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Hold It; El Pukito; Toil and Trouble; The Old Ball Game; Testing One, Two, Three; Get the Point; Conversations With Ned

Hold It

"Some kids take right hold of it," says Edwin's pediatrician. "Other kids go like this-" And he spreads his arms wide as if measuring the marlin that got away, or as if doing an impersonation of Ned at dinnertime.

As he nears age 1, Ned is developing a marked tendency to either feed himself or bang on the tray with the spoon, whichever he's in the mood for. What he's never in the mood for is holding his own bottle.

"Ned, why can't you hold this? Here-" I position his fat little fingers on the plastic bottle. Alex used to find the little imprints of numerals fun to grip. Ned opens his mouth and cranes forward, but lets his fingers slide off in a sudden paralysis that baffles medical science.

"Ned, why can't you hold this?"

Just don't want to. Huge blue-gray eyes roving above the nipple, above my tired fingers. Just don't want to.

We asked Stacy, our babysitter, why Ned doesn't hold the bottle. Stacy grew up in the Caribbean, where kids don't have some liberal-minded, tax-and-spend government to hold their bottle for them, and where, if they don't hold their bottle, they get hauled outside for what Stacy still refers to as some "bush medicine." "Ned's just lazy," Stacy replied.

I don't know about that. He's learning to stand with gusto. He has an intense curiosity about how things drop, especially metal things across a hardwood floor from the height of a high chair. He'll crawl-drag himself across our apartment at the sound of our voices. But the bottle? A little lower, please.

In many ways, Ned is cooperative with a bottle. As I've bedded him down on more evenings than I care to admit in print, I've slipped a bottle in his mouth and propped it there with his big stuffed red bull, and let him slurp while I give Alex a neb or turn over the lullaby tape.

Sometimes, like last night, Jill hates this. "Sticking a bottle in their mouth is what they do in an orphanage," she said. "Pick him up and cuddle him with his bottle. He's our Nedlet. He won't be on a bottle much longer."

I agree, but I also think that he's just going to graduate to something else he'll have to hold: a spoon, a fork, a job. Jill spoils him; she used to pick him up in the hospital every time he cried, a habit that continued when he came home. Before we fixed his bedtime routine, he'd cry in the bassinet and she'd disappear to get him, and I'd turn around and find her carrying Ned into a brightly lit kitchen at 8 o'clock at night. I have a feeling that if we didn't hold the bottle for Ned, he'd find a way to hold it himself. Jill thinks that makes me a sadist out of Oliver Twist.

(Other nights, she's not so sanguine. "I was kind of hoping he'd be off the bottle by now," she said recently, ladling formula powder into a bottle, "but I guess that's not going to happen ...")

One problem is, we're new at this. We never had Alex home to spoil or not. We wouldn't have cared if it took a derrick to hold his bottle, as long as he emptied it. Even now, to the amazement of those who don't know, we say how we'd be happy to feed Alex eat ice cream for lunch.

The bar is higher for Ned. "He's had the time," Jill says. "He's had the time and the chance..."

Ned has eaten fruit, cheese, crackers, pretzels, cereal, bacon, toast, chicken, cabbage soup, floor sweepings, and assorted items off the menus of Chinese and Mexican restaurants. After Alex, it stuns me to watch Ned shovel it in. Watch his fingers ensnare the food and lift it slowly toward his lips, the way a teenage friend of mine used to eat cake. Then Ned just chews, and pretty soon the food is gone. Sometimes we find it afterwards in the crevice of the high chair, sometimes on the floor. Sometimes we never find it at all. Ned would take a whack at a steak if he could get the A-1 bottle open.

But his bottle? A little higher, please. (December 2001)

El Pukito

"Gee, Ned," Jill said just the other night, "you haven't vomited on anyone in a while, have you?"

Before we explore further what happened seconds after Jill's comment, let me apologize to Ned. He's going to read this someday and hate me for it. All I can say to that future grown-up Ned is, "Someday, maybe soon, son, you'll have kids of your own and you'll understand the compulsion to embarrass them."

Anyway, the other night, post-bath, the boys' dimmed bedroom. There we were, me, Jill, Stacy our babysitter, Ned. Alex was running around naked somewhere. Jill was wearing a black shirt. Again. And "Gee, Ned," Jill said, "you haven't vomited on anyone in a while, have you?"

