"Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

Friday, September 16, 2011

I want you to love this. So I'm going to force you to do it.


Confession: I have watched the movie The Sure Thing approximately 8625 times (give or take a thousand) There was a point in time when my sister and I could sit and recite the entire movie back and forth, without missing a single line. We're geeky talented like that. Also on my watched againandagainandagain list: When Harry Met Sally, The Breakfast Club, Real Genius, Some Kind of Wonderful, and Say Anything. Yes, I am aware that they made other movies both before and after the '80s, but that shall forever remain my favorite movie decade.

I love movies. I love them for their storytelling, for their settings, and for their dialogue. I love the cinematography. I love thinking about the screenplay (and being reminded of my all-time favorite class in college). I love the soundtracks, and how the music makes you really feel what you're watching. I love that I can watch a movie over and over, and still notice something new every time. I love watching the characters in the background, and seeing how much they add or detract from the main action. I love catching when they've made a mistake of continuity in the editing. I love that a favorite movie can bring me out of the doldrums like nothing else.

Because I love them, I naturally share that love with my kids. It just sort of bubbles out of me. We talk about movies, I tell them about my old favorites, we watch together, we look up the actors we like to see what else they've been in.  I don't know that they will all grow up loving movies as much as I do... but I do know that they enjoy and appreciate them.  They're something fun that we all take part in, both individually and as a family, simply because I couldn't help but share this part of myself with the people around me.

You know what I don't do?  I don't force them to watch movies.  Ever.  I don't require them to watch movies.  I don't set aside a certain part of the day for watching movies.  I don't tell them how much it would mean to me if they loved movies.  I don't make them watch movies when they'd rather be reading, or playing ball or taking apart an engine.  Doing so would then make movies an unpleasant chore... the exact opposite of my intention.  It would likely make them in fact strongly dislike movies (and possibly also strongly dislike ME in the process).  At a minimum, it would make them resentful of my insistence, and all but ensure that it becomes a past time that they would then never willingly pursue or enjoy of their own volition.

Doesn't that just seem like common sense?

Why then, do people hold the belief that they can foster the love of reading (another of the great loves of my life) through force?  Through requiring children - whether they seem ready or receptive or not - to sitting down, and practicing, practicing, practicing... as though it were an arduous and grueling task instead of what it actually is:  a useful and often pleasurable skill, one that should be enjoyed and embraced by the individual doing it.  Let me ask you, how much enjoying and embracing are you going to be doing if someone is standing over you with an iron fist?   How much more would you enjoy that chapter book, or National Geographic, or car repair manual (this is what my 14 year old reads for fun) if you're the one choosing to pick it up?   How much more would you appreciate having the skill of reading in your life if you came by it naturally... by having the people you love and trust sharing their joy of reading with you?  By being read to, by being surrounded by the written word, by playing games and asking questions and being curious?  NOT because you turned 4 (or 5 or 6 or whatever age schools these days are trumpeting as the 'right' age to start) and having it proclaimed to you, "Okay, time to learn to read!!"

You may think it's unfair of me to compare movies with reading.  One's a necessity, you're thinking, and the other is mere entertainment.   I disagree.  Both are forms of conveying information and telling stories.  Reading is an invaluable and important skill to develop, absolutely.   Reading opens up many doors, and makes us able to learn about anything that we desire, yes.  Reading helps us navigate through the world, and allows us to better understand what is happening around us, of course.  But if life is to be lived  (and heck yeah, LIFE IS TO BE LIVED) equally important is beauty... whether it comes from movies or books or poetry or dance.  Enjoying life is important.  Having passion for something is important.  And a great way to make sure that your child does NOT have passion for something - at least the positive kind - is by forcing them to do it against their will.

I recently received an email from a friend (a friend who I've long suspected is an unschooler at heart, even though her daughter currently attends school).  She told me about her daughter, a little seven year old, the same age as my Everett.  She's a girl who loved to read, and who'd often steal away to her favorite corners of the house to curl up with a book.   She then started second grade, where it was required as part of her homework that she read out loud for ten minutes every day.  In a matter of weeks, this little girl completely lost her love of reading, and instead began to dread it.  This from a child who actually liked to read!   What about the kids who are still learning, or who are focusing on other skills, or who just aren't ready?  Pushing them is going to, well, do just that:  push them further away.  It's not going to help them appreciate reading, and it's certainly not going to instill a love for the process.

