Thursday, January 06, 2005

Thank You All, Now It's Back to the Showers

Today's spoiler warnings include SEX AND THE CITY (I just watched the last four episodes), AGAINST LOVE by Laura Kipnis (okay, you can't really have spoilers for nonfiction) and COMPANY. So if you care, don't read.

Also n.b., I wrote this whole post saving the draft only once, and then due to my minimal knowledge of Blogger managed to delete it yesterday morning. So this is a rewrite, and I think the first one was a little better. Be nice.

I am thinking about marriage, straight, gay and everything in between. By the end of SEX AND THE CITY, everyone, at least our four beloved women whose sexual exploits have been so vividly chronicled, for better and very much for worse, these six years, is paired in a manner we are to presume is both monogamous and permanent. Even Samantha, for fuck's sake (that's the only relationship by which I'm really artistically offended, though it is true that allow the character to get much older than that and she would have been really depressing--but *why* is that?). I'm intrigued. Basically, the show that ushered in a new era of wealthy white female sexual liberation has opted to view said liberation as a phase, rather than a lifestyle. The reason these ladies fuck so much is in search of the person they like to fuck (okay, to be fair, and be intimate with) the best, and once there why go further ever?

Is there any validity to that? I ask this in the face of many marriages in my circle of friends, particularly the Mathews House crowd (though my childhood downstairs neighbor, many years my friend and five years my senior, also just got engaged), of learning that my lesbian cousin and her longtime girlfriend recently married yay for Massachusetts, and, yes, fine, of having just had a visit with extended family to learn that I have reached the age (post-college graduation) where the first question is whether I'm seeing anyone and the first reassurance is that I *will* find someone, of course. To which my instinctive and defensive reaction is shut the fuck up, but that doesn't serve anybody. The real question, then, is how and why we look at monogamy, divorce, long-term coupledom etcetera, socially.

Yes, obviously it's religious. I am not thorough enough in my interactions with the Bible to be able to cite this at all, so maybe someone can help me out (Matt? Connor?), but I imagine it's Judeo- as well as -Christian and has roots in Testaments both New and Old. But so are most things connected to modern morality, so that only takes us so far. And some of it is scientific, as well--myriad animals mate for life (African penguins, for example, which are after all some of the coolest animals in the world), but on the other hand myriad human groups do not. Cate has hypothesized that the reason the divorce rates are so much higher these days--now, when divorce has been around since the advent of the Anglican Church--is because our life spans are simply that much longer. And yet there's no question that America, in its politics, its day-to-day social life, its arts, is deeply focused around marriage.

It feels like most work that I know that sets out to challenge marriage totally loses. SEX AND THE CITY, which for a period genuinely seemed to be marketing being a single, wild woman as a long-term lifestyle choice, turned out to simply be waiting for "the one." COMPANY, while its faults, including deep-set misogynism, are myriad, has something going for it on this particular front until "Being Alive." I mean, there's a lot of history behind it--well, some of you may not have seen it, so basically it's about this middle-aged man Bobby, all of whose friends are married couples, and the women he goes through, including occasional efforts to get with his friends' wives (they don't really qualify as his friends themselves). In the end of the show, after his older friend Joanne has propositioned him by saying, "I"ll take care of you," he responds, "But who would I take care of?" and begins the show's major number, "Being Alive." A choice lyric from that song: "But alone is alone, not alive." Seriously. That's in there. The history (which I read in the published and shiny script of COMPANY, because I know you were wondering) is that originally Sondheim, who is gay, had a closing number in which Bobby decided he preferred to be alone. Hal Prince, the director, a man of substance on Broadway, wouldn't allow it. He was confident, and probably appropriately so, that audiences would not stand for it. Going from one extreme to the other, Sondheim replaced the number (I forget what it was called) with "Being Alive."

I've got a lot of friends who hate COMPANY; I don't. Misogynistic, like I said. My mother claims Sondheim is generally misogynistic, which point is debatable, but whether COMPANY is misogynistic is not debatable. It is. But I think that it also has really lovely music and a lot of really incredible things to say about love, romance and entanglement. My favorite songs are "Sorry-Grateful" and "Barcelona," one of which is about the ambivalence of spousal relationships and the other of which is about a one-night stand gone slightly awry. But I digress, slightly. No, actually, I don't. What I don't like about COMPANY, though, is its all-or-nothing attitude. While Sondheim himself apparently still feels ambivalent about the show's pro-marriage stance, it's still the show he put into the world, allowed to be put into the world. Even the unmarried couple, who have been living together for years, finally manage to get married in spite of Amy's panic attack (see the title) because Bobby proposes to Amy and she of course realizes how important it *actually* is for her to marry Paul.

