Normal On My Mind

Blame the NYTImes again! Last Sunday they published an article on what study subjects identified as normal, and the results add a fascinating layer onto our previous discussion of what the term normal means.

In our past look at the use of the word normal in Doc Martin (see “Normal Is A Loaded Word”), we toyed around with substituting several other words, e.g. typical, proper, conventional. What this article brings up is another word: ideal. For me the biggest takeaway is their determination that “when people think about what is normal, they combine their sense of what is typical with their sense of what is ideal. Normal, in other words, turns out to be a blend of statistical and moral notions.”

It may be useful, as my husband suggested, to think of normal as lying on a bell-shaped curve, as many of our concepts do. The height of the bell would be the best interpretation of what we usually accept as normal, while the side to the right of the curve would be gradations of ideal, and the side to the left would be heading toward totally abnormal.

The SD at the bottom of the graph is standard deviation from the mean/median (or average/midpoint) of a sample. When applied to this example, what the article is arguing is that when people are asked to judge whether something is normal, they actually are likely to see normal as where the +1 SD is on this bell curve. In other words, they see normal as being one standard deviation towards ideal.

If we apply this to the show, we could regard Louisa as struggling with this dynamic. She has been living in a fantasy world of judging normality in the community, in her parents, and subsequently in Martin Ellingham and herself on a scale that leans toward ideal when the real world, as portrayed in this show, is actually leaning toward 1-2 SDs in the opposite direction. In other words, she is surrounded by a world that tends toward the abnormal.

By the end of S7, she has come to the realization that the community is filled with unusual people, and that she and Martin are also unusual. We considered this disclosure strange coming from someone who had continuously been portrayed as accepting the differences in people. We thought her revelation came out of nowhere, and I’m not ready to reject that entirely, but…

In looking at the ending of S7 in this hypothetical manner of a bell curve, I wonder if the writers were using the above rationale when they wrote Louisa’s closing dialogue so curiously. It would have been better, IMO, if they would have provided some sort of clue for us to use since, according to the article, “however deeply ingrained this cognitive tendency may be, people are not condemned to think this way. You are certainly capable of distinguishing carefully between what is typical and what is good.” On the other hand, they caution that “most often, we do not stop to distinguish the typical from the acceptable, the infrequent from the deviant. Instead, we categorize things in terms of a more basic, undifferentiated notion of normality, which blends together these two importantly different facets of human life.” If we want to be generous, we could decide that Louisa has had some sort of epiphany explained by her recognition of how to distinguish between the typical and the good.

Originally posted 2017-02-01 16:05:46.

18 thoughts on “Normal On My Mind

  1. amy cohen

    I am not sure I follow this entirely, so let me see if I can try and paraphrase it. There are two possible ways to think about what we mean by normal. One is more objective—what is typical or expected in a given situation. So, e.g., when Martin tells Louisa that 120-150 heartbeats a minute for a fetus is “normal,” it is this objective sense. It’s not a value judgement, but a statistical use of the word normal. It’s what falls close to the high point of the bell curve. Martin often uses the word normal in this sense when talking about medical things, e.g, whether breast tissue in men is normal.

    The other sense is more subjective and would be what the NYT article says falls to the right of the bell curve and more a sense that something is good or even ideal. That use of normal appears in the series frequently also. E.g. when Martin says Louisa is not acting like a “normal” pregnant woman or when Louisa says the headmaster is not “normal” or when Mr Flynt says he just wanted his boys to have a “normal” family or when Delph’s mother says Delph needs to behave like a normal girl at school, and so on.. Any time someone describes human behavior as “normal” or not normal, the word is being used more in this sense of “good” or “ideal” than “typical,” although there’s a mix of that as well.

    The word’s meaning is actually debated by Martin and Pauline’s uncle—as to whether the uncle’s use of steroids is “not normal” or “unnatural.” The uncle prefers to think it’s not natural rather than not normal since being “abnormal” implies that something is wrong.

    As for what Louisa means in S7, I am still confused. Perhaps she’s always accepted variations in human behavior as natural, but not normal in the subjective sense, the sense of it being good. And now she realizes that absent real pathology, human behavior all falls in the higher parts of the bell curve, even if not subjectively “ideal” or even good.

