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Stories From the Edge of Blindness

In 2002, Retinitis Pigmentosa changed my life. This is my story of a slow approach to darkness.

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low vision

Hiking Blind

A friend recently asked me how I manage hiking with limited vision.  I have actually been thinking about writing a post about this since I started hiking again. I thought it might be something other people wondered about as well.  How the hell can a blind woman go hiking?  You have to remember, I am blind but I can see.  It is probably less confusing if I refer to myself as VI (visually impaired), but I am legally blind.
Continue reading “Hiking Blind”

What do you See?

Most of the time, I find that people seem reticent to ask about my vision; I don’t know if it makes them uncomfortable or if the concept of someone being partially sighted is just too hard to grasp, but the presence of my blindness often takes up a strange space in the room. When people do ask, I actually appreciate it because it gives me an opportunity to explain how RP behaves, and also because it offers a window into what I am missing visually, by seeing what others see.

Sometimes, I’ll be walking down the street and it will occur to me that I am seeing something in a way that may be different from other people. The other day, my husband and I were out walking the dogs; he was walking about 5 feet in front of me and I was looking at the back of his head, when I realized I could only see the back of his head and a bit of the tops of his shoulders.  I asked him to stop and look at me from behind at the same distance; he could see all of me and cars parked across the street and buildings to our left and a whole lot more. When you have RP, but still have some usable vision, it can be easy to forget how much you are missing visually.  I find myself lulled into a false sense of security, so I think it is good for me to get a good kick in the pants from reality when I slip off into space.

When asked what I actually see, there are a couple of tricks that I use most often:

  1. Look straight ahead.  Stretch your arms out to the side as wide as they will go, thumbs pointed up, then slowly bring them in and stop when you can see your thumbs.  You may not have to move them at all, or maybe just a little bit, before your thumbs come into view.  When I do this exercise, I see my thumbs when they are about 7 inches apart.
  2. When you are sitting in a chair, put your hands in your lap. Keeping one hand flat, palm parallel to your lap, start raising it and stop when you can see it.  You may have to raise your hand a little bit to see it, or you may see your hands resting in your lap. When I do this exercise, I don’t see my hands until they are in line with the bottom of my nose.

These exercises are by no means definitive, but they do give an idea of what it’s like to live with diminishing peripheral vision; and, in the world of RP, I actually have a good amount of vision….I think. Every case of RP is different.

I thought I might write a series of posts that give a better idea about the mechanics of RP.  If you found this post interesting or helpful in gaining a better understanding of RP, and you would like me to write more, please let me know.  If you have any specific questions, please ask.

You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Hands off the Wheel

A good friend of mine made a great recommendation regarding my blog; she pointed out that people new to my blog may not know that when I refer to Zelda(or Z), I am taking about my white cane. So, in future blog posts, if Zelda is part of the story,  I will make sure to add a note explaining who (what) she is.  Thank you to my friend – you know who you are and I love you!

So, yeah, Zelda is going to be part of this particular post.  You may be thinking, ” oh god, not that bitch Zelda again”, but, unfortunately, Z isn’t going anywhere, no matter how hard I try to get rid of her.

I have been treating Zelda deplorably.  I have ignored her, shunned her and concealed her on a crowded hook.  If I don’t see her, I don’t have to think about her; and if I don’t have to think about her, I can pretend that I can see just like most other people. I am really good at the avoiding and pretending thing.

When I was learning to drive – the second time; a few years after two accidents and a ticket for failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk (no one was injured) – my Dad took me to an abandoned parking lot to test a theory.  He asked me to just drive around as if I were searching for a parking space and then he randomly shouted out things like: OH MY GOD, A BABY IN THE ROAD or LOOK OUT FOR THOSE NUNS; every single time, my response was to take my hands off the wheel and look away, as if I wasn’t really driving the car.  My instinct definitely veered in the flight direction and I obviously, in some seriously twisted part of my brain, figured if I ignored it, it wasn’t happening.

Of course, it turned out that my accidents were, in large part, due to RP and my limited peripheral vision, but at the time I had no idea that I had RP and that I wasn’t seeing things that fully sighted people would see.  That being said, I still took my hands off the wheel.

