This Yankees Fan Has Had Enough

April 8, 2009

In his classic book on architecture The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander offered this observation about bad architecture: “When a place is lifeless or unreal, there is almost always a mastermind behind it. It is so filled with the will of its maker that there is no room for its own nature.” Alexander offered this advice to those architects who try to take their ego out of a building design: “You are able to do this only when you no longer fear that nothing will happen….”

Although Alexander’s work is to help architects design buildings that have “the quality without a name,” his work has universal applicability. This quality, he pointed out, “cannot be made, but only generated, indirectly, by the ordinary actions of people, just as a flower cannot be made but only generated from the seed.” Continuing his gardening metaphor, Alexander points out, “If you want to make a living flower, you don’t build it physically, with tweezers, cell by cell. You grow it from the seed…No process of construction can ever create this kind of complexity directly.”

Consider The New York Yankees—each year a new team of high priced mercenaries is assembled. If opening day is an indication, this year’s team promises to be another boring collection of players who have no idea of what team play means. On the mound was CC Sabathia; we are told that the Yankees were fortunate to sign him to a $161 million free agent contract. Pitching against the Orioles on Monday, he looked at least 40 pounds overweight; he barely made it past the 4th inning.

In order to avoid injury and maximize his performance, a team player would take pride in being in top physical condition. In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Covlin, although not necessarily writing about sports, observes:

Trust is the most fundamental element of a winning team. If people think their teammates are lying, withholding information, or plotting to knife them, nothing valuable will get done. Similarly, team members may not trust one another’s competence. Such teams don’t create synergy. They created the opposite, dysergy-two plus two equals three, with luck.

So-called dream teams may be in trouble from the start because team members often have particular reasons to be distrustful.

Great coaches and managers know that, as important as talent is, a collection of big egos will perform to a level less than the sum of the parts. Consider the 1980 Olympic U.S. hockey team, the “Miracle on Ice” team, which won the gold medal at Lake Placid, NY. The U.S. team, composed of amateurs, was up against the team from the Soviet Union, considered to be the best team in the world. When Craig Patrick, the assistant coach of the U.S. team, said to head coach Herb Brooks, “You’re missing the best players,” Herb is reported to have responded, “I’m not looking for the best players, Craig. I’m lookin’ for the right ones.”

John Wooden was the coach of the legendary UCLA basketball teams that won seven consecutive national championships. Many consider Wooden the greatest coach of any sport in history. High praise indeed! But if you examine his record, his coaching philosophy, and how he conducted himself, it would be hard to argue with that assessment.

Among Wooden’s talented players was Sidney Wicks. When Wicks first came to UCLA, he was not a good team player; he was impatient. In his book, Be Quick-But Don’t Hurry, co-written with Coach Wooden, Andrew Hill relates the story of when Wooden banned Wicks from the starting lineup in favor of Lynn Shackleford. Wicks asked Coach Wooden, “Aren’t I better player than Lynn Shackleford?” Wooden responded, “Why yes, you are, Sydney, and when you learn to play with the team, you will start, but not before then.” It took Wicks a full season to get the point, but he went on to become a great team player. In college, he became national player of the year; and in the MBA, he was rookie of the year.

If you are a sports fan, reflect for a moment on the most memorable games in any sports that you have seen. On your list of games is probably one played by a team that grew organically and overcame adversity. Although as a fan you weren’t on the team, your life was enhanced not because your team won, but because you learned and were inspired by watching their journey. If you allowed that lesson to sink in, you too were inspired to become more of what you could be.

I’m a life-long New York Yankees fan. But who—outside of a Wall Street banker buying his expensive tickets from a taxpayer paid bonus—would care if this current gang of mercenaries wins? Are they fun to watch? My answer is no. As Alexander would point out, they are lifeless. More than that, they they promote values that, if applied, subtract from our lives. They teach Americans that there is nothing that a little more money cannot cure. They teach Americans that the outcome, rather than the process, is all that matters.

