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Life Goals: Power Couple Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - JANUARY 27: Power couple, USWNT forward Megan Rapinoe and Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird enjoy the game at the Alaska Airlines Arena on January 27, 2019 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Superstar athletes Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird have given their lives to soccer and basketball, respectively. At GQ, Emma Carmichael reports that now, as their sports careers reach their conclusion, the couple is using their considerable influence and profile to further equality — for women’s rights (in and out of sports), the Black Lives Matter movement, and for other members of the LGBTQI community.

There is no precedent for the pastel-haired international soccer star who courted the ponytailed all-American point guard and went on to live happily ever after. For now, the “cross-sport lesbian power couple” template begins and ends with Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird. And they are not just stars in their sports—they have set the standards to which future athletes will be held. Between them they have more championships and gold medals than most couples have steak knives: At 35, Rapinoe is one of the most decorated American soccer players of all time, with two World Cup titles and an Olympic gold medal to her name. Bird, 40, is considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time, having won multiple championships at every stage of her career—from her two championships during her fabled UConn days to her quartet of rings with the Seattle Storm and four Olympic golds with the national team.

They have set the agenda off the field too: Both have been active in the Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements as well as the ongoing fights for equal pay and treatment that have revolutionized their sports. In January, after months of campaigning that started at the WNBA’s pandemic site in Florida, Bird celebrated Rev. Raphael Warnock’s victory over Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler in one of Georgia’s crucial runoff Senate races. They are pushing things forward, as none other than Billie Jean King tells me. “We were always afraid of the unknown,” she says. King lost all of her sponsorships in 24 hours when she was involuntarily outed in 1981. Things are different now. “This is why having Megan and Sue out in front like this, being comfortable in their own skin, is so huge. It allows other people to be more comfortable.”

Every person I interviewed for this story is an LGBTQ+ professional (or formerly pro) woman athlete. All seemed to over-explain their work—Bird taking pains to describe why she and her fellow WNBA stars had to play in Russia, Harris and Krieger making sure I understood they’d spent many years playing with Rapinoe, even King laying out how she and the Original 9 of women’s tennis fought for better prize money in the ’70s. The tendency probably comes along with being a conscientious, media-trained athlete and public-facing woman, but I also wondered if the instinct was learned: from having to make the case for yourself constantly, from being forced to convince the skeptical that what you do has merit.

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Justin Townes Earl: The Saint of Lost Causes

Justin Townes Earle (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images)

We saw him live once, almost exactly two years ago. Just one guitar, one man, and his heart, laid bare for all to see through his songs. Justin Townes Earle’s singular, percussive playing style was both rhythm and harmony to the melody of his voice at that small venue in the middle of a cold Canadian winter. When a string broke on his guitar on the first song, there was no tech to do the fix, no second guitar to reach for. Earle rummaged through a case, grabbed a spare string and made the change, chatting amiably with the audience the whole time. It felt like you could get to know him. We knew he’d struggled hard. You could hear it in his entire song catalogue. But of course, there was so much we didn’t know, couldn’t know, don’t deserve to know.

In this tribute for Rolling Stone, Jonathan Bernstein interviewed 30 people, including friends, former bandmates, and Justin Townes Earle’s widow, Jenn Marie Earle, who share what Justin meant to them, six months after his death. They paint a portrait of a generous and loving man, who was not able to offer that same generosity and love to himself.

Onstage, Earle was an electrifying presence: six-foot-four, dressed in vintage suits, playing in a fiery style of finger-picking he’d picked up listening to the bluesman Mance Lipscomb. He assumed the public persona of a world-weary troubadour, one worthy of his cursed namesake, the self-destructive country-folk genius Townes Van Zandt, a friend of his father.

Justin was locking himself inside a dark room off the basement for hours to write, communicating with Jenn Marie through a grate connected to the kitchen upstairs. “If you need me,” Justin would shout, “just stomp your hoof, my little dear.”

