YEAR OF THE DRAGON 2012: The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Head
by Gene Ching
To read the other Chapter, click here.
It's New Year's Eve 2006 and I'm lying on the floor of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium at a Phil Lesh and Friends show. I'm lying on top of a huge, sweaty man who's tripping his brains out on acid. How do I know? He just jumped off the balcony and landed on several patrons, causing a heap of injuries. I'm a volunteer psychiatric consultant with Rock Med, a division of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, and this is my specialty. I intervene when people have bad drug trips, which occasionally means I must restrain them from being a danger to themselves or others. In this case, I was one of the first respondents on the scene. There was a crowd of freaked out people and a pile of bodies with a woman at the bottom, her head in a pool of blood.
As we arrived on the scene, the tripper suddenly jumped up and bolted off into the audience. The good lord protects fools and drunks, and our tripper was clearly both - he sustained minimal injuries from his leap. Sadly, the same couldn't be said for the pile of innocent bystanders left in his wake. My partner on the scene is an old friend and comrade who goes by the nickname Legbone. We caught the tripper with a textbook take down, something we've done countless times, and it couldn't have been gentler given the situation (mid-show in the middle of a huge dancing crowd).
It is a multiple trauma scene. Several people must be c-spined ("cervical-spined" is an emergency procedure that immobilizes the patients who have possible spine or head trauma). Everyone - medics, security, patrons - is desperately trying to help. The band is still playing so as not to exacerbate the scene with more onlookers, but the house lights are on just in our section so we can see what we're doing. It's pure chaos. I'm only focused on restraining this 300+ pound linebacker of a tripper with Legbone. The tripper is super slippery with sweat and blood, not to mention that he's raging on LSD. We're trying to reduce his stimuli (absurd as that may seem) and keep him safe from further injury until enough people can get freed up from the c-spines to help us out. It's not an easy task in the middle of a sold-out rock concert. Since the patient is bloody too, there's a possibility he has a head injury, but there's no way we can c-spine this guy while he's flailing.
I trust Legbone implicitly. We've restrained plenty of trippers together before. The situation is extreme, but we've done this enough that I can read Legbone just like I used to read my old lion dance teammates through the fabric of the lion tail. To apply kung fu in real world settings, it's all about transference - instead of fabric, it's a huge man tripping on acid. As I search for a calm place in the midst of this mad storm, summoning my meditation practice to stay focused, it hits me like lighting. I realize that this is where it all began for me. This is where I first saw the Grateful Dead.
Every deadhead has a personal journey with the band. Mine is a martial tale. I was the Grateful Dead's Chinese Lion.
Year of the Fire Hare - January 29, 1987: San Francisco Civic Auditorium (now the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium)
The deadhead experience cannot be described easily to outsiders, but even outsiders could see that the Grateful Dead was more than just another rock band. They were truly a band beyond description. Celebrated mythologist Joseph Campbell said, "The Deadheads are doing the dance of life and this I would say is the answer to the atom bomb." You don't hear any scholars like Campbell saying anything like that about the Beatles, Stones, U2 or any other band. But if you weren't there, it's just like never being under a lion during a firecracker barrage. There's no substitute. As we deadheads say, you're either on the bus or not. It's an allusion to the Merry Pranksters' bus, which was closely connected to the Dead. By the same notion, you're either in the lion or not.
I got on the bus late. The Dead had been playing for more than two decades. Several members of the band had already passed on by then. I was turned on to the Dead by a college friend. I didn't know much about them beyond their album art and the song "Trucking." Ironically, my friend wasn't that into the Dead, but he was at UC Berkeley amongst plenty of deadhead friends and he thought I'd like it. He was right. In 1986, he had planned to treat me to one of the July Shoreline Amphitheatre shows that was cancelled due to Jerry Garcia's diabetic coma. Once I saw the outpouring of grief and sympathy for Jerry, I knew I had to see this band. I hoped Jerry would pull through, just so I could experience what everyone was talking about.
