Excerpts – A Lesson Before Dying

a-lesson-before-dying1

By Ernest J. Gaines

A black man in the South of the (not-so-united) States of America finds himself in the middle of a shootout in a store that leaves one white man (store owner) and two black men dead. His own defense describes him as a ‘hog’ to the jury who sentence him to death by execution. The story is of another black man, an ‘educated’ black man, a teacher – who is tasked with turning the convicted into a ‘man’.

A book about deeply rooted injustices, but also about seeking and reclaiming dignity, love, resistance and triumph.

A few excerpts that stood out to me – and some deeper analysis, if that’s what you’re looking for.

 

P8
We must live with our own conscience. Each and every one of us must live with his own conscience.

P31
Do I know what a man is? Do I know how a man is supposed to die? I’m still trying to find out how a man should live. Am I supposed to tell someone how to die who has never lived?

P47
I tried to decide just how I should respond to them. Whether I should act like the teacher that I was, or like the nigger that I was supposed to be. To show too much intelligence would have been an insult to them. To show a lack of intelligence would have been a greater insult to me.

P56
And besides looking at hands, now he began inspecting teeth. Open wide, say “Ahhh”—and he would have the poor children spreading out their lips as far as they could while he peered into their mouths. At the university I had read about slave masters who had done the same when buying new slaves, and I had read of cattlemen doing it when purchasing horses and cattle. At least Dr. Joseph had graduated to the level where he let the children spread out their own lips, rather than using some kind of crude metal instrument. I appreciated his humanitarianism.”

P73
His eyes did most of the turning. He looked at her as though he did not know who she was, or what she was doing there. Then he looked at me. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? his eyes said.  They were big brown eyes, the whites too reddish. You know, don’t you? his eyes said again. I looked back at him. My eyes would not dare answer him. But his eyes knew what my eyes knew.

P146
No matter how educated a man was (he meant me, though he didn’t call my name), he to, was locked in a cold, dark cell of ignorance if he did not know God in the pardon of his sins.

P157
How do people come up with a date and a time to take life from another man? Who made them God?

P158
They sentence you to death because you were at the wrong place at the wrong time, with no proof that you had anything at all to do with the crime other than being there when it happened. Yet six months later they come and unlock your cage and tell you, We, us, white folks all, have decided it’s time for you to die, because this is a convenient date and time.

P166-7
We black men have failed to protect our women since the time of slavery. We stay here in the South and are broken, or we run away and leave them alone to look after the children and themselves. So each time a male child is born, they hope he will be the one to change this vicious circle-which he never does. Because even though he wants to change it, it is too heavy a burden because of all the others who have run away and left their burdens behind. So he, too, must run away if he is to hold on to his sanity and have a life of his own.

P171
These old people, you know—all music except church music is sinning music.

P174
It was the kind of “here” your mother or your big sister or your great-aunt or your grandmother would have said. It was the kind of “here” that let you know this was hard-earned money but, also, that you needed it more than she did, and the kind of “here” that said she wished you had it and didn’t have to borrow it from her, but since you did not have it, and she did, then “here” it was, with a kind of love. It was the kind of “here” that asked the question, When will all this end? When will a man not have to struggle to have money to get what he needs “here”? When will a man be able to live without having to kill another man “here”?”

I took the money without looking at her. I didn’t say thanks. I knew she didn’t want to hear it.

P191
Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson?” I asked him. “A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they’re better than anyone else on earth – and that’s a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand they’re safe. They’re safe with me. They’re safe with Reverend Ambrose. I don’t want them to feel safe with you anymore.

I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be. To them you’re nothing but another nigger–no dignity, no heart, no love for your people. You can prove them wrong. You can do more than I can ever do. I have always done what they wanted me to do, teach reading, writing and arithmetic. Nothing else – nothing about dignity, nothing about identity, nothing about loving and caring. They never thought we were capable of learning these things. ‘Teach those niggers how to print their names and how to figure on their fingers.’ And I went along, but hating myself all the time for doing so.