Even AGAINST LOVE can't escape it. AGAINST LOVE is a book we read for my book group a couple of months ago. It's a polemic, which basically means the author can make outrageous statements without having to back them up. Not easy to read, though I didn't find it nearly as abrasive as Emily did, but an interesting concept. Or so it would have been had it actually managed to be against love. But it weren't. No, what it was against was the long-term monogamous coupling that requires "work." She (Kipnis) actually did a lot of interesting analysis looking at the "work" that goes into marriage through the lens of Marxist views on the alienation of labor, but I think she fucked herself over by accepting the notion that love is equivalent to long-term monogamous coupling. Instead of challenging love, the emotion, which her title implied she would do and the inclusion of which I think would lead to a more interesting discussion, she works with the standard convention that the most commonly accepted results of love are the same as love itself. Which seems both silly and lazy to me.

Then again, how would I know? I'm not sure I've ever been in love, and I've certainly never been married or been interested in being married anytime soon. But I'm still going to try to analyze. Those who have been deeply and madly in love can feel free to challenge me. Those who have been deeply and madly in love and then ceased to be so can feel even freer.

Gay marriage is in a pretty fascinating situation regarding social convention and the lack thereof. Talia's roommate felt that the recent constitutional amendments in eleven states indicate that there's no hope for gay marriage; T and I think the opposite. As far as I'm concerned, if it's at the forefront of discussion enough that its enemies deem that measure necessary, it's pretty much arrived. Of course in the Jesus-centricity that is this nation I have my doubts, but it has always seemed to me that seeing stuff a lot is the first step to acknowledging its presence, and acknowledging the presence of something is the first step to learning to deal with it. Note that I'm not saying accepting it, because many never will. (My friend's roommate, who is a drag queen, was recently physically attacked in the middle of Chicago--*Chicago*, for fuck's sake--because of his sexual orientation, which definitely gave me a new way of thinking about all this. Call me naive, because I am, but I genuinely felt that only happened in places like Laramie, Wyoming. Not that that makes it better, but it does make it far from my own everyday life.) But nevertheless, legally it's coming. Many that I know, including members of my book group (which consists primarily of young radical feminists) feel that the battle for gay marriage is a sign of giving in to convention. According to them, at the "beginning" of the battle for gay rights (i.e. Stonewall) it was all about separatism, about carving a place in the mainstream for a drastically different lifestyle, and this is a sign that what was truly gay about gay rights is gone, as now they're simply trying to join the mainstream. While I'm no expert on the subject (can I say "in the subject"? that sounds better), I think that's silly. There have always been people who want both aspects, just as there are in any political movement (see "Activists in America" posts). I know, though, that I might not feel gay marriage had already arrived, that the battle was mostly won, if I were actually in a long-term monogamous relationship with a woman right now, someone I wanted to be with for my forseeable future. (Forseeable is about how I feel about marriage. You don't know what you're going to be like or what you're going to want for all the rest of your life, nor should you, and I don't think of marriage like that. But you make a commitment for all of the forseeable future, evaluate yourself for that, and know that you are committed for as long as you know yourself to be a similar person to who you were when you made the commitment.) In some ways marriage feels petty to me as a battle, but the fact that Britney Spears' 55-hour marriage has more legal street cred than the partnership of my "godparents" (there's not exactly a god or custodial agreement involved, but that's basically their position in my life), both women, who have been together since I was born, is really rather upsetting.