“I’d seen him starting to become more distant, in many ways,” Jenn Marie says. “That song, to me, was an admittance, of choosing the fate of being locked away from what means the most to you.” The album Justin was writing in that unlit basement study, the last album released while he was alive, would be called The Saint of Lost Causes. “I think he was admitting that he was defeated, in a lot of ways,” Jenn Marie says.

As the years passed, Earle’s insecurities grew. “There was a huge part of Justin that didn’t believe in himself,” says Jenn Marie. “He saw the music business changing. . . . When his [2014 and 2015 albums, Single Mothers and Absent Fathers] came out, he was disappointed they didn’t do so well. I think that’s where a lot of his darkness, his struggles with substance abuse and addiction, started to come to the surface in the last few years: him feeling like he wasn’t good enough.”

“We have for so long looked at people who had addiction problems … we ask them the wrong questions,” he said in 2018. “We say, ‘What is wrong with you?’ The problem is, they hurt. So you don’t ask them, ‘What’s wrong with you.’ You ask them, ‘Why do you hurt?’”

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Earl King Deserves His Due

Earl King at the Petrillo Bandshell in Chicago, Illinois, June 5, 1994. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

You might not know of Earl King, a singer-songwriter guitarist from New Orleans, Louisiana, though you’ve likely heard songs he wrote if you know the music of Fats Domino, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Lee Dorsey, Allen Toussaint, or Ray Charles. As Geoffrey Himes reports at The Bitter Southerner, King was a lyricist and showman beyond compare, yet few of his own recordings exist. He was a man with insatiable curiosity, self-motivated to learn about anything that struck his fancy, a songwriter dedicated to his craft. Himes argues that it is about time that King be recognized as poet laureate of New Orleans for his many musical accomplishments, some of which you can listen to in the piece’s accompanying Spotify playlist.

During this period, 1965-1974, King rarely performed in public. Instead, he stayed behind the scenes, writing and producing songs for other people. In this way, he resembled Willie Dixon, the great writer-producer of the Chicago blues scene. Dixon, too, never enjoyed much success with his own recordings, but he wrote and arranged big hits for Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter and is now recognized as the secret genius behind the stars. King is due the same recognition.

In fact, one could argue that King, (Willie) Dixon, Percy Mayfield, and Chuck Berry are the true “Poets of the Blues.” All four made their recording debuts between 1945 and ’55; all four compensated for a lack of higher education by educating themselves to become verse craftsmen; all four satirized American life and romance with an unerring eye.

All of them, even Berry, are better known for the dozens of versions of their songs by other artists than for their own recordings.

“When I got into my own thinking about writing,” King confessed, “my intention was to be the best lyricist in the world. I used to sit around with my buddies, drinking coffee and talking about how something in a song could be said a different way. We used to get a kick out of playing gymnastics with the words. We’d talk about what kind of thought that’s going to create in the person who’s listening. We’d talk about words that might have a twofold meaning to them. Like ‘Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti; forget about the dough and think about me.’”

King was that increasingly rare figure in American life — the non-academic intellectual. He never attended school again after graduating from Booker T. Washington High School in New Orleans, but he never stopped studying and reading. A conversation with King was likely to take unexpected detours into Asian music, marketing theory, modern jazz, and the Rosicrucian Order. He was living proof that an active, well-stocked mind doesn’t always come with scholarly credentials.

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Making Art Awash in Grief

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In this incisive essay at Guernica, Traci Brimhall explores the human need to create art in a bid to process death and loss. She relates a 100-day project in which Janet, an artist and photographer, mourns her mother’s passing by photographing flowers and other elements from condolence bouquets, assembling and publishing a single image each day. Brimhall relates her own efforts to process grief through the creative process by crocheting afghans for those in hospice, as well as handmaking paper made of found love letters and cards from her ex-husband.