I wish I could say that I am one of those people who sees a challenge and jumps in with fearless determination; I am not.  I am, however, incredibly proficient at avoiding the things I can do to make challenging situations a little easier.  I eventually come around to face reality, but then I close my eyes and turn away like an insolent child; I don’t want this fucking problem, disease, etc., and I am not going to deal with it.  I have been doing it with RP for years, so I was bound to treat Zelda with the same dismissive attitude.

As I have said before, and will say a million times, RP is a total mind fuck.  It is purgatory.  It is the gray area covered in fog.  It is a disease that begs to be denied, especially by those who are well versed in denial.  But, RP is pesky and persistent and pops up often to remind me that I am defective.  No matter how much I want to, RP won’t let me take my hands off the wheel.

It doesn’t matter how many coats and hats I pile up on the hook over Zelda, she is in my head.  I have to find a way to see her as an ally, but I am struggling.  I feel the weight of her even when I don’t have her with me.  I went into my mobility training with a positive attitude, but discovered that this is, without question, the most difficult challenge I have faced in my RP journey.

I am having trouble fending off my insolence.  I keep screaming in my head that I don’t want RP and I don’t want the fucking cane, kicking at the reality of my disease and trying to reject it; but, I don’t have a choice, RP isn’t going anywhere.  If I don’t find a way to see Zelda as beneficial, one day, I am going to get seriously hurt.  The thing is, I can’t imagine it hurting more than it already does.

 

 

 

#7 Off-Roading with Zelda and Tamar

I have officially graduated from my lessons at the Braille Institute; Tamar came over to my house today and we have begun our lessons out in the (mostly) sighted world.  Although I have been using Zelda when I am out alone, it is a whole new world with Tamar, who can guide me step by step – sometimes literally – and give me critique about how I am doing with Zelda.  There  is always a bit of performance anxiety when I am using Zelda in front of Tamar, but it is a good anxiety that gets me to understand the importance of and pay attention to the details I sometimes forget when I am on my own.

I have to admit that lack of practice is a huge obstacle that stands like a concrete wall between me and progress with Zelda.  Having taken a week off and only been out once on my own when I actually used Z, I needed a good long therapy session before Tamar and I headed outside into the neighborhood.  She is incredibly patient and intuitive about when I need a bit of time before beginning the practical part of the lesson.  I have been pretty forthcoming about my anxiety in using Z in my neighborhood, so today we spent about half the time talking in my apartment.

I talked further about my fraud feelings and she told me that she sees this more in RPer’s than anyone else; she said it seems to take longer for us to get through the emotional barriers because, in many cases, those of us with RP have pretty good central vision.  I felt relieved actually, to hear that I am not the only emotional basket case and that lots of other people with RP are victims to its total mind fuck.  Tamar also reiterated that she believes I need the cane and that I am doing the right thing in getting the training now. If only I had her certainty about it.

Before we went out, Tamar suggested a sort of makeshift way to gage my field of vision, so both she and I could get a clearer picture of what I actually see.  We got out some old- school, bright pink construction paper and Tamar cut out a triangle to tape to the wall.  She asked me to focus on the triangle and then moved pink squares of paper in toward the center, from both sides and the bottom and top, until I could see them.  She taped the squares to the wall at the spots where I said I could see them and this denoted my field of vision.  Obviously, it isn’t exact, but it is a good reference to have.  However, it also makes me question myself, just like a proper visual field test does.

I am not always sure what it means when asked if or when I see something in my peripheral field.  Does seeing mean seeing clearly or thinking that maybe you have some visual awareness of something?  If I am focusing on one spot, do I actually see what is coming in from the sides or am I concentrating on it so hard that I think I might see it?  In the case of today’s experiment, the pink squares, and in a visual field test, the red lights.  I often do little tests on myself; bringing my hands in from the sides or up from the ground, trying to gage when I can see them.  I feel like it isn’t always the same.  Some days I feel like I am seeing the whole word around me and some days, I feel like I am looking at the world through a tunnel.  So, what’s real and how do I know it’s real?  It all makes me feel crazy and it puts me in a position where I am still constantly questioning whether or not I actually need to be doing the cane training.  I don’t know when this ends, or if it ever will; and I don’t know how to move beyond it so I can just use the goddamn cane regardless of how much vision I do or don’t have.