Too many traditional schools are focusing more and more on 'academics', and at a younger and younger age.   They want kids to love reading so they.... try to force it?  They're going in the wrong direction.   Kids needs to PLAY, but because of increased pressures to ready them for standardized tests and college and SATS, there's no time for play.  No time for recess, or art, or music, or gym.  They must learn to read!  And they're going to enjoy it, dammit! 

The ironic part to me is that the system as it stands clearly isn't working.   Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."  This is even worse than that though, because it's taking that same thing over and over and doing more of it.   More pressure.  More structure.  More homework.  More testing.  Meanwhile, more kids are depressed, angry, burnt out, exhausted, bullying others, getting bullied themselves, and getting put on all kinds of psychotropic drugs.   I can't be the only one who sees that there's a problem here.

Want your children to love reading?  Let them see that YOU love it.  Share with them.  Help them.  Support them.  Want your children to love learning?  Let them know that it's not a chore, or a burden, or a headache... but simply what we humans do.  Let them see that learning is all around them, and not something that happens at certain hours in certain places.  Want your children to be happy?  Let them be children.  Let them run and play and mess up and touch things and taste things and try things. 

Let them know that life is about joy and freedom and choices, not about getting forced into someone else's boxes. 

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Plank Pullin: The Money Edition

It’s Plank Pullin’ time! The one day a week that we strongly resolve to ignore the multitude of specks and sawdust around us and pull one bona fide plank from our own eye. Matthew 7:3-5, style.

A few of you know this already, but I also keep a (often neglected) blog about money, specifically about our journey in paying off our debt.   You can read the entire story there, but in the interest in saving time:  We married young, and had part-time or low paying jobs for quite a long period of time.  Racked up a whole bunch of debt.  Worked really hard to pay it all off, and moved to Arizona debt free.  Somehow (thanks in large part to a crashing real estate market and a failed "investment" house that we're still living in), we racked up some debt again - although thankfully not nearly in the scale we'd been under a decade ago.  Having debt of any sort is a terrible and suffocating feeling, one I can't wait to be free of.  While we're finally in a position where we're making a very comfortable income, we are often living as if we make almost no money at all, so focused we are on putting everything extra towards our debt.

You could say money and finances are big interests of mine, but that wouldn't be entirely accurate.  I think I'm knowledgeable about it, having read just about every book, article, and website on the subject, but.... I still worry about money, I stress about money, I am WEIRD about money.  How am I defining 'weird', you ask?  Here's an example:

A couple of weeks ago, we joined some friends for a morning outdoor event.  It was early, and we'd been in a rush, so I hadn't gotten to have my daily cup of coffee.  I lamented to my friend about my missing liquid energy (I'm a much more likeable person when I've been fully caffeinated) and she said, "Oh there's a Starbucks right down the street."  And in the 2.4 seconds that it took me to tell her, "That's okay, I'll just wait till I get home" I had a fiery, indignant, unspoken internal dialogue that went something like this:

"Starbucks??  You think I can just afford to be going to Starbucks all willy-nilly?  Do you have any idea how much Starbucks costs?  Must be nice to have money to be going to Starbucks all the time.  Must be nice to have money to throw away."

Totally irrational right??  I don't know why I do it.   She was trying to be helpful.  And the ironic thing is that I absolutely could have afforded to get a coffee at Starbucks (I almost never go though, because I really do think it's ridiculously expensive for coffee), but I didn't, just on general principle.  We also very rarely buy bottled water,or eat at nice restaurants or any kind of restaurants, or buy new clothes, or get professional haircuts or manicures or pedicures or eyebrow waxings (or pluckings or threading or whatever is popular now)  I have a very, very hard time spending money on things that aren't necessities.

