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True story: I haven’t had a Christmas tree since 1995 because I adopted two cats in 1996. Two trouble-seeking cats who pursued destruction with an unimaginable ferocity.

It’s possible I could have put up a tree last year, when the cat count was down to one 15-year-old feline who didn’t seem quite as keen on mischief as he once was. Once you get out of the habit of NOT having a tree, however, it’s a lot of trouble to get back in the spirit.

When I saw this Christmas light canvas on Pinterest, I knew it was a project I could handle. Canvas. Holes. Lights. CHECK.

For weeks, I meant to buy a blank canvas, but honestly it’s hard to convince myself to drive around in Atlanta unless I’m LEAVING Atlanta. So if I can’t buy something at Publix, Trader Joe’s, Walgreens or Moes Southwest Grill, I usually find that I can get by without it.

Luckily, my apartment complex parks a big Dumpster in the parking garage on my floor for folks who just can’t manage to haul their cast-offs to the first floor as they’re moving in or out. I spotted two canvases leaning against a big pile of flattened boxes one morning when I darted in to put my trash in the chute.

I think it must be ex-boyfriend art. I mean, the canvases are in great shape, other than what’s painted on them. The one on the left is almost passable, except the longer you look at that big purple flower, the more uneasy and antsy it makes you. Or maybe it’s just me. Art. You know. It’s weird.

I suspect I was supposed to paint over the old paintings with gesso, but all I had was some leftover beige ceiling paint and some red latex from another project. Two nights, two coats of paint.

I kind of doubted my ability to complete a random shape like the writer of the original post did, so I looked for stencils to trace. I found a swoopy, modern-looking tree stencil at Altogether Christmas and ended up drawing it freehand on the back of the larger canvas with a pencil.

First, however, I attempted to estimate how many “levels” the tree should have, based on the number of lights I had (150) and a rough estimate of how far apart the lights would go. And then I gave up and just drew a big swoopy tree.

While watching “The Walking Dead” (holidays! guts! zombies!), I punched holes approximately 1 inch apart along the pencil lines with a sharp kitchen knife (the original writer used an awl, and I’m pretty sure I don’t own one). An awl would have probably made it easier to make standard-sized holes; instead, I had to use my own somewhat distracted judgment. Ideally, I think, the holes should be ever so slightly smaller than the light bulbs being punched through the back. Any bigger and the bulbs won’t stay in without tape (or, I guess, glue); too small and you may stand a change of breaking the bulb trying to force it through.

I had about 20 lights left over when I was done punching holes. Considering the big mess of wires draped along the back of the canvas, a few extra lights don’t really make much of a difference.

The original instructions advised me to secure each light with hot glue, but that seemed like a lot of trouble. It also seemed incredibly permanent, and I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to change any bulbs that burned out if they were glued in. Sure enough, after I unplugged the strand and moved the finished product across the room, none of the red bulbs worked when I plugged the lights back in.

While I don’t pretend to understand Christmas lights, I did remember that I had a small baggie of replacement bulbs. I guess I replaced the right bulb (first red one on the strand), because everything worked again afterwards.

It’s not much to look at in daylight, but it’s absolutely magical after dark. And, above all else, the holidays should be magical.

Onward, then, to the eggnog. Oh, and I guess I have another canvas to light up.

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I’ve had several canvas art projects pinned to my Pinterest craft board for MONTHS. My favorites involved silhouettes, but the instructions invariably called for purchasing vinyl cutouts. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just PAINT a silhouette onto the canvas, because, you know, paint is cheap. And in my garage.

Finally, I painted a clearance-rack canvas with a couple of coats of red that I had left from another project. (The canvas had cost like $2 at Target, and featured a starfish, which I somehow thought would look good in my guest bedroom, only no.)

Silhouette time. I can’t tell you exactly where I found the stencil, but if you make sure your virus protection is updated and  google “free stencils,” you’ll find tons of candidates.

I chose a bird, partly because it looked easy to cut out and partly because of Porlandia’s “put a bird on it” spoof.