Whammo.

Leaving off such details as velocity, arc, splatter pattern (I was kind of proud), and consistency, I'll say that Ned fired perhaps three broadsides then ran in his guns for the evening. Jill sprinted to the bathroom -- where I think judging from the shriek she found a naked Alex in her way -- to rinse the dripping stuff off her hand. "Run a bath!" Stacy commanded. Stacy is very good with kids, and even better with careless parents.

As cleanup proceeded, I recalled the many nicknames Jill has had for Ned. "Little leopard" was first, and it gave way to "Nedlet." "Nedlet has given way, lately, to "El Pukito," which is Spanish for "cute little vomiting one." (I also like to call him "Barflet.")

Maybe that grown-up Ned who will someday forgive me for this essay will also realize that all kids spit up. His brother Alex's vomiting was a source of friction and strife with the doctors, as some readers might recall, and eventually resulted in surgery and a feeding tube. I still regret doing that to Alex. So, in the light of morning, Ned's up-and-coming predilection doesn't seem serious.

I say that realizing: 1) Ned usually misses me; and 2) unlike Jill, I rarely wear black.

Jill also has this thing about vomiting. I discovered her phobia when I got ill in her apartment a decade ago, during one of our first long weekends together. She dutifully brought me a basin, but when I put it to use her face twitched and crinkled as if she'd found something living and evil in the back of the refrigerator. "Hey," I felt like saying, "I didn't ask to do this ..." In our years together since, she's often bragged about long she has gone without Saying Hello to Ralph on the Big White Telephone. (I once told her she should try it again: "They've made a lot of improvements!")

"Ned's a vomiter!" Jill reiterated last night, wiping her hand. "Just like his dad-"

Well now hold on there, I thought. It was Florence Stinson, not me, who threw up on the recipe books we were making for our mothers in kindergarten. It was the friend of a college roommate who got so plastered on whiskey sours that he strolled into an icy Ithaca gorge one February night in 1981 and lost it into the pine trees. It was a friend of ours who scarfed too many garlic croutons on our couch and then drank too much Alka-Seltzer, with the resulting eruption, during the world television premier of "Storm of the Century."

Oh no wait, that was me...

"What are you doing?" Jill demanded. I had spied a spot of wet stuff on her ankle and was trying to wash it off using a common household soap that comes in a squeegee.

"Do not use Windex on my ankle. Or on any - part - of - me," Jill said, her voice hardening and her words coming further apart as her sentence went on.

Actually her tone was dulcet considering that Ned has nailed her about five times in the past month. We think it has something to do with a cold or an allergy, and mucus in his throat. Or maybe it's the color of Jill's shirt on any given night. Or how often she makes those stick-her-head-in-the-lion's-mouth-before-he-barfs comments.

"Don't say that again," I've warned her. "Don't even think it!"

"Get. More. Paper. Towels," Jill said, her teeth together, as, in her lap, Ned resumed his pre-bedtime habit of laughing and crying during alternating nanoseconds. It's a sign that sleep is on the way for El Pukito.

I'm sure Ned will, before I know it, move onto other nicknames: Champ; Slugger; Chief; Get A Job! I will think back one day soon, kind of proud, on his first cute nickname and how he got it. Probably I'll think of this while I'm looking for the Windex.

(P.S.: Ned got me last night.) (January 2002)

Toil and Trouble

We've discovered another nickname for Ned. "He's our Little Cauldron," Jill says.

Little Cauldron has a temper. I don't know where he got it (he got it from Jill), but he has a will that's prominent enough to render laughable my boss's advice just before he was born, advice that the secret to having two children is remembering that they each have their own personality.

Alex doesn't have tantrums. He doesn't cry hard, in fact, unless we snap at him for doing something wrong. When we do try to get him to do something he doesn't want to do, he cries "Aright! Aright! Aright!", his version of "All right! All right! All right!", which is what we say to him when we get impatient. Jill believes "Aright!" is another way of him saying, "Come around to my way of thinking!" (Alex gets this from Jill.)

Ned doesn't have any words yet. Just as well. What started with a gentle flip of food or toy over the shoulder has deepened. The other day, for example, he was pulling books off the shelf. Unasked, no reason, no reasoning, just that the books were there and so was Ned, and aren't they all going to have to come off those shelves someday anyway? Jill later reported that she called his name once, twice, then again. He finally turned around to look at her.

