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Archive for March 2010

One of Everybody

What is it about those we sometimes deem the “lesser” individuals of society that usually makes them the most indiscriminate? I’ve had this installment from the American Life in Poetry project sitting in my mailbox for a while. It is one of my favorites of Mr. Kooser’s selections.

The homeless, the “crazy,” the children… they so often tend to see past the outward appearances or trapping s of status and find a commonality in being a person. I see it in my own children. We went to the local McDonald’s playland yesterday for lunch, and I noticed how easily the children play together even though they don’t know one another. They never notice the color of the other’s skin or the type of clothes they are wearing. They wave at strangers. They always watch out for Baby Girl, even though (at 19 months) she slows down the climbing and sliding process. They always ask “are you ok,” when someone falls down.

I’ve noticed that when we suddenly “arrive” at the station in life we feel we deserve with the requisite education, religion, possessions, network or reputation in tow, sometimes we forget those simple commonalities, the simple discipline of indiscrimination. It’s easy to see how the equal opportunity gathering of signatures was so memorable to the poet. She immortalized the open-hearted decision that all signatures were welcome and valued the same. She took pride in including hers among the thousands. It’s a much-needed reminder that “I am one of everybody.”

American Life in Poetry: Column 243

Lots of contemporary poems are anecdotal, a brief narration of some event, and what can make them rise above anecdote is when they manage to convey significance, often as the poem closes. Here is an example of one like that, by Marie Sheppard Williams, who lives in Minneapolis.


I stood at a bus corner
one afternoon, waiting
for the #2. An old
guy stood waiting too.
I stared at him. He
caught my stare, grinned,
gap-toothed. Will you
sign my coat? he said.
Held out a pen. He wore
a dirty canvas coat that
had signatures all over
it, hundreds, maybe
I’m trying
to get everybody, he
I signed. On a
little space on a pocket.
Sometimes I remember:
I am one of everybody.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by David Lee Garrison, whose most recent book of poems is Sweeping the Cemetery: New and Selected Poems, Browser Books Publishing, 2007. Poem reprinted from Rattle, Vol. 14, No. 2, Winter 2008, by permission of David Lee Garrison and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

Oh Happy Day 032610: “Prizes”

“Mommy, I have a ‘prize for you.”

Spoken with a gleam in his eye and hands concealed behind his back, trying to balance his “prize” with a juicy cup and several beloved stuffed friends, Squiggle Bug took obvious pleasure in saying it. Let me tell you. There is no pleasure quite as obvious as 3yo pleasure. And, although he couldn’t quite articulate the SURprise, I was all too happy to be surprised nonetheless.

Every day this week, my boys have commited themselves to offering Mommy an unsolicited “surprise” at the end of each work day. The Bradford Pear tree I mentioned last week is still in full bloom next to our driveway, and it has limbs just low enough for Little Drummer Boy and Bug to break off a small cluster on their way to the door after we get home. Although I know what the “prize” is every time, I still give them each a hug and a kiss and a surprised “oh I love it” before putting the current fruit of our “flower tree” into one of several vases on my kitchen window sill.

It’s Friday again, and I’ve neglected the Junkie this week in favor of a busy work schedule. But, with the daily “prizes” of the week fresh on my mind, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to give credence to a thankful heart once again in an Oh Happy Day! gratitude posting. This week, I’m grateful for “prizes,” those unexpected pleasures that have come my way–the serendipity of surprising words, surprising accomplishments, surprising glimpses and surprising gifts. I’ve noticed how powerful those unexpected moments of crystal clarity can be, the moments when we recognize and embrace the value found in little things. The “prizes” of the week have reminded me that what may seem small and insignificant to one person, can grow and expand into something so much bigger for someone else. The insignificant can become significant in the right place, at the right time. The “off-the-cuff” can become “right-on-target” in the right place, at the right time. The simple gesture can become empowering in the right place, at the right time. It makes me think about what I’m doing a little more carefully. It makes me think about my own definitions of “small” and “big.” It makes me want to do and say the little things, just in case they might grow in the right heart, in the right place, at the right time.

