We are haunted by our past… sixty year-old ghosts linger in our consciousness. We remain frozen in old arguments, in old mindsets. As the world looks in awe and heralds us as the future of the globe, laying across our shoulders a wealth of labels that proclaim us as ‘superpower’, as democratic brother, as ideological equal – we remain that new-born child of colonial folly and wild-eyed optimism. Or rather we return to that child that we had lost in the intervening years of restrictive quotas and frustrating wars, as the early hopefulness with which we declared ourselves as ‘Non-Aligned’ became meaningless in the face of the hard realities we were unwilling and unable to cope with.But this post is not here to talk about our past. It is about the present, the pulsing, changing, charging India that is we now live in. We look around us at the change that overwhelms, overshadows, and engulfs us, yet we remain outside observers, detached and somewhat bemused by it all.

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Root

Who is it that can define India? Who dares proclaim us anything? Who lays claim to us?

Listen to the endless stream of talkshows leading a chorus of self-congratulation, read the endless editorials that bring up the oft-mentioned belief 60 years old that the Indian nation was as imaginatory and ephemeral as our African cousins, that we would tear apart at the seams, along a million different dividing lines whether they be linguistic, racial, ideological or religious. There were a thousand factors working against our survival, and yet here we are.

Great.

Now What?

The Lies of Locke Larmora“The Lies of Locke Lamora” has received more than its fair share of attention this past year, first with a number of raving and positive reviews, along with favourable blurbs by the likes of George R. R. Martin. As a result of this it was later on involved in a rather distasteful confrontation between several bloggers regarding the neutrality of some of the reviewers, who were accused of falling in thrall with the publishers of the said book, due to being provided with free advance copies and a generally close relationship cultivated in hope of receiving favourable reviews and generating a certain amount of buzz around the novel.

Well lets put all that rubbish to bed; “The Lies of Locke Lamora” is a fine read, written with skill and a deft hand by Scott Lynch, who draws the reader into the story by interspersing the rollicking high-adventure of the primary narrative with so-called ‘interludes’ into the main character’s past as a young boy. For those who don’t know the basic premise of the novel, it follows the misadventures of one Locke Lamora, a thieving, conniving con-man who carries out the most elaborate (and I must say, enjoyable) confidence games with the rich and privileged of the city of Camoor. Known to those he steals from only as the shadowy figure of The Thorn of Camoor, a near-mythical hero thought to steal from the rich to give to the poor, he truly only cares for no one else but himself and his merry band of thieves, The Gentlemen Bastards, so named due to their pitch-perfect ability to mimic the ways of the upper classes of any known culture.

Lynch infuses his created world and city with a rich, layered tapestry, an achievement that shouldn’t be ignored, as so many writers of science fiction and fantasy fail most obviously in this very respect. Keeping in mind that this is merely the first in a multi-novel sequence, Lynch drops tantalizing hints about the history of both the title character as well as the fascinating city of Camoor, possibly to be developed on in future novels. A long dead magical race thought to have built a whole series of astounding cities along the coast, of which Camoor is merely one, are mentioned here and there without much elaboration. It is merely said that humans wandered into these abandoned cities and claimed them for their own, along with all their magical secrets that they held, and one can only hope that more will be developed regarding the history of both the seemingly dead alien race, as well as questions regarding the history of the humans that came to these forgotten shores, such as “Where the hell they came from?” After all, it could hardly be that primeval man in his animalistic state wandered in to these amazing urban jungles and suddenly decided to set up shop.

Additionally, there are several magical and fantastical elements involved in an otherwise renaissance era story: first, the often described and carefully elaborated alchemy of the world that is used to achieve such wonders as creating hybrid plants, powering lights (no candles here) and various other powerful uses from explosives to elixirs. Lynch does an admirable job in introducing this element into a world otherwise stuck in what is perhaps the seventeenth century. He does not overuse it nor uses it as a crutch; he merely shows how such a powerful tool would be used in the various facets of a pre-industrial society.