I printed out the stencil and carefully cut out the design with scissors. I debated whether to try to transfer the stencil to wax paper or foil for cleaner painting, but decided that the paint likely wouldn’t go through the paper. And if it did, I could just paint everything black and make silver birds later.

Accidental Craftiness 101: Plan for Failure.

The design fit almost PERFECTLY on the canvas. I only had to cut out a 2-inch slip of paper to extend the branch all the way across. I folded over the ends of the branch and taped them down on the sides of the canvas.

After squeezing some black paint onto a Styrofoam plate (I know: paint in a tube – fancy, right?), I got to the messy part. Since I didn’t want to tape the edges of the design down on the front of the canvas (more from a fear of having the red paint lift off with the tape than concerns about the final design), I held down the edges of the paper as I painted around them. I made sure to move the brush out from the edges of the paper, rather than toward the edges, to avoid pushing paint underneath the paper. (And I’m not even sure how I knew to do that. It’s like the time I knew to stick straight pins in the drooping flowers at my future sister-in-law’s wedding shower and I was certain I had been possessed by Martha Stewart.)

I call this the messy part because HOW MUCH black paint did I get on my fingers?

A LOT. I probably should have taken a picture of THAT, only it wouldn’t be that much different from a picture of the normal state of my hands. Today, for example, I have eyeliner under two of my left fingernails. EYELINER.

After completely surrounding the silhouette pattern with black paint, I carefully pulled away the tape and lifted the paper off of the canvas. Voila … a sharp bird silhouette. My next decision was whether to try to leave a subtle black aura around the silhouette or fill in the rest of the canvas. I’m not good at subtlety, and even as I was telling the husband about my decision-making process I was filling the canvas with black paint.

A completed craft project with no cuts, bruises, broken fingernails or glue-gun injuries? WIN. Now I just have to decide where to hang it.

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I’ve finally become familiar with the terms thinspo and fitspo.

Short for thinspiration and fitspiration, both describe inspirational images of — let’s face it — women who are skinnier than most of us. Thinspo images are sometimes associated with eating disorders (you inspire yourself to get thin by looking at them and feeling ashamed of your own body). Fitspo is supposedly thinspo’s safer, healthier cousin; these women aren’t bone-thin, after all, they’re muscular and fit. I mean, come on. They’re wearing GYM CLOTHES.

Thanks to Pinterest, thinspo and fitspo images have flooded the Internet over the past few months.

Haven’t seen any? I don’t know how that’s possible, but I’ll wait here while you check out thinspo and fitspo on Pinterest.

Many of the women in these photographs present us with new variety of unobtainable physical ideals; they’re underwear models topped with a thin veneer of musculature, with nary a hint of cellulite. Sometimes they simply appear to be skinny ladies standing around in their underwear, without even a pretense of any association with fitness.

One pin features a topless woman, photographed from the back, lounging on a bed with her jeans halfway down her backside. Exercise is, apparently, exhausting.

I’m torn. I like images of strong women because I WANT women to be strong. But I also fear that these images may trigger shame and self-hatred in women who don’t live up to these physical ideals (in other words, most of us).

Several bloggers, including Helena Handbasket (whose post alerted me to this controversy) and Virginia Sole-Smith have expressed similar reservations about fitspo. On The Great Exercise Experiment, Charlotte Hilton Andersen says fitspo may simply be “thinspo in a sports bra.

To obtain the musculature of many of the women in these photographs, you’d have to follow a very strict diet and work out A LOT. I don’t mean five times a week instead of four, I mean every day, possibly for several hours. (I used to know a woman who looked like a fitness model, and she exercised three hours a day and would never go out for dinner or drinks because she didn’t dare deviate from her special diet. BO-RING.)

Admission time: Fitspo images make me feel bad about my abs — I wish that they were rock-hard and better defined. My abs are NOT a trouble spot for me, so you can just imagine what such imagery makes me think about my thighs, which feature — gasp — cellulite. Cellulite that didn’t even go away when I went through a dangerously skinny post-tonsillectomy phase in college. (I got down to a size 4, which today would probably be a size 0. You can, indeed, be too thin. Maybe not too rich, though.)