"No!" she told him. He could see she meant it. He could see his fun was going to end soon, and he started to pull the books down faster.

Little Cauldron used to love the bath. Now he screams and cries. He used to at least pretend to lie still for diapering. Now it's trying to strap an extra-absorbent size six on a mad ferret. "All he wants is for me to hold him: All. Day. Long," Jill says, her shoulders drooped, her eyes red and raw, each word seeming to suck more and more out of her empty tank.

We put Ned in the high chair and he twists, bashing the back of his little skull into the cushioned seat and flinging food as if nobody's starving in India. We used to be able to sit Alex in a high chair for hours. He seemed to like it.

We choose to believe Little Cauldron is teething -- molars, probably. Must be molars. Plus he has a cold. It has to be that.

Otherwise, this is the way Ned is!

"He doesn't understand 'No!'" Jill says. "You just have to pick him up and take him away."

"Ned, you want a bottle?" I asked him last night as I was running through the shopworn tactics of food and stuffed animals to get him to sleep. "You want a binkie?" He's getting older now, and I can't settle him as simply as I used to. He's getting older now, and a lot more coordinated with the swinging forearm. "Ned, you want Big Bully?" Whap with the forearm. "Ned, you want a bottle?" He took the bottle and slurped it dry: his second bottle since dinner (and he's a vomiter). Then, whap. Like a convict flinging an empty milk carton. Fury. This is just like when he first came home and wailed at 2 a.m., while I used to hold him at arm's length in the living room and think how sane, untroubled, and easier Alex was, asleep in the next room.

Absolute fury down there inside Little Cauldron's onesie, binkie flung to crash against the crib railing like a tin cup ricocheting off the bars in the Big House just before the whole prison riots. Lead pipes. Rubber bullets. Helicopters. Fire hoses. Taxpayer money going up in tear gas because somebody was allowed to just go on and on and on-

I use my deep dad voice. "Ned CUT IT OUT!"

The sound yanks him. For an moment, I expect he's pausing before the explosion, that all I've done is put a spark to gas and now boom -- boom boom boom until Jill comes in to chew us both out. Why do kids dig at you as if at a hangnail, picking and pulling and biting until they hit something that makes a light go off?

Ned looks at me. He looks at me. Alex never did that.

"Stop it right now," I add. "Enough's enough!" Enough's enough! used to be one of my mother's. How long since I've thought of that? This feels good. "You settle down and you go to sleep. Period."

That "period" is a capper, but the great dads know when to stop. And Little Cauldron stops, too. He takes Big Bully in his arms and rolls onto his side and makes an earnest effort to go to sleep. All you had to do was tell me, he seems to say.

Later I mention this to Jill. "Yeah," notes Jill, "the pediatrician said were going to have to start disciplining him soon."

I say something about how she's spoiled him from the first minute in the hospital, about how it'd be nice if she told me once in a while what the pediatrician is thinking. I don't hear her answer. My mind is still on that moment when he looked at me and listened to what I had to say.

(P.S. Last night he was up until 1:30.) (February 2002)

The Old Ball Game

Between the time Ned gets tired of screeching after his bath and submits to the indignity of being wiggled into a onesie, and the time he gets tired of screeching after the indignity of being placed in the crib to go to sleep, he and I play. Ned has varied tastes and many toys -- his current favorite toy is whatever Alex is playing with at that moment, for instance -- but he seems to key on two toys for playing with me: a big green plastic ball, and a set of stacking cups. The cups are cognitive stuff, and I know they'll help him score higher on the SATs, but they score nowhere near as high on the Potential Tickets For Dad meter.

"He's gonna be a ballplayer," our babysitter last night. I had visions of courtside playoff seats (...that's my boy out there...) when Jill put in: "Why's he have to play any sport at all?"

She likes opera.

Ned and I started playing with the ball a month ago. I would sit across the bedroom from Ned, slap the ball once or twice to get his attention, and roll it toward him. He'd lunge forward and stop the ball with a combination of his arms, his legs, his belly and his face. Had he missed, God knows what would have happened to his lip on the hardwood floor.

