Category Archives: Health

Starting Line, part 1

clouds-pittsburgh-12-2-2015

clouds over pittsburgh, december 2015, photo taken by me

It felt like someone had punched me in the chest.

I had just walked up three short flights of stairs and I was breathing like I’d just ran the Pittsburgh Marathon.

Goddamn, I’m old, I thought, trying to catch my breath and feeling all of my 47 years.

Thankfully, the feeling quickly subsided but returned with concerning enough frequency throughout the next week. I couldn’t walk up the same stairs with a coworker and have a conversation on the way into the office. Moreover, it didn’t matter if I was simply sitting at my desk churning out all the words and crunching all the numbers. Wham, there it was, the stabbing in the back or slight chest pains. I started keeping a bottle of Tums on my person and on my desk.

“Ever Have An EKG?” 

I thought back to the last time my cholesterol and triglycerides were checked — about two years ago or more.  Both numbers had been high and I’d promised my doctor I would make some diet and exercise changes. I had good intentions, but didn’t do much to change my ways. I was already gluten-free and vegetarian, and I became even more of a carb-loading machine. Rice, potatoes or pasta — with a generous helping of cheese, please — were part of almost every meal I ate. I enjoyed a mug of ice cream nearly every night.

And forget starting any type of exercise routine because my true nature is Lazy As Fuck. There’s nothing I like better than sitting on the couch or the deck with a good book and a cup of coffee. I am a reader. A writer. I don’t DO exercise, which I HAAAAATTTTTTTEEEEEE with a passion unbridled. I always have, ever since gym class when I was always picked last for dodgeball, which I feel is a sadistic game. I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to graduate high school because I couldn’t run a mile in under 12 minutes. (I could write a whole ‘nuther post — hell, a book — on how the ostracizing of kids in gym class can influence their perspective of fitness.)

So why in God’s name would I want to willingly put myself through that physical and emotional torture three decades later?

In reality, I was playing dodgeball with my health.

Being the summa-cum-laude graduate that I am of the Medical School of Google, I self-diagnosed myself with angina (spoiler alert: I was wrong) and when I called my doctor, she suggested I come in that afternoon. I figured this could be worth leaving work early.

“Ever have an EKG?” asked the nurse practitioner.  I said I thought I had one before my gall bladder surgery two and a half years ago.

“You’re about to have another one,” she said.

A Moment in Time 

Fortunately, my heart was ticking perfectly fine and although there wasn’t any evidence of a heart attack, we couldn’t ignore my concerning symptoms. The chest pains and shortness of breath when walking up the stairs continued. Upper back pains and stomach woes. Fatigue.  A sedentary lifestyle. A ridiculous, off-the-goddamned charts, unrelenting amount of stress and anxiety. (The doctor’s look when I gave her a summary of the past year was…well, something to see.)

I walked out with orders for new bloodwork, a stress test, and an unequivocal command to get myself to the ER if the chest pains happened again.

To no one’s surprise, my cholesterol and triglycerides had gotten worse, with the latter zooming from 150 to 405 within the past seven years. Fortunately, results from the stress test were fine. (“Above average for your age!” proclaimed the cardiologist.)

“Let’s give this six months,” my doctor said. “Six months to lower your cholesterol and triglycerides through diet and exercise. Then, we’ll see where we’re at.”

If things progressed as they were, I knew where we would be at — in the ER (or, worse, in the ground). Best case scenario, we would be talking about statins, something I’d very much like to avoid. I’ve had this conversation with previous doctors, even ones I liked. I know statins work for many people but I just see them as heading down a slippery, cholesterol-slicked road.

Still, something about this particular conversation resonated with me. It felt like a turning point, a moment in time.

Life Doesn’t Come with Lifetime Guarantees 

At 47, I have outlived my father now by three years. He wasn’t an athlete, but he was fairly active. He was always working in our yard or on a project around the house.  He had recently become a volunteer firefighter for our small town. He didn’t smoke or drink. He didn’t die from cancer, a heart attack or stroke.

He died from complications of the flu. At 44 years old.