That said, my legs are AWESOME. Running combined with a healthy regime of squats and other muscle work has left them strong and capable. They’ve just got a little bit of padding up top.

This is the kind of attitude that I worry slips away when we see fitspo images. We can’t be content with “look at the awesome things my body can do” when the mantra “it’s not good enough if I don’t look like that” is running through our heads.

In the introduction to Eating Our Hearts Out, a collection of women’s personal accounts of their relationship to food, Lesléa Newman writes, “Our culture makes it nearly impossible for us as women to have a healthy, easy relationship with food. On one hand, we are supposed to be the nurturers of the world, perfecting recipes to delight our families, and, on the other hand, we are supposed to deprive ourselves of these delicious meals in order to look the way our society deems it best for us to look, which can be summed up in one four-letter word: thin.”

I argue that we also have an uneasy relationship with fitness. For many, the simple act of challenging the body is not enough; exercise without dramatic transformation toward perfection — thinness — is simply pointless. This all-or-nothing attitude has to be the root cause of the many January fitness programs that are abandoned by March.

It’s exhausting, really, this constant obsession with food and calories and carbs and measurements and weight. Honestly, what more could women accomplish if we weren’t so completely preoccupied with the scale and the tape measure?

If fitspo inspires you, pin away. Just make sure it’s inspiring you to make yourself stronger and healthier, and not prompting feelings of self-loathing.

In “A Weight that Women Carry,” an essay in Minding the Body: Women Writers on Body and Soul, Sallie Tisdale writes, “In trying always to lose weight, we’ve lost hope of simply being seen for ourselves.”

Similarly, in mirroring ourselves against the perfection found in fitspo images, we risk being unable to simply love ourselves and acknowledge the positive things about our wonderfully imperfect bodies.

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This loaf of cinnamon sugar bread almost never came to be, which would have been quite unfortunate, because it was a thing of perfection, with a crunchy top and soft interior laced with more than a mere hint of cinnamon sugar.

The first time I tried the recipe, the top wasn’t crunchy, and the interior was a wet, soupy messy of cinnamon sugar and raw batter. It fell apart coming out of the loaf pan, and I had to cut it into pieces before bringing it to the office to save myself the embarrassment of co-workers trying to cut/scoop servings for themselves.

The concoction’s only saving grace? It was, beneath the disfigured clumps and raw batter, utterly delicious.

The original recipe called for all of the cinnamon sugar mixture (a full 1/3 cup of sugar and 2 teaspoons of cinnamon) to be sprinkled in one layer on top of half of the batter, then topped with the rest of the batter. The cinnamon sugar mixture seems to have liquefied and prevented the batter immediately surrounding it from baking completely.

I decided to give the recipe one more chance, figuring that if I could make smaller layers of cinnamon sugar, maybe the batter would have a chance to cook more evenly.

I didn’t get the chance until this weekend, when I babysat my nieces while my sister-in-law had a much-deserved girls weekend out. Given my ineffective Barbie doll skills (the girls got pretty upset when I couldn’t remember the names of the dozen dolls NOT named Barbie) and the cold weather preventing us from easily pursuing outdoor, more tomboyish activities, I decided that a baking project was in order.

Part of the reason I wanted this recipe to work was its ease of preparation: You literally stir seven ingredients together for the batter and then layer it in the loaf pan with cinnamon sugar. No mixer. No sifting. No melting.

After having my charges stir the batter and shake the cinnamon sugar mixture together thoroughly, I poured what I figured to be about a third of the batter into the bottom of the greased and floured pan. I then had my nieces spoon about a third of the cinnamon sugar over the batter. I added another layer of batter, then almost all of the cinnamon sugar save for about 2 tablespoons. I added the rest of the batter, then sprinkled on the rest of the cinnamon sugar.

50 minutes in the oven plus 10 minutes on the wire rack and the loaf slid right out of the pan. After allowing the bread to cool for about 20 more minutes while watching Scooby-Doo (the 2002 live-action version), we had cinnamon bread and hot chocolate out of my childhood Tupperware tea set (now theirs).