There is another bizarre phenomenon that occurs when you have RP.  You can be walking down a hall or corridor and all of a sudden, you see something flying at you from the periphery, but there is nothing there.  It feels so real, that I have almost fallen backwards to get away from the phantom flying thing.  So, is what I think I might see in the visual field experiments a phantom or do I see it?  I don’t think it helps that I question absolutely everything I do, think, say or feel in most circumstances that have nothing to do with vision or lack thereof, so when it comes to my vision loss, I feel as if I am in a constant state of unknowing.

I took a break from blogging and went to have dinner with my friend Patricia who, as always, listened patiently to  my ranting and came up with a brilliant suggestion.  She had the idea that I think of some ritual to mark this period of mourning in my RP journey; a tattoo, a ceremony , a burning of something; just something that acts as a tangible marker of this experience.  She suggested that perhaps if I ritualized these losses in some way, it may give some sense of finality and help me move into the next phase of my life and of my disease.  I  love the idea.

After the therapy session with Tamar this morning, we did make it out of the apartment.  It was to be my longest walk around my neighborhood and the most in-depth.

First, I used Z to go down the stairs from my apartment; something I hadn’t done yet.  It all came back pretty easily and I got to the bottom unscathed.  Then, we decided to walk down my street and around the block.  I start walking, Tamar behind me to gage my stride and swing: it turns out that my formerly wider than necessary swing has now become too narrow.

We stopped just outside my building where Tamar asked me to look around and identify tangible landmarks that can tell me where I am when I have no use of vision.  For example, just north of my driveway, there is a hedge that is taller than I am, and at the south end of my driveway is a tall and dented metal pole.

We walked down to the end of my block and spent a long time at the street crossing; the intersection at the south end of my block is a pretty basic four-way with traffic lights and no left turn arrows, but Tamar wanted me to tell locate my buddy cars, danger car and go over the flagging steps to make sure I was confident before crossing the street. I had told her earlier that I wasn’t warming to the flagging the cane thing, but she let me know that it is the most important part; it let’s people know that you are there and is the biggest safety precaution for blind people crossing the street.  So, I flagged the hell out of Zelda.

We continued east and came to the next street crossing; a 3 way intersection with one stop sign.  The only obstacle at this crossing was a large hedge that blocks the pedestrians from the right turning cars, so I had to step a bit into the street to make sure it was clear before I walked.  Not to bad.

After the second crossing, we headed North and I could see a huge obstacle course on the sidewalk up ahead.  Tamar was excited. We got to the rough terrain, and she asked me to close my eyes.  I started tentatively.  This wasn’t just a patch with a bit of raised sidewalk; there was also an orange traffic cone, a grassy hole in the middle of the course and loose slabs of concrete that had been placed there presumably to make the ground more even; it didn’t work.  To the right of the monster obstacle was a patch of dried lawn, so I headed in that direction.  Tamar asked me to go the hard way.  Without any use of my eyes, I took one small slow step at a time, feeling first with Zelda, then with my left foot while keeping my right planted to steady me.  When I hit the cone with Z, I anchored her in front of me for safety and felt with my hands to find the cone and whatever other obstacles may be around.  I hesitated and teetered a bit, but I made it safely across.  I felt as if I had scaled a mountain.  I opened my eyes and gave Tamar a smile; ” Let’s do it again,” she said.

I made it across the obstacle in the other direction, but it felt like entirely new terrain.  I found the cone, which was a great marker, but it wasn’t where I expected it to be.  It may be common sense to some, but I didn’t have the time to flip the course in my head and without the use of my vision, it was entirely different.  I do have some usable vision still, so I am lucky that I don’t have to rely on everything Tamar is teaching me now, but I will have the skills and the information if and when the time comes that I need them.

The three of us continued up the block and we came to another 3 way street crossing without much event except an enormous truck that pulled out of a driveway toward the intersection.  I decided that I didn’t feel safe crossing, so we waited for the next light and walked back toward my street.  During the last half block, I looked for landmarks and tried to keep my swing wide enough for Z to give me any necessary information about the ground in front of me.  We stopped in my driveway to say goodbye and Tamar said, “next time I want you to do it blindfolded.”  Holy crap.  I was hoping we’d go grocery shopping.