So, I’m well-acquainted with the feeling of living on borrowed time and how much of life is a crapshoot.  And perhaps that had been part of my exercise-adverse mindset: what’s the point of doing something I hate (exercising) when I could be perfectly healthy one week and drop dead from a virus the next?

Like my father, I have two kids. They are nearly the same age I was when he died. I know what it’s like to feel a parent’s absence during every single major milestone of your life and to miss them on even the most ordinary of days. I don’t want that for my kids.

When put in that context, eating less ice cream and becoming a little more active made complete sense. My motivation may have started with not wanting to go on a statin (and that’s still one of my driving forces in this) but maybe making some significant diet and exercise changes now could ward off serious issues later — or at least make me healthier today, because none of us are promised more than that.

If I’ve learned anything in my 47 years (especially the most recent of them) it’s that life doesn’t come with lifetime guarantees.

Starting Line

All of this happened in July and August.  The diet part seemed easy. Being gluten-free and vegetarian was a good start, but I needed to focus on reducing carbs, cholesterol and sugar. I downloaded MyFitnessPal to track everything I ate. That’s been eye-opening and I’ve instituted some healthier changes. I checked out books from the library. I pursued cookbooks and added more blogs to my overflowing Feedly.

But I knew that diet alone wasn’t going to get me where I needed to be. I needed to step up my exercise game bigtime and an occasional walk around the block wasn’t going to do it.

I had an idea what might be in my future and it hearkened back to not being able to run a 12 minute mile in high school.

Maybe, just maybe, I needed to conquer that voice in my head — the one stuck on repeat that says you aren’t, you can’t, you won’t.

Maybe it was time to start running — towards what I could do instead of from what I’ve always thought I couldn’t.

This is the first post in a series (yet to be named) of my Couch to 5K experience and journey towards becoming a runner. 

 

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sunday salon/currently… 9/18/2016

Sunday Salon bannerHaving a lazy Sunday today.  I had all good intentions of going the park for a walk/run this morning before the humidity became too oppressive but I woke up feeling blah. Nothing major, just a slight headache and minor stomach woes. It the sort of day where the weather can’t make up its mind: in the course of my writing this paragraph, it has been cloudy, then raining, and now it is brilliant sunshine.  (And 20 miles away at the Steelers game, it was a monsoon.)

Reading/Listening … 
My commute has been rather maddening recently, thanks to a ridiculous amount of construction going on in this town and the hell that is the (now indefinite) closure of the Liberty Bridge. Being that this is the City of Bridges with more than 400 of ’em, you would think one being shut down wouldn’t be a big deal, right? Not quite. This is a major bridge, traveled by 55,000 people each day. I’m not one of them, but if you need to go anywhere in the vicinity of the Liberty Bridge, you’re feeling the pain of some miserable drives. Such times are when and podcasts and audiobooks become your best friend.

being-mortal

This week I started and finished listening to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I thought this was an excellent narrative about the many ways our society approaches the end of life. As a physician, Gawande knows firsthand how medicine offers unprecedented possibilities for extending one’s life, no matter what the cost. But that cost can be physically, mentally, and financially significant, and our society still doesn’t have a strong enough support system and options that allow people to age in place.  As a result, the burden on people is tremendous. Gawande illustrates this by sharing the experiences of his patients and family members, and the result is a thoughtful reflection of how we treat the sick and the dying.

Cooking
The Girl and I were out all day yesterday, so I made Salsa Chicken (from Make It Fast, Cook it Slow by Stephanie O’Dea) in the crockpot for dinner. (Because nobody in this house can eat the same thing, The Husband had leftover burritos and rice, and I had a quinoa bowl with tomatoes, corn, black beans and feta.)

While that was cooking, I had a second crockpot going. I keep a bag in the freezer of vegetable odds and ends — tops of bell peppers and onions, gnawed corn cobs, broccoli stalks, ends of string beans, and veggies nearing the end of their prime. When the bag gets full, I dump everything into the crockpot, cover with water, toss in some garlic and spices (basil, oregano, salt, pepper) and simmer for the entire day.  It makes a vegetable broth with much less sodium than commercial brands. I typically freeze this into ice cubes and use the broth for sauteing. Tonight I made minestrone soup and was glad I had the required four cups of broth ready to go.