My book group members, and other people I know, have proposed alternatives to the legalization of gay marriage, which in my mind are more idealistically sound but much less practicable. One is revoking all the legal priveleges that come along with marriage, for any combination of genders. Why should it be, anyway? It's not like being fruitful and multiplying is really an important social requirement when there are 6.9 billion people in the world, and other than that, being married isn't really doing anything worthy of full-out societal privelege or praise. Praise amongst your friends and personal social circle, perhaps (after years of resisting the concept and a lot of interesting conversations with my friends and my father, I've become willing to concede that), but it doesn't serve a greater social good one way or the other. Or, coming out of that idea, it could be that the state should lose the ability to perform marriages altogether. Government officials could be only allowed to perform civil unions, leaving marriage as a purely religious ceremony that each denomination or religion has to fight out on its own. At that point, on a government level, civil unions would be an equal-protection issue, and whatever accompanying priveleges came with them would exist no matter what gender combination makes up the marriage.

It is kind of sad to me that neither of the above things is going to happen, because I think they make more sense on both a legal and emotional level than the much less specific and therefore much easier to fight against concept of "gay marriage." Unfortunately, they are harder to advocate for, because in the short run they're more complicated. And I'd far sooner gay marriage than the icky discrimination of the current situation.

In SEX AND THE CITY, it was really Samantha's ending that I found most dismaying. Charlotte always wanted to get married, and her previous divorce gives us the feeling that she's come out a little bit wiser at the other end, and she ended the show involved in a complex situation also common to many women in their thirties. Miranda's I could accept because her journey was interesting too, in that she had to return from a certain distance from the world to admit that she loved a slightly annoying human being with foibles, who also happens to be the coolest character on the entire show. Since Miranda is my favorite of the women (in fact, she's the only one I like), I was down with that. Carrie and Big are a stretch--I mean, I'm sorry SATC writers, but you've already had the line "you're the one" used by a man on the show once in the same damn season, and that simply has to stop. Not to mention the obnoxiously coy revelation at the end of Big's (boring) first name. You could make an argument, though, that they've been through enough up-and-downness that this doesn't necessarily mean they are "forever," and either way they're both assholes so it could work. It is true that Samantha, had we allowed her to continue the exact same lifestyle for a few more years, would have been sad, but why should it be the case that we deny women of a certain age the right to a libido still? I guess the point would be that we would not have seen her experience honest intimacy, a relationship of value. And probably the show's writers left it open, didn't have Samantha make any commitment to Smith besides "I love you" and the fact that she's been with him for more than two seasons, but I do wish that as a show it had made more effort to emphasize that a relationship need not be officiated as Forever to be of value. As did, say, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Which rapidly turned into one of my favorite movies ever in the universe ever.

I recognize I haven't yet really answered the question of why we end up so centered around marriage as a society. I think child-rearing also plays a role, and the fact that people officially stay their parents' children for a much longer time in Western society these days. But that, too, has to do with the children getting married in a lot of social worlds, so what what what?


At 2:16 AM, Blogger Lawrence said...

i don't know if i have the stamina right now to really respond more than quickly to any of the particular points, but, eh. maybe something will come out of this.

i've been saying for a while, kind of as a joke, that the solution to the gay marriage problem isn't to give gay people the rights of straight people, it's to give straight people the lack-of-rights of gay people. but really, in other words, that's the same as taking your second suggestion and dissociating marriage and civil union entirely, so that isn't a joke at all -- really, i would think it's the ideal solution to this mess. uh, people aren't going to stand for it right now. i guess that's fine, as long as i'm still claiming it's an ideal. it's always seemed to me that marriage as a state institution was really a blot on church-state separation to begin with, and it's time to make a clean break.

the entire idea of marriage as it now stands seems pretty ridiculous for me to think to undergo, really. i think it should be all about foreseeable futures, and it seems like your "trixie" people who throw themselves around between beds looking for a husband is ultimately that they want to fold their lives up and present them to themselves in a neat little box. maybe they all believe in reincarnation, and are just waiting to see how they do next go-round. at least, that's marriage in the popular conception. i think i feel relieved that you feel the same way -- but did i tell you that i was already weirded out by how important marriage seemed to be in that conversation with our dear yet battering JBL over Cubanity? well, if that's the way it's going to be, looks like i'm going to try to stay as far away from it as possible. with my single life. err, that is, "single" in that i only get one.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is, of course, the best movie ever. important question: is it a "romantic comedy" or not? in general, i don't like romantic comedies as a genre, not for the least because they seem to be part of the (perhaps unconscious) Entertainment Brainwashing Establishment that basically tells people to live their lives according to particular, definitely conservative principles ("be straight and monogamous", certainly, but also including such things as "don't play god", which is still awaiting its ESOSM). with Eternal Sunshine, then, there's this unbelievably lush romanticism due to the colors alone; and there's also the fact that the subject is romance, of course; and, well, it is a comedy of sorts. but the movie has the guts to tear the veil off the happily-ever-after myth in several ways (quintessentially perfect ambiguous ending) and life is good, anyway. after seeing it once, or even imagining it, it seems so easy. and yet scriptwriters always seem to find it so hard. hmm, hmm.