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Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

January 15, 2009

By now, many have begun to break their heartfelt New Year’s resolutions. They may believe that, if they are dieting, they are the unfortunate victim of bad genes. If they are trying a new exercise regime, they may attribute their failure to their busy schedule. If they are trying to improve their relationships with their teenage children, they may attribute their failures (sarcastically) to “everyone knows how teenagers are.” If they are trying to learn a new skill, they may claim that they are slow learners. The excuses are endless; the real power behind a resolution is always the same—hard work and a change of heart. Success rarely comes easily.

When you hear the name Mozart what do you think of? Most people think of a great musical genius who had gifts that were apparent at a very early age. They think of a genius who had to do very little to develop his gifts. Many believe that Mozart was a scribe writing down music that was “dictated” to him. In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin points out that these are myths. Consider this statement supposedly written by Mozart in a letter.

All this fires my soul, and provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost finished and complete in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once…. When I proceed to write down my ideas, I take out of the bag of my memory, if I may use that phrase, what has previously been collected into it, in the way I have mentioned. For this reason, the committing to paper is done quickly enough, for everything is, as I said before, already finished; and it rarely differs on paper from what it was in my imagination.

The only problem is that almost all scholars of music history agree that this letter is a forgery; written by Mozart’s publisher Friedrich Rochlitz and designed to enhance Mozart’s reputation.  As Colvin points out, “Surviving manuscripts show that Mozart was continually revising, reworking, crossing out and rewriting whole sections, jotting down fragments and putting them aside for months or years.” Simply, “he wrote music the way ordinary humans do.” Mozart was no Mozart!

But didn’t Mozart begin to compose at a very young age? Doesn’t that indicate that Mozart was different? Colvin points out that his father Leopold, an accomplished musician himself, corrected his son’s manuscripts, and that Mozart’s early compositions were arrangements of works by others. Mozart went through 18 years of very rigorous training before, at the age of twenty-one, he published his first composition that is generally considered a masterpiece.

Colvin’s book is fascinating because he reports on a provocative thesis developed by psychologist Anders Ericsson—namely, most of our success in life is not the result of an innate talent, but it is a result of what is called deliberate practice.  Once we understand what deliberate practice is we begin to understand why better performance for most individuals does not get better simply by experience. Deliberate practice is not mere experience; and very importantly, it is not practicing what we are already good at.

Ericsson found, for instance, that skaters who had aspirations for the Olympics would deliberately practice those aspects of their skating game where their skills were the weakest. On the other hand, other amateurs would focus on what they were already good at; and they spent a great deal of their time at the rink socializing and not really practicing at all.

Deliberate practice is not easy; that is why it is the road less traveled. It requires focus and concentration—often this work is not fun. According to Colvin “deliberate practice requires that one identifies certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them.” Such a practice stretches us beyond our current comfort zone. Many of us don’t place ourselves in this learning zone—we are happy just maintaining the level of performance that brought us to the position we are in.

Choosing deliberate practice takes commitment. In the world of sports, some athletes stand out not because of their talent level, however high it is, but because of their commitment to deliberate practice which in their profession may be grueling. Former National Football League wide receiver Jerry Rice is considered by most to be the greatest of all time at his position. However, it was not his physicals skills that were extraordinary-many others exceeded him in important categories like speed. What was extraordinary about Rice was his training regime which was so demanding that few came close to emulating it.  For example, Rice was not the fastest on the field, but his daily uphill wind sprints gave him acceleration skills that no one was able to match.

Back to our New Year’s resolutions. Trouble speaking to your teenage son? You may need to learn new skills, and you may need a change of heart. You’re going to have to practice some things that you haven’t done before.

New diet? Same thing. If you rely upon your taste buds, which have become accustomed to processed foods, to eat natural foods may be a deliberate practice for you.

Exercise?  You may have to cancel your cable television subscription and feel the discomfort of doing so. You may have to suck wind the first time that you jog up a hill.

Lots of things seem impossible from where we stand today. We can make the impossible possible with deliberate practice.


Life, Handball, and Justice

July 2, 2008

Imagine that you are the greatest champion that your sport had ever, or probably ever will produce. Further, imagine that you have to work full-time as a fireman to support yourself and that sometimes you show up at tournaments straight from work, wearing your heavy uniform, soot still on your face. Some might rail at the injustice that life brings: “I should be playing another sport; I should stop playing for peanuts; it is not fair that I need a day job as a fireman to support my family; at least on the day I have a tournament, I should have the day off.” Vic Hershkowitz did no such complaining.

