisitor even says that when they first went after the Portuguese missionaries, they went about it the wrong way by killing the priests and brothers. Keeping them alive was the way to do it.

Critics and audiences fell all over themselves to decry the two padres. Which is really unfair. Nobody knows what they would do in the situation faced by the movie’s priests. People will say anything under torture, and even if they don’t break when it’s their own pain, being forced to watch someone they care about go through it is another matter altogether.

Everyone likes to think that when confronted by a doddering, bloodthirsty Inquisitor, they won’t break. But that’s probably armchair hubris. And armchair hubris is something a lot of American Christians have in excess.

Christianity in the United States is near the top of the social food chain. Depending on where you live, you might experience some form of prejudice for what you practice (being a Lutheran in the heart of the Bible Belt wasn’t easy), but you still enjoy the privileges it entails. And, at some level, people are bored by that. Or they feel inadequate, after hearing about early persecution, and they don’t like to see other religions (or the lack of religion) get rights, too. That’s why you have people who are falling all over themselves to be martyrs, claiming that Christianity is under attack (it isn’t), and throwing themselves at easy, pointless fights, like the color of a coffee cup. Or by watching PureFlix’s endless stream of schlock.

Wanting to be a martyr is not a good thing. And that problem is a prominent theme of Silence. Andrew Lincoln’s character, Rodrigues, wants this very much, and that arrogance and foolhardiness are a large part of why he goes to Japan in the first place. Which makes his mission rather flawed from the start.

And those flaws are what make Silence a genuinely good movie about faith. It’s hard to watch, and not just because the torture scenes are gruesome. If you can watch Casino, you can watch Silence, just based on the amount of blood spilled. Silence is uncomfortable for the audience because it offers no easy answers. The priests are flawed individuals, with arrogance and tempers. The Japanese characters aren’t written off as one-note sheep or monsters. And the movie addresses idolatry, both at the hands of the persecutors and the movie’s Christians, as they both try to flush out and hide from each other. But that’s another topic.

Faith is complicated, messy, and doesn’t come with easy questions or easy answers. It’s not always safe, and it needs a certain amount of flexibility.

And that’s something good to contemplate. When things are easy, and when they’re difficult. We need more movies to illustrate that.

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The Soul of The Black Cat

I have a somewhat unhealthy relationship with the 1934 movie The Black Cat. I absolutely love the movie… especially when I’m not in a great place mentally. Namely high school, and working in a call center.

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The Black Cat is a complicated movie. There’s a lot to like (the visuals, the politics, the fact that it was Universal’s last hurrah before the Hays Code was strictly enforced)… and plenty to dislike (the thin plot, thin characterizations, and the fact that it was Universal’s last hurrah before the Hays Code was strictly enforced).

I’ve always been drawn to it. My introduction came in the form of a still of the chess scene in a book about Universal. The striking visuals definitely got my attention, and I was further intrigued by the fact that this was the only Universal horror film that I wasn’t allowed to watch when I first asked to. After several years of begging, my dad gave in and let me borrow the VHS tape from my otherwise useless 11th grade English teacher.

For those unfamiliar with the movie… the plot is essentially thus. A ticketing snafu puts Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Bela Lugosi), recently late of a Soviet concentration camp in the same train compartment as two dumb American tourists, Mr. and Mrs. Allison. They wind up on the same bus, too. While the driver describes a massacre which took place in that area during the Great War, the bus goes off the road; the driver dies, and Mrs. Allison is injured. Verdegast, his servant, and the Allisons then seek shelter in the home of Verdegasts’s old friend, Engineer Poelzig, who commanded the Austro-Hungarian side of the battle described by the late driver. Then the real horror starts, because Poelzig was a traitor, who now runs a cult, and Verdegast is out for revenge.

Besides visuals, where the movie really excels is its monologues. Karloff and Lugosi both get good ones. So does the bus driver, although his casual description of the battle of Fort Marmorus is heard while the camera focuses on Lugosi’s face, looking haggard and sad, as his character remembers the horrors of World War I. Poelzig and Werdegast both speak at length about the damage done to their souls by the war. “Are we any the less victims of the War than those whose bodies were torn asunder?” Poelzig asks (a genuinely good question from an icon of evil). And Verdegast mentions several times that Kurgaal, the concentration camp where he has spent the last 15 years, is “where the soul is killed, slowly.” Every word carries the weight of desperation felt by the characters. It is the same desperation seen on the actors’ faces, and not only that of the main characters, but of the nameless cultists seen at the film’s climax.

And this desperation, is, I think, part of where the movie draws me in. Both now and when I was in high school, I was subjected to daily insults, which I just had to smile and take. In high school, it was principal and teachers, constantly berating the student body, telling us we were worthless, spoiled, and that we would never succeed in life. Now, it’s a good work day if a customer doesn’t call me a cunt. It’s a far cry from the massacre of Fort Marmorus, and the forced labor of Kurgaal. But it is soul killing. And, in a way, in these ghoulish characters, I find people who get it. They get it, but they are exaggerated enough for watching the movie to be cathartic.

And an object lesson in what not to do when feeling desperate. I might as well include that.

This complicated, visually gorgeous, thinly plotted movie remains controversial among horror fans. But, even if it wasn’t as important to me personally, I think Universal’s canon, would be much poorer without it. And I could probably do worse in terms of an unhealthy favorite.

