A New Year’s Plan: Death, Poverty and the Household Economy   16 comments

Predicting the Future

As we move into 2012, my plans both for my life and this blog are beginning to take better form. As I wrote in my post on returning home, I am settling into this area—Nehalem, on the northern Oregon coast—and, for the first time since 2009, staying in a particular place for a second year. While I’ll have to leave the farm I’m on now in a few months, I hope to simply move a short way down the road. Either way, I’ll be in the area. I have work on two local farms now and have a third farm offering a significant social scene, all three of which are nothing to be dismissed. I’m beginning to integrate into the community and finding that there are many opportunities here. It doesn’t hurt, either, that this is a particularly beautiful part of the northwest, with the sort of forested landscape that holds a great draw for me, along with quick access to incredible coastal environments.

So what specifically does the new year hold for myself and this blog? Well, as I’ve been making clear, I believe that we’re a country in decline. We’re in the early stages of peak energy and face a future in which fossil fuels—the primary fuels behind our economy, behind the entire way we run our country and other industrialized nations run theirs—become more expensive and more scarce, even as worldwide demand continues to grow. This will put significant pressure on our economy, our infrastructure, our political system, on the ways in which we organize our lives, on everything. You know how most of us in recent times have been slowly ground down under the pressure of a dysfunctional economic and political system, particularly since 2008? Well, we’re not in an anomaly. We’re experiencing what is now normal in this country. We are in decline—pretty much all industrialized nations are now, but America is particularly due to its empire status—and so we need to rework our expectations and rethink how we are going to live our lives.

This isn’t just about peak energy, either. This is also about ecological catastrophe, climate change, a collapsing financial system and, I would argue, a spiritual crisis. These are all interconnected and they all work together to make one hell of a mess. Governments and municipalities are going bankrupt, families are losing their purchasing power, ecosystems are exhibiting signs of incredible strain and we have a culture that is utterly failing us, focusing more on the Kardashians and fleeting memes than these very serious problems—or even thoughtful philosophy, affecting art or explorations of religion, spirituality and nature. We no longer know our way, and many of us know we’re lost.

The way we’ve come to expect life to be is not how it’s going to be in the future. Unfortunately, most are still living as if it is. But instead of an economic correction and a return to the comfortable living most Americans expect as something of a birthright, we’re going to, in general, become poorer every year, less materially rich and comfortable, and are going to find many of our foundational supports crumbling. It’s likely to be a rough road ahead. Yet, we can prepare for it and there’s no reason not to. We need to begin to learn how to be poor, and we need to begin now.

I realize that’s not going to be a popular sentiment and I’m sure there’s a contingent reading this who might think me a bit crazy. But I really do foresee this future, and there’s a lot of science and literature out there to support it. We are coming up against some hard ecological and physical limits as a species and there’s no getting around it. For all the talk of human ingenuity and endless progress, the reality is that human history is the story of cycles and patterns, of rising and falling civilizations, of a multitude of different ways of experiencing and living within the world, and this particular way that we’re in now—industrial civilization, for everyone reading this—is starting to come apart. We’ve had our time, and that time brought us a standard of living and a level of wealth unknown throughout the history of humanity. That makes us unique, yes—but no more unique than thousands of other civilizations and no less vulnerable, either. We’ve mistaken wealth and comfort for permanence and immortality. Wealth provides neither. It’s just a different mode of living. And it’s a mode of living that’s particularly ill-suited for our future.

The basis of our wealth and comfort—the burning of fossil fuels, which provide a level and accessibility of energy unlike anything else on this planet, and certainly unlike anything renewable, as well as the intensive exploitation of this planet’s resources—is coming to an end. It won’t all be gone in our lifetime, but we will certainly see shortages and most people alive today are going to be seeing the chaos that will result in those shortages. We’re seeing it already, in fact. The financial collapse of 2008 was a necessity, not an anomaly, and there are further corrections that will have to be had simply because we chose to address that collapse with attempts at propping up an unsustainable system. The lack of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina is another indication; a society in collapse simply doesn’t have the resources to rebuild itself after major disasters the way a society on the ascent does. The gridlocked political system and vapid culture are indications, too. The keystones in declining civilizations commonly cease to provide value to that civilization’s citizens. The collapse is not on its way. It’s here now. We’re already in it.