Worse than that though, is that I find myself getting judgmental, even angry, towards people who are irresponsible with money.  Interestingly, it's not so much strangers that I have a problem with.... if I see some random person spending jillions of dollars on something excessive, it's easy for me to imagine that (likely or not) they live an all-cash lifestyle, have no debt, and also give jillions of dollars to charity.  No, where I have a problem is with the people who've made me privy to their financial information for whatever reason, and continue to make bad choices.  I really don't like knowing that someone is behind on their Visa bill or their electric bill or their rent... and is meanwhile eating out, going to the movies, and buying fancy new gadgets.   One part of me tells me to chill out, that it's absolutely none of my business.  The other part says that it very well IS my business, as it's partly because of that kind of irresponsible spending that the housing market has done what it has, and the reason that we are so unbelievably upside down in our own mortgage (which, by the way, we faithfully pay on time every single month)  Either way, the feeling is unpleasant and all-around icky, and I'd really like to stop it. 

So consider another plank pulled.  And help a girl out by not mentioning your overdraft fees and your new iPhone in the same sentence. 

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Making Peace with a Schedule


A few weeks ago, I got an email from someone looking to flesh out the concept of unschooling a little more. One of her (paraphrased) questions was "Do you ever feel like you're just spinning your wheels, and/or putting out fires all day?"

My answer: Yes. And when I notice it's happening frequently, I know it's time for something to change. More specifically, I know it's time for me to make a change. It's not a good thing for me OR the kids if I'm scattered all day, flitting here and there and not really present for any of it. Unschooling shouldn't be about reacting, but about being there, right there in the moment.

Since getting all renewed and re-inspired at the conference, I have sadly realized that I really have been doing all too much wheel-spinning lately. Further, I've realized that I have done the same exact thing when each of my boys was Tegan's age (3) as well. When my kids are around 3 - not quite babies anymore - I sort of have a little life crisis. They are more independent, and playing on their own more often, and needing me in very different ways than before. I start to feel that itch of wanting to take on a new hobby, or start a new business, or devote some time to a certain passion. The difference this time though is that when the boys were her age, I was either about to have another baby, or I'd just had one. So the feelings would go away, and I'd happily immerse myself once again in diapers and onesies and dimpled elbows and chubby feet and sweet smelling baby heads. This time there is no pregnancy and there is no new baby. Which is in turns heartbreakingly sad, and strangely exciting.

Lately my heightened crisis has caused me to become suddenly interested in 20,000 different things. And of course I still want to be present for my kids, and fully invested in unschooling and hands-on parenting. I want to figure out this whole "homemaker" thing, and make (and keep) a nice home for my family. I also want to have some time for myself, and some time for blogging, and some time for pursuing my own interests. As a result, I'm sorry to say, I feel I've been only a little bit good at all of the above. I've also been anxious about the new season, which is suddenly thrusting us from having zero standing weekly plans to having basketball, gymnastics, scouts, church, and bible study meetings.

And so, I've decided to get organized and make a plan. Instead of a zillion personal pursuits, at the moment I'm going to focus on one. And you're reading it. This blog is my fifth baby, my heart, and my soul. I don't know what is going to happen in the future, but for right now, this is what I need to be doing. I need to be doing it so badly that I actually made myself a schedule.

I'm not a big schedule person (in fact I sort of hate them with a passion), but I also know that they work really, really well for me. They help me focus on what I'm supposed to be focusing on, and they help my scattered brain get a little less scattered.

Here then, is my - always flexible, always subject to change - schedule:

Morning: Coffee, emails, empty the dishwasher

Rest of the day into the afternoon: Leave the computer alone (instead of checking emails/Facebook in 2 or 3 minute little bursts all the live long day). Be present and focused and available for the kids.... for playing, for projects, for questions, for reading, for talking, for hanging out.

2:00-4:00ish (still working on this): Take time for myself to blog, answer emails and comments, and work on other writing-related stuff, without feeling guilty about it.

4:30 Pick up our messes for the day to get ready for the evening

5:00 till whenever we go to bed: Dinner, dishes, activities, television, playing, and hanging out (and maybe I'll check emails and Facebook somewhere in there too :)).

The idea is that when I'm with the kids, I'm WITH them. When I'm doing something for me, I'm doing something for me. And so on. It's still very much an experiment, because honestly, it's something I've never really tried before. I had grand plans to start it yesterday, but instead had an unexpected (and welcome) outing with friends we haven't seen for 3 months.