Now as fate would have it, my first show would be the next year at one of the Dead's Chinese New Year shows. For starters, how many rock bands do Chinese New Year shows? It was an auspicious alignment, almost cosmological, for embarking on what Campbell might have labeled my hero's journey. I just didn't realize it at the time. The Dead, being of fine San Franciscan stock, were very familiar with Chinatown and its culture. When the dates were aligned right, they performed shows dedicated to Chinese New Year, complete with a traditional Chinese performance of music or dance as an opening act and their own customized Chinese dragon which they paraded through the audience during an improvisational drum jam during the second set. Of course, as a newbie to the scene, I expected none of this and I was rather impressed when it happened.
The scene was so overwhelming that I retreated to sitting way back in the nosebleed seats to get a better perspective on it all. Then the dragon came out. The Dead used to have a free-form drumming jam in the middle of their second set. The drummers, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, were also known as the Rhythm Devils. During their jam session, called drumz, I first met Flash.
Now I had seen plenty of Chinese dragons before, but not like this. Flash, the Grateful Dead Dragon, was built off a traditional dragon head that they acquired in Hong Kong. Flash's body was fashioned from glittering crimson, white and indigo lame that picked up the stage lights with a scintillating flourish. Flash's neck was decorated with psychedelic scales, handmade by deadheads and sent to the band through a program they dubbed "mail-a-scale." Flash's spine was derived from one of the many Dead logos, the thirteen-point lightning bolt. But way up in those nosebleed seats, I wasn't aware of all the details.
When you usually see dragons, they are cordoned off by some parade barrier. You can see the puppeteers underneath. It's like dragon-on-a-stick. When Flash cut through the deadheads, there was no path. The puppeteers blended seamlessly into the audience. Flash looked very real, swimming in a sea of Deadheads. It was the most convincing dragon dance I'd ever seen. Flash hooked me. I began following the Dead, chasing the dragon's tail.
I didn't know the songs back then. The Dead had a repertoire of several hundred songs and decided which one they would play next just before they played it. Some might say they decided while they were playing it. Fortunately, deadheads kept good records of set lists. For many of us, it's the only way we can remember what happened. Here's what was played on the fateful night of my first Grateful Dead show (this is really only for the benefit of other Deadheads; non-Deadheads can just skip this paragraph and jump to next year). Chinese Symphony Orchestra opened. SET I: Hell in a Bucket>Sugaree, El Paso, Loser, Little Red Rooster, Brown-Eyed Women, Cassidy>Don't Ease Me In. SET II: Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain, Looks Like Rain, Terrapin Station>Drumz>I Need A Miracle>Stella Blue>Going Down the Road Feeling Bad>Johnny B. Goode. Encore: It's All Over Now, Baby Blue.
Year of the Earth Dragon - February 17, 1988: Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center
Since I was born in the year of the dragon, this was an important show to me. I'd followed the Dead throughout '87 and there were plenty of local shows to keep me busy. The Dead would begin and end each tour here with shows. I made it to the campouts at Laguna Seca Raceway and Calaveras, as well as the University of Oregon show where they played with Bob Dylan. In '87, the Dead released their first pop hit, "Touch of Grey," off their album In the Dark. I was there when they filmed the video for "Touch of Grey," but you can't see me in the audience at all. "Touch of Grey" was even played on American Bandstand, but no one there knew how to dance to it. This sparked an influx of new deadheads, often referred to as the "in the dark" deadheads. Technically, I was part of this generation; however, I learned Dead culture quickly, so most thought I had been a Deadhead longer.
What's more, a fellow sword practitioner got me involved in Rock Med. When I was in the Psychology PhD program at UC Santa Cruz, I was practicing iaido, the art of drawing live sword. I had studied some iai as an undergrad as an adjunct to my kendo practice. Through my old kendo dojo, iaido sensei Steve Anderson was recommended. Steve was a professional psych tech and one of the founders of the psychiatric intervention program at Rock Med. He invited me to volunteer, and the music never stopped. My first Rock Med show was U2, the Joshua Tree Tour in November of '87.
Rock Med opened the door to all sorts of shows, each one a new world for me. I was seeing all sorts of different cultures as they relate to their music. I also got to test my kung fu skills in all sorts of different restrain scenarios: belligerent drunk cowboys, naked rave chicks on ecstasy, metalheads on crank, freaks on angel dust, rappers on crack, you name it. When martial artists talk about self-defense on the street, well, I've been there for two decades now. Through this sort of psychiatric work, I've faced highly combative patients, including ones armed with bottles, chains, knives, guns, even hatchets. I've stood off against other trained martial artists. The trick is I never go in alone. We have a team. With an experienced team, we can always subdue a combative patient safely and get them to the medical facility they need.