The world of Locke Lamora is not without traditional magic. Indeed, without giving anything away, I would say that it plays a significant and powerful role in the book. However, its use is carefully and ruthlessly controlled by the ominous magicians guild, the Bondsmagi, who brook no competitors to their art, nor any attack on one of their order. The magic itself, however, seems to be a touch too strong for the world created by Lynch, a single Bondsmagi being able to achieve nearly any thing he desires via his powers. With a large part of their powers coming from knowing the true names of the magic’s target, it seems a little to easy in a world where everyone’s true name and public name are one and the same, so that merely knowing the name of the person you want to affect gives you near total power over them. Traditionally, this element of magic is powerful because true names are traditionally hidden, not broadcast for the world to know. For instance, true names are one’s childhood names that could be discarded (or concealed) by adopting a new name upon reaching adulthood, or it could be that true names are in some esoteric language, revealed via long years of study and by achieving true understanding of the world. Being able to uncover them by merely asking someone on the street and pointing to one’s target, just seems awfully easy. Also the Bondsmagi having already proven to be able to defeat any traditional army, and now existing as the sole wielders of magic, should conceivably be able to reunite the fragmented elements of the once great Therin Throne under their rule. That they haven’t seems puzzling, but Lynch does leave us in the dark about a number of elements not immediately important to the plot, so one can only assume that these issues will be tackled in future novels.

Talking about dangling plotlines, Lynch is actually pretty much on the spot in making The Lies of Locke Lamora a standalone novel, and any lingering questions are largely a result of hints as to the protagonists past that serve to layer the story and provide it with hidden depths, making me all the more eager to read the coming sequel in June. Case in point, a sixth (female) member of the Gentlemen Bastards is sporadically mentioned, and is absent from both the fashbacks as well as the main story line. Yet Lynch makes it abundantly clear that Locke is in love with her, that something has, for some unknown reason, come between them, and that she will surely appear in an upcoming novel. Similarly, the nature of the alien beings that created the glittering city of Camoor, will surely serve as ripe material to be further developed as the series goes on. Yet, by the end of the novel, our main concern is the continuing adventures of the Gentlemen Bastards, after what can only be described as momentous and life-changing events of this current novel.

Lynch writes well, and I don’t mean that as ‘well for a fantasy writer’ kind of well. He knows how to keep the plot skipping along without making us wait around for big events to happen. He pulls the reader continuosly from one direction to another, with break-neck, whiplash-causing speed, and the plot twists are nearly always surprising and eye-popping. He writes his hero in with enjoyable depth and witty banter, and a strong cast of supporting characters, not only among the Gentlemen Bastards but also the rest of the residents of Camoor. The city itself, inspiring images of Venice, is filled to the brim with interesting figures and factions, from the seemingly all-powerful Underground Don (known as the Capa), to the shadowy and hidden figure of the Grey King that opposes him, as well as a well fleshed out nobility that is the target of Locke’s activities. No character comes off as one-note or feels underserved by the story, and the flashbacks provide us with ample backstory for the main characters.

Everything that Lynch writes is meant to add to the sheer fun of reading the novel, and it shows in the end when you put down the book with a sense of both satisfaction at being well served by a talented author, as well as the disappointment one feels when finishing a good book. The Lies of Locke Lamora comes with my enthusiastic recommendation… pick it up and prepare for a few sleepless nights!

Weightloss Saga: Beginnings

January 16, 2007

I have struggled with my weight ever since I left school. As my trainer recently informed me, after one turns 18, the body’s metabolic rate automatically continues to diminish throughout one’s lifetime. And so perhaps the timing of my weight gain is perhaps no mystery, although it was certainly not helped by the fact that it also coincided with the start of my university life in North America, and the infamous “freshman fifteen” that goes along with it.

Regardless, the fact is that after school I was about 10 kilos overweight (around 80kgs) and continued in that strain for most of the remainder of my university life. Recently however, the past 18 months of so has seen and increasing sedentiarization of my life style, resulting in what can only be described as a ballooning effect of my body, which in its supreme comfort sitting on the couch, the computer chair or reclining on my rather comfortable bed, decided that, what the hell, lets aim for an even 100.

And so yes, ladies and gentlemen, my most recent examination of my body revealed that it has hit that terrifyingly scary triple digit figure of a 100kgs. My recent return to India is accompanied by my stark realization that I must, must, regain a more respectable shape, and that a pear is certainly as far from respectable as possible. Of course this realization, though inevitable due to the sheer size of the issue, has been brought into focus through the rather blunt and astute observations of my family and friends, who having not seen me for an extended period of time, now resort to giving me open mouthed and wide-eyed stares that waver between my rather plump face and my bulging middle.