 

A Week Off

I took a break from O&M this week; my determination has fallen somewhere beneath my feet and I needed to find it.  I am still struggling with feelings of being a fraud, but whenever those thoughts creep up, I can pretty readily find examples of why I need Zelda.

Last week, I was turning a corner, leaving the shopping complex where we buy our dog and cat food; I was using Zelda, and as I turned that corner, I found myself wrapped up in one of those extendable dog leashes. I hadn’t seen the dog or the people and I registered the scene in my head as a typical RP moment that I can pull up when I get those feelings of fraudulence.

I have only used Z once during this week of hiatus, but in truth, I have barely gone out, with the exception of walking the dogs.  I do take her with me on dog walks, but she just sits comfortably in her holster.  My dogs meander all over the place on our walks, getting tangled and pulling in opposite directions, so I am pretty sure that Zelda would just get caught in the chaos.  In some ways, the dogs do provide a barrier for me; they alert me most of the time if other people or dogs are approaching.  Perhaps I am being just slightly reckless, but someone has to walk them and I am perfectly capable of doing it.

Anyway, I digress.

I did go to my Dad’s house one day this week, and of course had Z with me.  I have her with me now, whenever I go out.  Joe took me there, but I had to catch the bus home.  My Dad dropped me off in Westwood so I could avoid waiting for two busses in the heat, and when I got out of the car, I put Z to work.  I walked with her through part of the UCLA medical plaza and used her on the stairs.  I still feel very pleased to see people make room for me when I am walking with the cane; it relieves my anxiety and plants seeds of a new kind of confidence.

When I got to the cross walk, I decided to rely on Zelda entirely and consciously forced myself away from my old habit of staring at the ground to make sure I wasn’t going to trip on the curb.  I pulled out all of the techniques that Tamar taught me, except for flagging the cane; I am just not ready to do that.  I was feeling pretty good about myself, crossing the street safely and anchoring my cane at the opposite curb to make sure that I didn’t  fall, and then it happened; Zelda’s first contact with a stranger.

He came out of nowhere, of course; everything comes out of nowhere when you have RP.  He must have been rushing down the sidewalk and then all of a sudden, I move Z to the right and she connects with his foot.  I didn’t hit him hard; I am not an aggressive swinger, but I felt relieved that she found him before I got in another collision with an impatient stranger.  He barely paused and didn’t acknowledge what had happened, but I was actually pretty excited about having an encounter which defines a big part of the reason I am learning to use the cane; I got to feel Zelda working for me exactly as I needed her to.

Feeling pleased and a bit nervous, I crossed another street to the bus stop and waited with Z still unfolded.  This was a first; I usually fold her up when I get to the bus stop.

I have had a few firsts in the past couple of weeks; fairly small and subtle, but firsts just the same.  I finally took Z with me when I was out with a friend. My stepmother saw Z for the first time.  The girl we see most often in our local pet shop was there the last time I went in with Z and I had my first chance to explain why I was using the cane, and I ran into(not literally, thanks to Z)another one of our neighbors while I was out walking with Zelda.

I am ready to resume my lessons with Tamar and I am glad to have had this week off; I think we both knew I needed a break.  I also had to get in an application for a writing fellowship that will hopefully help me transform “Stories from the Edge of Blindness” into a proper book.

This week, Tamar comes to my house so she and Z and I can stroll around my neighborhood.  I also joined the gym – again – after having to admit to myself that it isn’t safe for me to go hiking alone, even though it is my preferred form of exercise.  Zelda in the gym is going to be a huge first; I wonder how all the beautiful, young, fit hollywood types are going to handle a chubby, middle-aged, tattooed blind lady.  Should be interesting.

#6 Flag Your Cane

I am at the halfway point in my O&M training; 6 weeks with Zelda and I still have such a long way to go.

Tamar and I started our lesson today back in the cafeteria, with the model and the toy cars.  We reviewed the car positions and terms and I talked to her about my week. Then, she showed me, using the street crossing model, how to best use my remaining vision to cross safely.  Everything Tamar teaches me adheres to a systematic pattern.  She takes the random out of the equation so confidence can step in. It works and is all pretty simple, just a lot to remember.