Someone in my group for hospice workers shares the article on flowers as a grief ritual, and that’s how I discover Janet. I quickly read the news story about how Janet uses the dried flowers from her mother’s funeral to make new images for 100 days. Each day she uses the petals and stems to create and photograph a new form, and each day she takes it all apart, tucking the dried floral pieces back into storage. I start to follow her Instagram account, eager for the inevitable startle of old roses rendered into birds or flattened carnations transformed into the segments of a caterpillar rising off a branch. It’s common to see birds and insects as visitations from the dead. Every flying thing from monarch butterflies to Emily Dickinson’s buzzing fly has been associated with death, but I love that in Janet’s work, the visitations are like a form of summoning, a new life from a dried petal.

Scrolling through the 100 days feels like a catalog of grief. The work seems to change so fast: on some days she plays with the shadows each dried bloom casts; on others she makes abstract shapes. Towards the end of her project, she’s creating more mimetic pieces. Some natural materials she returns to often, using a leaf until it breaks apart. Some of the broken pieces are cast aside and others get used again for what they now resemble, the leaf crumbling and leaving only its hard veins, which suddenly becomes a bird’s foot. I love that nothing is wasted. Everything is ripe for transformation. It reminds me of the jewelry and tableaux the Victorians made from dead loved ones’ hair, somehow taking what feels ephemeral or like detritus and making something nearly permanent.

We talk about how to grieve with hope—how to acknowledge, to ask, to be honest. When I pour the bright pink pulp of a stranger’s love letters mixed with mine into a deckle mold, I acknowledge that even all these years later, I am still sad. I don’t know what to ask, but I know what I need will come from process, not product.

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Tragedy on the Pacific Crest Trail

CAMPO, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 24: A monument marking the Southern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail sits along the U.S.-Mexico border on January 24, 2019 near Campo, California. The trail is a 2,650 mile trek from Mexico to Canada. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Since 2012, the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail has seen an influx of hopefuls making their own attempt at the arduous and challenging distance, made famous in part by the book Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s account of her crossing, and the movie of the same name starring Reese Witherspoon.

The trail, which starts at the northern border of Mexico and ends at the southern Canadian border, traverses California, Oregon, and Washington. It features every type of landscape and all the permutations of precipitation west coast weather has to offer.

In March 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The “Pacific Crest Trail Association asked long-distance hikers to leave the trail, lest they carry the coronavirus to small towns ill-equipped to cope.” As Louise Farr reports at Alta, Hiker Trevor Laher’s father Doug begged him to leave the trail and come home. The government order and the pleas were not enough. Trevor continued on, at his peril, not falling victim to the virus but the perilous conditions of the San Jacinto Mountains.

Trevor often assured Karen that only 11 PCT hikers had died along the trail since it had been officially declared finished in 1993, but exact figures are difficult to pin down. The number could be as high as 20. At least 5 hikers have disappeared and not been found. In fact, there have been 11 deaths on or near the trail in California, 8 of those in the desert section.

Dave and Marilyn drove on a parallel road for a mile, watching Trevor appear and disappear between bushes. They honked the car horn and waved, and he clicked his hiking poles, grinning in acknowledgment. “That was the last time we talked to him or saw him,” says Marilyn. Then the world changed.

“The sun came out, the wind died almost completely, and it was perfect blue skies,” Cody recalls. “There was a very light snow on everything, maybe a quarter of an inch. It was quite a beautiful morning. But that also, I think, lulled us into a false sense of security.”

For the briefest time, he managed to stay in place. Then, suddenly, he began sliding feet first, gathering momentum until he hit a rock and began cartwheeling into an icy gorge.

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All Aboard for an Adventure in Inequality

ANTARCTICA - 2013/11/30: Tourists at Yankee Harbour, a small inner harbour on the south-west side of Greenwich Island in the South Shetland Island group, Antarctica, with cruise ship Seabourn Quest in background. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

To satisfy his wanderlust, Devin Murphy worked on a series of cruise ships to see the world and learn more about it. As he reports in this fascinating piece at Outiside, what he didn’t bargain for was a free education on the deep disparity between the poor and rich, the haves and the have nots, not only in ports of call around the world, but aboard the vessels upon which he served.