Babysitting perfection.

The original recipe came from A Whisk and a Prayer via Pinterest.

Cinnamon Sugar Bread

Adapted from A Whisk and a Prayer

  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9×5-inch inch loaf pan (I also cut a piece of parchment paper to fit on the bottom for extra non-stick protection). Stir the cinnamon and 1/3 cup sugar together.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt and 1 cup sugar. Add the egg, milk and oil. Stir until just moistened.

Pour approximately a third of the batter into the loaf pan. Sprinkle with about a third of the cinnamon sugar. Top with another third of the batter, then almost all of the remaining cinnamon sugar. Pour the rest of the batter in the pan and sprinkle the rest of the cinnamon sugar on top.

Bake in preheated oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into center of the loaf comes out clean. Let the bread cool in the pan for 10 minutes before removing it to a wire rack to cool completely.

The original recipe advises you to wrap the loaf in foil and let it sit overnight before slicing. If you can endure the scent of freshly baked cinnamon bread wafting through your home without cutting a piece off until the next day, then go for it. If not, enjoy your snack today AND tomorrow.

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First, an admission: I don’t think I’ve ever eaten Chili’s salsa, so I can’t tell you whether this Chili’s Copycat Salsa recipe that I found via Pinterest tastes like the real thing or not.

As a certified salsa junkie, I CAN tell you that I’ll be making this recipe again.

I love making fresh pico de gallo, but there’s only so much time a girl can dedicate to chopping onions, jalapenos and tomatoes into tiny little pieces. (Also, the inferiority of grocery store “tomatoes” has simply become unacceptable. When a potent blend of jalapenos, lime juice and cilantro doesn’t hide your insipidness, you’ve reached new lows as an ingredient.)

I can live with store-bought salsa, but it’s just so nondescript. Brands advertised as spicy are inevitably as plain as can be, and I wouldn’t be able to tell one brand from another in a blind taste test even if I had money riding on it.

The canned tomatoes in this recipe caught my eye, since they meant I wouldn’t be rewarding mediocrity in the produce section. I couldn’t actually find a small can of jalapenos, but I have to admit that maybe I didn’t try too hard after I spotted the big jar of sliced jalapenos. Toss and taste, unless you’re scared of heat.

All the ingredients blended together quickly in the tiny food-processor attachment that came with my immersion blender (I only made half the recipe).

I’ll warn you: The end product has what some might find an overwhelming cumin flavor. It’s what makes this concoction distinctive, but it might not be for everyone.

The heat from the jalapenos is subtle, kicking in a couple of seconds after you bite into a chip filled with salsa. Two days later, however, the salsa seems to be packing a little more heat, making me wonder how long I could safely store this mixture in the fridge to allow it to achieve maximum intensity.

Chili’s Copycat Salsa

Recipe from Six Sister’s Stuff

  • 2 14.5-oz. cans whole tomatoes, drained
  • 1 4-oz. can diced or whole jalapenos (not pickled)–about 4-5 jalapenos (or less if you don’t like a lot of spice)
  • 1/4 cup yellow onion, cut into quarters (you can also use dried minced onion)
  • 1 tsp. garlic salt
  • 1/2-1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. lime juice

Puree all ingredients in a food processor until smooth.

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Photo courtesy of Bakers Royale

Saturday, I applied a popular exercise mantra — “No pain, no gain” — to cooking.

The gain — delicious Mini Pommes Anna — was totally worth the pain.

I had purchased the entry-level OXO mandoline slicer several months ago, partly so I could make some version of pommes Anna, which is simply very thin slices of potato layered and baked with butter. (And if you’re one of those people who can make paper-thin slices of veggies with a knife, congratulations. You have mad knife skills. I do not.) I was in the middle of my final semester of grad school, however, so the mandoline has been resting in the gadget drawer.

The semester eventually drew to a close, and Pinterest pointed me to this intriguing recipe for smaller, individually sized versions of Pommes Anna, courtesy of Naomi at Bakers Royale. The mandoline finally made its debut.