Vic Hershkowitz won 23 amateur national titles in handball. He died this week at the age of 89. Hershkowitz’s greatest handball strengths came from his ability to use either hand with equal power and dexterity, and from his ability to change the pace of his shots. His athletic abilities were compared to those of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. Growing up in Brooklyn during the Depression, Hershkowitz couldn’t afford to play any other sport. His sole handball earnings came from $50 a stop, barnstorming clinics during the 1950s when handball was at its peak of popularity. One of his handball rivals, Phil Collins said of Vic: “He was a hall-of-fame human being; a lot of good players didn’t want to teach anybody else or help them with their game. He always did.”

Vic Hershkowitz’s life teaches us much. We live in a society where we are constantly bombarded by judgments of what is unfair. These complaints are endless. Some may complain: “It is unfair that the CEO earns so much, and the teacher earns so little.” While others may judge: “It is unfair that the coal miner earns so little, while the baseball player earns so much.”

We are further told that in a just society something should be done about these types of injustices. But wait, who set the low pay rate for Vic Hershkowitz and the much higher pay rate for Mickey Mantle? Of course, it was simply the tastes of the consuming public. That the pay rate for Vic Hershkowitz bore no relationship to his immense athletic abilities is a sign of a free and vibrant society; it was not the sign of injustice.

My last sentence needs further consideration. Assume for a moment that Hershkowitz and Mantle had equal abilities. To assure the same material outcome, government would have had to treat Hershkowitz and Mantle very differently; Hershkowitz would have had to have been compensated for the fact that there were far fewer fans who cared about handball than fans who cared about baseball.

Of course, using that logic, there is no end to the compensations and interferences that one could demand of government. We would quickly find that government , rather than being the impartial arbiter it is supposed to be, would be treating different people differently in order to correct for something for which no one is to blame. In doing so, government would need to institute all types of coercive controls; and in the process, those government controls would cripple the economy.

There is another equally important lesson to learn from Hershkowitz’s life. By all accounts, Hershkowitz lived a more fulfilling and happier life than did Mickey Mantle. Of course, we will never know what either he or Mantle felt inside; but research on happiness shows that the happiness that you experience bears little relationship to how much money and fame you have. Mantle’s greater riches and fame did not buy him peace of mind. Happiness is truly an inside job.

We are all born into certain circumstances—a unique time, place, and culture. We are all given gifts of potential talents. Our happiness depends on developing our gifts; because as we do, we are allowing the source of those gifts to flow through us. That source of Love and Intelligence lives in each of us, but only to extent that we do not choke it off.

Under different circumstances, Vic Hershkowitz may have been a baseball player. For all we know, that thought never even crossed his mind. I have little doubt he felt fortunate to play handball. He did what his circumstances and his gifts allowed him to do, and he did it full of love for the game that was his calling. In that way, he was a model champion for us all.

We are all better at demanding things from life than we are at listening to what life asks of us. Life asks much of all of us. It asks that we use our gifts; it asks that, over and over again, we extend love and forgiveness; it asks that we stop railing against what is wrong and stop demanding that life conform to our demands. When we do, love, peace, and happiness flow through us. The choice is only the next moment away.


Jason and the Golden Thong

May 21, 2008

Although I am a life-long New York Yankees fan, I have barely watched them play this year. No, I am not a fair weather fan—this Yankee “team” is simply a boring collection of players who are going through the motions. Baseball on television can be a tedious affair under the best of circumstances; but when the players don’t seem to care, the game becomes unwatchable.

Consider the case of Jason Giambi. First baseman Giambi, an admitted former steroid user, was signed by the Yankees to a lucrative, long-term contract just before his production collapsed. This year Giambi is earning the second highest salary in the major leagues. For his more than $23 million a year, he gives back to the team offensive and defensive production that is among the worst in baseball. In 2007, he hit just .236 with 14 home runs and 39 RBIs. This year his batting average has sunk further to .191.