P198
Since emancipation, almost a hundred years ago, they would do any kind of work they could find to keep from working side by side in the field with the niggers…Anything not to work alongside the niggers. Dumb as hell, but prejudiced as hell. They had no other place to go to do their drinking—they would not dare go to any of the white clubs—so they would come here and bring their prejudiced attitude with them.

P214-5
‘You think you educated?’
‘I went to college.’
‘But what did you learn?’
‘To teach reading, writing and arithmetic, Reverend.’
‘What did you learn about your own people? What did you learn about her—her ‘round here?’ he said gesturing toward the other room and trying to keep his voice down.
I didn’t answer him.
‘No, you not educated, boy.’ He said shaking his head. ‘You far from being educated. You learning your reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, but you don’t know nothing. You don’t even know yourself.’

P216
‘Don’t you turn your back on me, boy.’
‘My name is Grant,’ I said.
‘When you act educated, I’ll call you Grant. I’ll even call you Mr. Grant, when you act like a man.
 
‘You think a man can’t kneel and stand?’

P217
‘You think you educated, but you not. You think you the only person ever had to lie?’

P218
Yes, you know. You know, all right. That’s why you look down on me, because you know I lie. At wakes, at funerals, at weddings–yes, I lie. I lie at wakes and funerals to relieve pain. ‘Cause reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic is not enough. You think that’s all they sent you to school for? They sent you to school to relieve pain, to relieve hurt—and if you have to lie to do it, then you lie. You lie and you lie and you lie. When you tell yourself you feeling god when you sick, you lying. When you tell other people you feeling well when you feeling sick, you lying. You tell them that ‘cause they have pain too, and you don’t want to ad yours—and you lie. She been lying every day of her life, your aunt in there. That’s how you got through that university—cheating herself here, cheating herself there, but always telling you she’s all right. I’ve seen her hands bled from picking cotton. I’ve seen the blisters from the hoe and the cane knife. At that church, crying on her knees. You ever looked at the scabs on her knees, boy? Course you never. ‘Cause she never wanted you to see it.

And that’s the difference between me and you, boy; that make me the educated one, and you the gump. I know my people. I know what they gone through. I know they done cheated themself, lied to themself—hoping that one they all love and trust can come back and help relieve the pain.”

P222
‘Reverend Ambrose say I have to give up what’s down here.’
‘He meant possessions, Jefferson. Cars, money, clothes—things like that.’
‘You ever seen me with a car…with more than a dollar in my pocket…more than two pairs of shoes…then what on earth I got to give up, Mr. Wiggins?
‘You’ve never had any possessions to give up, Jefferson. But there is something greater than possessions –and that is love…’

‘Walk like a man. Meet her up there.’
‘Y’all asking a lot, Mr. Wiggins, from a poor old nigger who never had nothing.’

P224
Yes, I’m youman, Mr. Wiggins. But nobody didn’t know that ‘fore now. Cuss for nothing. Beat for nothing. Work for nothing. Grinned to get by. Everybody thought that’s how it was s’pose to be. You to, Mr. Wiggins. You never thought I was nothing else. I didn’t neither. Thought I was doing what the Lord had put me on this earth to do…Now all y’all want me to be better than ever’body else. How, Mr. Wiggins? You tell me.’

‘And like Reverend Ambrose say, then I’l have to give up this old earth. But ain’t that where I’m going, Mr. Wiggins, back in the earth?’

My head down, I didn’t answer him.

P251
Don’t tell me to believe. Don’t tell me to believe in the same God or laws that men believe in who commit these murders. Don’t tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men are judged by their peers. Who among his peers judged him? Was I there? Was the minister there? Was Harry Williams there? Was Farrell Jarreau? Was my aunt? Was Vivian? No, his peers did not judge him— and I will not believe.

Yet they must believe. They must believe, if only to free the mind, if not the body. Only when the mind is free has the body the chance to be free. Yes, they must believe, they must believe. Because I know what it means to be a slave. I am a slave.

P253
‘He was the strongest man in that crowded room…He was the strongest man there…We all had each other to lean on. When Vincent asked him if he had any last words, he looked at the preacher and said, ‘Tell Nannan I walked’. And straight he walked, Grant Wiggins. Straight he walked. I’m a witness. Straight he walked.