The week’s lessons in the art of surprises:

Exhibit A: Surprising Looks. The proud faces of my boys as they prepared to hand over their treasured “prizes” was an unexpected pleasure this week that I took the time to enjoy. And, truth be told; I was kicking myself for the number of times I KNOW I have overlooked those precious expressions, distracted by some seemingly more important notion. Their smiles offered me a surprising glimpse into the unencumbered joy of giving, the joy of accepting, the joy of being affirmed and affirming.

Exhibit B: Surprising Words. I was the recipient of some unexpected, but much-appreciated compliments this week. Someone I value and admire offered some positive feedback on this blog and on some of the day job endeavors in which I’m currently engaged. It’s interesting how those surprising words gave me a new drive toward creativity, a renewed motivation to measure myself and my endeavors in terms of quality rather than quantity.

Exhibit C: A Surprising Fit. I’m just a girl at heart. Still. And, in specific, I’m a girl who had three babies in four years. This week, I pulled out a nice Eddie Bauer jumper dress–a lovely and polished outfit that I honestly hadn’t worn since sometime before I was pregnant with Baby Girl, maybe even Bug. It fit! It looked good on me. It made me feel like I could take on the world. And, in some ways, it empowered me to take on my little world in a new way. I know my male readers out there don’t get this one. But, we all have hidden confidence benchmarks. Sometimes for women it involves a pair of blue jeans or a nice grey pinstripe jumper with a pair of 3″ black boots. Just sayin.

Exhibit D: Surprising Freedom. This week I acted on something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. The details would bore you, but suffice it to say that it was a simple act that allowed me to feel like I was taking better control of myself and taking ownership of some of my own decisions. Following through on intentions brings with it an unexpected freedom–the freedom to act, the freedom to be deliberate, the freedom to move forward with new things. The impact of just one small act really surprised me.

When I go home in a few minutes, I’m sure LDB and Bug will gather their “prizes” again. They’ll struggle with hiding them while holding on to all their own personal treasures. They’ll smile and hand them over with pride in their eyes. They’ll follow me to the kitchen and watch me add them to the vases. Then, they’ll go on about their movie-watching and car chasing, satisfied with themselves. And, I’ll smile again. The Bradford has mostly leafed out with tiny bright green growth now. The leaves are inhabiting the same branches as the flowers and will soon push them out. Already, any decent gust of wind or drizzle of rain sends down showers of the white petals. The time for “flower trees” is almost gone. For the boys, it will give way to more outside time, rock collections harbored away in their pockets, dirty jeans and skinned knees. Their surprises will probably shift to something like interesting sticks or colorful rocks or slimy green lizards. And, I’ll gladly take them with a smile (even the lizards), but I won’t soon forget these blossomy “prizes.” Or the Exhibits of the week.

Oh Happy Day!

Cardinal Rules

I spotted this guy in my backyard this week. I glanced out the back door as I was walking through the kitchen, and I could see him clear across the lawn even though it was cloudy and just before twilight. It’s hard to miss that red in the sea of gray and evergreen at the back fence. It was like he was screaming at me; his presence was so vibrant. But, he wasn’t shouting. He was perfectly silent, and his only movements were those slight fluffing of feathers and jittery turns of the neck birds do.

His color was so bright that I wanted to get a picture. I grabbed my camera, slowly opened the back door and eased out onto the back steps. I took my zoom lens as far as it would go to capture him, which probably accounts for the slight blur in the photo. When I realized I couldn’t focus as well as I wanted to, I decided to try to get a little closer. Sure enough, as soon as I made a move down the steps toward the patio, he’d had enough. Off he flew, and the moment was gone.

I’m tempted to say this bird is a sign of Spring, but he’s not. He’s actually a sign of Winter. The cardinals have been spent the entire Winter with us like they do every year. I suppose Starkville, MS offers just the right blend of mild Winter weather to make it a good “snowbird” locale for the red birds. This one’s plump physique is an advertisement for the luxury accomodations available in our particular yard with the berries, the evergreen trees, the vinca groundcover and the tall bird feeder we try to protect from overzealous (and very acrobatic) squirrels. The only drawbacks in our bird paradise are the rowdy boys that sometimes populate the backyard as well. Still, we usually have two or three cardinal families– brilliant red males and duller brown females–that hang around throughout the year, and we’ll probably get to watch them teach their babies to fly this Spring.