so i still do consider myself to have been in love four times, without having been involved with any of those four people at all -- it's a related theme. the idea of "the one" is a ridiculous myth as far as i'm concerned. TMBG's wonderful song "Ana Ng" takes a razor to that filmroll anyway -- the idea that The One is currently located at the antipodes and the narrator will never find her (the chorus goes "Ana Ng and I are getting old and we still haven't walked in the glow of each other's majestic presence"). it's an idea that to me seems like the Roman Gods by the time of the Empire -- no one really believed in them, but they were nice ideas for myth and legend. i probably don't realistically expect to ever be in love with anyone as strongly as i was with my first serious crush, which was all about helping me through a psychologically crazy ignorant youth, and which was all sorts of painful by the end anyway, and something i'm probably comfortable not repeating (though lord knows it was necessary the first time around). but by george, it let me see the beauty all around. and i probably wouldn't want to live with her these days anyway.

britney spears's 55-hour marriage charms me, it really does. but i mean, i'm a vigilante. (at least a vigilante by proxy.) i've never heard anyone express any positive opinions about it, which shocks me. to me, it reads as an artfuck. (actual fucking not required.) the difference between that and 9-11 as artfucks is precisely the difference between the intolerance of gay marriage (as opposed to straight marriage) and the intolerance of, y'know, gang violence or whatever. (relates to my "the point of government" comment here, i guess.) as female sexual liberation goes, a 55-hour marriage is tops. "sex and the city" doesn't read that way to me at all -- instead, it reads as the opposite of liberation, like sexual shackling. every relationship in that world is consumed by sex, or the idea of sex, and i find it horribly depressing. as far as i can tell by the small amount of episodes i've seen, long-term monogamous relationships might actually get those characters to expand their minds, at least. bleah.

and sondheim? he doesn't seem to understand women in the slightest. i have a double-cd concert recording of Sweeney Todd, and it disturbs me how much i like it. i remember going over it, wondering, where's the actual beloved-in-material? realism goes "poof" in that show. *detail* doesn't. the character of Johanna is an embarrassment, but i don't think she represents a real person anyway. then again, no one in that play really needs to represent a real person, i think. the structure itself can be the beloved.

and now i'm going to have to wonder what you think of my two long abstracts (one for a movie, one for a musical) i wrote near the turning of 2003-2004 and posted in my goodly LJ. might as well end this on a personal note, then.

(you thought i was going to say something else, didn't you?)

At 5:50 PM, Blogger meridity said...

Don't worry Gemma, you'll find someone.


At 12:34 PM, Blogger Connor said...

Hey Gemma,

I'm (of course) a huge fan of marriage, and don't particularly agree with the "foreseeable future" clause. To my way of thinking it takes the emphasis about something which derives its strength from being, above all, a declaration. In fact, the centrality of such a declaration to marriage is what gives me hope that it will gradually evolve from something used solely to cement inheritance and property rights into an institution that best actualizes the need we humans have for one another.

That said, and knowing somewhat your feelings on the subject as I went into this post, I'm surprised by how much we agree on.

I completely agree with the idea of divesting marriage of a legal status. Although I'm not sure that what you advocate are quite "universal civil unions" (as opposed to state regulated marriage), the ideas are close enough to be comparable. If marriage were to be the prerogative of different religions/spiritualities/etc. (and since membership in these groups is more of an elective decision than nationality), the separation would be both practical and ethically consistant. (Is that awkwardly phrased?)

I haven't, unfortunately, experienced any of the shows, programs, films you discuss, although you've made me interested in them (and I have a (very) peripheral knowledge of SATC). I think, however, I can agree that if a program's intention is to establish the possibility of happiness sans commitment (either "forever" of for the "foreseeable future"), and that program contradicts this fundamentally, it contradicts itself and limits its potential.