  2. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Amy, your examples of the various uses of normal in this show are very helpful. As you say, what the article is discussing is the subjective sense of the term. (In that regard, I would place Pauline’s uncle’s use of steroids in the objective category because it refers to medication even though her uncle may be particularly sensitive to using the term abnormal. If I remember correctly, we learn later why he feels that way.)

    Like you, I understand the article to be alluding to those times when human behavior is being described by individuals. In trying to apply this article’s study results to this show, and to Louisa specifically, I was suggesting she could be placed among the broader populace who generally blend their sense of average and ideal. Thus, until the end of S7 she has been expecting (and thinking of) the people of Portwenn, Martin Ellingham, and herself to fall somewhere on the ideal side of the curve (or +1 SD). But after some reflection, perhaps before sitting on the hill, but certainly while sitting there, we are supposed to think she arrived at the realization that the town, Martin, and she really all fall on the opposite side of the bell curve (or the -1-2 SD). In a way she is no longer being defensive about the people who surround her and simply finally being realistic. She accepts that all of them are somewhat abnormal.

    You may think I’ve gone a little too far to the side of abnormal, but I don’t mean to be harsh. I just think this town is a purposely exaggerated version of most small towns and has an extraordinarily large number of misfits. Most of their odd behaviors are meant to be humorous, even those of ME and Joan and Ruth. Louisa has generally been the most level headed, but she has obvious faults too and now places herself among the eccentrics.

  3. amy

    Or perhaps Louisa is recognizing that ALL people, not just Portwenn people, are not “normal.” Yes, Portwenn has more than its share of people with strange tendencies—roadkill eaters, a man living as both himself and his wife, a ranger who sees squirrels, a narcoleptic cop, and so on—but I would assume the writers are saying we are ALL a bit “abnormal” and thus shouldn’t pass judgment on the foibles and idiosyncrasies of others. After all, aren’t all people a little odd in some way? Is there really a “typical” or “standard” person? If so, he/she must be pretty boring, and I’ve never yet met one!

    I mentioned the uncle’s debate with Martin not as an example of the subjective use of the term normal, but more to show how he was more offended by being told he was not normal than by the suggestion that taking steroids was unnatural (and yes, I think it touched a nerve because of his concerns about his sexuality).

  4. amy

    OK, just posted and it’s not here. Perhaps in the trash? I think I need to start saving my posts elsewhere as I don’t want to have to retype all that I just wrote!

  5. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Once again I have no idea how this last comment was not published properly. All your others have been going through quite well. It’s a mystery to me!

    I am a little more circumspect than you are about the writers wanting us to look at the odd people in the show as anything more than quirky residents of Portwenn mostly because there’s a lot of humor in it, but there is an indication that between the phrase “We Are What We Are” and Louisa’s comment that generalizes about “people,” that they are sending some sort of message.

  6. Santa Traugott

    I wonder if sometimes Louisa does not conflate “ideal” and “typical” in her idea of what normal is. That is, we see how in earlier seasons trying to tell Martin how “normal” people do things, especially normal GPs — that is, they have a laugh, they have a bedside manner. And later, she has expectations of him — that he will behave as villagers would “normally” expect the husband of the headmistress to behave, i.e., attend school events at night, or even give out medals. These are “normative”” behaviors — both expected and desirable; desireable for her, I think, because they are conventional.

    Then we have the confounding statement at the end of S1, that we love the Peters/Martins of this world because they are not normal, basically. Because they are original and can’t be categorized or pinned down and don’t live to the expectations of others.

    Let me first say that I think that the writers have portrayed Louisa inconsistently in this way to meet plot needs. However, I can tell myself a story that her behavior is consistent with someone who is quite conflicted about her desire to be “normal” — which she does think of as more or less ideal — or certainly that rocking along as normal is the ideal situation — but also recognizes and loves Martin for what he is. It is that tension within her that contributes to the conflicts between them. She wants a typical husband and he cannot be that. Ultimately, she has to accept him as he is or lose him, as I think he made clear to her.

    Who knows — maybe it was the struggle to live up to Louisa’s expectations for what a “normal” marriage might be, and his own difficulties with this, unable to acknowledge, which led to his strange withdrawal and funk of S6.