It’s an odd phenomenon–how much more I seem to notice the cardinals during Winter, even this time of year, than later in Spring or Summer when they are more prolific. I suppose it’s the sheer contrast of their color and movement against the seeming monotony and stillness of the Winter landscape. As Spring gains prominence, their bright red becomes just one component of a rainbow of other saturated colors–greens, reds, yellows, blue skies. Their flight gets lost in the cacophony of other activities going on outdoors. It’s interesting how much more easily we recognize things when they are sparse, how much more significant to us they become when we aren’t saturated. When we feel deprived of something, we tend to recognize its value more poignantly. Its presence gains power, perhaps because scarcity tends to focus our attention

It’s Saturday, and I’m usually totally immersed in a flood of laundry and housework and catching up. But, I’ve been thinking about this little cardinal all week. His vibrance. His stunning addition to our backyard in that one moment. His power to capture my attention so completely. I hope I can live by the “cardinal” rules today, recognizing and giving attention to those things and people that matter to me, even on the days when their presence is crowded by so many daily occurences. I don’t want to notice them only when I’m lonely for their prominence.

Oh Happy Day 031910: Collaboration

It’s Friday, and I’ve decided to resurrect my long-overdue Oh Happy Day! Gratitude Project. It was waaay back on (look at that!) November 13th that I last posted my own version of EyeJunkie “thank God it’s Friday” fare. This little project was fueled many moons ago by something I read that encouraged me to right my attitude daily by writing down five things for which I am grateful. I have SERIOUSLY fallen short of that admonition lately (read ignored), but I notice more and more every day just how important a thankful heart and attitude are in the daily consumption of a joyful life. You can read the whole story on the humble beginnings of the Oh Happy Day! project, or you can just trust me and pick up the trail here…

It’s been a crazy week of ups and downs (like most weeks), and the downs often present a challenge to my joy quotient–and sometimes my energy quotient. It’s helpful to skew that process back in the right direction by paying attention to the things or people or circumstances for which I’m thankful. It’s funny how an attitude of gratitude can sometimes mysteriously turn the downs back to the upside. Recognizing the blessings in my life, especially those in unexpected or hard-revealed places, helps me gain new perspective.

THIS WEEK I’ve been very grateful for the lost art of collaboration. If you read much around the internet on the subject of innovation or creativity or business development or even urban development (as I, in my nerd-like qualities do), you’ve probably seen the term “silos” as it relates to storing up ideas rather than grain. Despite the preschool tenets of sharing and taking turns that are burned into our brains and sensibilities, we sometimes grow up determined to build silos or isolated pockets of information, influence or resources. We often see a fear in sharing which makes us hold our thoughts and gifts with a closed fist. Collaboration becomes threatening somehow. But, it’s a happy day! This week I’ve seen collaboration in action in a couple of (three) ways. And, I’m so grateful for its impact on my life, work and parenting. Here’s what I’ve noticed.

Collaboration encites courage.
Through a few specific conversations and phone calls recently, I’ve noticed that two are so much better than one when it comes to handling frustrating, challenging or simply new situations. Sharing our own thoughts and feelings is often the type of collaboration we are most resistant to. However, articulating my thinking with a trusted confidante actually makes those thoughts and concerns so much more manageable. I can more easily take ownership of what’s frustrating me with the encouragement of someone who’s listened. It gives me courage to tackle the difficult circumstances with my eyes open, spunk in my step and perhaps a little bit more perspective or wisdom in my pocket. And, THAT courage makes me want to be available to someone else who needs that same collaboration.

Collaboration enables creativity.
I mentioned this week’s collaboration with my friend, Jennifer Wyatt, owner of Her Executive Coach. Our experiment with Facebook has been a joyful experience that reminded me of how much more creative and innovative I can be when I’m in conversation or collaboration. Creativity feeds off itself. Creative people spur me on to be more creative. Collaboration enables that synergy that makes new ideas more apparent. It makes the new ideas seem more possible. Creativity can be diminished in a vacuum. So, whether it’s in writing adventures, child-rearing, marketing my day job or just figuring out what’s for dinner, my creative endeavors can benefit from interactions, from exposure to new ideas and methods, and from the types of collaborations Jennifer was willing to give.