Writing
I applied for a writing fellowship this week. Might be a bit of a long shot, but one never knows. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

Running
On Thursday I started Week 2 of Couch to 5K. So far, so good!  I keep promising a longer post about this, I know. Maybe later this week.

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State of the Heart

Pittsburghers are known for being incredibly friendly people.  It’s one of my favorite things about living in this area.

The downside of that is people here are chatty.  Really chatty.  And nebby as hell too. (That’s a colloquial term meaning that they love to find out all about your personal business.)

This phenomenon happens everywhere — not just the ‘Burgh — but it’s particularly acute in doctor’s offices. Nobody needs blathering bubble-headed bleached blondes (h/t Don Henley) on morning television in waiting rooms here because there’s no shortage of people waiting to entertain you with the minutiae of their medical history.  It’s why I always, always, always bring a book to every appointment I go to.

(That and because I cannot STAND handling magazines in public places. I’m no paranoid germaphobe, but oh my God, the idea of touching a magazine that sick people have had their paws on gives me the heebie-jeebies.)

So, yeah, I’m that person reading their book, making as little eye contact and conversation as possible. I’m an outlier among Yinzers. The Husband will disagree, but I am not a chatty or nebby person. I’ll smile and engage in pleasantries to be nice and because I know idle chit-chat is a stress-reliever for some and a way to combat the boredom of what sometimes is a long wait. And for the elderly, I understand these connections are sometimes a valued piece of social interaction.

Mind you, it’s not just the patients. Medical professionals, too, tend to be incredibly chatty. Again, I get it — customer service is what they do and you want them to be friendly and interested in you as a person and all that good stuff. Nothing wrong with this.

Except, well … I’m convinced I have some magnetic pull that attracts People Who Say Stupid Shit.

Case in point: I spent part of this morning in the cardiology lab at our local hospital for a scheduled stress test, my consolation prize for having a trifecta of high cholesterol, high triglycerides, and intermittent chest pains.

While I dreadmilled for 10 minutes, going faster and faster, one of the cardiac technicians would not shut the hell up. Maybe keeping me talking was intentional to exhaust every last bit of bit I had, but that didn’t stop her from going on about a new ice cream shop in Lawrenceville, a good 40 minutes away.

I KID YOU NOT.

I mean, I’m wearing more wires than an actor in The Sopranos, hooked up to machines, and we’re talking about flavors of fucking ICE CREAM, which is one of the main reasons I’m even in the damn cardiac lab at 8 a.m. (#JobSecurityForCardiologists, I hashtagged on Facebook.)

As my heart rate was “recovering,” she started telling me about her experience at a fairly well-known Pittsburgh attraction and its proprietor.

“He’s a bit of an oddity himself. A little Asperger-y, I think.  Very scripted. You might want to keep your kids away from him.”

Um.

Say what now?

DID SHE JUST SUGGEST I KEEP MY KIDS AWAY FROM SOMEONE WHO MAY HAVE ASPERGERS?

I may have glanced at my blood pressure on the heart monitor machine thing, since I was convinced I’d be watching my vital signs explode off the literal chart if I responded to this absurdity.

Now, although I had offered that my kids were teenage twins, this conversation hadn’t yet progressed to my saying that my son has Asperger’s — which isn’t really anybody’s nebby damn business. Instead, not wanting to screw up the results of the stress test, I muttered something like “hmmm.” Later on, I realized I should have shot back with, “Oh, you mean I should keep MY SON WHO HAS ASPERGERS away from this individual?  Is that what you mean?”

While thinking about this today, I realize that this is a big reason why I dislike and take pains to avoid superficial conversations among strangers. People say Stupid Shit and I am getting too old to deal with Stupid Shit.  And as well-meaning and unintentional as people may be, Stupid Shit often results in too many sharp jabs.