But for the Year of the Dragon, I didn't work. I bought a ticket and played. Knowing exactly where Flash was going to enter the venue, I was there waiting for him. He nearly knocked me over when he emerged because the crowd lurched. I snuck into Flash's wake and rode it all the way to the rail. The rail is the front of stage, where truly dedicated fans are pressed up against the barricade by the weight of the entire audience. I enjoyed the rest of the show from there. It was one of the best views I've ever had of the Dead performing, but it would pale to what happened during the following Chinese New Year run of Dead shows.
Here's another set list for our deadhead readers: Chinese Symphony Orchestra opened. SET 1: Hey Pocky Way, Desolation Row, Tennessee Jed, Little Red Rooster, Cumberland Blues, All Over Now, Box of Rain>Don't Ease Me In. SET II: Bertha>Women are Smarter, Ship of Fools, Estimated Prophet>Drumz>Truckin'>Black Peter>Sugar Magnolia. Encore: Brokedown Palace
Year of the Earth Snake - February 6, 1989: Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center
By my second year at Rock Med, I had become fairly seasoned. I had dropped out of graduate school and was earning my living by teaching martial arts and making swords (that's a whole other story). It gave me a lot of freedom for soul searching and plenty of time to volunteer for Rock Med.
Now, the Dead always played several shows in a run, usually three in a row. For this particular run, the first show was the day prior to the Chinese New Year show, and the show that followed was the Mardi Gras show, so there were two parades and the Kaiser was decorated completely differently each night. I had arrived at the venue early on the 5th, to help with load-in and set-up for the shows. One of the reasons to get to venues early is that sometimes you can sneak into soundchecks. Usually it's frowned upon, but by then I had accrued enough face-time with the powers that be that I could occasionally get away with it. Along with a few friends, I casually found myself a discreet seat in house-left, hoping no one would kick me out.
Jerry Garcia came in with bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Bill Kreutzmann to check a new song, a Jerry tune titled, "Standing on the Moon." They were going to play it for the first time in public that night. Jerry, looking for initial reactions, focused on the only people in the house that weren't sound crew. He played directly to us. It was so intimate. I've worked in the music industry for a quarter century now and been to thousands of shows, but that moment stands out in my memory as one of the most transcendent. "Standing on the Moon" is a classic Jerry power ballad and remains one of my all-time favorite songs. We played it at our wedding for my first dance with my new wife.
Non-deadheads won't get this, and it has very little to do with Lion Dancing and kung fu, but to be frank, I don't really remember anything else from that show. As they say, "If you remember the '60s, you weren't really there." I was born in the '60s, so I couldn't remember what those who were there can't remember because I wasn't there. The Dead was the closest thing to the '60s for me. And I confess that for much of my Deadhead journey, I can only remember bits and pieces - just flashbacks if you will. When it comes to this particular show, that pre-show "Standing on the Moon" performance eclipsed everything.
The set list for that night was as follows. Chinese Symphony Orchestra opened. SET I: Not Fade Away, Sugaree>Wang Dang Doodle, Jack A Roe, Queen Jane Approximately, Brown-Eyed Women, Cassidy>Tennessee Jed. SET II: Hell in a Bucket>Scarlet Begonias>Looks Like Rain>Terrapin Station>Drumz>Other One>Stella Blue>Lovelight. Encore: Black Muddy River
The following year, 1990, was the Year of the Metal Horse, but the Dead skipped doing a Chinese New Year show.
Year of the Metal Ram - February 21, 1991: Oakland Coliseum Arena
If there's one thing that can be said about Deadheads, it's family. Deadheads are family. Whether its production, fans, roadies, security…well, maybe not all security, but Rock Med is definitely deep within Deadhead family. By '91, I had made a lot of friends in production, including Bob Barsotti. Bob clocked some 30 years with Bill Graham Presents and was production head for many major events like the US Festival and the Amnesty International Concerts. We share the same birthday. As fate would have it, his wife Suzy (who coincidentally shares a birthdate with my wife - how auspicious is that?) oversaw the Chinese New Year parades. She invited me to join the parade, known as the "Dragon Crew," as I was there working Rock Med anyways.