Collaboration encourages harmony.
Little Drummer Boy and Bug offered some much-sought-after examples of this principle this week. They are at the ages when we are swinging between the my-brother-is-my-best-friend and the my-brother-is-my-mortal-enemy camps on a whim. I just never know from one moment to the next where I’m going to land. We try our best to encourage, beg, scold and bribe the boys into doing and saying kind things to one another. Several times this week, I found myself wide-eyed at spontaneous collaboration going on between my sweet gifts. LDB offered advice on using the “big potty.” He gave instructions on how to write letters in the alphabet–instructions Bug was eager to follow. Bug requested input on various car chases and dinosaur stories. They determined the rules of their own hallway (read Montgomery speedway) games. It was amazing. I’m actually inclined to say miraculous, a description I’m sure other preschool Mommies out there will be happy to validate. I’m starting to catch on to something here. Maybe working TOGETHER on something is a lot more fun that arguing. Lovely food for parenting thought.

Thank you, collaboration.
Oh Happy Day!

Where the Ideas Take Me

Warning: This is yet another post about writing. What is it about writers that makes them write so much about writing–analyzing their own “craft,” evaluating their own habits? I can hear the chorus of oh-good-griefs resonating through cyberspace right now. Truth be told; I don’t necessarily consider myself to be a “writer” most of the time. I’m just a girl who writes, really. I don’t know if that gets me off the hook with the “writing about writing” fiasco. But here goes.

I love to write. I really do. And, I hate to write. I really do. There’s the rub. In observing myself, I’ve realized that there’s a point (call it A) at which I’m really excited about the process. And there’s a point (call it B) at which I can’t even successfully bribe myself with chocolate to do it. Then, I get back to the place where I’m willing to write, actually put some work into it. And finally, on the really fun days, I get in that zone–the state of mind where the essays write themselves, and I’m just along for the key-tapping. I’m the same way with my design projects sometimes (the day job). I imagine the process is similar for those in other creative pursuits. And let’s face it; are there really pursuits that aren’t creative? Whether it’s writing or painting or architecture or graphic design or preschool lesson-planning or cooking or running a business or whatever, sometimes it’s hard to get from unsuccessful bribery to willingness. Much less to being along to enjoy the ride. If it lights a fire inside, it has the potential to squelch itself just as easily in my experience. And at some point, hopefully the flame just burns inspite of itself.

As you may have guessed, writing has not been coming easily these days. You can surmise that from the infrequency of my posts (if this particular essay didn’t give it away.) The breakdown in the process for me comes more from simply getting started than from the actual writing itself. Once I set about putting my fingertips to the keys, the words usually come. It’s the getting there that’s the problem. So, what stalls me between point A and point B?  Just like with many kinds of decisions or pursuits, you can take a number.

Sometimes it’s fear or insecurity. Can I really do this? Sometimes it’s lack of sincerity or commitment. Am I really willing to put the time into this? More often than not, it’s the paralysis of ideas — either too many or too little.  Maybe that one comes from the quest for perfection. Ideas in their raw form are ethereal. They’re abstract to an extent. They have the glamour of perfection without the work required for a lean, toned, well-coiffed presentation. And, bringing about that toned essay from some fleeting idea regularly brings me many a moment of insecurity, indecision and non-commitment.

I’m an idea girl. I can brainstorm with the best of them. In fact, I’m a huge proponent of that unfiltered practice. I actually spend a lot of time doing it. But, I’ve been confounded by the idea of ideas lately. So many beginnings, it’s hard to choose which one to explore to a satisfying conclusion. And, an idea is only as good as where it takes me. Whenever it thunderstorms in the fall – our aluminium guttering get a little clogged, which means one of the kids has to be grounded so that the punishment of cleaning the raingutters can be dished out.