It was jarring to hear — in 2016, for godsakes — a medical professional expressing the notion that people with disabilities should be avoided. Shunned.  This kind of thinking only perpetuates ancient stereotypes, misconceptions, and myths. I am embarrassed and ashamed that I did nothing to thwart that.

I left the cardiac lab with a benediction from the cardiologist that I “performed better than average within my age group” on the stress test. My heart, it seems, is likely to keep on ticking, its dings and dents notwithstanding.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #94 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging Project. 

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Weekend Cooking: My New Pal (76/99)

Weekend Cooking - New

I swore I would never become one of “those people” who obsessively track every carb and crumb consumed — but I confess, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past four days.

As regular readers of the blog know from my previous posts, I’m trying to lower my cholesterol level and reduce my carbohydrate intake. This is all thanks to numbers that are considered “borderline high” but are more like probably two bowls of ice cream away from landing me into the “high” category. We won’t even discuss my triglycerides.

At lunch on Wednesday, I decided if I was going to be serious about this (and I am), I needed a simple way to monitor my food intake.

So, I turned to my Facebook hive-mind.

Need your recommendations for apps (Android based) to help track one’s consumption of carbs, cholesterol, sugar, etc. and progress toward goals. I don’t really want (nor can I afford) a FitBit or any new gizmo. I don’t necessarily want to join a group of carb-abstainers or people counting cholesterol grams. I need something where I can enter what I’m eating and have it magically track how crappy it is for me or not.  Annnndddd, go.

The overwhelming response was MyFitnessPal, which I downloaded before finishing my salad. (Also a confession: it was a green bean and potato salad with pesto, a very small portion leftover from the previous night’s dinner. And really, with only a few small potatoes.)

I really like MyFitnessPal. It’s definitely keeping me accountable, if only to myself. And it is eye-opening to see how much cholesterol and how many carbs are in certain foods.

It is easy to get overly obsessed about this. I need to remind myself that our bodies need cholesterol and carbs, that they’re found naturally in many good-for-us foods. And even though my kids understand I’m trying to eat healthier, I’m very conscientious of the messages I’m sending to them. I don’t want them to think they (or I) can never have a potato ever again, but at the same time, I want them to know (if they ask) why I’m only having salad for dinner when everyone else is having macaroni and cheese.

I also tend to be my biggest critic, and I have to remember that just because I went over my daily goals in one or two areas doesn’t mean that the day was a complete failure. After all, small steps lead to big changes, which is what this is all about.

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book reviews (novel, nonfiction), cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs, restaurant reviews, travel information, or fun food facts. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog’s home page.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #76 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. This also isn’t sponsored or paid for by MyFitnessPal in any way. (I’m just a happy user.)

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Cookbook Review: Carb-Conscious Vegetarian (71/99)

Carb Conscious Vegetarian

“The downfall of some vegetarian diets is a tendency to rely on white rice or pasta as the focus of the meal. After all, pasta and rice dishes can be quick, tasty, and economical. While it’s true that a little pasta or rice in moderation is harmless for most people, sometimes you can find yourself eating more refined carbs than anything else and ultimately putting on extra pounds — a telltale signal that it’s time to reevaluate what you’re eating.”  — Robin Robertson, Carb Conscious Vegetarian

This, in the proverbial nutshell, describes my approach to being vegetarian for two decades. Rice and (gluten-free) pasta are the mainstays of my go-to meals, and the former has definitely increased since going gluten-free several years ago.

Now, as I’ve mentioned in some very recent posts, I need to focus on reducing my carbs and lowering my cholesterol.  My triglyceride levels are in a super-high range and combined with the cholesterol numbers, I’m pretty sure statins are in my future.  Needless to say, I’m not pleased about any of this. The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be many cookbooks that are gluten-free AND vegetarian AND low-carb AND low cholesterol. I feel like I need to create my own repertoire of recipes. Expect to hear more about all this in future posts.

So, I’m trying to embrace this and using the need for new recipes as justification for borrowing piles of cookbooks at a time from our library, which has a very extensive cookbook collection spanning every possible cuisine, device, food group, diet and lifestyle, etc. We’re very fortunate in that regard.