I’m an American who grew up surrounded by comforts that were delivered to me by ships like these—ships that I’d never thought about.

As the summer wore on, my hands became ribboned with cuts from barnacle shards caked into the rope fibers, and I got accustomed to the insults of the assistant engineer, who often tipped over into psychotic rage when I did something wrong. He spent all his free time reading biker magazines and smoking in the dark next to the engines, a patron saint of hatred.

Meanwhile, day by day, I really began to appreciate the passengers. Whether they were recent retirees on a dream trip or industrial business owners leveled by the beauty of the wilds, it was humbling to share in their awakening wonder.

I also got a better sense of the oddity of life on a boat. One time the captain called me to the bridge and told me to man the controls while he went to his cabin. I was 20 years old, steering a cruise ship through the night. It was so exhilarating that, when the captain came back, I didn’t notice at first that he was carrying a full-size test dummy with a long black wig on it. He began dancing around and humming to the doll.

“Um. Sir? What are you doing?”

The captain opened the wing station, sang, “Time for us to part, my love,” and hurled the doll overboard. He blew a kiss to the back of the ship, then called into his radio, “Man overboard.”

He shot a red flare into the sky, and I slowly turned the ship to start our impromptu man-overboard drill. The doll looked so much like a real person that I felt a wash of fear about one day being alone on the waves, drifting off into the cold unknown.

During our return trip from Antarctica, the Drake Passage—the expanse of ocean between Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands and Cape Horn—thrashed the ship around. The hotel executive, feeling sick, went to his cabin and left an Excel spreadsheet open on a computer we shared. It showed what the international crew members were paid, and their low compensation—far less than minimum wage in the U.S.—stunned me. I was able to save much of what I made. These men, who worked with kindness, effort, and attention to detail for 12 hours a day, six days a week, and up to nine months at a time, were being exploited, and they had to send money to families back home. The reality of the flag of convenience became clear.

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Closure for a Sister Disappeared

Novelist Daniel Loedel recounts the story of his older half-sister Isabel, who was disappeared in Argentina during the Dirty War, “the period from 1976 to 1983 in which the U.S.-backed military dictatorship kidnapped and killed tens of thousands of supposed dissidents in the name of fighting off communism.” In this harrowing piece at The Atlantic, Loedel seeks closure for a half-sibling he never knew, having been born 10 years after her death.

Here we must pull back the curtain, listen to what’s behind the silence. First, the cultural reasons: Although Argentina’s military dictatorship technically lasted only seven years, from 1976 to 1983, they were the bloodiest in the nation’s history, and few except the junta leaders themselves were put in prison. For years, people continued to encounter their former torturers at bus stations, their rapists in cafés. For years, the armed forces maintained power at a distance, with complete immunity. For years, there were no formal funerals for the disappeared.

The report from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team included 20 photos of my half sister’s bones—nearly as many photos as I had ever seen of Isabel herself.

The ones of the bones punctured by bullets—her rib, her pelvis, her humerus—did not move me as much as those of her skull. It was so old-looking, like one of those prehistoric craniums of Homo sapiens, the nose bashed in, some of the teeth missing, that earthen coloring. The skull had lain in a common grave, untouched for more than 30 years, before being taken to a lab, where it remained officially unidentified for about another 10. The sight of it destroyed me. In all the photos I had seen, Isabel looked incredibly young, with a cherubic beauty—round cheeks, light hair, searching blue eyes. She had been murdered and disappeared by the military dictatorship in Argentina in January 1978, when she was just 22. Staring at those photos of her skeleton in March 2018, I was eight years older than she ever had been. Never before had I quite grasped how much time she hadn’t gotten to live, to age and grow old, until I saw her bones, and realized they had been aging without the rest of her.