Anyhow, the time has come for some return to sanity, the normalization of my body shape and size being merely the first step. So with this aim in mind, and with the firm encouragement (or should I say insistence) of my mother, and the constant reminder of the rather unfair mirror in my bathroom, I signed up for a gym to achieve this herculean task. Three days ago, after some rather light cardio, I sat down with a rather amiable young nutritionist attached to the gym, who rather starkly laid out my situation and the process I would have to go through to achieve my aims. The end result of that consultation was that I must lose close to 30 kgs, that my body fat percentage is at the dangerous level of 31%, and that my stomach at the level of my navel, has inflated to the alarming size of 44 inches.

Whoa.

That took me back a bit.
Once I regained my senses a bit, I got to the grim determination part of the program. It appears that to lose this weight I shall have to undergo a regimen of a somewhat mediocre diet, which requires increasing the number of meals to 5, reducing the intake of food in each meal, and cut out from my life the wonderful joys of butter chicken, egg centres and of all things… coffee! Now that was just going to far!

So ignoring that last blasphemous item, I have begin affecting the required change in my life and have begun my days with sticky, gummy, yucky oatmeal which in retrospect is really not all that bad, removed the egg yolks from my second (smaller) breakfasts and have cut down on my coffee consumption. So far so good. I also am expected to burn 600 calories per day doing cardio exercises, which I have chosen to mean a mix of jogging on the treadmill, cycling, and looking funny on the elliptical. So far so good.

Speaking of which, I believe it is my time to head off to the gym… so off I go. I hope this serves to remind me of what I need to to. Wish me luck!

UPDATE: So its been a good ten days since I started my workout regimen, and I had the first of my weekly follow up meetings with my trainer. Good news! Lost 3 kilos in such a short time, which seems a lot, and my trainer concurred. Maybe it was a lot of water loss or something… either way, I’ve lost atleast 2kilos of fat and my body fat percentage has fallen almost a full percentage point. Lets hope I can create a trend by next weeks weigh in!

Yes, I know… even a cursory glance at this blog reveals just how negligent I’ve been over the past six months or so. Lazy, lazy, lazy, that’s what I am.

But the end of a year, the promise of a whole dozen fresh new months, does wonders for one’s capacity for self-delusionment. So from this comfortable perch I can say with a perfectly straight face that I have great hopes for the year to come.

I shall blog. Regularly even. Seriously! To begin with, I need to lower my expectations of every post. No, don’t flip out worrying that the wonderfully high standard of writing will take a sharp nose dive. Rather I need to be content with writing shorter posts… I need to stop expecting to write a whole damn thesis on every topic that I write about. The most prolific and consistent bloggers are those that are happy with short but constant bursts of communication. And so will I be.

Of course, one might be justifiably reticent  to believe that anything should change this year… “What’s so different about this year than every other, when you have promised but never delivered?” you may ask. (Yes, that’s you, you empty hollow of a blogosphere that seems determined to ignore my every word). But here’s whats different about this coming year, these twelve months that appear to hold such promise and hope and productivity – I’m am moving.

Not moving apartments, stupid. That would hardly warrant such a build up of anticipation that the previous paragraph (hopefully) served to do. No, not even just moving to a new city, a new state, a new country… I am moving to a whole new Continent! (of course such a move does necessitate a move of all the previously mentioned smaller denominations of moving, including of course my apartment).

I am moving back to the home land, the birthplace, the bountiful motherland that is India. After altogether far too many years abroad in the “West”, I return to my home-that-is-not-my-home, to Delhi. The shockwaves that such a change is sending through my life shall have to be left as a subject of  another post, its interlinked and earth-shattering repercussions would take far too many words for this humble little post. Anyhow, the reason why this year is different from every other year, why this year will bring about changes in all my practices and behaviors is that as you can see, change is being forced upon me. And in the face of such monumental change, even the little itty-bitty parts of my life will experience some form of transformation.

And so it is with such a future to look forward to, that I do renew my commitment to the practice of blogging. I do pledge that I shall write about what I feel is important, interesting, or even delightfully mundane. I must increase the number of reviews I write, from movies, to music, to the all important books. Above all I must write regularly. Hopefully something will come of this… we shall have to see. A year from now perhaps I shall discover some measure of success on these (and other) fronts.