    So the message is definitely, we are what we are. Oddly, it was the art teacher who wanted her daughter to be special and gifted, while the daughter wanted to be “normal” — i.e., like the other girls. We are given that scene, I think, to show Martin reflecting on the dangers of trying to live up to someone else’s expectations, no matter how much you love them. The fact that the teacher immediately recognized what she had been doing and promised to stop, would have given up pause too.

    If you look at this as a tension within Louisa which has always been present, then her acceptance of his being not “normal” at the end of S7, isn’t quite such a whipsaw moment.

    It’s a stretch to assume that was the writers’ intentions all along, but it’s the only way so far I can parse that last scene.

  7. amy

    Thanks for retrieving my message. I sure didn’t want to recreate it!

    Perhaps I give television writers—or these at least—too much credit. But I assume the entire point of view of the show is that we, human beings, are all a bit quirky and should be more understanding of the quirks of others. That theme shows up again and again. Remember how Aunt Joan admonishes Martin not to be too harsh with Penhale because, as she subtly suggests, lots of people (Martin) have psychological issues that might interfere with their work. I could cite other examples, but I think you know what I’m saying. It seems to me the show isn’t simply a comedy about a bunch of oddballs in a small town, but that that town is a microcosm of our whole society where we all need to be able to be more tolerant and understanding of each other’s idiosyncrasies. Martin is the prime example of someone with problems who has to learn to be more understanding of the problems of others.

  8. amy

    Santa’s comment and mine crossed in cyberspace, so I am reading it after I posted mine.

    I do think Martin’s depression was supposed to be related to trying (and failing) to be a normal husband—going to the concert, having people over for dinner—he kept failing. He didn’t think, as he had said in S3, that he could make her happy and/or be happy himself.

    I like Santa’s idea that Louisa is struggling between being understanding of difference/oddness/abnormality and desiring “normality.” Maybe we all do. We are intrigued by, entertained by, educated by those who don’t quite fit in, but in the end we want to fit in (even though we may also be a bit odd). We are torn between wanting to be unique and special and wanting to be typical and usual. I think of teenagers trying to stand out with their clothes and their attitudes and their music but wanting to blend in as a typical teenager.

    Santa’s notion that Louisa may finally realize that being “normal” isn’t so important seems a rational way to read that scene. But what took her so long? Don’t most of us get to that point long before we are 40? (I have a friend whose son, as a teen, complained that he was a geek and a loser, and his mother reassured him that it didn’t matter since all her friends, most of whom were now very successful and socially well-adjusted, had been geeks and losers in high school.)

  9. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    I believe that we are doing far more interrogating of this matter than the writers have done. Nevertheless, I do not think it’s too much of a stretch to think that there was some effort to engage with the idea of what’s normal. My immediate position would be very much along the lines of your sense that the character serves the plot and they weren’t overly concerned whether there were points of inconsistency.

    I’m pretty sure we spend much more time looking into this than most viewers, and what stands out to us, never crosses the minds of many others. But the fact that the show brings up the term “normal” so frequently has to make us wonder a little.

    There’s never any doubt that Louisa recognizes that Martin is different. Even so, there’s also not much doubt that she is attracted to him early on. So the constant back and forth nature of their relationship hinges on her ambivalence of wanting to be with him while also needing to come to grips with his nonconformity. We could then tell ourselves a story that she is continually trying to convince herself that she’s fine with his oddness. After all there’s much to recommend him and he’s really the only eligible male around. Danny comes along as a diversion, but I don’t see him as being presented as a serious alternative for her.

    Ultimately, their attraction to one another, and their dedication to their son, overcomes any hesitations. In a sense, that is a very “normal” resolution.

  10. DM

    Thanks for another go at what is “normal” as this is an interesting way to look at it which, if I understand correctly, relates to our perception of “normal” as being comprised of an objective component (the statistical ideal) together with a subjective component (the moral).

    Generally in scientific research it is ±1.96 standard-deviations (or ±1.96𝛔 where 𝛔 is the greek letter sigma) that defines for a given population of samples what is statistically normal (not to be conflated with the unrelated psychosocial “normal”– whatever that may be) which corresponds to 95% of the population (corresponding to 95% of the total area under the curve at the ±1.96𝛔 limits) wherein the remaining 5% constitutes the outlier for a given population for a single, independent variable (e.g. one trait) (one small correction is that standard-deviation is measured as simultaneously towards or away from the central mean at the middle of the bell curve, hence the ± plus-or-minus). But of course psychosocial “normality” even were it determinable, let alone measurable (and then restricted to a given culture and historical time), would require a complex multivariate statistical analysis composed of many traits and behaviours.