The visual scanning while crossing the street follows a logical progression, which honestly would help sighted pedestrians (minus the cane parts, obviously) as well.  It goes like this: You position yourself at the corner where you want to cross, identifying where the curb is and holding your cane out to the left so it is visible –   Light turns green – You make sure that the cars in your near side parallel lane are going straight – You flag your cane 3 times (more about this later) – You check that your danger car (always the car to your left) has seen you and determine if they are turning right – If you feel confident that the car isn’t turning, you step into the cross walk and look left, scanning the first lanes you cross in front of (are they stopped?) – Half way across the first half of the crosswalk, you look toward the middle of the intersection, scanning for left turners – At half way across, you focus on the cars just right of center in front of you, keeping an eye out for right turners – and, there you are, safely across the street.  Tamar emphasized two things; if you don’t feel confident that it is safe to cross, wait until the next light, and the most danger is always to your left.

We worked with the model and the toy cars for a while and Tamar drew me some diagrams to take home, and I thought we were done for the day.  No such luck.  She felt I was ready to go outside and give the actual cross walks a try.  I wasn’t afraid -Tamar was with -me but I did have some performance anxiety.  As we walked out of the Braille Institute together, for the first time I might add, I tried to remember everything she had taught me in the 6 weeks I have known her.  I know she wasn’t judging me, but I like her and I want to be a good student.

We went out to Vermont; super busy street, lots of traffic, lots of pedestrians, crumbling curbs, typical L.A..  Did you forget about flagging the cane?  I wish I could.  It is pretty much the shining example of why I have been anxious about Zelda.  It is a screaming spotlight on my existence.  The sole purpose of flagging your cane is to draw a momentum of attention to yourself, for safety of course.  So, I am sure you get the picture:  flagging your cane means you tap it on the ground and bring it up into the air in front of you (high enough so people can really see it) before tapping again.  Repeat 3 times.  I may as well be standing on the street corner shouting to the world that I am there.  Talk about jumping full force out of the shadows.

I found my position and used the visual scanning techniques and flagged my cane; I did this across all four sides of an intersection in both directions.  I think I did pretty well, although I apparently wasn’t lifting my cane high enough while flagging.  No surprise there.

I know that having and using Zelda makes the world a safer place for me.  I know that the visibility that Z gives me makes the world a safer place for me.  But, it is hard to get over a lifetime of approaching any kind of attention with anxiety and dread.  I have always been the girl who no-one could see and now, I am becoming the blind lady in the neighborhood, who everyone sees because I can’t see them.  That is some serious fucking irony for you.

I better start embracing my new reality, because next week, Tamar is coming to my neighborhood, and I don’t think she will be cool with us just staying in the apartment.

 

Step off the Curb

The incident that precipitated my contacting the Braille Institute took place in a grocery store.  In case you didn’t read about it in an earlier post, it basically involved me and an enormous pillar; one second I was heading for the bulk items section and the next I was flat on the ground, having had a head on collision with the pillar.  Joe and I agreed it was time for me to get a white cane.

Jump ahead many months and I have my cane and I am learning from a great instructor and the grocery store is still my nemesis.  I know that if I can get the courage to use Z in the grocery store, it will make shopping so much less stressful, but I just couldn’t pluck up the courage, until a few days ago.

I left for Ralphs (our local grocery store) with Z folded and in my hand, giving myself a pep talk to help with getting some courage. I got outside and I thought about unfolding her, but I didn’t.  I walked the half block up to Sunset and the 2 blocks east on Sunset toward Ralphs with Z still folded in my hand.  Then I came to the light and stopped.  The light turned green and I didn’t cross.  I waiting through 2 lights, trying to talk myself into unfolding Zelda and finally, I did it.  I walked to the curb, waited for the light to change and crossed the street to Ralphs.

I know that I have been writing a lot about my reticence to use Z in my neighborhood; trying to explain it to you and to help myself understand as well.  I keep coming back to the same conclusion; I am terrified of the attention Zelda will bring to me.  I have loved being able to live with anonymity, to go through the city as if I were invisible, and I know that won’t be possible anymore.  But, the alternative, if I don’t use Zelda, is potentially dangerous.  I have to get the fuck over myself.