2016 Reflections


As 2016 comes to a close, it’s hard to believe that another 365 days has sped past.

It’s been a year of many firsts. First time on the third floor, first trip to Latin America, first paraglide, first short story being written for publishing, first hot air balloon in Ethiopia, first time to The Gambia, Tunisia and Nigeria, first time back in Harar since 2008…It’s been a first full year in Addis after having been away for 14 years. Although that year has been punctuated with many hours in the skies zig zagging across the globe. From Banjul to Abuja, Vegas to Rio, Foz do Iguazu to Cape Town, Tunis to Delhi, Dubai to Accra, Jinja to Nairobi. Arusha to LA.

It’s been a year that has witnessed the death of a family member, as well as a stroke in one side of the family and confirmation of breast cancer on another. Still I count my blessings and am reminded to care for our health and never take a day for granted – though I must confess I still do.

Many lessons learnt in 2016, but here are six:

1. No condition is permanent – let this be a reminder when we get arrogant and complacent in good times, and a way to lift our spirits when we despair in bad times.

2. Count your blessings – we can either choose to moan about the thorns on the roses or delight that thorns have roses. We will never run out of things to complain about or be miserable about. But we must always step back and count our blessings, they’re equally countless.

3. Never say never – life has a way of making you eat up your words. We plan but the Almighty plans better. We should be prepared to roll with the punches and punch back if need be, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.

4. Stop procrastinating. Don’t wait for tomorrow’s which may never come. Do what you can now. As a friend keeps reminding me, time is more than money.

5. Explore. The world has so much to offer. The more you trot, the more you realize how much more there is to discover. Be hungry for more but find contentment along the way.

6. Breathe, and better yet breathe beauty. The news in 2016 has shown us how ugly this world can be. We realize however that it is equally beautiful. May we counter all the hate with love and all the ugly with beauty. Do this in small and big ways. Don’t wait for extraordinary, celebrate and appreciate the small things, all day every day.

May we live compassionately, love passionately and breathe beauty for the rest of our days. Happy 2017.

Touchdown



My stomach always fluttered as the tires got closer to the tarmac. I wondered if this time it would be an abrupt kiss, almost as though the tires were too presumptuous, assuming the tarmac wanted to be kissed. If it didn’t, it was almost as though it would reject the kiss, and the lips that went too far, causing the whole plane to bump up and down.
Sometimes, but not too often, the kiss was so subtle it couldn’t be felt. Smooth, as though both rubber and tarmac were mutual in their desire for each other and effortlessly came together.

Most of the time, it felt rushed. As though the two were lusting after each other and couldn’t wait a second more. The plane then met the ground with a thud, but stayed on the ground, as if glued to it and unable to break away.

Hold on

Is it selfish of me to ask you to hold on –

Till the seas have been crossed, 

Body in a land I’ve never known

You in this state hastened my meeting of it
Can you hold on?

Till my eyes have a chance to take you in

Till I can breathe every part of your being 

So I may tell the lil ones stories about you
I so look forward to an extension of the past 

Brought to life through your tales, which I will soak up, especially those of him
It was your stories that I hoped would fill the pages…

I pray they still can

Hold on,

So we fill them 

Together 

São Paulo Bus Stop Musings


Desculpa,
Eu não falo Portuguese
Conversations held at the mercy of Google translate
Experiment she says,
And I understand she means taste,
So I indulge

Being schooled on Ethiopia
By a Haitian in Brazil…
Only in this world

Respect revenged with disrespect
Waving to a stranger
Who returns the courtesy with uncalled for cat calls
That henceforth go ignored

Inappropriate words
You let pass you by
Perhaps because lost in translation
But perhaps more so because
You never know what sets off the schizophrenia

Deceiving façade
Dancing waters
Layered gardens
Green walls
Hanging pots

Befriended by a couple in their 20s
Enchanted by rooftop views
Italy and Brazil meet in Ireland
To learn English…
Only in this world

Drug stores on every corner
Arts spill into the streets here
Color and commentary guide

Too many languages competing in my head
You have to chew your words here
Trabalho as art
Living is art
Art is living

Don’t Capture, Live

My battery dies on me. As I often have a backup, I reach for it – only to realize I don’t have it on me. My second instinct is to reach for my phone, which has a pretty decent camera and is much easier to lug around! My phone is dead as well.