    Yet conforming to a statistical ideal hardly defines “normality”, and “normality” most certainly doesn’t equate to mental health anyways! Which yields another way to consider Doc Martin’s S7 and the paradoxical, if not contradictory, idea of “normality” with instead the idea of “conformity”. Psychology and sociology has much to say about conformity of an individual and whether they are “flexible” or “rigid” in conformance of their behaviour, interpersonal interactions, reactions to lifetime events, etc. Good mental health correlates strongly to a “flexible” personality whilst poor mental health correlates strongly to a “rigid” personality (this exempts unstable behaviour that is often due to biological, chemical, or environmental causes– all of which we’re well used to seeing on display on Doc Martin).

    This view accounts for the few bright spots in S7 of instances where Martin (largely with Louisa’s help) was able to desist from conforming to certain behaviours like “dealing with a public health nuisance” (killing buddy) and reporting “a criminal offense for administering a drug without proper medical training” (have Peter arrested for trying to help his mother). These would have been instances of Martin conforming with himself and his past behaviour, the same rigid “doctor” persona that is rarely able to distinguish from anything or anyone else. Neither of these two examples constitute “abnormal” or “wrong” behaviours, it’s just that their rigid conformance fails to consider whether they are appropriate to the circumstances. Likewise, rigidly conforming to this medical role yields inappropriate behaviour in social or romantic moments with Louisa (as at the end of their concert date). Of course this behaviour has long been codified as a psychological defense mechanism in Martin, as to the conformance of the only sort of behaviour either his horrible mother or horrible father likely ever regarded as acceptable amongst the myriad of behaviours they likely found vilely unacceptable in their son– with the result of there being little else for him to fashion an identity for himself.

    Amongst Port Wenn’s population of 960-odd individuals (some being extremely odd), the normal distribution of “normality” is probably not normal at all. But with few exceptions, the population’s acceptance for one another’s non-conformity seems to make it a safe and happy place to live where every individual’s uniqueness is accepted. Should Martin take a next big step in his psychological development, it’ll be his (not Louisa’s!) acceptance and embrace of his own uniqueness that makes all the difference.

  11. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Wow! Your comment is much more statistically specific than mine was meant to be. When I suggested thinking of a bell curve, I was only trying to use a visual tool in an attempt to explain what the article was saying in terms of how most people judge someone as normal. My understanding of the article is that humans generally tend to determine what normal is based on their sense of what is ideal combined with what they see as typical or expected. The whole subject is very complex, as you point out, and dependent on all sorts of variables. Your inclusion of the term “conformity” makes even clearer how many ways we can look at normality.

    My daughter, who is an educator, gave me some insight into how important this issue is when it comes to childhood development. I am slightly hesitant to include all of this, but thought it might be further evidence of the complexity of this topic as well as the significance of it. Here is what she had to contribute:
    “Experts in early childhood use a set of benchmarks and milestones to determine typical social, emotional, gross motor, fine motor, expressive and receptive language, and cognitive skills and abilities. There is an age range, expressed in months, within which children should reach these milestones to be considered typically developing in that area. The age ranges expand as the child grows to reflect the relative impact of a month’s time on the overall growth of a child (i.e., a month is a third of a three month old infant’s life, making it highly significant, but only 1/24 of a two year old’s life). For infants, major milestones should be reached within a month of expectations. For 6-12 month olds, within two months, etc.

    Once a child reaches the age of three, early childhood educators and developmental pediatricians are able to identify specific areas of atypicality with great certainty. The age of three is especially significant, because typically developing children should be able to function in a classroom with their peers with some independence, communicate their wants and needs in a variety of ways, and demonstrate the ability to care for themselves without constant adult intervention (toileting may be the exception, as some children are ready later than others for “potty training”). Most educators and physicians will refer three to four year olds to specialists (SLPs, OTs, PTs, psychologists) if they note a significant area of atypicality, as it is a crucial time to address the issues before Kindergarten. Children will need to be re-evaluated to analyze the impact of interventions every six months.