What’s important to note is that this collapse is very unlikely to turn into an apocalypse. It will happen gradually, which is the course that collapsing civilizations typically take. The exact details and timelines are unknown, but the full process of collapse generally takes a couple centuries. That means that we will not see it through its completion. We’ve had the fine luck of drawing the straw that put us at the beginning of the collapse. We get to deal with the initial stages, which are unlikely to be too fun, and it’s entirely possible that few people of consequence will ever acknowledge this collapse during our lifetime. Again, this is because it’s unlikely that there will ever be an event so undeniable and of such magnitude that everyone will point to it and say, “Aha! Here is the collapse.” Instead, it’s just going to be a slow grind. We’ll get shocks to the system, then stabilization and a period of reduced standards of living, and then another shock, another stabilization, and another period of yet-more-reduced standards of living. We had one of those shocks in 2008 and we’re living right now in the stabilized period with a lower standard of living. How quickly is unemployment recovering? How many people have fallen off the rolls? What’s the real unemployment rate? What’s the economy like now compared to the 90s?

So, then, our future holds further monetary and material impoverishment. It holds access to less energy and less resources. And it holds the promise that if we do not start to learn how to live under these new realities, we are going to be a lot worse off than if we do. You know how every few years we hear news stories about the hot new career track? It’s the career that forward-looking people are training for so that they’ll have a place in the economy of the future. Well, I’m here to tell you that the hot new career going forward is living in poverty. Learn to do it well and you’ll be in good shape. Ignore the coming reality and cling to the hope that all the same activities that have supported people over the last couple decades in this country will continue to support them and you’re likely to have a harsh time of it.

Living in Poverty

With that mindset, I’m planning on diving full bore into voluntary poverty in 2012. Not that I’m not already there to a large degree, but there’s plenty more I could do. Luckily, I have a couple sources of work lined up, so I’m not going into a completely income-less poverty. But my cash flow will be small anyway, far below the official poverty line in this country.

My plan for voluntary poverty has a few different elements to it. Aside from working at two farms, I plan to do some serious gardening this year. Coming off three seasons of veggie farming, this should be something I can do. But I have to admit I still don’t feel fully prepared to supply myself with homegrown vegetables all through the season. I expect I’ll do fine, but imagine it will be a bit more of a challenge than it should considering my experience. Still, this is the exact experience I really do need—a situation in which I’m fully in charge, which will burn quite a bit of knowledge and experience into my brain. When working for others, I too often do the work without paying full attention to the reasoning behind it. When I have to understand the reasoning—to figure out the work myself—I learn much better.

This gardening I’m hoping to do may actually take place on the property of one of the farms I’ll be working for. If this is the case, then I’ll be doing a work-trade with them for rent and gardening space. That would leave the other farm to provide most of my cash flow. However, with my rent and food taken care of, I won’t need a significant amount of money. This is another element of my poverty: getting out of the formal economy as much as possible and working within the informal economy of barter, work-trade and so on. This is fantastic preparation for the future because it’s the formal economy which will be failing us. The informal economy should be trucking along quite well. In fact, it should be growing quite a bit in the near future, and undoubtedly already is. This is a reality simply because as the formal economy fails to provide the living of more and more people, most of those people aren’t going to just lay down and die. They’re going to find some way to make ends meet. And if the formal economy isn’t capable or willing, then they’ll turn to the informal economy.

The Household Economy

Part of that informal economy is also the household economy. These are the things you do for yourself at home, using your own labor, rather than paying someone else to do them. Cooking, for instance, is a big part of the household economy. Various food processing you do at home is part of that economy, too. In 2011, I lacto-fermented a variety of veggies, made traditional pickles, made ginger ale and blackberry soda, made butter from cream, made mayonnaise, helped Ginger can tuna fresh off the boat, made pesto, made my own pizza dough, roasted and froze tomatoes and did many other things, all of which were part of the farm’s household economy.

As part of my household economy in 2012, I plan to regularize a series of homesteading activities. I don’t know for sure which ones it will be yet, but I suspect butter making will be there, as well as condiments, and I want to start making my own bread. I would love to begin making cheese and I’ll continue to brew sodas. I’ll certainly be preserving vegetables and probably canning some fish. I also would like to learn how to mend clothes. And I really would like to better learn beer brewing. I’ve brewed four times, once alone, and I have the basic process down. I need to figure out my equipment situation and then start brewing beer as a matter of course.