I start to get antsy. So many images/moments/monuments that I want to immortalize on film (is it technically film any more?), and I can’t. Or perhaps I can.

Perhaps I can just relax and be present. Enjoy and breathe in all the sights — immortalize them in my memory.

As you can tell, I have mixed feelings about photography. On the one hand, I love it. I picture a frame in my head long before I reach for the camera. I can envision the photo before the click. I want to freeze laughter, natural moments and small but precious beauties, and feel that photography allows me to do so. I love looking back at old photos of people and eras who are no longer. Sometimes photos (accompanied by stories) are the only way for us to relive or experience or get to know those people and the moments and lives they’ve lived. 

On the other hand, I sometimes feel I’m so focused on capturing the moment that I miss it. I miss fully and profoundly experiencing it, without something between me and the object or event to be experienced.

As technology advances, and especially with the advent of various online mediums (including Snapchat which I refuse to catch on to) and selfies (which I pray people will have enough of and get over), many of us have stopped living without our gadgets. Or perhaps more accurately, with our gadgets, we’ve stopped living. We’re obsessed with documenting our lives — frame by frame — so much so that I wonder if we’re living them any longer.

Having said all this, I write this as I sit on the 41st floor of Edificio Italia, which I have no doubt has one of the most (if not THE most) incredible panoramic view of São Paulo. I’ve witnessed the day wind down, the sun dip, the city lights slowly turn on as the sky darkens….the imagery itself is sufficient poetry.

Ofcourse I’m dying to capture all this beauty, and wish I could, and have even attempted all manner of tricks to revive my battery. I also understand, however, the message the universe is trying to get through to me.

Some moments and views are meant to be lived, not captured.

Hide & Seek


The sun plays hide and seek
Hiding behind cloud’s shadows
Frustrated clouds burst into tears

The sun’s playful ‘peekaboo’
Puts an abrupt stop to the sporadic tears

Both oblivious to the effect of their childish play on the crowd below,
Bewildered by the psychsofrenic nature of events.

The sky smiles at the sight,
Flashing its colorful teeth

30 Years, 30 Lessons


It was perhaps apt that the big 30 was ushered in on three continents. Celebrated simply but beautifully surrounded by loved ones.

Here are some lessons that I’ve picked up along the way.

1. Don’t miss out on an opportunity to be goofy and have fun. If it’s pretending to be the tickle monster with a set of 4 year old twins or 8 year old munchkins, do it. Chase them, tickle them and savor their uncontained laughter that emenates deep from their bellies. You’ll find that soon you will also be echoing their laughter. Watch cartoons. Play. Unapologetically. These are the moments that make you younger and bring out the kid in you. Don’t be afraid to experience them.

2. Have a bucket list. Write down the things you think are even far fetched and impossible. You’ll be surprised how the universe conspires to make your intentions come to pass. Especially when you speak (and write) them loudly to the universe.

3. The best time is often now. Don’t leave things for later or tomorrow. There’s a Hareri saying which I’m sure is echoed elsewhere that says, ‘later is the brother of never’ or something along those lines…later or tomorrow either don’t happen or are consumed by 101 other things

4. Breathe Beauty. By this I mean that one must seek and appreciate beauty in ordinary spaces and moments. Beauty is not perfection. It simply is. We must be awake to it. It’s all around us. It’s the rays of the sun streaming into a room and resting on someone’s face…it’s the petals of a bright flower…it’s a full or partial moon that seems to light up the sky…it’s a pattern on a dress…or a colorful street…or laughter

5. I’ve realized how happy it makes me to see (teenage) kids who respect, love, appreciate and honor their parents. As parents, we must treat our kids as though they are responsible members of the family whose viewpoints are sought, heard and acknowledged. As children, we must never dismiss the difficulty of being a parent, making decisions that are unpopular and living every day for the betterment of family. Keep family ties – there’s nothing like family.