Nick Hornby is one of those authors that one always keeps as a good backup, saving him for a rainy day, though never really thinking about him for all the other sunny, summer months in between. I’ve been aware of Hornby’s work for many years now, probably soon after I watched “High Fidelity” and figured out it was based on a book. And while the movie was good, you just knew right away that the book would be better, based on the sole fact that the insights and perfectly constructed moments of the film would be given more room to work with by the very nature of the written word, as opposed to the rather confined medium of film.

Yet, in my keen search of a more (for lack of a better word) substantial novel, I’ve been passing Hornby up (when I do manage to remember him) for novels with more to say than describing the minutiae of the everyday life of a record store owner.

I so wish I hadn’t.

I stayed up all last night finishing “About a Boy“, another of Hornby’s movie adaptations, and discovered the simple joy of his writing. I picked up the novel at my favourite second-hand  book store, after choosing between this and “How To Be Good” (the only two choices available – the cost of shopping on the cheap I guess).  I was somewhat apprehensive about starting off my Hornby experience with a book whose movie version I had already seen (and absolutely loved), especially since it was far more recent and fresh in my memory than High Fidelity. But the aforementioned promise of hidden depths and insightful jokes within the novel, lost in translation to the format of film, inexorably drew me in.

To begin with, Hornby’s characterizations are spot on. Marcus (the boy) and his constant inner monologue ring true, and his pitch perfect (spoken) tone coupled with the (mental) confusion due to his inability to understand the world outside his head add a charming sense of humor to any scene he is in. Marcus alone is worth reading the book for, and Hornby’s insights channeled through the boy’s voice and thought process suck you right into the novel from the first chapter.

Then there’s Will (the Boy), forever young, self-obsessed, blissfully aware of his life and his place in the world; seemingly everything Marcus is not (and of course, twenty-something years older). His own insights and inner thoughts, though nowhere near the somewhat shocking and stark nature of those of Marcus, add its own charm to the book, and provide an enjoyable counterpoint to Marcus’ responses to the same situation, as we switch from one character’s point-of-view to the other. Will’s own tangential story line of shallow and meaningless attempts to satisfy his every (usually sexual) whim, is quite worthy on its own merits, revealing the mind of the increasingly relevant stereotype, the slacker. It is a testament to Hornby’s skill as a writer that Will’s chapters are not shortchanged in any way, and the usual pitfall that a novel of this structure (constantly switching POV’s every chapter) succumbs to, of the reader getting more attached to one of the narrators and resents the switch in point-of-view, is effortlessly avoided.

The plot itself appears predictable – the redemption of the perpetual slacker/commitment-phobe who finds meaning in love, and the coming-of-age of the awkward social misfit, who overcomes his inability to connect with the world around him. I was reading another novel along with this one, as I am often wont to do, called “Gates of Fire” by Steven Pressfield. It was everything in a novel I was looking for; it helped meet my historical-fiction quota, it dealt with big, impressive themes like death, the meaning of courage, etc etc. and above all was rather well written. I found myself having to constantly justify reading “About a Boy” to myself. I just felt that the story just didn’t have that oomph to it, especially if I was picking it up after a few days of reading about the heroic battles and sacrifices of the ancient Spartans.

But every time I did pick it up, I just got pulled in, the dual narratives stringing me along as I convinced myself that just one more chapter and I would put it down, just after I could se how Marcus responded to the same event I had seen Will react to. Yet I was mystified… sure the narrative was good, but the underlying story just didn’t seem to add up when viewed as a whole. How was Hornby keeping me so hooked?

And then I figured it out. Like the fictional Will Freeman, who charmed his way into women’s beds, Hornby is a real charmer, making the perfect joke at the perfect time, the right smile with just the right amount of twinkle in his eye. The novel just exudes charisma… oodles of it, making the journey enjoyable and unique and ever so beautiful. This is precisely the sort of book that I would usually avoid, where people tend to promote the writing style and the authors intricate observations about life rather than a compelling story, but I must say the ride is eminently worthwhile.

I am now a firm Nick Hornby convert. All that remains is to decide what next to read, “High Fidelity” or “A Long Way Down“.