Carb Conscious Vegetarian by Robin Robertson seems to be a good place to start. It’s from 2005, and a bit on the basic side with no photographs, but these 150 recipes “contain no refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, white rice, sugar, or pasta.”  Recipes using soy (including vegetarian crumbles and burgers, tofu, and tempeh) are included. Robertson describes this as a “moderately low-carb/all good carb” cookbook and includes an extensive list of food items and the carb counts for specific amounts.  She also includes an explanation of the glycemic index, including the number for certain foods. Most of the recipes are either already gluten-free or easily modified to be GF.

Recipes I’m interested in trying (none of these have any cholesterol) include:

Guacamame  (9 g. carbs) – avocado with the addition of edamame

Summer Vegetable Bisque (14 g. carbs) – the creaminess of the bisque is accomplished by pureeing the vegetables and stock

Bountiful “Big Bowl” Chili (28 g. carbs)

Victory Garden Stew (23 g. carbs)

Tabbouleh-Style Quinoa Salad (28 g. carbs)

Sloppy Josephines (18 g. carbs) – a variation on Sloppy Joes, with a note that it tastes better the next day. This sounds like it would be good to make ahead and eat for an early dinner, particularly when we are going someplace where we are unsure of the vegetarian food options.

Rich Man’s Pesto (2 g. carbs)

Wintertime Spinach Pesto (2 g. carbs)

Creamy Cucumber-Dijon Dressing (2 g. carbs)

White Wine Vinegar and Fresh Herb Marinade – for grilled vegetables (2 g. carbs)

Spinach-Mushroom “Frittata” – egg free (10 g. carbs)

Carb Conscious Vegetarian: 150 Delicious Recipes for a Healthy Lifestyle
Robin Robertson 
Rodale 
2005 
243 pages

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #71 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

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becoming wise, in the body of the world (31/99)

You know I’m a podcast junkie.  One of my favorites is “On Being” with Krista Tippett. I don’t always catch every episode but I enjoy her conversations immensely, even when I’ve never heard of her guest. (Those can be some of my favorite episodes.)  I like how Krista  — she carpools with me to and from work, so we’re on a first name basis — asks thoughtful questions that produce insightful answers. Her voice is so resonant and calming, and I just feel better after listening to her, especially after a long day.

She launched “Becoming Wise” in March, a new podcast based on her recently-published book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.  (I have this checked out from the library now and it’s among the books I really want to get to this holiday weekend.)  At an average of 10 minutes each, “Becoming Wise” is much shorter than “On Being” which makes it easy to catch up on several at a time, as I’m doing (although not in chronological order).

Episode #15 of Becoming Wise (“I Feel, Therefore I Am”) featured playwright, performer, and activist Eve Ensler.  Now, I happen to think Eve Ensler is one of the most powerful and influential women on the face of the Earth. Her work resonates deeply with me as it has a significant personal meaning to my life.

In this episode of “Becoming Wise,” Eve echoes the themes of many of Krista Tippett’s guests as she talks about being connected with the world.

“How in our daily lives are we connecting with ourselves and everything around us? Because that’s where real, energetic transformation comes from.”

In the Body of the WorldIt’s a theme that Eve explores in detail with her memoir In the Body of the World, which is such a powerful book. (I listened to this on audio two years ago and it has stayed with me ever since.) It’s described as “a visionary memoir of separation and connection – to the body, the self, and the world.”

That is an understatement.

This is a cancer memoir and as one would expect from Eve Ensler, it kicks cancer’s ass. It is honest and raw. (Again, this is the creator of The Vagina Monologues we’re talking about here. You want bravery and telling-it-like-it-is?  Eve Ensler, poster child, right there.)

From the publisher’s description:

Playwright, author, and activist Eve Ensler has devoted her life to the female body—how to talk about it, how to protect and value it. Yet she spent much of her life disassociated from her own body—a disconnection brought on by her father’s sexual abuse and her mother’s remoteness. “Because I did not, could not inhabit my body or the Earth,” she writes, “I could not feel or know their pain.”