All of these activities will save me money by transferring the processing and packaging of food from a factory to my kitchen. By saving that money, I can live richer while being poorer. This is the point of learning how to live in poverty. It’s not about learning how to survive a cold night in a cardboard box in an alley—it’s about how to make your life as comfortable and rich as possible (in both a material and non-material sense) with very little money. Most of us will likely have access to less money in the future, or more money that will buy less due to inflation. The more we figure out how to make our lives without money—with thrift and cleverness and our own labor, as well as simple pleasures—the easier it will be to maintain comfort, happiness and a decent standard of living in the midst of a crumbling formal economy.

And if I should prove to be wrong about the economy, then you’re still in a better situation, with access to far more money now that you can use to do whatever you would most want to do with money, such as buy land or travel or start your own business.

Study, Meditation and Death

While I have plenty of physical plans, I also plan to focus on the mental and spiritual in the new year. Part of this will take the form of new avenues of study, with a likely focus on history in the broad sense, history in the very local sense, and my local ecology. Part of it will also be the consideration and possible engagement with a nature-based spiritual study. Part of it, as well, will be a meditation practice, likely involving quiet sits in and observation of the local land. All of these plans are still somewhat tentative and less planned out than what I wrote about above. They also are very personal and less applicable on a broad scale. As such, I won’t get into great detail here, though I’m sure these aspects of my new year will be commented upon and documented to some degree here on this blog.

However, I think consideration of a spiritual element is important for us, especially when dealing with collapse. I believe as a society, we’ve allowed ourselves to become too cut off from the natural world. As we live in an economy and society that is predicated on the use and destruction of the natural world, being cut off from that destruction is necessary for us to not be driven insane at the death constantly perpetrated around us. But as our material society begins to fall apart and offer far less material comforts, many of us are going to need some kind of spirituality to turn to. We won’t be able to fix these problems by buying a new tablet computer or paying someone to fix us a nice meal. New clothes or the smartest smart phone won’t make these issues go away and neither will trivial obsessions with celebrities or fleeting trends. We’ve elevated shopping and electronic distractions to the level of spirituality in this country; as those go away, we’ll need something else, both to provide comfort and to provide new myths for us to use in learning how to live well in a changed world.

With that in mind, I plan to explore some spiritual aspects on the blog this year. One of those will be a series of posts on death. Many of us need to think more about death, become more acquainted with it, and better accept it. Death is something we tend to shy away from in our society and I honestly think we’ll be forced to confront it more directly in the near future. As our economy and infrastructure continues to worsen, public health will, as well. The death rate will rise and we ourselves will be more likely to die earlier. We may be caught in one of the many coming shocks I spoke about earlier. This is life; we just as well could be killed tomorrow in a car crash or die of cancer brought on by the extreme toxicity of our environment, the horrid slop we call food. Death is around us now but as the forms we’re familiar with and have normalized begin to give way more to new forms—failing public health and the occasional dramatic catastrophe, for instance—we may find ourselves forced to confront death in a more direct way than is considered normal.

As such, we need to think about death. We need to better understand it and make our peace with it as much as we can. We need to actually acknowledge it. Therefore, I’ll be writing a series of posts that will recount experiences I’ve had with death. I don’t expect to make too many grand, sweeping statements about those experiences. I imagine I’ll let them more speak for themselves—will simply try to capture some of the emotions and sensations I’ve felt and pass them on to you, for your consideration. I find death somewhat unfathomable and fascinating and frightening. I suspect many have similar feelings about it. But the more we deal with and think about it, the less frightening it becomes and the more it begins to take the shape of something recognizable, of something that is both a necessary and profound part of what it is to be here on this earth.

I, finally, plan to focus more on the Encounters category on this site, which has been neglected up to this point. These posts will deal with encounters with the natural world and its inhabitants. We are a species on this planet, as every other living thing is. We are different, yes, but I don’t believe we are inherently better than other animals or plants, or even the dirt beneath our feet. I also believe we have quite a bit to learn from the other species we share this planet with. We have proved in recent times particularly destructive, particularly hubristic, particularly immature and particularly cruel. As we necessarily transition into a less dominant and more reciprocal relationship with this planet and our local ecosystems, we would do well to observe and learn from the other species around us. They have a lot to teach us, a lot to remind us of, and much joy to impart to us. We would be wise to receive it.