Piano Man

July 26, 2006

When I was 7 years old, my parents sent me away to boarding school. It was far away from home, and for some reason I just did not fit in. After two rather miserable years there, I had just about had it with the place… I was done struggling with trying to fit in and not being able to. I was done with the bullying, I was done with the bad food, I was done with waking up at 5:30 every morning. I was done with it all.

And then, in my third year in that godforsaken school, I discovered the piano. I don’t remember much about that period of my life… I blocked most of it out very soon after, when I left the school forever. But I do remember when my parents first bought me and my sister my first piano. It was a Casio synthesizer, jet black, sleek, and it cost a whopping amount to my indulging parents who gave up so much just so me and my sister would have even a moment of happiness. It was primarily for my sister, that smiling, beguiling creature that could convince my dad of pretty much anything, and who always got her way (yes, i’m mildly bitter!). But I remember being drawn to it, to the intriguing sounds it would make at my command. And as I awkwardly strummed my inexperienced fingers over the keys, unfamiliar ground to them that had never held a musical instrument before, I felt some connection to it, amazed that such pure sound could come from my actions.

And so when I went back to school the next term I signed on for piano classes. For the life of me, I cannot remember the name of my teacher, though he was immensely important to me at the time, and I remembered him well for many years afterwards. But now, I have lost that along with many other surrounding memories. Still, I remember him well. I remember his watch that he wore on his wrist. It was old, like him, and distinguished, also like him. I remember that watch because it was a part of him, as much a part of him as his face. It had yellowed with time, and I imagined that it was quite white when it was new. But as the years went by, and the glass got scratched and scrubbed, the face changed slowly, aging along with its owner. It was slightly loose, and klinked when he fiddled with it, which was often. Maybe I just remember the watch because that’s what was at my eye level at the time, short, small thing that I was. But it stayed with me all this time, and as I sit here and try to remember what I can of him, that watch is what sticks out the most.

He was a distinguished old man, probably not very well off, but passionate in his love for the music, and a wonderful teacher and mentor. There is little I remember from then, but the feeling of going for music practice after lunch in the afternoons, after we had rested in our rooms, and we would get ready and walk across the main field in the hot sun, to reach the cool shade of the auditorium in which we practiced. A small piano lay dwarfed in a single corner of the oversized room, and we would walk across the painted lines of the basketball court, and when I sat down in front of the piano… it just felt right, somehow.

I was devoted to the piano, and they were happy months for me. I would practice religiously every day, praying to god every morning at assembly and every night before I went to sleep. There is one moment that sticks with me to this day… It was a ways into the semester (or term, as we called it) and it was pretty clear that I was way beyond the other kids (false modesty was never my thing). And one day during practice, I was playing whatever song we were supposed to, and I was so confident, so happy, so secure in my ability to hit the right keys, I put my head back and leaned far back enough to be almost horizontal, all the while playing the rather complicated song with my 9 year old fingers pitch perfect, without missing a beat. We were all just fooling around, playing the song a little faster than I was supposed to, with the others singing along… but that was just about a perfect moment.

At the end of the semester, I was asked to play in front of the entire student body of some 700 students at the final assembly… I was a huge deal. This wasn’t some junior school production… it was for the whole school. My parents were coming to pick me to take me home, and were supposed to see me play. I can’t remember if I told them or not, but in my head it I didn’t… I seem to remember wanting to surprise them, imagining them walking into school and stumbling into the middle of my performance, astounded that their son was playing for the entire school… I don’t even think they knew I was any good… they hadn’t really heard me play since I had developed my abilities rather quickly within the school year.

Anyway, the big day came, and I remember I played in front of the entire student body, the teachers, and a number of parents. After I finished, all my classmates, my house-mates gathered around me congratulating me, saying how I had surprised them all, that I actually could play the damn piano after all. These are the guys who wouldn’t notice me at all… and if they did it was just to say something mean or stupid. It felt… gratifying. And I looked around after a while and I saw my parents walking up, and I ran to them. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that they had just arrived and had missed the whole thing. I told them about me playing for the assembly, but I don’t thing they got it.