But no one told me what she was like, or who she’d been besides my sister. I gathered that she was rebellious, brave, idealistic. But the only attribute I comprehended with any sort of reality was: disappeared. My sister’s gone-ness, the silence around her, was so absolute that I barely dared to peek any further behind that curtain than my father did.

When he and I finally had an extended conversation about Isabel—whom I’d chosen somewhat flippantly as the subject for my college-application essay, as a way of conveying my own desire to do good in the world—I got the impression that she’d been killed for doing things like tagging walls and distributing political pamphlets. But Enrique later told me she was in fact one of the Dirty War’s rarer victims: She’d been in the armed resistance, living in hiding, with weapons in her home.

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In Georgia, Citrus is Just Peachy

(Photo by Mahmut Serdar Alakus/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Climate change has created an opportunity for farmer Joe Franklin who grows citrus fruit — in Statesboro, Georgia, of all places. As James Murdock reports in this uplifting piece at The Bitter Southerner, Franklin has discovered that his farm is a temperate sweet spot to grow several citrus varieties from Satsuma oranges to Australian finger limes (considered the “caviar of citrus.”) Temperatures are warm enough to grow fruit yet too cold to allow the invasive psyllid — that has devastated Florida citrus crops — to thrive.

Joe Franklin believed he could grow citrus in Bulloch County, Georgia, based on his own experience of climate change. Without any research-based information on growing citrus in his climate zone, he took a risk and planted his first 200 trees in 2010. Today, his grove consists of more than 6,500 trees and 53 acres of citrus production.

As we stroll down a sunny open lane, I cannot help but notice the buzz of life around us. Bees bob on wildflower heads, which fill the gaps between trees. Thrashers scratch for worms and retreat to the woodline as we pass. Grasshoppers leap, sugar ants march, beetles flitter, an ecosystem works.

The hum of this grove stands in contrast to the silence of nearby cotton fields. Cotton, like most industrial crops, requires high levels of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and herbicides, chemicals which pollute ground and surface water, expose workers to dangerous toxins, and disrupt natural habitats. Cotton, as well as other crops, requires tilling and heavy irrigation, a combination which contributes to the structural collapse and erosion of soils.

This orchard, on the other hand, provides food and shelter for life. While it might exist as a result of climate change, it may also combat warming. University of Florida researchers found that 1 acre of citrus trees consume 23.3 tons of carbon dioxide and produce 16.7 tons of oxygen per year. Biologists have identified over 159 species that live in, and depend on, grove ecosystems. Large spaces between rows allow for natural small habitats to thrive. Rather than exposing soils with constant planting and tilling, the roots of trees hold the earth together.

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Rush Drummer Neil Peart: Master Student

Neil Peart (Photo by Clayton Call/Redferns — Getty Images)

The band Rush has a huge fan base at home in Canada and around the world, but despite having a big appreciation for their musicianship, I’ve never counted myself among them. (Please don’t @ me.) In reading Brian Hiatt‘s moving Rolling Stone retrospective in which family, friends, and bandmates remember the late Neil Peart, Rush’s drummer, I learned a lot that deepened my respect for the band, and for Peart in particular. A year ago, Peart died from glioblastoma, the same form of brain cancer that took another important Canadian musician, Gord Downie.

While Peart was a prolific reader who used his tour downtime to “fill the gaps in his education,” what struck me most was the student mindset he brought to the drums, despite being widely recognized as a virtuoso.

Before band rehearsals for Rush tours, he’d practice on his own for weeks to ensure he could replicate his parts. His forearms bulged with muscle; his huge hands were calloused. But he was also the self-educated intellect behind Rush’s singularly cerebral and philosophical lyrics, and the author of numerous books, specializing in memoir intertwined with motorcycle travelogues, all of it rendered in luminous detail.

Peart took constant notes, kept journals, sent emails that were more like Victorian-era correspondence, wrote pieces for drum magazines, and posted essays and book reviews on his website. Despite ending his formal education at age 17, he never stopped working toward a lifelong goal of reading “every great book ever written.” He tended to use friends’ birthdays as an excuse to send “a whole fucking story about his own life,” as Rush singer-bassist Geddy Lee puts it, with a laugh.