The Dragon Crew was an amazing group of volunteer artists, performers and hardcore Deadheads. They worked around the clock for several days in preparation. A large altar was constructed, just as a focal point for the Dragon Crew. There was a tai chi instructor named Nirtan Lim who helped keep some degree of authenticity to the ritual. He did a fantastic job translating Chinese traditions to the Dragon Crew, all the while keeping the door open for that colorful deadhead creative brilliance.
The parade had expanded to include deadhead parade puppet interpretations of the Chinese folk deities Fuxing, Shoulao and - my personal favorite - the God of War, Guangong. Leading the procession were banners of the Eight Buddhist Symbols (Canopy, Conch-shell, Fish, Lotus, Mystic Knot, Parasol, Vase, and Wheel of Law). I had the honor of holding the first banner, the mystic knot, at the very front of the parade. I had started watching Flash in awe from the very back of the auditorium. Now I was leading Flash in.
The set list for that night was as follows. Chinese Symphony Orchestra opened. SET I: Help on the Way>Slipknot>Franklin's Tower, Little Red Rooster, Loser, Memphis Blues, Tennessee Jed, Promised Land. SET II: Playing in the Band>Uncle John's Band>Terrapin Station>Drumz>Eyes of the World>Throwing Stones>Not Fade Away. Encore: Knocking on Heaven's Door. Airto Moreira sat in.
The following year, 1992, was the Year of the Water Monkey, but the Dead skipped doing a Chinese New Year show.
Year of the Water Rooster - January 26, 1993: Oakland Coliseum Arena
The Dead had risen to become the top touring act in America, selling out stadiums all across the nation, typically in three show runs. I began touring with the band as a consultant, interfacing with local responders, medical and police, on how to deal with intense psychedelic reactions. The Dead was attracting a huge crowd of people who were just hanging on to the scene. They weren't attending the shows. They were just partying in the parking lots and often being a general nuisance. Sometimes more people were in the lots than at the shows. I served the Dead for their West Coast tours, travelling from San Diego to Seattle to Salt Lake City to Sin City Las Vegas. It was the best job I ever had.
I heard from the Dragon Crew long before this year's show. They wanted to know where they might acquire some Chinese lions. As it happened, I was working for Lam Kwoon at that time, and we had two old beaten up lions that Sifu Lam had given up on restoring. It was like fate, as that was exactly what the Dragon Crew wanted - fixer-uppers. Sifu Lam was a bit reticent to let them go, as they were older lion heads and the workmanship was much better. But in the end they were sold to the Dragon Crew at a bargain price.
Of course, I was also the only one who knew how to lion dance, so I brought some of my kung fu siblings into Dragon Crew. Our Lion Dance crew consisted of Gary Shockley, who now serves as Kung Fu Tai Chi's copy editor, his wife Lori White, who has also written for us, and the late mantis practitioner Eric Ishii. We had all gone to China together to compete in '91. It was a long way from China to the stage of the Grateful Dead. Additionally, we were joined by Marc Velez, who was a former moderator for our forum, and choy lay fut instructor Janet Gee.
The lions were lavishly refurbished by the Dragon Crew's insane band of artists. Despite my pleas, they were covered with mylar, glitter and halogen eyeballs, making them much heavier than before. The Dead song "Scarlet Begonias" contains a lyric that goes, "the sky was yellow and the sun was blue," and the lion heads were yellow (a gold flower lion) and blue (black actually - a fighting lion). So they were named "Sun" and "Sky" in accordance to that song. Traditionally, the master of the school who owns the lion writes his or her name on the back of the head. I asked Sifu Lam's wife at the time to translate "Grateful Dead" into Chinese. Being from the mainland, she came up with a rough equivalent that meant "patriotic dead." Years later, I was in a Chinese music store and found some Grateful Dead CDs, so I got the actual Chinese translation. They used guangrong si, which essentially means "heroic dead."
Here's where it gets trippy. Sifu Lam's full name is Lam Kwong Wing; this is Cantonese, as he is from Hong Kong. If you translate his given name to Mandarin, it's Lin Guang Rong. If we had just swapped the character for Lam with the character for Dead, we would have had it right. I told you it was fate.