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Opening Up Christopher Robin

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Last year, a little against my better judgement, I went to see Christopher Robin at the local art cinema. I was pleasantly surprised.

Recently I showed it to my husband, and I was pleasantly surprised again. Not only did the movie miss the pitfalls I expected from the trailer, there were a few levels I didn’t notice at first.

A lot of the movie’s conflict stems from Christopher’s inability to find a good work-life balance, which is something his wife seems to have found. When we are introduced to Evelyn, we see she’s an architect, and she continues working after he is sent off to World War II. And when Christopher comes home late again after being told to lay off people in his department, Evelyn is drafting at a desk at home. But we also see her dancing with Madeleine, so she clearly has made time to have fun and be with her daughter. It’s unusual for any movie to really show a working mother whose job isn’t part of the movie’s conflict or make her a boring nag… let alone in a movie that takes place in the 1950’s.

Speaking of the 1950’s, on second viewing, I noticed that the employees Christopher Robin is told to lay off are vulnerable. Some are black. A decent number are female, and a few are elderly. Or combinations of the three. They’ll all have a difficult time finding work again if let go. It makes Christopher Robin’s wish to find a solution more noble, and it shows that he is still a good person at heart, just a little lost.

On the movie’s TV Tropes pages, someone suggested the movie suffers from a “Broken Aesop” meaning that the message is actually harmful, in that Christopher is being a good man and boss by putting in the extra hours to save his coworkers. But that’s an oversimplification, like his assignment. The movie never states that work is bad… just that Christopher needs a realignment. He was abruptly taken out of childhood by school and his father’s death, and the final nail in the coffin was serving in the war. You can see when he gets back that he doesn’t really know how to interact with people, including his wife and daughter, so he isolates himself. The fact that there’s only Madeleine probably further illustrates the post-war distance between him and Evelyn. He brushes off the friendly neighbor. And he even tells Winnie the Pooh that he tries not to think of his colleagues as friends.

And his assignment is fundamentally flawed. Just laying people off wouldn’t solve the company’s problem. Neither would using different materials. They would help in the short term, but a longer term look at the problem and why it is a problem was needed. His solution is a little Hollywood magicky, but sometimes great ideas to happen just by seeing an upside-down grid.

Another layer of the “doing nothing leads to the best something” theme comes up here. Christopher was well on his way to burnout, and his solution, while it sounds simple, is more than just “go on holiday.” Christopher’s weekend of nothing in the Hundred Acre Wood is the first time he spent meaningful time with others, talking about something not work-related, and playing. And that’s good for the brain. It shows how necessary socialization is for healing and growth. Christopher Robin always needed his friends, and they help him to a better relationship with his family.

A lot more complex than one would expect from a bear of very little brain, hmm?

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Writing About Writing: Part 2 of….

If I write about writing (after another prolonged absence), one thing I’ll have to mention at some point is the character. And my relationship to the characters I create.

You’ve probably seen the t-shirt in old Christmas catalogs that reads “be careful or you’ll end up in my novel,” which is an absolutely true statement. My favorite example of this is the Agnes Moorhead character in the radio drama, “Sorry, Wrong Number.” Writer Lucille Fletcher based the obnoxious, doomed protagonist on an extremely rude woman she encountered at a store. “Lady, I’m going to kill you,” Ms. Fletcher thought, and, on the airwaves, she did.

When one of my former colleagues proved to be an obnoxious tattletale, my immediate thought was, “that’s it, buster. You’re the killer in my next murder mystery!” (It’s a mystery that’s still being written, given I have a killer, victim, a detective, and not a lot else).

But it’s not all like that. Sometimes I come across a person in real life, either by meeting them, or by reading about them (or something by them) and think, hmm… this person would be good in a sci-fi setting, or a mystery, or something, and take a few traits, while adding enough of my own to make them original. One example, I met an old man with a name right out of a Dick Tracy comic, who used to be stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in the 1950s (Area 51 anyone?). Sometime I’ll have a comic alien story featuring a character loosely based on that gentleman.

And then there are those who are completely original. And there’s no rhyme or reason to how I create original characters, honestly. Sometimes they just pop up almost fully formed. Sometimes they require a lot of workshopping. For me, the best example of that was a character, who goes by Card or Cardinal because of his love of red. When I first started writing scenes with him, they were fun, but something always felt off. Then I realized, over time, that Card was too much. He was too good at everything. And too young for those skills to make sense. So I put him into his seventies, and now the knowledge and skill fit better, and because he was now elderly, I had to slow him down a bit, make a few other changes (not only slow him down physically, but emotionally as well), and suddenly, he worked.

And besides planning and working out a character’s details and quirks, there are occasionally surprises. Some of my friends who are writers argue with me on this one (as the author, I shouldn’t be surprised by what my characters do), but that’s occasionally part of my creative process. And it makes sense to me.

When I was in college, one of my professors told me about the time he met Toni Morrison. He told her how excited he was to shake the hand that wrote The Bluest Eye, and was shocked when Morrison told him she didn’t particularly like that work of hers.

“Books are children,” she said. “They have their own lives.”

And if that’s true for books, I would argue it’s also true for characters. In some cases, it’s literally true that they’re children after all.

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