The ball is about one and a half times the size of Ned's head. He holds it up in front of himself by cradling it between his two fat, hooked forearms and his face. Sometimes he licks it, apparently unaware of most sports' rules about spitballs.

Throwing's a little tough. Most of the time he lets it roll lightly off his hands and arms; often, it bounces behind him and out of the room. He occasionally gets lucky with a roundhouse swing of the arm, however, clubbing the ball in my direction. (I tried him on smaller balls that he could grip better. He was doing the roundhouse stuff last night with one of those in his grasp, and a second later the ball went past my eyes at about 60 miles and hour, clearing my skull by an inch. No batter's gonna crowd Ned's plate!)

Ned has many athletic-type abilities that surprise me. Last night he Frankenstein-walked all the way to the dining room to fetch the green ball. Ned can't see a thing when he's carrying the ball. He especially can't see me slip my fingers under the ball, between his forearms, and tap the ball from his grip as I say, "Gimmetheball! Gimmetheball!" I pop the ball out and it bounces away. I do this over and over, and Ned always breaks into his giggle/chirp and lumbers away in pursuit.

Dad knocks the ball out of his hand, and he finds it cute! "Treasure this age," says Jill. "He loves everything you do."

One day, Ned will want to toss a ball or shoot a basket with dad for real. One day I'll try to knock the ball away, and Ned will hold on. He will furthermore expect dad --I'll be 52 or so then -- to actually sink the jumper, throw the hard spiral, and connect with his little boy's high fastball ("...kinda close, wasn't it, Ned!?..."), and it's going to be hard for Ned to explain to his friends why his dad is hobbling off the court, holding his hip.

Later, of course, Ned will vanish entirely into his community team, then high school team, then college team. On the day of the pro draft he'll phone from some remote hotel room. I'll hear music and girls in the background as he fills me in on his rookie contract, and, like all fathers throughout time whose sons have grown away from them, I'll hang up the phone and say to myself, That sounded like a great party!

And finally, one day, when Ned's team makes the playoffs, I'll call about my tickets. "Dad, I don't know," Ned will say. What do you mean? I'll demand. Who used to play ball with you when you were a baby? Who took the time to do that?

"The same guy who used to knock the ball away," he'll reply. "I have to go now. Mom and I have opera tickets."

(Jill read this essay. "It's confusing," she said. "I'm sorry, but it's confusing. And the girls in Ned's hotel room are obviously hookers." Figures she'd say this. Opera is filled with this kind of thing, except they call them "concubines." - JS) (March 2002)

Testing One, Two, Three

Jill calls to say, "Well, we're back from the doctor." Her voice trembles. Getting the words out sounds hard for her, the same way it was hard a few years back. Except that today, she didn't take Alex to the doctor. She took Ned.

"The doctor says we need to get Ned's hearing checked," Jill says. "He says he's concerned that Ned isn't making the sounds he should be making."

I have immediate thoughts:

1. When you say "Ned," he turns around. When he's pulling books off the shelf and you say "Stop that!", he pulls the books down faster.

2. I can't imagine a more sociable young creature than Ned, one more charming or smiley, one more adroit with a ball or a set of stacking cups. (At the doctor's office, Ned banged the cabinets in the exam room.) Ned Frankenstein-walks to me every night when I come home -- Alex doesn't always see me immediately when I come home -- and without fail he pulls off my baseball cap and tries to put it back on my head.

3. The gods just can't be that cruel. I need aspirin.

"Jeff, he should say 'momma' and 'dada,'" Jill points out. "He should say 'ball,' and when you say 'ball' he should smile if it's one of his favorite things."

I tell Jill it's only a test, that if this had been an actual disability we probably would have known by now, and that it was silly to think that Ned was going to go through childhood without being tested. "All kids are tested," Jill agrees. I tell her it's important not to over-react, though it's understandable why she would.

"You mean over-reacting by getting upset?" she asks. Her words are heavy again.

Takes me back. Tests, hopeful words, caution souring to alarm, souring to careless, callous, and eventually wounding comments. Then the deeper and deeper plunge into treatments, drugs, machines, and therapy, in the hospital and in our home. It continues today, with Alex. Simply, Jill has been conditioned to be upset at suggestions of tests.