In May 1994, at the Power Station recording studio in New York, Peart gathered together great rock and jazz drummers, from Steve Gadd to Matt Sorum to Max Roach, for a tribute album he was producing for the great swing drummer Buddy Rich. Peart noticed one of the players, Steve Smith, had improved strikingly since the last time he had seen him, and learned that he studied with the jazz guru Freddie Gruber. In the year of his 42nd birthday, while he was already widely considered to be the greatest rock drummer alive, Peart sought out Gruber and started taking drum lessons. “What is a master but a master student?” Peart told Rolling Stone in 2012.

He was convinced that years of playing along with sequencers for the more synth-y songs in Rush’s Eighties catalog had stiffened his drumming, and he wanted to loosen back up. (For all of his efforts and mastery, there were some areas even Neil Peart couldn’t conquer: “To be honest, I am not sure that Neil ever fully ‘got’ the jazz high-hat thing,” Peter Erskine, who took over as Peart’s teacher in the 2000s, wrote affectionately.)

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‘Everyone Benefits from a Frozen Arctic’

Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler / Getty Images

At Granta, Canadian Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier recounts her community’s ancestral way of life: one based on hunting and gathering traditions that convey a deep respect for the animals and land that offer sustenance, and one that has been all but destroyed by government paternalism and climate change. She argues that the Arctic’s health is a barometer of the planet’s health and that the earth can still heal, provided we prioritize it over economic growth.

With the signs of spring all around me, and my dreams of soon being able to get out on the land again, in season to go berry picking with fellow Inuit women, it’s perhaps not surprising that my thoughts have turned to the place of nature in Inuit life. In our language we have no word for ‘nature’, despite our deep affinity with the land, which teaches us how to live in harmony with the natural world. The division the Western world likes to make between ‘man and nature’ is both foreign and dangerous in the traditional Inuit view. In Western thinking, humans are set apart from nature; nature is something to strive against, to conquer, to tame, to exploit or, more benignly, to use for ‘recreation’. By contrast, Inuit place themselves within, not apart from, nature.

From the start, the government’s policy to move us ‘off the land’ was misguided and paternalistic. The idea was to make the ‘administration’ of Canada’s Eskimos (as we were then called) easier. We were seen as a problem needing to be fixed. This would be mended by gathering us into settlements, building houses for us and ‘educating’ our children in English with a ‘Dick and Jane’ curriculum, an education that had nothing to do with what we knew to be the real world. We would partake of the government’s assistance programmes such as family allowances (which sometimes could be withheld if we didn’t send our children to school) and, when needed, social assistance payments and subsidized housing. Along with the provision of health services, these seemingly positive enticements were difficult to resist. Nowadays we recognize these offerings as coercive, though strangely packaged in well-meaning wrappings.

With the move, things happened very quickly. At first, we expected that this new world in which we suddenly found ourselves would be as wise as our own. But it wasn’t. It turned out that our new world was deeply dependent on external political and economic concepts and forces utterly at odds with our ways of being. In particular its structures seemed to have nothing to do with the natural world. Almost immediately, we started to give away our power. For a while we thought that if we were patient – as the Inuit hunters necessarily are – that patience would pay off. But we soon lost that sense of control over our lives, especially over the upbringing of our children. They were brought into the classrooms of southern institutional schooling, a concept totally foreign to us, where they were given an ‘education’ that had nothing to do with the knowledge and skills we needed for life on the land. All our traditional character-building teachings went out the window, and our social values began to erode. When we surrender our personal autonomy, we also give away our sense of self-worth, we lose the ability to define ourselves and to navigate our own lives.

Our Arctic home is a barometer of the planet’s health: if we cannot save the Arctic, can we really hope to save the forests, the rivers and the farmlands of other regions?

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