There's a ritual for waking up new lions where an honored guest dots the lion's eyes with blood. While Sun and Sky weren't new, they were definitely reincarnated, so I shared the fundamentals of the ritual. Like many today, paint is swapped for blood. Sun and Sky were awakened by Carlos Santana.
The most sacred space at a Dead show is the stage. No one is permitted there except the band and the stage crew. Our task was to enter the stage from the sides. Nirtan was dressed as a cock and led us out. I entered on stage right and got to lion dance all the way across the stage. It was glorious. Lion Dancing on the Grateful Dead stage remains one of the most ecstatic moments of my life.
The set list for that night was as follows. Chinese Acrobats opened. SET I: Picasso Moon, Row Jimmy, Wang Dang Doodle, Brown-Eyed Women, Desolation Row, Ramble On Rose, Promised Land. SET II: Women are Smarter, Eyes of the World>Estimated Prophet>Terrapin Station>Drumz>Other One>Stella Blue>Lovelight. Encore: U.S. Blues. Carlos Santana sat in.
Year of the Wood Dog - February 27 1994: Oakland Coliseum Arena
My final lion dance for the Grateful Dead was for the Year of the Dog. This time, the sacred space of the stage was to remain sacred. Sun and Sky were given their own special side stages. We did an extra dance through Rock Med, just for fun, just to bless the space. I sometimes envision my psychiatric intervention work for Rock Med as exorcism, as dispelling demonic possession. If you've ever witnessed a full-blown intense psychedelic reaction, this analogy is more resonant. In Chinese culture, it is the role of both lion dancers and Buddhist monks to dispel demons. This is apparent in classic Chinese myths like Journey to the West or Green Snake. For a few Halloween shows (not with the Dead, mind you), I donned my Shaolin robes . It's interesting attire for talk-down. I always hoped I would have the opportunity to talk someone down while embodying a lion.
After the show, we were still cleaning up after midnight. There was a big party for Bob Barsotti, which I coat-tailed on as we share birthdays. That party went long into the night, and while again I don't remember a lot from this show, I do remember watching the sunrise. It saddens me that the Grateful Dead Chinese New Year's shows came to an inevitable end, but what a way to finish.
The set list for that night was as follows. Lily Cai Dance company opened SET I: Hell in a Bucket, Row Jimmy, Minglewood, Lazy River Road, Mama Tried>Mexicali Blues, Tennessee Jed, Easy Answers. SET II: Touch of Grey, Samson and Delilah, Uncle John's Band>Corrina>Drumz>Other One>Wharf Rat>Lovelight. Encore: Rain
That was back in my freelance writing days, and I managed to sell an article on my Grateful Lion Dancing to the long-defunct magazine, Masters of Kung Fu. Chinese Lion Dancing and the Good Ol’ Grateful Dead was originally published in the October 1994 issue.
Jerry Garcia Memorial - August 13, 1995: Golden Gate Park Polo Field, San Francisco CA
The following year, 1995, was the Year of the Wood Pig. The Dead skipped doing a Chinese New Year show that year. It was also the year that Jerry Garcia died. What's more, that was the year I got married and the year I first went to Shaolin Temple. I've written about Jerry's passing before, in the first installment of my blog, Shaolin Trips - Episode One: Open Two Doors. I will never forget the day Jerry died.
A memorial was staged four days later in the park. An estimated 25,000 people showed up to pay their respects. Some of the band members spoke. Deadheads left offerings, listened to music, and danced in their grief. Flash was there. The Dragon Crew decided to have it circle the Polo field, and many of us took turns carrying Flash's head as it is excessively heavy with Deadhead decorations and requires some skill. From watching Flash in those nosebleed seats, to following his wake, to leading him in as a banner bearer, to guarding him as a lion, at long last, on this tragic day, I served as a Dragon head.
Bob & Peter Barsotti Retirement Party - January 20, 2000: Warfield Theater
The last time I was in Sky and Sun was at the retirement party for Bob and his brother. The band was Big Bang Beat, but several guests sat in, including original Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Vince Welnick and Mickey Hart. Steve Kimock, who played with several permutations of the Dead, also sat in, along with Pete Sears and Bobby Vega. It was a private party and I was there to honor Bob and Peter, who have given so much to the music scene that their contribution is truly immeasurable. The Dragon Crew whipped together a little parade, so I was tapped for Sun and Sky.