Even though I went through a son's hospitalization as long as Jill did, I can't yet see any reason to be upset. Maybe that's because I was found to have bad hearing when I was about five. I remember when a wrinkled nurse pulled me out of my first-class class, clapped a pair of sweaty, early-1960s-era headphones on my head -- I think they weighed more than my skull -- and started turning big knobs on a big machine, like an engineer in Das Boot. Tones came into my head through the headphones. I remember seeing the nurse's lips noiselessly move as she asked me, "Do you hear that? Do you hear this one?" At one point I must have said no, and I remember the nurse writing on a clipboard. I remember my mother watching through the glass.

Inspired by this memory, I tell Jill I couldn't hear high-pitched noises when I was a kid, and that, as I later learned, my hearing remained far worse than that of a dog. "It would keep you out of the army," my mother used to say, at least until Vietnam ended.

"Really?" replies Jill, brightening. "Do you remember if you were a late talker? Do you remember if they told your parents anything about that?"

I say no. My brother likes to tell the story of how he tripped me when I was about three, and how I slid sprawling under the kitchen sink, and how when he came up laughing to ask if I was all right, I looked up at him and said, he claims, "Fuck you." Three years old. Why am I proud of that?

Tests don't mean anything, of course -- results do, and until we get the results of this new test on this new son, there's no point in pursing my lips in frustration and dismay when I ask Ned to bring me the ball and he doesn't turn around. No point in remembering my mother in the window on that day I wore the headphones. No point in remembering how, in that glass, I looked at her and saw my own reflection.

"You were probably just a kid with slightly bad hearing," Jill concludes, her voice lightening. "And the doctor back then just said, 'Whatever.' Doctors today notice too much!" They test too much, too, in my experience. (April 2002)

Get the Point

Ned hasn't been pointing. They say pointing your finger is an important milestone on the way to speaking. Ned hasn't been pointing. Jill worries about Ned.

I do, too, though probably not as much. "Ned, where's the ball?" I say to him during pre-bed playtime. "Where's the ball, Ned? Can you bring me the ball?" Ned loves the ball, both the big green bouncy one and the small, unevenly-sided, rock-like ball that I think we bought at some museum store. The big green one he must heave with both hands. The little ball he can throw, and it careens in weird directions because of its shape.

Lately his favorite game is to grasp one of the balls and scramble on top of Alex's bed -- which Alex doesn't sleep in yet -- turn around, drop the ball off the edge of the bed, and climb down and fetch it wherever it rolls. Ned can play this game alone for almost a quarter of an hour.

Jill is concerned because this seems to indicate that Ned doesn't like to play with others. "I can't help but be worried," she says. Her eye was jaundiced by the landscape of heartache and worry that was Alex's first months.

Ned hasn't said a word yet either, unless you count a few M sounds. His walk is still stiff. He doesn't easily pick up little things in his fingers. He acts more like an animal than a human being, though that's probably normal for a 16-month-old.

He doesn't, he doesn't, he doesn't. We all know what enough "he doesn't"s add up to. They add up to Early Intervention. So we're trying to set up an EI speech evaluation for Ned. After Alex, we know all the players and we know the procedure - that still amazes me -- for these things, and it almost feels like a casual day at a job to be setting up appointments to see if my second son will ever talk.

I expect Ned will simply show that he needs a verbal kick-start, and not the kind his dad will be giving him daily about 17 years from now. "Get the evaluation, just to set your mind at ease," one therapist told Jill.

I think the notion of pinning down the age of a young human/animal to the precise month says more about the adults who cooked up the notion than it does the kid. I also think that Alex's landscape was so weird that, in most ways, Ned is our first kid. We sort of owe it to him not to have both his parents be frantic.

I also think, as usual, that play is the best answer. Last night, I was in the room alone with the boys, the door shut to prevent jailbreak, and deep in my usual post-bath, pre-bed activity of trying to keep my head above water while watching two little boys and hoping they don't injure themselves. Then Ned started his bed-and-ball game. He dropped the ball, and it bounced across the room. I think he lost sight of it, however, in the wreckage that was the stack of toy boxes by the time Alex was done rooting for something to do.

I spied the ball and pointed it out. "It's right there, Ned," I said. He followed my finger, spotted and ball, and pointed.

A little finger, little more than an inch long, sprang out of that little fist before he scooted down. "Good, Ned!" I said.

"He does imitate," Jill says.