So we started it today. I did pretty well with ignoring my computer until 2:00, although I'm thinking I'm not so great with the cold turkey thing. The kids were all 100% on board with giving me my time at 2:00... but I spent 10 minutes of it in the tub with the girl, and another 5 explaining to the 14 year old about researching "completed" listings on Ebay to help price something he wanted to sell... both of which were momentarily more important than my own needs. At the time of this writing, it is 3:00, and all four kids have settled into a happy, comfortable groove. I'll commit myself to giving it an honest try, and a fair amount of time, and we'll see what it brings. I'm kind of excited at the prospect though, even if it means some adjustment, for all involved.

If you're a stay-at-home parent, do you have some sort of schedule for your day? How does it work for you?

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Good Vibrations: Finding my Tribe

This past weekend we joined over one hundred unschooling families for the Good Vibrations Unschooling Conference. I don't want to get too mushy and sentimental about it, but here's the thing:

I don't really fit in with most moms. Not moms from homeschool groups, not moms from little league, not moms from scouts, not moms from church. Sure, I've become reasonably adept at smiling and small talk and chit chat, but when the subject shifts (as it always inevitably does) to things like curriculums, limits, punishments, and coercive parenting in general, I'm met with a stark reminder. "Oh yeah, we're different."

Make no mistake... I like being different. I love the lifestyle we've chosen to live with our family, and I truly couldn't imagine living any other way. I am so happy, and so filled with peace with the decisions we've made - and continue to make - when it comes to education, parenting, and just LIVING. But I'd be lying if I didn't say that at times it can be.... isolating... having an all but completely nonexistent local support team of people who "get it."

Enter the unschooling conference.

And of course, the conference was lighthearted and fun. I mean, where else can you:

Go swimming
Make fairy wands and upcycled tutus
Carve sponges
Break boards
Play dress-up
Learn about nature drawing
Hula hoop
Have Nerf gun wars
Watch movies and listen to concerts by the pool, and
Take surfing lessons,

All in the same weekend?

There's no denying that it was a great time. But it was more than that. It was like a breath of fresh air to be around so many unschoolers, to - even if just for a few days - not be the odd one out. To know that my three year old is welcomed anywhere that I am, to know that my seven year old will be taken seriously, and that my 11 and 14 year old won't be asked what grade they're in, or what their favorite subject is or whether or not they're allowed to watch television or play video games. To see adults, teens, and kids of all ages playing and chatting and just enjoying each other's company, as if it were the most natural and normal thing in the world (which, of course, it is)

Being an introvert who's married to, well, an even bigger introvert, we're not always so good at the mixing and mingling. We tended to do more hanging back and observing, while our unsocialized kids happily and easily made friends with everyone they came in contact with. But even from our "quietly taking everything in" stance (although, I feel compelled to make it known that I DID both break a board and hula hoop in front of a bunch of people, thankyouverymuch); even from that perspective, the amount of support and validation I received from everyone there was immense. I gained and learned so much just from seeing the examples of kindness and respect with which other parents treated their children, and with which they treated my children. And the parents I did get a chance to talk with? It was privilege, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Shortly before we left for home, I witnessed someone yelling at a child, and demanding that he get out of the pool. It thoroughly jarred me out of my conference bubble, and I suddenly realized that I'd just gone four whole days without hearing a parent yell (which is really pretty amazing when you consider that I was there with over 100 sets of parents, and I can barely make it through the grocery store without hearing at least one parent yell, or punish, or humiliate their child.) Disclaimer: This is not to say that unschoolers are perfect parents or that they don't make mistakes or sometimes have bad days. It's also not to say that there aren't wonderful parents who don't unschool. Of course there are. It's just that being surrounded by so many many parents who are consciously choosing a path towards a more peaceful and harmonious relationship with their kids is a pretty powerful and invaluable thing. And, well, it DOES make me want to get mushy and sentimental.