    For elementary age children, there is a new layer of developmental analysis regarding academic skills, particularly in reading, writing, and executive functioning, as well as areas like auditory processing. Children who show signs of atypicality in these areas can be assessed for learning disabilities, and it is at the age of five to six that learning differences like dyslexia or dysgraphia can be indentified with accuracy. This age range is also the earliest time that a child can be diagnosed with OCD, anxiety, or ADHD, as behaviors still within the typical range in preschool become developmentally atypical if they continue in Kindergarten and First Grade. Children of this age will need to be re-evaluated after a year.

    After First Grade, children can exhibit signs of and be evaluated for a full range of academic and psychological challenges that can impact their learning. At this point, the child will need new evaluations only every three years.”

    There is much we can do with this information as it relates to this show and Martin’s development, insofar as we are given some data. We might also wonder what, if anything, they might decide to do with James as he gets older. I have no expectation that they will seriously address major developmental issues; however, they have thrown in information about vaccines and various diseases, so they might venture into something related to this.

    As you note, they have included a few instances of Martin becoming more flexible, and adding something about these issues could lead to more of that.

    I agree with you that Portwenn is filled with people that would skew the normal curve away from what would usually be considered “normal.” (I believe I made a comment about that in some previous post when I mentioned that among the residents of Portwenn, Martin isn’t so odd and has already been accepted into the community on many levels.) Thanks for your insights.

  12. Abby

    When children grow up in dysfunctional homes they not uncommonly try to hide that dysfunction from friends, teachers, etc. I imagine that Louisa was embarrassed by her father’s gambling (and apparent criminality) and her mother’s abandonment of the family, and pretended that her family was “normal” as a defense mechanism. Pretending helped her feel safe in a chaotic world. This, I think, is where her drive for normalcy comes from.

    When she told Dr. Timony that she didn’t need a mother anymore by the time her mother left, I think she was trying to convince both the doctor and herself that her life had been okay, i.e. “normal”. So, I think Louisa spent her life trying to portray herself as “normal” but has never quite believed that she is.

    So, when she had James Henry and married Martin, Louisa set about to be a “normal” (conforming/typical) family, which wasn’t going to happen given Martin’s idiosyncratic character. She became very critical of him after their wedding (trying to mold him into something he was not), which I believe was instrumental in the return of his hemophobia and subsequent depression. By the end of S7, she had developed the insight that no one is “normal”, and that that’s all right. Of course, the writers did not let us see how she came to this insight, so it seemed sort of abrupt when she did.

    I think there were a lot of missed opportunities in S7, where the writers could have explored Louisa’s process as she moved toward understanding how her obsession with normalcy was contributing to the problems in her marriage, but for some reason they chose not to. I hope they do better with S8.

  13. amy

    I love this blog for all I learn about matters far beyond the scope of DM, and although I share Karen’s skepticism about the degree to which the writers thought about these issues on the same level as we are, I still find it valuable to read and discuss the underlying issues using the DM characters as our examples. Karen is likely right that the writers didn’t delve into the underlying meaning of Louisa’s “normal” speech or whether it was consistent with anything from earlier series; my guess is that they had to find some way to get Louisa back with Martin and so they used her acceptance of people not being normal as a way of saying that she was ready to accept Martin’s idiosyncrasies. Who knows if they even understood what they meant by normal? I doubt they analyzed it as much as we all have.

    But I don’t really care what the writers were thinking because, as I said, having this conversation makes me think about what we as a society mean by normal and the normative judgment that is implicit in the word. And using Portwenn and its quirky characters, Martin and Louisa included, helps me focus on the issue of how we define ourselves and others as being “inside” or “outside” the notion of normality.

    Abby’s comment helps me think about that issue. We all want to be normal, so we push our square pegs into round holes and hope no one notices that we don’t quite fit. Louisa appears so normal—she’s beautiful, smart, likeable, socially well-adjusted—but underneath is the person who runs away from relationships when they get too hard, snaps at people (not just Martin), and jumps to conclusions about someone else’s intentions without giving them a chance to explain. She’s insecure, afraid of commitment, and judgmental. But she tells Dr Timony she had a fine childhood and that Martin is the one with all the problems.