Soon after I left the school forever, joined Doon and my 10 year old mind decided that the best way to get over the bad experience of the past 3 years was to completely ignore it. And so in honour of my new beginning, my new me, my version 2.0, I announced to my parents while filling out some forms for my new school, that I would no longer choose piano for my spare time activity from now on. I wanted a change. I remember them asking why, and I remember getting flustered by the question, ignoring it, changing the subject, telling them to “Just trust me, cause I know best”. I remember thinking that they wanted to say something more but didn’t… and then I never played the piano again. My new life in my new school began, and I was wildly successful at forgetting everything (well, almost everything) from my last school. I actually managed to erase whole people from my memory, so strict was my devotion to my “new” life. And I managed to forget the piano, quite completely.

A few years later, I was hanging about the music school in the afternoon, and I noticed the new violin teacher. To my surprise I recognized him – he had taught at my old school, and had been friends with my old piano teacher. Eagerly, though shyly, I went up to him and began asking him about my old mentor… his name bringing to mind all things old, British, and music related. And of course bringing to mind his yellowing watch. I can’t tell if my addled, screwed up brain has just made up the next part in an effort to compensate for the erased portions of my memory or if it was actually true, but I have the distinct memory of him telling me that my old piano teacher had passed on. Dead. I remember feeling like I had lost a friend, an uncle, like I was lost. It was, I think, my first real experience with death since my dog Spotty had died after being run over by a truck, and I had cried to my father on the phone, “Why did he have to die?” It shook me up. I tried going back to the piano then, for a little while, but it just so happened that right about then the school’s piano teacher had decided to move out of the country, and she wasn’t replaced for over a year.

I soon forgot about the piano, even that I ever played it at all. It seems like a dream to me now, like I’m not sure what’s real and what’s not. But I remember that feeling, that feeling of creating music that soothes my mind. I regret that decision of mine, as you might imagine reading this. I imagine how differently my life might have turned out. I don’t think of it much, but every once in a while, I’ll hear a piano playing in the background of a moving scene in a weekly tv show, or see a young prodigy playing in a movie, and I’ll think of the summer afternoons when I walked across a sun-swept field, into a cool room, and played music like a young god.

And I’ll think of all that could have been.

I had, at first, been reluctant to pick this book up, inundated as I was with all the marketing and buzz surrounding it. The last time I had felt like this about a novel, was with "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel" by Susanna Clarke, and I was thoroughly disappointed after buying it. But on the insistence of a friend who had read this behemoth of a novel in a single sitting, I finally got myself to my favourite Indigo bookstore and picked it up.

Reading this book reminded me how differently a novel reads depending on how much importance you give to it. It made me think of the first time I read "The Lord of the Rings" . The edition I had bought contained the entire trilogy within it, costing a full five hundred rupees, an enormous sum for me at the time. I was so excited when I got home, confessing to my mother about spending so much in one go, at the same time convincing her that it was worth it. My previous reading of "The Hobbit" had conditioned me to anticipate one hell of an adventure story (I didn't really appreciate the fantasy aspects at the time), and the sheer weight of expectation regarding the trilogy (along with its own considerable charms) lended to it a central place in my mind for many years to come, and made it one of my favourite books of all time.

And so when I began reading "The Historian", hyped as it had been by my friend whose judgement I trusted implicitly, I opened to the first page with respectful reverance and trembling anticipation. I reminded myself to savour every carefully chosen word, to fully realize every scene of colourfully described imagery, and above all, to enjoy the novel as its author intended: by noticing and enjoying every detail. I have been obsessed of late, with the number of books I read, quantifying and recording this year's readings rather than focusing on getting the most out of them; I am now determinded to change that.

I admit then, that perhaps this book impacted me more than it would have usually done. But despite even that, it is a compelling read. The author wastes no time getting into the action, the central mystery being revealed within the first few pages. The entralling story of an obscure book that comes into the narrator's father's possession, hooks you into the novel, not allowing for any disctractions. The colourful descriptions of Eastern Europe make the smells and visions of the scenery come alive, the historical yet alien locations lending the tale a certain ominous air. The prospect of encountering the terrifying Drakula is made readily apparent within the first few chapters, giving all further readings a sense of dread anticipation, as we are assured of a coming doom. Yet I am a mere fifty pages into the book, hardly enough to create a complete picture of what I expect to come. Still, I hope to continue reading, and am even more hopeful that I shall continue and complete this review. Till later then, I bid you adieu, and based on my first impressions, encourage you to give this novel the good ol' college try (I always wanted to say that!).

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