And now, the "on the other hand": if we waited to respond to an issue until we believed we understood it fully, programs such as SOTC wouldn't be conceived in the first place. I think that coming to an understanding of things like marriage and monogamy is something that happens except by a messiness that emerges one step at a time, as each correct statement is flanked by all sorts of errors and contractions. Just my opin.

So I guess I disagree with a lot of your basic assumptions about marriage and monogamy, but I agree with many of your conclusions, and ultimately, I like this rigorous way of talking about it.

You've made me think about this issue in a way I haven't tried before.

~ Connor

At 5:32 PM, Blogger Ammegg said...

In response to Lorenzo and Connor:

For clarity, I am against neither love nor marriage. I think love, in an honest form, which form quite often but not always overlaps with long-term monogamy, is incredibly beautiful, and I think frequently marriage is as well. What I object to is the notion that the value of a relationship, once marriage enters the picture, is ultimately to be determinted by longevity alone.

I think the declaration you speak of is beautiful, Connor; I really do. In the wedding I recently attended, I concluded that "I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow, and with all that I am and all that I have, I honor you" is one of the most beautiful things that can ever get said, and I think it stunningly wonderful that it is true for people. And if it lasts for the rest of your life, that belief, that truth, more power to you. But if it doesn't, if all that you are and all that you have becomes something different from what it was when you made the vow, it doesn't have to mean that you meant it less when you said it. And people do change after they get married, just because they're, you know, aging and having different experiences and having children and whatever and whatever; sometimes people grow into each other and sometimes they don't. A divorce, a breakup, etc. does not necessarily indicate that a relationship was bad. If a marriage breaks up very early, I think it's generally because people were not honest in saying "with all that I am and all that I have, I honor you" even at that time, and that divorce is irresponsible because the marriage was irresponsible in the first place. But if you get to a point in a relationship at which you do not honor one another in the same way (I like "honor" here, because it doesn't mean that you love everything about the person, it means you respect his/her being who he/she is), I don't think longevity of the marriage is any more worthwhile than a divorce, and probably less.

And clearly, there are many people in the world who continue to mature and change into one another (not literally, but in one another's direction) for the rest of their relationship/marriage, and I think that's fantastic and I have no interest in devaluing that. But it's not a *standard*, in my view, to which every marriage and every marital vow should be held, that of longevity alone.

I do think you can be in love with someone you haven't been in a relationship with, but I think it's a completely different in love from that you have someone you actually have been in a relationship with. I love "Ana Ng" too, and it's talking about something very real, but also something very different from a relationship. Which, I am finally coming to acknowledge after a lot of conversations with a lot of people, is itself very different from a marriage. Which is probably different from a marriage that lasts fifty years. They're all love, though. There's a danger in thinking they're all the same--you know things in each that you don't know in the others--but there's no danger in acknowledging those differences without making hardcore value judgements.

Or so I believe.

At 8:22 PM, Blogger Sarah said...

I'm not very good at articulating, so this will be a musing. I liked this post a lot and I like the way you went from "Sex and the City" to "Company" and to the "real world".

I think people's who's parents are divorced have an inherently more skeptical view of the institution. To many people in America, the fact that my parents are divorced is a tragic thing and something that makes me unnatural in a way. I have been asked how will ever be able to be in a long term relationship, if I have not personally witnessed one. This, I think, points to the child-rearing aspect: Marriage is to educate children in the dynamics of certain gendered roles and to instill in them the desire to be in a similar union. In many ways, I think I would be much less interesting and stupider about people if I raised by a two-parent household, but of course I don't know.

My father, who is now on his third marriage, was depressed to find I did not think of Marriage as something necesarily desirable. My stepmother, who never kissed anyone until she was 38 and refused several arranged marriages, says a rosary for me every week to help me find "a good companion". I think my dad has kept marrying because he doesn't want to be alone, much like Bobby in Company, and he is really a romantic. He also is not really okay with who he is alone.