Because those are my people. That is my tribe. And even though we're back home now, scattered amongst the country once again... I'm going to hold on tight, and thank my lucky stars that thanks to the wonder of the internet, my tribe is still with me.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2011


"The unanswered questions aren't nearly as dangerous as the unquestioned answers."
I am a questioner.  I always have been.  I was the student that drove the teacher crazy, asking question after question (sometimes pertaining to the subject at hand, sometimes not)  Pre-kids, I worked in retail.  I worked my way up from part-time cashier to full-time manager in about 18 months, thanks in large part to my questioning nature.  I'm never satisfied with anything at face value ... I always need to know more.  I want to know what, I want to know when, I want to know WHY.   And when I do I get an answer?  I question that too.

Questions are how we make sense of the world around us.  Questions are how we learn... not just about our external lives, but about ourselves.  How do we really know how we feel about something unless we question it?

It should come as little surprise then that my children love to question as well.  I welcome and encourage any and all questions, including - or especially - those that people consider to be of a sensitive nature.  It makes no practical difference to me.  "Mommy, why is the sky blue?" and "Mommy, what does 'gay' mean?" will both receive the same amount of respect and attention.  An honest question deserves an honest answer, regardless of where it came from.

I'm thinking of questions today because of this.  Chaz Bono is going to be a contestant on Dancing with the Stars this season, and it has apparently caused a whole bunch of ruffled feathers.  Parents are publicly complaining, lambasting ABC, and boycotting the show.  People are worried that their children are going to ask questions, and this makes them uncomfortable.  I have a question for those parents, but first an observation or two:  1.  The great thing about television is that you always have the right to choose.  If you don't like the fact that's he on the show, you can simply not watch. And 2. The show is called Dancing with the Stars, not The Intimate Details of Chaz Bono's Private Life.  It's a dancing competition, not a documentary.  I'm not really sure why his gender is even at issue.

My question though is this.... If you watch, and if the issue of transgenderism is raised, and if your child asks questions (an awful lot of "ifs"), why are those questions a bad thing?  What exactly is the fear there?  It seems to me that we should be glad as parents that our children feel close enough and comfortable enough to come to us with their questions, of all sort.  They are going to ask someone their questions, and I would far rather it be me than Google,or a random child on the playground.  Even if you don't agree with Chaz Bono's lifestyle choices, your distaste doesn't make him cease to exist.  Your discomfort doesn't negate your child's prerogative to ask questions about something that he/she doesn't understand.   They have a right to be curious, and they have a right to an answer.  There is always something you can say, even if it's "You know what, that question really caught me off guard.  Let me think about how to explain it for a minute."  So often though, the answer they're looking for is really much more simple than we make it.  And if they need more information, they will ask!

Kids will ask questions.

Kids will sometimes ask hard questions (and honestly, explaining what "transgendered" means is far from the hardest question I've ever had to answer).  I think it's our job as parents to answer them openly, honestly, and simply... whether the questions are about blue skies and rainbows or gender and sexuality.

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Monday, September 05, 2011

Won't they just eat junk food all day?

This is all unschoolers eat, right?
"One question that I have from reading your blog, is how you reconcile your nutritional beliefs/values .. with the concept of unschooling - I ask this because this is a really difficult issue for me - letting go of media/bedtimes/respectful parenting, we are already somewhere down the line with all of this, but I cannot see myself buying "junk" food/keeping it in the house - I was just interested in your take on this."
If you've ever watched one of those unabashedly biased nightly "news" pieces about unschooling - or read any number of unschooling articles in the mainstream media - you'll know that unschoolers are often depicted as eating nothing but junk food all day.  Since they're given the freedom to choose, they're feasting on donuts and chips and sodas at all hours of the night and day... because that's what a child would choose, right?  Because of pervasive misconceptions such as these, the above question is one that I receive often, in various forms.  Is that one area where you just don't give them freedom?  Don't you worry that they'll choose nothing but junk food?  I know my child would just eat candy all day...