A Plan, Then

In conclusion, there are four main elements of my plan for Of The Hands in the new year.

  • How To Be Poor — This will include a variety of posts, from projects I’ve done that I think are helpful for living in voluntary poverty, to thoughts I have, to posts on certain subjects and themes, to ventings about the trials and tribulations of being poor. This won’t be as structured a category, but there should be much there and I think it will prove helpful for those who are interested.
  • The Household Economy — This will be a series of documentations of my household economic activity. There will also be some theory and philosophy, I imagine, but the focus will be on actual activities that constitute a part of my household economy.
  • Considerations of Death — This will be a series of posts detailing different experiences I’ve had with death, in an effort to better understand and become familiar with it. Most of these will simply be stories rather than long pontifications, but I imagine it will trace my own evolving attitudes and thoughts toward death, as well.
  • Encounters — This will be a documentation of encounters with other species. Much as with Considerations of Death, many of these will simply be small stories or anecdotes, but hopefully they will prove helpful. Where I think I’ve gathered some wisdom from another species, I’ll share it here.

In the coming days, I’ll be doing a bit of redesign of the site’s navigation bar, making these sections easily accessible. These are the main focuses I have for the blog going forward, but I don’t intend them to be the only writings I’ll share. If I ever get my camera working again, I’ll still put up the occasional photo posts and there will be other random thoughts and musings, documentations and stories. In fact, I plan to make one of my next posts a review of some of my reading in 2011.

I also, over the next week or two, will be putting up introductory posts for each of these categories. And, of course, I reserve the right to grow bored with these plans and change the blog’s direction. But for now, I like this path and am excited to delve more deeply into these topics. Here’s to hoping you’ll join me, or at least peer quizzically from the other side of the screen.

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16 responses to “A New Year’s Plan: Death, Poverty and the Household Economy

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  1. Hey, great blog! Thanks for stopping over at September’s Virtue, and for the feedback!

    I think you’ve got a typo in this post – just before “A Plan, Then” there’s the line that begins ” As we necessarily into a less dominant and more reciprocal relationship”, which I think you meant to put as “A we move necessarily” or something similar – something with a verb? (Someone caught a missing-word typo for me this morning, so they’re on the brain).

    We’re up just outside of Seattle, but plan to relocate nearer our family in Maine come the spring. Your area of Oregon was second on the list for us, though – it’s such a gorgeous spot.

    • Thank you, Celine! I hate typos, and I did indeed mean for there to be a verb in there. It’s fixed.

      I’ve always wanted to check out Maine. The one time I got out to the east coast, I didn’t manage to make it up there. But I have a friend who has a family homestead in the state who may at some point find herself out there taking care of that land. Should that happen, I would love to ride the train out there if I could get the money and explore that land a bit.

  2. I like the paragraph about the hot new career track of the future. You are so right, and I am reminded of why I made the string of decisions that has led me to the beginning of the venture I am about to embark on. As I contemplate a year where I know I will not be earning money until at least June, I find myself quaking in my boots (I’ve been working since I was 12). I have a sort of scholarship to get me going on this educational track, but after that I am prepared to really learn how to be poor – and happily, successfully so. Frankly, I am excited abut the challenge of relying on my own creativity and learning new skills that will allow me to live well on less and less money and resources. Should be interesting – and your future posts will be much appreciated.

    • Thanks, Sarah. I imagine you’re going to do well on this new venture—certainly you seem to have the right attitude. It’s a process, too, so it’s good you’re getting started. I think back to where I was when I first started farming and where I am now and it’s quite the change. It’s really interesting to realize that difference. And wherever I am a few years from now, I imagine I’ll look back to now and be amazed at how much farther along I am—and at all the directions I went that I never expected.

  3. there is a lot to think about here, as usual. you are right that so much change is going to have to occur in adjusting our perspectives/our present reflexes. It is strange, but I think on some level we fear slow change over the sudden shift ala our romantic post-apocalyptic visions: not only do we know we survived, and are survivors, we get to begin raw as a first generation creator, rather than an inheritor. how much more courage does it take to begin now.