Unfortunately, it was a complete surprise or I would have called in my lion dancing siblings. I quickly put together a crew of some close Rock Med friends, gave them a crash course in how to not fall over when lion dancing, and we just went for it. They had no idea what they were getting into, but they were all intense guys and totally rose to the occasion. We still talk about it sometimes when we cross paths again. I was delighted to serve as a Grateful Lion one last time, and bow to Bob and Peter at their moment of honor.
I've only got the set list for after the Dead joined in, and I poached it off the net so I cannot guarantee accuracy: Gimme Some Lovin', Heard it Thru the Grapevine, Shotgun, Low Rider, Take Me To the River, Gloria, Aiko Aiko>Not Fade Away
Later that year, I had the opportunity to interview the Grateful Dead's drummer. Mickey Hart was a judoka in his youth and still loves the martial arts. In our most non-martial issue ever, 2000 May, we published that interview, Drum Warrior: Master Drummer Mickey Hart Blends Music and the Martial Arts. Mickey doesn't always recognize me when we cross paths, but when I remind him of the article, he goes nuts and we often end up reciting lines from Enter the Dragon, which he has memorized. He was so delighted to be featured in Kung Fu Tai Chi, as honored as I was to get to interview him.
Almost the Year of the Water Dragon - December 31, 2012: Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
A quarter century later, I'm back at the Civic, at another New Year's concert, although not the Chinese one. Furthur is playing, another permutation of the surviving members of the Dead. I've been at every Dead-oriented New Year's Eve show, both Chinese and Gregorian, since I began this journey. I only missed one, ironically the turn of the millennium and the last Year of the Dragon.
I'm talking down a very animated tripper in the safety of our medical area. While extreme cases (like the jumper I recounted at the beginning of this article) make for better stories, the lion's share of bad trips can be handled through guided talk-down and a little reduction in stimuli. That's where the real psych work lies. My present patient has his shirt off to display his muscled frame and has been describing how to fight a grizzly bear in an overly animated fashion. It's a thinly-veiled attempt at macho posturing, the common fallout from public intoxication. This can be dangerous - macho displays lead to so many fights - but I'm not in the least bit worried with this case. Being a career martial artist, I've deescalated plenty of martial machismo.
In fact, in this case I'm sitting on the floor at his feet. While this might seem a vulnerable position, don't be deceived. One of the great things about iaido is that it trains a series of attacks and counters from seated positions. A samurai might have to strike or defend with his sword from any number of postures, and in Japan, kneeling and sitting on the floor remains common. Even without a sword, the same principles can be applied. My patient is just posturing, and not very well. He's clearly more of a boxer, or would be if he bothered to train, given his body attitude. If it ever came to blows, being seated is quite defensible. There's no way he'd reach me with a punch without telegraphing his intention, and his posture is all wrong for a kick. But he's not going to do anything. I'm dominating him verbally. The best restraint is verbal fu, and that's what many of our psychiatric interventions aspire to. Sometimes, if you can talk the talk, you don't have to walk the walk. And I can certainly talk the talk when it comes to something as absurd as fighting grizzlies.
The theme of this New Year's show is dragons. Official merchandising is offering these gorgeous dragon shirts and 3D dragon posters, and I'm sorely tempted, though I have so many T-shirts and posters already. Besides, I just shot all my cash on Xma$, so I pass. For the New Year's stroke of midnight balloon drop, there was a flying dragon puppet suspended from the ceiling that breathed smoke. It's not Flash. Unfortunately, I missed the entrance because I was working, talking down another tripper, not about grizzlies but about the curative properties of laughter and time. I was told there was a woman riding the dragon dressed like Marilyn Monroe and that Bill Walton was dressed as Father Time. Sorry I missed that. Seeing that dragon brings back a flood of memories.
I still cross paths with old friends from the Dragon Crew now and again in the music scene. And I've poached that moniker for my own special ops crew at Tiger Claw's KungFuMagazine.com Championship . When I think back to those days, it's like a dream.
What a long strange trip it's been.
To read the other Chapter, click here.
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