He returned to the bed, dropped the ball again, and when it had stopped rolling I again pointed and said, "Right there, Ned!" Again he followed, again he grabbed it and headed back to the bed. But before he dropped it again, he pointed to a spot across the room where I think he looked to toss the ball. There on the mattress, Ned looked like Babe Ruth gesturing toward the right field fence with his bat just before the pitch is thrown.

If Jill had seen that, I like to think her mind would have been put at ease. Right now, still, the eval will be half for Jill's peace of mind, half for Ned's future. It would be nice if the whole issue just evaporates, and we can get on with pointing Ned toward his future. (April 2002)

Conversations With Ned

Ned believes he is talking to me. He pauses between sentences, allowing me time to reply. His eyes roll slightly to one side in mid-thought, just like a little kid laboriously recounting the plot of a TV show. He reaches his conclusions with a strong uplift in tone.

"A gabba BA. Ehn uhn!" he says. "Ehn UHN!"

They say you're supposed to converse with pre-verbal children, though they don't provide a phrase book. So I pretend I'm talking to a street person or a lost Frenchman. "Oh yeah, Ned? Well. And why is that?"

"Eh gabba been ahn un UHN!"

Ned uses a lot of exclamation points, or at least he will when he learns what they are. "Oh yeah. Now I understand."

"Eh-huh."

These aren't really the sounds Ned makes. His sounds make much less sense, at least to a dad who was deprived of this sort of exchange with his first son. Alex's verbal development continues to lurch ahead in the manner of his physical development, bounding a few steps then working backwards, bypassing some islands of skills the way the Marines bypassed Japanese islands in World War II.

Ned's development is more linear, however, at least to hear him tell it ("Ing ge BA!") Once or twice he's said "baba" (bottle) and "mama." He often says "dada" when I come home from work. When Alex or I give him high-five, he says "ah rah!" (all right!). Sometimes his tone goes up as he plainly asks questions such as, "Ann de uh?"

"Ned, throw the ball." They say I should repeat simple phrases and words, particularly in regard to toys he likes. "Ned, throw the ball."

"Ing ge BA!"

"Ned, throw the- Ow!" His pitching arm is certainly developing normally, and after a satisfactory fastball he brings his fists down on his thighs with a conclusive "Neh!, just like a grown-up pro athlete.

We feel his verbal skills aren't what they should be at his age, though, so we have referred Ned to speech therapy. Evals prove us sort of right. "Results of the Pre-School Language Scale-3 (PLS-3) revealed test scores to fall approximately -1 standard deviation below the mean," reads Ned's report. "Edwin was able to approximate sounds made by another person, communicate non-verbally, and produce 4 consonant-like sounds. These abilities fell below his age range. He also initiated ball playing with his father.

"When Ned becomes upset or frustrated, he will proceed to cry, hit, throw objects, and occasionally bite."

He's progressed since those evaluations. He never bites, for instance, and he can nod and shake his head, sometimes actually when he means "yes" and "no." Nonetheless, we find Ned's pre-verbal bog frustrating. Ned does too, apparently. He's been hauled off a playground for throwing sand at people. Sometimes, if we hold him too close, he grabs our face. Last night, within one hour, he scratched at our babysitter, grabbed my face, and grabbed Jill's face.

Then came the moment that he spied Alex playing with a puzzle. He barged in and made some sound, Alex grabbed a piece back, and Ned hit Alex in the head.

"NED!" I said, grabbing him and giving him one vicious little jar that in some societies could have landed me in jail. Any need for communicative language evaporated as Ned stared at me a second and his face dissolved.

"Oh, he's going to cry," Jill announced.

He did, hard and from his heart. I handed him to Jill. We gave him a bottle and he stared into space, his lips working the nipple, refusing to look at me. "He has to know he did wrong," I said, wishing I felt worse about the incident. "He can never be allowed to hit Alex: You don't hit a brother with special needs!" I petted his leg. "You have a special brother and you have to grow up a little faster than normal," I said as gently as I could.

Ned seemed to get over it - who can know? - and a few minutes later he was taking my hand to hop off the ottoman. "Ann de uh?"

He will get some help come fall ("Ned, can you say, 'speech therapist?'"), and no doubt by then he'll have made more progress on his own. I choose to believe the hitting will disappear of its own accord about the time he can clearly say, "All right!" (July 2002)

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