Someone I know claimed they wanted to get married so they wouldn't "die alone". This seemed strange, because obviously your spouse can die before you die. But the point is more, not wanting to live alone. Humans are social creatures and we don't like feeling lonely. We like coming home and yammering on and on. We like having someone go "yay, you're special" or "I bought the paper" or "I'm making eggs, want some?". I think this is what marriage is about, this is what that song "Being Alive" is about. The feeling that we're not real unless someone is constantly viewing us and going "yep, you're real cause I can see you and you're taking all the covers." This is where the women in Sex and the City end up too. I think its unrealistic that all four of them ended up with Someone, but whatever. It was a valentine to the fans type of ending. In real life, not everyone meets Someone. In the unwritten postscript, Samantha and her guy might break up in a year, Miranda and Steve get divorced when Brady is 10, Charlotte becomes obsessed with her baby and is an incredibly overprotective nutty mom, and Carrie would realize that she loves shoes more than any man.

I agree that the state should not perform "marriages" but civil unions. Any religion who wishes to perform something called marriage can go ahead.

From my knowledge of Chinese and Pakistani society (two non-Western examples) divorces are much rarer than in America. Marriage is viewed in a romantic manner, but the concept of what its like to be married is different somehow then the idea many Americans seem to have. The idea of monogamy is not Bibical and a fairly recent development worldwide in the scope of human existence. I'd be interested in the idea of one man and one woman developed.

At 2:04 AM, Blogger Lawrence said...

ana ng is really a ridiculous song... wait a minute and let me see if i have my login information right....

At 2:34 AM, Blogger Lawrence said...

yeah so ana ng... is really a ridiculous song i'd say... and i mean that in the best way possible, it's probably They Might Be Giants' best overall song and the one the most perfectly captures what they're all about... or, what do you think it's about? it's sort of this impossible situation that nevertheless has all the features of an amorous longing, isn't it... i mean the narrator never even has *met* Ana Ng, the name itself is sort of anonymous -- it was chosen to be the title of the song because it was so common -- it's something other than just a crush/obsession song (which TMBG can also do excellently -- "Cyclops Rock" and "Sleeping In The Flowers" are both sort of transcendently bizarre investigations of the weird irrationalities someone has when they're crushing, is how i take those songs). "Ana Ng" to me reads like a Far Side cartoon... "what would happen if bacteria watched TV?" "what would happen if i was fated to be with someone on the other side of the world?" but in the end isn't this interpretation allied with what you're saying about the glory of the marriage commitment, and how a divorce from an irresponsible marriage is itself irresponsible? John isn't ever going to meet Ana, let alone marry her. "we put in the best we had, and they put in the best they had, and we beat them and beat them bad." - jody powell (i don't know who the hell that is). "all is full of love" - björk. ("love is that is and love is the isness of it all too" - lawrence detlor.) in conclusion, love is a precious thing, commoner than gold, rarer than air (at least that's what the conclusion says). but unlike gold and air i suspect the forms of love are limitless... or at least people are going to have a hell of a time classifying it... seems like exactly the kinds of crushes i used to have, that given my lack of communication skills at the time transcended into private love instead, would melt into "Brown Eyed Girl"-esque relationships ("i saw you just the other day / and my, you have grown") given an attraction on the other side in a way not all that dependent on the character in the me-role, really. i'm really suspecting now that long-term marriages only involve sexuality because that's a floodgate that's already been opened between the two people, and in that case, mutual comfort would require it; familiarity itself implying comfort in sexual surroundings. but in any case it's still love there, at least in the ideal. i don't know if there's much understanding of the nature of love... in a way i'm thinking that all that talk they used to have about celibacy and chivalry at least might have brought people closer to the ideal, sexual satisfaction being a side road. not to say that old sexual politics was really a good working system, but i do think that that's what the literature and thought-systems that valued the old ways really have going for them in the name of authenticity, and the educated people of the world definitely seem to consider them as having *some* value -- i say that's where the value lies. when i saw Jefferson's band play last night i was so glad that they weren't college rock any more: they'd cast off the systems that define joint social relationships -- including those within romances, the categorizing system of which i found myself to be an endemic at college (and which i'm finding in a lot of indie rock these days too). i think of love as a sort of unifying factor, there being no one thing that love "feels like", like there's no one thing that breathing air feels like. but i'd say ultimately the encasing of an image of someone in your head is consubstatial in all cases whether the image comes from familiarity or fantasy. but each relationship needs to plug its own course -- doesn't it now? -- and any "this is what we do together because we're x now" kinds of labels i'd rather just see thrown out the window, if you don't mind.

happy birthday.


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