For some reason, Giambi has recently revealed that he has a lucky, gold, tiger-striped thong that he wears under his uniform in order to break out of slumps. “I only put it on when I’m desperate to get out of a big slump,” he disclosed. Giambi claims to have shared his lucky thong with current teammates Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, and Robinson Cano. Giambi further claimed 100% success for his thong: “All of them wore it and got hits. The thong works every time.”

Of course Giambi’s claim is self-evidently absurd, given his own batting average and the current performance of his teammates. Cano is hitting .204 and Damon .250—almost matching Giambi’s offensive futility. Only Jeter is hitting above .300.

OK, enough beating up on Giambi and the Yankees. But, there is a universal lesson to learn here. That lesson is simply this—in any endeavor, our performance has everything to do with the depth of our training, practice, and preparation and our willingness to allow our abilities and gifts to shine through in pressure situations. Our performance has nothing to do with our attempts to control the situation.

Allow me to share my own personal revelation. When I have a big “game”—for instance, a seminar presentation to an audience outside my University—to the extent that I allow feelings of insecurity to guide me, I will pay inordinate attention to the clothes that I put on that morning. While I have never put on a gold thong, I have changed my shirt more than once.

When you are facing a new audience, it is common to have thoughts about how you will be received or what the outcome will be. If you entertain such thoughts, they quickly begin to fester and to generate feelings of anxiety, worry, and fear. As fear and anxiety grow, our ego will attempt to control the external environment and gain any perceived edge that it can. Hence, Giambi puts on a golden thong, or in my case, I change my shirt.

Many years ago, before I understood what my ego was up to, I behaved as though I believed that I performed better wearing one shirt over another. I’m sure that the origin of this belief was not too different from that of Giambi’s belief in his thong. I would choose one shirt; and if I performed well that day, I would tend to choose that shirt again the next time.

Even then, deep down, I really knew better. My performance has about as much to do with my shirt as Giambi’s has to do with his thong. Over the years, I have learned much about how to gently observe the stories my ego feeds me—and I have learned how to gently laugh at those stories. When I stick to my knitting, when I am prepared, and most importantly, when I am willing to observe and dismiss thoughts that create anxiety, I feel no need to change my shirt.

When I do the important work of gently easing my ego out of the picture, more often than not, I will be in the flow and my seminar will be successful. Those in sports call this being in the zone. Being in the zone is natural—once we stop identifying with our egoic thinking. In an interview in The Sun Eckhart Tolle described what happens when we get lost in a world of our egoic thinking:

We live in a world of mental abstraction, conceptualization, and image making — a world of thought. And that becomes our dwelling place. It is a world characterized by the inability ever to stop thinking. The mental noise is a continuous stream. Psychologists have found that 95 percent or more of it is totally repetitive. Perhaps 10 percent of those thought processes, at most, are actually needed to deal with life. Thought can sometimes be very useful, but in our world it has become obsessive, compulsive, almost like an addiction. People’s sense of identity, of self, gets bound up with their mental concepts and mental images of “I” and “me.”

Our addiction to our ego thinking is certain to put us in a slump. Gosh, for the money that Giambi is making, you would think that he would invest in a good sports psychologist. I’ll give him some simple advice for free. First, practice and train harder than ever before—all the thongs in the world will not help you if you don’t cultivate your ability and talent. Next, when your ego thinks it can control your anxiety, observe what you are thinking—there is a false belief about yourself in relationship to the world that is being revealed by your ego’s story. Be willing look at those thoughts; but then, drop them. You will never break out of your slump while you are lost in your ego’s story.


Success Beyond Success

May 7, 2008

In late April, an extraordinary event happened in a women’s softball game between Central Washington and Western Oregon Universities.

In the second inning of the game, Sara Tucholsky, an outfielder for Western Oregon, smashed a ball over the center field fence for her very first career home run. In her excitement, she badly injured her knee rounding first base. She was unable to continue circling the bases.

What could Tucholsky or Western Oregon do? Could her teammates carry her around the bases? No, the umpire ruled against that option. Could her team substitute a pinch runner? Yes, but the pinch runner would have to remain at first base, and Tucholsky’s home run would become a single.