I saw a comment in a Twitter chat recently. It may have been part of some targeted conversation on innovation or marketing or social media–one of those things that verify my nerd status. I can’t remember. But the thought was that ideas aren’t really the best commodity–not the best investment. It made the case that a better investment is in those who can generate ideas. The process of producing ideas has more potential for return than any one, fleeting idea. I found that to be interesting and true. To a degree. The ability to generate ideas is indeed a notable gift, but the ability to follow through on an idea is also important. To chase an idea unencumbered by precedent or constraint or forethought can be a frustrating process, but also a rewarding one. Ideas can gain a life and passion of their own. Following them can get me to surprising places.

In my efforts to get from that unsuccessful bribe I mentioned to the willingness to work at it, to chase it, I ask myself lots of questions. Do I need to put myself on a schedule? To discipline myself more? Do I need to limit my focus? Find someone to hold me accountable? Do I need to pick a singular topic? Am I committed to this? Can I do this? Regardless of the answers, I do find that when I write, writing comes. When I stop thinking about where the ideas might lead and start following their trail in actual words and sentences, they actually take me somewhere. And it’s usually a place I enjoy going.

So, why am I sharing this? At the risk of being ridiculous, I have no idea. Call it a visual aid. It was one of those ideas that I decided to pursue, committing my fingers to the trusty laptop keyboard. Did it take me somewhere valuable? You tell me. Does it feel good to bang something out without thinking about its “postability?” Yes, it does. So, the fact that I’m along for the ride accomplishes my purpose.

EyeJunkie writing lesson of the week: Ideas are like topics of conversation, BlowPop flavors and underwear… when in doubt, just pick one and go with it.

Twenty Books

I’ve been thinking about books a lot lately. I just finished reading Just Kids by Patti Smith, a memoir of her life and friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. What is it about books, whether mysteries or memoirs or monographs, that have such power to move me? Just Kids was at times poignant, at times an exercise in frustration, at times an obscure literary lesson and at times a huge 60s and 70s cocktail party. But, at the end, when the final scenes for Patti and Robert were played out before his death, I was moved to tears. It was such an unavoidable description of the realities of goodbye and hello and time spent and time lost and unexpected outcomes and enduring soul kinship. And, since I’m writing this to the backdrop of Little Drummer Boy and Baby Girl giggling and playing together, I’m realizing it was also a story of life lived and how it moves on. Quite a range of thinking from just 279 pages.

I’m not sure I have ever in my life been able to read words on a page without thinking about them. Yes, I sometimes realize at bedtime that I’ve reached the end of my 647th encounter with Corduroy or Harry the Dirty Dog or The Tale of Peter Rabbit without remembering the actual act of speaking the words. But, the first time I read them I thought about them. The first time I read them I engaged in some strange process of extracting personal reactions or obscure life lessons. Many of the books my children read are copies I had as a child myself. I’m sure my first time reading them as a parent produced different thoughts than my times reading them as a youngster. That’s just how it goes.

I’m in the midst of deciding on the next book to read and culling down a list of possibilities gleaned from way too much time spent with NPR email alerts and the New York Times Book Review. I don’t know why I always get indecisive with this process. It’s not like I can’t put a book down and pick up another one at my leisure. Sometimes the decision represents some tantalizing combination of being afraid a book won’t live up to its billing and of being afraid it will so surpass its billing that it will haunt me for months or years. Perhaps I’m overthinking. While I decide and reign myself in, I thought I’d offer up a Tuesday Twenty list of books I’d be delighted to RE-read. I just read an interview in the LA Times with John McPhee, the author and long-time columnist for The New Yorker. The article was about his upcoming book of personal essays (just another addition to the list of reading possibilities *sigh*), and in it, he offered some sage insight about being a reader, despite his ample experience being the writer in the equation. He observed that “the creative person in this process is the reader, by a long shot. The writer supplies three or four words, but the reader makes the picture.” These books have afforded me the opportunity to paint a unique picture on one or more occasions in my reading. And, I’m convinced another reading would give me an entirely new view. The power of a good book.

1. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Some folks tire of the intricate detail found in Edith Wharton’s work, but I really enjoy the description of New York society during the turn of the 20th Century. It’s a toss-up between this more popular novel and The House of Mirth. Both have such a wrenching view of women living outside the constraints of the trappings of that society.

2. Emma by Jane Austen
Fills my latent romantic tendencies. Downright funny at times, and there’s a happy ending!

3. Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
The most poignant part in the first reading: Ellen thinks her last name is Foster because people always refer to her as “that Foster child.” Hers is a story of triumph and Kaye Gibbons’ Southern stream of consciousness is remarkable, if you like that sort of thing. I’d read any of her books again. Seriously.

4. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
Vermeer. Enough said. But, the fictional tale surrounding the moments captured in one of his most astounding works is bittersweet, eloquent and artistic.

5. Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather
Years later, I’m still thinking about the bittersweet end of this beautiful novel about a woman who wants so much more than what the culture she lives in is willing to give her.

6. A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Bailey
Told entirely in letters, this story of a woman’s powerful spirit made me want to go out and buy stationery. The lost art of letters never looked so attractive.

7. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
I can’t tell you how many times I read this as a child. It still stirs me, both from the family story, the independence of “Jo” and my own memories of reading it.

8. 31 Hours by Masha Hamilton
Published just last year, I’m astounded by the restraint in this book, by the new perspective on terrorism, by the mother’s heart described, by the uncommon experiences found in the common subway.

9. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Ingalls was my best friend in elementary school. It would be good to see her again.

10. The Lively Art of Writing by Lucille Vaughan Payne
This little book was my 9th grade English textbook. Thank you, Mrs. Armstrong. I still use the principles today. And, I still choose when to lovingly ignore them.

11. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
I read this book way back in college, and I think explored the evolution of cities in a project centered on it. It is an amazing glimpse of the fragmented sociology of kingdoms told by a fictional Marco Polo. The young European explorer offers Kublai Khan, the aging asian emperor, tales of the cities throughout his empire. As it turns out, the stories all describe the same city — a lesson in points of view.

12. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
No elaboration required.

13. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
An unforgettable non-fiction account of one reporter’s indoctrination into all things Southern and a beautiful and quirky account of the mystery and crazy culture of Savanah, GA. Best tombstone epitaph: a bench at the grave of Conrad Aiken is inscribed with “cosmos mariner, destination unknown.”

14. Night by Elie Wiesel
You may have seen the account of my first reading of this memoir. I still shrink back from the book, but crave the undeniable reality check on human nature it offers.

15. Creating a Beautiful Life by Alexandra Stoddard
Every time I look at this book, I’m encouraged to pay attention to the little things and value beauty in my life. Beauty, as I behold it, is important and it’s not that hard to achieve.

16. On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon by Kaye Gibbons
A very moving tale of a woman during the Civil War era. In my first reading, I was compelled to record Emma Garnett’s thoughts on seeing the jarring, but numbing realities of that war through photos, and how it would have been more powerful in paintings…

“If Monet or Manet or Toulouse-Lautrec had performed the scenes of battle, I might have been urged toward emotion, for the horror would have quivered on the surface of the page and beckoned my mind to follow attendant sensations deeper and deeper to the core, down into the true, wasted, stupid, futile blasphemy of that conflict.”

17. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
An example of C.S. Lewis’ creativity and a treatise on the nature of evil told from the perspective of a young devil in training.

18. The Divine Romance by Gene Edwards
A beautiful telling of the story of God–his creation, his work, his redemption–expressed as a love story. The very first page describes two essentials of God’s existence in the pre-dawn of creation. God was alone. And, God was love. A profound paradox of coexistence for both God and man — the lover without the loved.

18. My Mississippi by Willie Morris
Who can escape the words of Willie Morris. His thoughts about his (and my) home state are moving, steeped in memory and the fervor of the unique life here. His essay is accompanied by a collection of photos of the state taken by his son.

20. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
The first descriptive word that came to mind when I read this book originally was “ethereal.” Its descriptions of characters and of the Newfoundland area were beautiful. The journey of a man coming to grips with his own history and finally learning to love was like a deep breath.

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