    I wish you every success in your endeavors Joel, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts along the journey.

    • I agree completely. I think the idea that we’re in it now and we need to start working within this situation—changing our lives in very uncomfortable ways—is a scarier prospect than the somewhat romantic idea (weird, yes, but true) of a sudden collapse or apocalypse. That provides the opportunity to start from scratch, assuming you’ve survived the trouble (which we always seem to imagine we have and our enemies haven’t) and to rebuild the world the way you want it. Ultimately, I think it’s attractive because, ironically, it’s easier. Once you’ve survived the pain of the collapse, you get that blank slate and lots of left over resources to use and salvage after lots of other people have died, and you’re freed from the system that was causing so much trouble in the first place.

      By doing the work now, you’re acknowledging that you’re trapped in the current system and you can’t do much more than make your best go of it. So you’re at the mercy of rising prices and decreasing incomes and a bureaucratic and regulatory system that’s as likely as not to try to extract as much out of you as possible as the whole system degrades and destabilizes under its own weight. You’re looking more at a life of quietly and sometimes painfully muddling through rather than building anew from the wreckage. And I think we know which scenario this country likes more. We love a good story of someone overcoming terrible tragedy to revel in their own eventual glories. We don’t so much like the story of someone surviving grinding poverty or the slow degradation of their surroundings. We’ll accept plenty of pain as long as it’s sudden and we end up with the happy ending in which glories rain down to make up for that pain—and the bad guys get their just desert.

      But the key thing to remember is the idea here isn’t self-punishment or voluntarily worsening your life. It’s about the most effective long term strategy. If you think the future is going to be troubled and lacking in wealth and resources, learning to live well with less of or without those things is good strategy for crafting a better, happier, more fulfilling future. It’s a bonus that you can do this in a way that also creates a happier and more fulfilling present. There’s much to recommend this path, even if it’s hard and challenging.

      Thanks for the well wishes. The same, of course, to you—and I look forward to your thoughts on your journey, as well.

  4. I’m definitely plugged into the same paradigm as you. I’ve spent the last several years dealing with the psychological onslaught that comes with accepting the revelations of “The Long Emergency” and “The Long Descent”!! I’ve been extracting a pay check from the matrix by working as an emt for a county EMS service (owned by a for profit corporation no doubt…it’s complicated). At any rate it’s gotten to the point where we no longer have patients, they are referred to as customers now by management (who fittingly enough wear white shirts while the street medics wear blue). I got into ems cause I figured it was noble work and I couldn’t find anything karmically wrong with it. That is no longer the case. Now you have to sell your soul and be a corporate lacky boot licker if you want to keep a check. I am unable to do that without getting on a fukitol, franken pharmaceutical that is designed to chemically lobotomize me so that I can proceed licking boots and taken it up the rear end by a system that views me as less than whale excrement.

    At any rate I have recently had the epiphany that somebody such as myself, with ideas about society that aren’t directly taken from the programming on the idiot box, only has two options.

    1. Get on the pill and resolve to be a corporate debt slave until my ticket is pulled and I become part of the zombie mass of unpeople.

    2. Do what you have suggested and burn my ticket now and move forward into voluntary poverty.

    I had this epiphany a couple days before running into your blog and reading the piece you wrote about making a living versus a job. I’m right there with you, just a bit behind. I’m actually just now putting in my two week notice and “prefering not to” from here on. I’d rather take my chances living authentically than sell any more of my soul for a pay check. The only thing that’s kept me a slave for the last year is that we have a 19 month old son. I had guilt with the prospect of willingly giving up a pay check and medical insurance so that I could sleep at night. I thought I just had to sacrifice my self for my son and wife. The last couple of days the enchantment (what would be commonly known as God, or the “universe,” I prefer “enchantment” cause it’s not steeped in misunderstanding) has been screaming at me to live authentically. So I fully intend to. I’m putting in my two week notice to the matrix in the next couple of days. We have family we can live with and I’m going to grow food and sell value added products on the side of the road…as well as other creative ways to extract money out of the matrix using the internet.

    Hope you don’t mind the long post. You should know that your message reached me in a very synchronous fashion. Thanks for your message.