It did not look good for Tucholsky. Then, Central Washington’s first baseman and the league’s all-time home run record holder, Mallory Holtman, asked the umpire if she and her teammates could carry their opponent Tucholsky around the bases. The answer was yes, and so they did. Central Washington lost the game and, in so doing, decreased their chances of making the NCAA tournament. Holtman is a senior and has never been to the tournament.

In post game interviews, Holtman offered that she had done nothing extraordinary and that anyone would have behaved the same way. Sadly, we know that isn’t the case. In sports, cheating has been routinely tolerated; unsportsmanlike conduct is viewed as part of the game.

Clearly Holtman’s actions were not ordinary. We can imagine other players never having the impulse to be of assistance. Still others might shut down any impulse to help with thoughts like: “We really need to win this game to be in the NCAA tournament.” Or, “Her unfortunate accident is just part of the game. Nothing I can do about it.” And who would fault such players for their inaction?

In her outstanding book Soul-Kissed, Ann Linthorst tells this story of a “woman who was showing her spiritual teacher around her backyard”:

The teacher commented on the number of birds. The woman exclaimed. “Oh, I have never noticed any birds out there before. “ Her teacher replied, “Madam, you must have birds in your heart before you will find birds in your backyard.”

In other words, what allowed Holtman to act in such an inspired way, was that a higher value had already been cultivated in her heart—the value of treating another human being as she would treat herself. Eckhart Tolle has written: “The true meaning of love is to see the other as yourself.”

Linthorst’s teacher, the late Dr. Thomas Hora, offered this principle of harmonious living: “Take no thought for what should not be; seek ye first to know the good of God which already is.”

Why is this a principle of harmonious living? Hora’s principle stresses process above outcome. For example, in the softball game—instead of allowing the ego to run through its reasons why it should or should not help, prior practice of this principle orients the mind to allow harmonious choices to flow through spontaneously, even in the heat of the moment.

Holtman and her Washington State team clearly allowed a decision to flow through them—a decision that emanated from beyond their egos. In doing so, they won more than a game. They achieved what Fred Kofman has called “success beyond success.” They strengthened their future ability to allow happiness, love, and peace to flow though them.

Some cynics may view the Central Washington State players as foolish altruists. Those cynics are wrong. Recent academic research on happiness demonstrates that happiness depends very little on success in the world. Transitory events like winning a ball game have only temporary effects on happiness. In contrast, expressing higher values—values such as love and gratitude—has enormous and lasting effects on happiness.

Besides teaching us a life lesson, Central Washington may have become an even better team. For, as legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson has observed, “Love is the force that ignites the spirit and binds teams together.” No doubt, a team whose spirit is ignited and whose players are bound together will play better.


Derek Jeter’s Leadership Meltdown

October 8, 2007

Success in baseball, as in all sports, is not just about ability; as importantly, it is a function of mental toughness. Derek Jeter, the great Yankee shortstop, has exhibited that mental toughness many times, but he has never exhibited great leadership ability. Friday night, during the Indians vs. Yankees playoff game, his failure to lead may have cost the Yankees the game.

The type of mental toughness that I am talking about is exhibited by someone who practices hard, but then is quiet and focused during the game.

During the game, such a player is in what is called the “zone.” The “zone” is characterized by the absence of mental chatter. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the term “flow” for being in the “zone.” He explains that flow is “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Bill Russell, the legendary center for the Boston Celtics described how it felt when he was in the “zone”: “I could almost sense where the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken, I could feel it so keenly that I’d want to shout to my teammates, ‘It’s coming there!’ except that I knew that everything would change if I did.”

Back to Jeter. In 2003, Jeter was named the Yankees’ captain—only the 11th player in history to hold that storied post. Despite his post, reports persist about Jeter’s inability to get along with teammate Alex Rodriguez.

Friday night the Yankees were ahead 1-0. Their rookie sensation Joba Chamberlain was on the mound. Almost out of nowhere, Jacobs Field was infested with seemingly millions of bugs called Canadian Soldiers. These bugs are a nuisance, but they do not bite.