    So how does she learn she’s not normal by the end of S7? Well, despite our critique of the therapy, I think Dr Timony did reveal some of it to her. She made her realize that she pushed people away to prevent them from hurting her first, that her notion of love was someone who leaves you, that she would set Martin up to fail so that she could be disappointed in him (rather than vice versa). Maybe those revelations and the fact that Martin had never left her despite her flaws and her unfair treatment of him at times were what made her realize that (a) he loved her and (b) that she needed to change as did he. That is, that no one is “normal” in the narrowest sense because we are all creatures with issues—just with different issues on a wide-ranging spectrum.

  14. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Hi, Abby! After reading your analysis of what we could imagine drove Louisa’s behaviors, I am most impressed with how all of the circumstances that we are shown can be inserted into some sort of coherent psychological pattern. Although I sincerely doubt the writers spent a lot of time putting all of this together, it demonstrates some writing skill to make it possible to arrive at such conclusions.

    On the other hand, and I know you have seen me argue this elsewhere on this blog, I would quibble with blaming Louisa for trying to mold Martin. In many ways we could accuse Martin of doing much the same to Louisa. He certainly makes it hard for her to have anything resembling a loving relationship when he won’t confide in her on anything. I see the development of their relationship as being rather balanced in that we can place blame on both of them for the strife in their marriage.

    It’s interesting how having just 8 episodes forces them to rush through some parts while they seem to dwell too much on others. Now that they are headed towards a conclusion to the show, I would like to see them put more effort into tightening up some of these areas into a really coherent final two series. They should probably go about it like a doctor doing a differential diagnosis and list those topics that could stand to be fleshed out and those that could be jettisoned. We’ll soon find out!

  15. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Amy, the many ways this show has led to my undertaking more study into all sorts of intriguing subjects is exactly what inspired me to write the blog. Like you, it has made me think much more deeply about so many things to do with our own behavior.

    You are so right that there were some hints at pertinent matters to do with Louisa’s actions that were pointed out by Dr. T. Our criticism, I think, came from never seeing anything pursued past those pithy comments. Neither Dr. T nor Martin or Louisa ever spent any time reflecting on any of it. I know they wouldn’t have wanted to have lengthy sessions or get bogged down in too many serious conversations, but therapy requires more than one liners. Nevertheless, I get your point and appreciate how you can argue that they do at least suggest some ways in which Louisa needs to change. I suppose they felt that was all they needed to do.

  16. Amy

    Well, if they’d really wanted to portray couples therapy realistically, each 45 minute episode of S7 would have been one session and the rest of the characters and storylines would have had to be eliminated. Probably some viewers would have loved such an in depth character study, but it would have altered the entire tone of the show. So they gave us five minute snips, and we all found it unsatisfying. I’m not sure where they could have struck a better balance—maybe 20 minutes of therapy, 25 of the rest.

  17. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    As it happens, there are a few shows and films that have done a better job with therapy, e.g. Sopranos, River (a British TV show), Ordinary People, Good Will Hunting. They use brief sessions that show much more substance. To me the comedic basis of Doc Martin has a lot to do with how they handled the therapy and may have made it better to have shown none of it. Instead they could have had us see them discuss what happened in therapy with each other or with Ruth.

    What they did was turn the therapy into a plot device where the therapy usually appeared early in each episode and the action emanated from the assignments they were given. Assignments make sense and often help, but they only help if there is enough review of how well they went. When the next therapy session essentially leaps to the next assignment even after the last one was deemed unsuccessful, therapy appears aimless and inadequate. Dr. T seems unprepared and lacking in clinical skills, and that’s a shame.

    I understand not wanting to turn the show into a series of therapy sessions, but then use the therapy to its fullest potential. It wouldn’t have taken much more time.

  18. Amy

    You know I agree that the therapy was not handled well. But none of the shows you listed were comedies (unless River was—never heard of it), and so the tone of a serious therapy session probably meshed better with those shows. It certainly did in Ordinary People and Good Will Hunting (I never watched Sopranos).

    I do think that if they had devoted a bit more time to them—maybe ten-fifteen minutes—they could have done a better job and still preserved the overall tone of the show. In fact, there could have been some humor in the sessions themselves.

    But what’s done is done. On to S8!

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