And boy, was it angry.

Seriously, I underestimated the danger of the mandoline (and found out that just about everybody has a story about somebody taking their fingertip off with one). Having failed to keep the potato attached to the finger-protecting holder mechanism, I ran it across the blade by hand, which worked great right up until the moment I cut my thumb.

I immediately initiated Standard Operating Procedure for kitchen injuries:

  1. Don’t bleed in the food.
  2. Evaluate the injury.
  3. Wash the injury with soap and water.
  4. Wrap the injury with paper towel to try to stop the bleeding, or at least keep the blood out of the food.
  5. Soldier on. You’re not going to make more blood by starving yourself.

It was a minor cut, although it was a heck of a bleeder.

The potatoes were simply divine. The mandoline had cut them into sheer little circles that, when tossed with butter and layered with kosher salt and pepper in a muffin pan, baked up into a luxurious side dish. The husband commented more than once on these buttery and creamy little stacks of goodness.

And yes, there were only four ingredients: Yukon potatoes, butter, salt and pepper. I cut the recipe in half, so it made six. I figured two stacks per person was about right (they compress while baking, so each one ends up being about 1.5 inches high). We each ate a third stack, partly because they were so delectable and partly because they didn’t seem like the kind of food that reheats properly.

And one of us was making replacement blood, after all.

They were definitely a welcome change from mashed potatoes, which is what I usually serve with meat loaf (and more on that fabulous meat loaf later).

As for the mandoline, I think I should probably upgrade to the model with non-slip feet (seems like an upright model might be safer than one that “hooks” over a bowl). Also, a couple of friends pointed me toward Kevlar gloves made for use with mandolines, so those might be showing up in the gadget drawer, too. (Actually, when the first friend, Crafty Kristen, mentioned Kevlar gloves, I kind of thought she was joking — LOL Kevlar gloves for the clumsy cook, very funny. But no. They are real. And possibly a necessity.)

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Photo courtesy of Budget Bytes

That was fast.

Just a week after I took up the pursuit of an easy homemade alternative to store-bought pasta sauce, I think I’ve found my go-to recipe.

Over at Budget Bytes, Beth posted a recipe for a slow cooker marinara sauce in November (gotta give kudos to Pinterest for helping me find it). She noted that the long, slow cooking process (eight hours on low) carmelizes the sugar in the crushed tomatoes. Carmelization gives the sauce a depth of flavor that jarred pasta sauce simply cannot replicate. It’s got the hint of sweetness that a good tomato-based sauce should have without the artificial, overpoweringly syrupy sweetness offered by most manufactured sauces these days.

It was a cinch to make, too. I diced an onion and a couple of cloves of garlic the previous night and dumped everything into the 4-quart slow cooker crock the next morning. The husband texted me at lunch to let me know that it smelled delicious.

I browned a little ground beef to make a simple meat sauce and served it over two small servings of penne. (And while I’m talking about pasta, let me recommend that you cook half the recommended serving size listed on the box. The suggested serving sizes are obviously calculated to make you buy more pasta, not maintain a healthy weight.)

I might add some crushed red pepper next time for a more piquant sauce, but other than that, I’m very satisfied with this recipe. Like other tomato-based sauces, it’s going to freeze well, meaning that I’ll now have ready-to-serve pasta sauce in the freezer instead of the pantry.  It’s going to be versatile, too: Besides meat sauce, it’s going to be a great topping for ravioli and a good dipping sauce for the husband’s homemade calzones.

Next goal: A go-to, not-too-salty soup recipe to keep in the freezer.

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I’m about to say something that may just break Pinterest: I think recipes that incorporate Nutella may be overrated.

I know, I know. Who hates on Nutella, that rich, delicious hazelnut spread imported from Europe?

I don’t want to hate on Nutella, but I do have to suggest that it may just be too much trouble and/or too sweet for a lot of recipes.