But Ensler is shocked out of her distance. While working in the Congo, she is shattered to encounter the horrific rape and violence inflicted on the women there. Soon after, she is diagnosed with uterine cancer, and through months of harrowing treatment, she is forced to become first and foremost a body—pricked, punctured, cut, scanned. It is then that all distance is erased. As she connects her own illness to the devastation of the earth, her life force to the resilience of humanity, she is finally, fully—and gratefully—joined to the body of the world.

Here’s a quote from In the Body of the World that I loved.

“Love was something you succeeded or failed. It was like a corporate activity. You won or lost. People loved you and then they didn’t…. I had failed at love or the story I had bought about love… I was reaching at love , but it turns out love doesn’t involve reaching. I was always dreaming of the big love, the ultimate love, the love that would sweep me off my feet or ‘break open the hard shell of my lesser self’. The love that would bring on my surrender. The love that would inspire me to give everything. As I lay there, it occurred to me that while I had been dreaming of this big love, this ultimate love, I had, without realizing it, been giving and receiving love for most of my life.

The life I was living was a life of love.”

Seems like it still is.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #31 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project.

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Book Review: Sugar Crush (2/99)

Sugar CrushSugar Crush: How to Reduce Inflammation, Stop Pain, and Reverse the Path to Diabetes
by Richard P. Jacoby, DPM and Racquel Baldelomar 
Harperwave
2015
240 pages 

I’m on a quest to reduce the amount of sugar I consume. I think it’s the next piece of the puzzle in reducing my headaches. Going gluten-free has helped my migraines (so much so that I’ve been able to go off Topamax) but I’m still not happy with the frequency of tension and sinus headaches. I think there’s more I could be doing.

The more I read about the connection with sugar and various ailments, especially headaches, the more I think I have a sugar crush. And here’s the thing: I think I eat fairly healthy foods. I gave up my Pepsi habit years ago. (I used to drink at least 6-8 cans of soda every day. Now? I can’t stand the stuff.) I stopped adding sugar to my coffee awhile ago. I’m that person at the office party who passes the cake to someone else — usually because of the gluten.

What I’m starting to realize — or, maybe I’ve known this all along but am paying more attention the older I get — is that it’s the hidden sugar that’s the real problem.

I picked up Sugar Crush at the library, intrigued by sugar’s connection to inflammation and pain.

“The link between sugar chemically causes inflammation that damages your nerves, results in excruciating pain often made worse by prescription drugs, and will inevitably kill you before your genetic timetable. Carbohydrates (sugar) + Trauma = Nerve Damage, Pain and Dysfunction. This is the sugar crush.”

Thus writes physician and Sugar Crush author Richard Jacoby, whose specialty is diabetes. His focus is on making his reader understand that

“even without an official diagnosis of diabetes, you could already be experiencing the earliest signs of neuropathy: those little zings in your wrist; the occasional burning sensation in your feet; the mild numbness in your fingers that comes and goes; and the headaches that come out of the blue. These are all harbingers of things to come.”

Headaches that come out of the blue? I’m your girl. And all the other pings and zings? Those are all the signs of life in someone who’s in her late 40s age, right?

Maybe.  Or maybe not.

According to Jacoby, “each year, the average American eats 160 pounds of processed sugar. And by sugar, I mean all of the -ose and -itol words: glucose, fructose, dextrose, sorbitol, polyglycitol, galactose, and others.” (pg. 3)

This is slightly more than 7 ounces of sugar each day, he writes. “To visualize this daily amount, imagine taking the teaspoon next to your morning coffee and filling it 27 times with sugar. “

Every day.

While the writing in Sugar Crush occasionally becomes laced with a bit too much medical jargon, overall it is a thought-provoking read. Jacoby seems well-intentioned, sincere, compassionate, and knowledgeable in succeeding at getting his reader to examine one’s diet more closely to discover the perhaps not-so-hidden culprit behind our everyday aches and pains.

 

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is Post #2 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

 

 

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