Chamberlain was clearly rattled. The Yankees trainer repeatedly came out of the dugout to spray him with bug spray. Rather than helping the situation, the bug spray seemed to provide a sticky surface; the bugs landed and stuck to Chamberlain.

Where was Jeter during these repeated stoppages of play? Was he talking to his rookie pitcher and helping him get back into that inner flow that is so necessary for success?

No, Jeter was busy spraying himself. As New York Times correspondent Joe Lapointe writes, Jeter “constantly waved his hands in front of his face and to the sides of his head. He brushed the front of his uniform shirt rapidly and repeatedly. He looked like a third-base coach giving signals on video tape fast-forwarded.”

Again, these were not biting bugs. They were a nuisance. My family and I once sat on top of a mountain and ate lunch while surrounded by these bugs. I’m not telling you it is pleasant, but I can report that the battle of the bugs is a game to be won only in the mind. I would expect a rookie to be distracted; but I would not expect the captain of the Yankees to be. And I would expect him to put the needs of the team before his own need to spray himself.

A leader “shows the way by going first.” On Friday night, Jeter failed to remind himself that the real distraction was in his mind and not in the world. Returning to the “zone” he could have helped others return too.

I am not advocating a mindless exhortation that simply tells someone to buck up and not be bothered. If you believe something external is having an effect, exhortation will only go so far.

Instead, a leader demonstrates a deep and profound understanding of their ability—and the ability of others—to make another choice. First, by making their own choice, they provide a living example for others. Then, sometimes, a gentle reminder of the choice to be made is necessary. If this is done with respect for the person who is having a hard time, often there is immediate relief.

Friday night, Jeter did neither. He was of no help to the rookie Chamberlain. It is a mystery to some why talented teams sometimes do not succeed. Often it is a simple failure of leadership.


Wisdom from Lou Piniella: “There Are No Concerns, About Anything”

September 24, 2007

The last time the Chicago Cubs made the World Series was 1945. The last time they won a World Series was 1908. As the baseball season dwindles down and the Cubs compete for a playoff spot, their fiery manager Lou Piniella said, “There are no concerns, about anything.”

Piniella is known for his combative eruptions, but he added, “I’ve been through these things before. You got to let these things play out. Pennant races have a life of their own, like a hurricane. They keep going and going until they hit landfall. Landfall will be sometime next weekend.”

No, Piniella is not in some nihilistic funk, and he has not given up. He is as competitive as ever; indeed, he has promised Cubs fans that their “frustration” will end under his managerial reign.

I have no idea if Lou Piniella has suddenly become a Zen master, but there is wisdom in his advice about allowing things to “play out.” He seems to understand that his worry or bluster will change nothing about the outcome of the pennant race. Let his players play with heart and the outcome will be what it will be.

How often I have forgotten to do exactly that.

Currently there is a photograph on my refrigerator of my son and my wife. It was taken when my son was a year old. He is riding in a baby carrier on my wife’s back.

I have looked at this photo many times, but I never saw it like I saw it today. Today I felt an incredible poignancy while looking at the photo. As I looked, all I felt was the pure Love and the vibrancy of the moment on that day over 11 years ago.

I felt poignancy because I experience many moments where I don’t feel Love. Indeed, even at the moment that I took the photograph, I’m not sure I felt the Love. Although I have no particular memories, I am sure I had my “concerns” and events were occurring around me which, at the time, may have seemed like a “pennant race.” These “concerns” clouded what was there and prevented my full enjoyment of the moment. But the gifts of that moment were never lost and were being saved for me.

The clouds were mind-created and were never really there in the first place. This is true about each and every moment. Some days, the cloud cover we create is denser; but Love is always there giving its gifts. We can open our gifts in that moment or in a future moment.

I don’t know if Lou Piniella would agree with me, but the gifts of the moment for the Cubs are the joy of playing as a team with all the gusto that they can muster. That is the one choice over which they do have control; over winning or losing, they do not.

Don Mclean wrote in his 1970 song “And I Love You So”:

The book of life is brief
And once a page is read,
All but love is dead.
That is my belief.

Best wishes to the Cubs; best wishes to all teams. There will be only one World Series winner, but every team will face the same choice when they look back over the season: Will they choose to feel the Love or will they remember the clouds?


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