The first Nutella recipe I tried, Nutella Cookies, were delicious (although, honestly, a tad on the sugary side), but they didn’t age well. The cookies that we didn’t eat within 12 hours of baking had to be tossed.
The latest experiment, Nutella Banana Bread, was delicious, but it was also entirely too sweet for my taste. It was reminiscent of a brunch the husband and I once had at Max Brenner in Manhattan, a brunch which will forever be referred to with the catchphrase “Would you like chocolate with your chocolate?” Because the husband got banana pancakes that, I promise you, came with chocolate syrup, and may have contained chocolate chips. I don’t remember exactly what I had, but I do recall eating a sugar-dusted biscuit topped with chocolate gravy.

Admittedly, my tolerance for sugary foods has gone down over the past few years as I’ve reduced my sugar intake. The less sugar you eat, the more intense sugary foods taste when you do eat them.

Nutella’s also a bit of a pain to use. The opening isn’t designed to allow you to measure out large spoonfuls. (I’m using the extra big jars from Costco, BTW – anything smaller will bankrupt you when baking with Nutella because you’re going to use A LOT.) And it’s a gloppy, messy ingredient, with a consistency somewhere between peanut butter and molasses.

So, I’m going to stop trying to make Nutella into an ingredient and enjoy it as is, spread on a graham cracker, a banana or apple slices. Or, perhaps, melted and poured atop a sugar-dusted biscuit because CAN’T YOU JUST IMAGINE?

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The Internet seems to be bursting at the seams with Nutella recipes. Folks are mixing the hazelnut spread into everything from ice cream to hot chocolate.

As a friend pointed out, the only thing needed for a good Nutella dish is a spoon. It is a product that may be best unencumbered by other ingredients (although you should really try encumbering it with sliced bananas — heavenly).

I’ve never been one for unencumbering things, however. I’ve been scoping out Nutella recipes on Pinterest for a few weeks, and finally chose Four Ingredient Nutella Cookies from A Busy Nest to test. (Note that I also purchased the super-deluxe family size pack of Nutella at Costco. If you’re going to use Nutella as an ingredient instead of a light spread, you’re going to need this, too.)

The recipe made the driest cookie dough I’ve ever worked with. You’ll see in the recipe’s comment section that this freaks some people out, since the dough will easily fall apart during handling.

The solution: Put on a pair of food-safe gloves and gently roll the dough into 1-inch balls, pressing it together as you go. Instead of using a floured glass to mash the cookies into circles, I simply pressed the balls flat between my palms.

The result: Delicious, melt-in-your-mouth cookies with strong Nutella overtones and just a hint of caramelization. The centers were delightfully underdone and chewy.

The drawback, however, is that the cookies only stayed chewy for a few hours. The next day, they were crunchy all the way through. Good if you want to dunk them in a glass of milk, I suppose, but not what you’re looking for if chewy is your thing. And chewy is, most definitely, my thing.

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I love cheese. I love cheese balls. I do not love the awkwardness involved in slicing off a small, bite-sized piece from a large, cold, hard-to-carve cheese ball.

Problems, problems. I know.

Anyway. If there’s anything I love better than plain old cheese, it’s goat cheese, so when I saw this recipe for Goat Cheese Pops with Herbs, Pecans and Bacon on Pinterest, I knew I had found a new culinary mission. Luckily, two events popped up on my social calendar this weekend, giving me an excuse to make a fancy cheese dish.

I did not put my goat cheese balls on lollipop sticks, so I can’t technically call them goat cheese pops. I also neglected to serve them with apple slices, since apple slices start turning brown the second you grab the paring knife and the parties I was supplying snacks for both had a relaxed buffet-type thing going on, meaning everything had to be stable at room temperature for a couple of hours.

Besides, every other apple I buy, any time of the year, turns out mushy and halfway tasteless.

If I make these again, I’ll probably use more goat cheese than cream cheese (the recipe linked above uses a 1:1 ratio of goat cheese to cream cheese — I’ll probably make that a 2:1 or even 3:1). The cream cheese probably helps with the consistency, but I think it also slightly masks the tangy flavor of the goat cheese.

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