Let me start by saying that as someone who has studied nutrition, I do think it's important to know about food.  Absolutely.  Parents are doing themselves and their children a disservice if they're not educating themselves at least on the basics.  We should know what's in the food we're eating, and why some choices are better than others.  Why the white flour products don't have the nutrition of their whole grain counterparts.  Why commercially grown produce is so inferior to that which is grown organically.  Why packaged "kids" foods like Goldfish crackers are no different nutritionally than feeding your kids cookies (in fact, as long as I'd made them myself, I'd much prefer the cookies).  As parents we should know why it's not a super idea to be serving up hot dogs or boxed macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets with any regularity.  If for no other reason, because we can't expect our kids to understand what it means to eat a clean, healthful diet if we don't understand it ourselves.

From an unschooling perspective, I also believe that eating is personal.  Just like adults, kids should have autonomy when it comes to what they do and do not put in their body, at what time, and for what reason.  THEY are the ones who know when they are hungry, when they are full, what makes them feel good, and what doesn't... not their parents, and not the clock.  And yes,  I believe in freedom and choices when it comes to food.  I believe that eating should be both functional and pleasurable, not something to be used as reward or punishment or fodder for a battle.  None of the above is healthy (either physically or mentally) and it hurts me as both an unschooler and as a nutritional consultant to see the pressure, control, and stress that parents will sometimes place on their children over the issue of food.

So to answer the original question from up above:  how do I reconcile the two perspectives?  I buy lots of interesting, real, whole foods.   We don't eat fast food  - no one ever asks -  and we rarely buy boxed, bagged or otherwise processed stuff.  We involve the kids in the entire process, and everyone gets an equal say in what we'll eat for the week.  We look up new recipes together.  We talk about the pros and cons of various "diets" our friends or families are trying.  We give the kids freedom, choices, and information.   They know why we buy what we regularly buy, and they also know that on those occasions that they ask for chips, candy or other "extras", that the answer will be YES.  They are welcome to eat anything in the cabinet, refrigerator or freezer anytime... whether it's before dinner, after dinner, or during dinner.

I think one big misconception that people have about this is that giving kids freedom and choices means just leaving them the heck alone, keeping the pantry stocked with Cheetos, soda, and Ring Dings, and letting them have at it.  That can't be much further from the truth.  We maintain an open line of communication about food like we do everything else, and we stock the house with the things that they love, enjoy, or want to try.  Nine times out of ten they're snacking on fruits, vegetables, and nuts because that's what they choose.  But if they're craving cookies, we'll make some.  If they're craving cupcakes, we'll make those too.  If they're craving cheap, sugary, artificially dyed confections from the dollar store, I'll drive them.

The question remains though.... What would I do if it went too far and one of my kids suddenly wanted to eat nothing but junk food, white flour, and candy?  It's honestly never been an issue.  They know real food, and they know that that isn't it.  They know that those things don't make them feel good.  And sure, they enjoy candy now and then.  They like ice cream as much as the next guy.  And would they happily eat pizza, pretzels, and potato chips at a Super Bowl party?  You bet.   But because none of it is "forbidden", and they know that they're always free to choose, they've learned to trust themselves, trust their bodies, and trust their instincts.

And I trust too.

I also wrote about food freedom in this post

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Thursday, September 01, 2011

A Year Without Mirrors


Have you seen this blog?

Mirror, Mirror... OFF The Wall

I came across this the other day, and I found it absolutely fascinating. Like really fascinating. I can't stop reading. You'll definitely want to spend some time there when you're done here (you're welcome), but in a nutshell:

It's written by a woman who formerly worked in the fashion industry, and is currently studying the relationship between "beauty" and equality. The blog is about her year-long experiment - begun 6 months before her wedding - in which she completely gives up mirrors.

I love it. Love the concept, love her writing, love how it makes me think.

Body image and self image and how we perceive beauty in general are such a huge part of our culture. I like to pretend that they aren't, but turning on a television or picking up a magazine or walking just about anywhere in public tells me otherwise.

My kids tell me otherwise too, in ways that break my heart. My 14 year old starting to worry about shaving and acne and what girls will think of his appearance. My 11 year old, who has finally stopped cutting off all his curls because he thought that straight hair was cooler. My three year old little girl, who's already been told by a proud 5 year old cousin: "You're not as skinny as me."

It all makes me sad, and certainly isn't a subject that can be covered (or covered well anyway) in one single blog post. I think I just might write about it some more in the future. In the meantime, check out her blog, and be inspired.

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