So, I cross the street, walk through the Ralphs parking lot and in through the sliding doors. The entrance is often the most congested part of the market and the part that causes me the most anxiety.  I usually move through the crowd trying to make myself as small as possible, afraid every second of what or with whom I may collide.  This time, people stopped and moved to the side and let me through.  They stared, but not with cruelty, and they got silent, but there was no disdain in the quiet.  They may have felt some pity or curiosity, but all I cared about was that I had walked into the grocery store without feeling paralyzed by my own anxiety. I felt the spotlight on me, but it was something I could get used to.

Then, the spotlight became a strobe light.  I passed the row of checkout counters and one of the Ralphs employees called out,”Do you need any help shopping miss?” I didn’t pause or turn around, just said no thank you and kept walking.  It actually made me smile. He was being nice and I felt like I had stepped into a new part of the reality of this whole white cane thing, into the thick of it really, and I was proud of myself.

I finished my shopping, unscathed, and continued on to the pet store and then home.  I didn’t fold Zelda up until I got to the top of my stairs.

 

Ode to RP

Wildflower Muse  published my poem, Ode to RP, last year.  WM is a beautiful online magazine and I am proud to have had my work published there.

I am reposting this because I feel like it is still and will always be relevant in my RP story.

My next O&M lesson is on Wednesday………

Eyes on Fire

At the end of my last post, I left you in the hallway after leaving ERG hell, and my eyes were useless……

The light in the hallway was incredibly bright, an assault on my dilated pupils, but all I saw was brightness through a haze. I put on my sunglasses and my hat, but the light was still unbearable.  I knew I was going to have to use Zelda to help me find my way up to the lobby and outside to meet Joe.  I didn’t hesitate; I unfurled her, got into position (holding her grip in handshake position, right arm extended out at the middle of my body), swept Z out to the left and took a step with my right foot.  I felt confident and walked down the deserted hallway at a pretty good pace. I had a visual reference from when I had come down to the basement for the test, so that made it easier to get back to the elevator.  All I could see was white, like I was in one of those asylum rooms that are in the movies to emphasize the crazy in a person or a scene.  I felt so grateful to have Zelda with me at that moment.

Every time I use the cane, I feel more confident and become more familiar with her nuances.  I can now actually imagine how it will feel when she is an extension of me rather than a marker of my disease.  I feel myself easing into a rhythm with Zelda.  We made it up to the lobby and out the front doors to wait for Joe in a shady spot.

Even from the shade,the sun was more painful to my eyes than the light in the building, so I kept my eyes closed, leaning on Zelda for support.  Joe had parked the car in a lot 6 winding blocks from Jules Stein Eye Institute and we were going to walk back to the car together.  When I opened my eyes to take a peek and see if Joe was coming, I saw him walking up the ramp.  I couldn’t help but wonder if it made him sad to see me there with Zelda, but he actually seemed proud of me.

The walk to the car went well.  I had Joe guiding me expertly on the left and Zelda in my right hand, so I was well covered.  My eyes had begun to sting pretty severely, so I kept them closed for most of the walk, thinking it was the sun that was causing the burning.  It was the first time I felt somewhat relaxed being out with Zelda .  Of course Joe was with me and he always gives me confidence and a sense of safety, but I was still really happy with the way I felt and the flow that I had with Z.  I felt progress and that felt good.

By the time I got into the car, the burning in my eyes was almost unbearable and I discovered that it was actually worse when they were closed.  So, I opened my eyes, but hunkered down under the huge brim of my hat to protect my still dilated pupils from the sun.  There was no relief and rubbing my eyes only made the burning worse; but I was compelled to rub them to try to force the burn out. Nothing helped and I started to panic.  It was a very long 40 minute ride home.

When we finally arrived at our apartment, I rinsed my eyes with an eye bath solution, but this only provided relief for about two minutes.  I tried to rinse with cold water, but that intensified the burn.  I was exhausted and just wanted to go to sleep, but closing my eyes was not an option.  I paced around my house and bathed my eyes every ten minutes, but the burning continued.  Then, I started to feel a sandpapery dryness under the burning.  I was freaking out.  The ERG was torture enough and now it appeared that it would continue for hours.  It did.  My eyes didn’t start to feel better until about 10 pm that night, 7 hours after the ERG.

When I woke up the next morning, there was a weird crust all around my eyes, but the burning had stopped and my pupils had gone back to normal (RP normal anyway).  I really hope I get at least another ten years before having to enter ERG hell again.

 

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