    • I don’t mind the long post, at all, and I’m glad you appreciated the message. Good on you for getting out of the standard system and taking steps toward getting into a low-money, low-energy lifestyle. It certainly can be scary—and I’m sure doubly (triply?) so with a 19-month-old—but as I’ve been saying here, I suspect it’s a decision that will serve you and your family well long term. I certainly understand that sense of being a slave to a corrupt and wretched system and I imagine getting away from that will help improve your life, even if you take on some new forms of stress to replace some of the old.

      I believe you can get your son medical insurance via SCHIP, if not Medicaid. You’re probably already figuring all that out, but definitely look into it if you haven’t already. We definitely should take advantage of these programs while they still exist.

      I’m glad you’re going to focus on food. Not that there aren’t other good areas to put your attention toward, but we need a whole lot of people growing and doing basic processing of food going forward, and I think if you get good at it and build some relationships, you’ll prove invaluable in your community in the near future. Even if the price of oil temporarily drops a bit this year or next—and I wouldn’t be surprised, due to demand destruction—I expect food prices to continue to go up. It’s amazing how much the difference in price between cheap, industrial grocery store food and well-raised, local and organic food has shrunk in the last few years. Well-raised, local and organic is the place to be.

      I imagine your son and wife want you, not a burnt out husk with a bit of spare change in his pockets. It won’t be easy, but I bet you’ll figure out how to make your living together, as a family, rather than as a sacrifice. If you haven’t read Sharon Astyk, I recommend her. She has four children and writes about these issues with the perspective of having a family and being responsible for children. I think that’s a bit missing in the peak genre, so you might find her helpful.

  5. I’ve found that one of the positive aspects of living in poverty is that it very quickly teaches you to live care-fully and to pay utmost attention to how you do that so you won’t have to repeat any hard lessons. And I’ve also found that it allows you to slow everything down so as to step out of tomorrow into every day-ness.

    It can be a quite refreshing way to live if you are involved with a mutual support group of some sort – as long as nothing major breaks….

    • Very, very true, Martin. I’m not yet there, though, to that level of caution that’s wise and appropriate. Even living somewhat poor the last few years, I’ve had the flexibility of available credit to use. I’ve never really scraped, which means I’ve yet to live in anything resembling real poverty. I plan, though, to get the credit cards fully paid off within the next 12-18 months and cancel the cards, so it’s not even an option. It’s been a long time getting this all figured out. Wish I had done it earlier.

      But no question that poverty—even the faux-poverty I’ve experienced to this point—provides a greater immediacy to life. Just good work does, and exposure to the natural world. Existing constantly in human-built and maintained environments, I’ve found, destroys your sense of immediacy, of time, of . . . what, honesty? Life just doesn’t quite seem real in that context. It much more so does in the context I live in now.

      That idea of something major breaking—most notably for me, a serious breakdown in my health and thus ability to do physical labor—is the constant underlying fear. I don’t worry about it too much, mostly because I’m still young and healthy and so it’s unlikely I’ll experience such a breakdown, barring some kind of accident. Yet, it’s there. That would throw a serious wrench in my plans. Much like with my credit, though, I have the back up of nearby family who would take me in if necessary. Still, all those are luxuries I expect to eventually be gone or diminished, so building some resiliency dependent of those back ups is a key goal.

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  8. Really enjoying your musings and sense a commonality with our path, something that is far more prevalent these days. So many people realizing that ‘LIVING’ is a ‘job’ and far more soul nourishing than ‘making a living’. Saw you on facebook first… and would like to link our blogs.. I wrote a piece on how to be poor too! We chose to settle in hillbilly holler in the N. GA mountains where community ethics are strong, most folk are kin and we’ve been welcomed in because we held the focus of integrating. We are here to learn growing and living simply, and having exhausted our savings while still renting we find that living on the edge is the greatest spur to find a way to survive. http://www.pierresoleil.com/ourblog/2011/11/learn-how-to-be-poor/

    • Thanks, Sunny! I’m glad you found your way over here. I really like that blog post and I’ll poke around over there some more soon. I’ve only been out east once and then mostly spent my time in cities. One of these days I’d love to get out and explore the Appalachians a bit. Not sure it’ll ever happen, but we’ll see.

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