6. There are friendships that are so deep and pure and real that they turn into family. Don’t take them for granted. They don’t come along often. Treasure them and feed and care for them. They are often what keep you sane.

7. Learn to spend time alone. No matter what kind of person you are, whether ambivalent, introverted or extroverted – this is important. Learn to be ok with silence when there’s no loud company or loud music or chatter to distract you from listening to and getting to know and be at peace with yourself. If we’re uncomfortable with ourselves, how can we expect anyone else to be?

8. Go with your first instinct. Don’t second guess yourself. This is true even when the contradicting voice is external and not internal. You’ll be happy you weren’t easily swayed later on.

9. Similar to the previous one, don’t be afraid to counter the dominant or mainstream. Don’t necessarily rebel for the sake of being different but understand that being different, holding an opinion that doesn’t feature very prominently is ok. Don’t change who you are or what you think based on the crowd you happen to be or find yourself with.

10. Someone’s always watching. Your words, your actions are being recorded and observed. Even when you least expect it and by those you least anticipate to be watching. Sometimes by young kids whose thinking and values are being shaped. Act and speak in a way that you would stand by at any time. This goes for your digital footprint as well.

11. Be conscious. Whether you believe it or not, your existence on this earth has an effect. Whether that effect is on the environment, or on a community or a family. You matter. Make your existence count. Make sure that at the very least, you have left the world a bit better than you found it. That could be as simple as not throwing trash on the streets. Or trampling on plants. Or harassing animals. Make sure that if those streets, or plants or animals could tell tales about you, it’s that you walked and existed on this earth with respect. Karma is real.

12. Make time to spend time with the elderly. They were born in a very different generation and have rich stories for days. There’s so much his and her stories captured in their brains and etched in their memories that one can’t get from books. Or anywhere else for that matter.

13. Perhaps back to #1 and #12, spend time with kids. They come with a different energy and bubbly enthusiasm that’s not dampened by life and jadedness. In the same vein, don’t be the one to dampen kids imaginations. It will serve them in the future and reduce limitations they put on themselves.

14. Love yourself. All of you. Flaws and all. Understand that you’re a work in progress, and you must work on those things that are in your power to change. But in the meantime, love, respect and appreciate who you are.

15. Enjoy the present. And the journey. Celebrate the small steps and the milestones.

16. Don’t get stuck on plan a. Life often throws you surprises … and what you think is certain is not. Learn to be flexible like bamboo, which means that you’ll bend rather than break.

17. Don’t ever forget your infallibility. And your mortality. And who is really in control. It will keep you grounded and humble. Although this shouldn’t be an excuse for a laissez-faire attitude on life.

18. There’s a time for patience and a time for impatience. Learn to know the difference.

19. Impossible is nothing. Don’t be afraid to dream. And dream big. But don’t stop there. You must be ready to execute and wake up in order to realize those dreams. As a friend once reminded me, impossible itself is telling us, ‘I’m possible’.

20. God is the ultimate judge. We mustn’t condemn or critique others’ actions for we know not what is in store for us. Let us focus on improving ourselves first and foremost and that in itself is a big contribution to society.

21. Don’t underestimate the power of faith. At times it is the one thing that gets us through the night or a difficult situation.

22. Love. Deeply. Don’t be afraid of pouring your love into another. It has the power to transform and doesn’t drain your reserves.

23. Don’t underestimate the power and medicinal properties of laughter. It’s good for the soul and keeps one radiant and young. It reduces stress and adds spice to life.

24. Don’t give power to ludicrousity. If such a word exists. Don’t feed, react to or dignify nonsense.

25. Put the Almighty first, always. Stand by your faith, unapologetically.

26. Be curious. Yes they tell us that curiosity killed the cat. We don’t often hear the second part of that, ‘satisfaction brought it back’. Curiosity leads to exploring, learning and discovering.

27. Take on challenges. It leads to tremendous growth but also makes one realize just what one is capable of.

28. Feed and cater to your creative juices. Read, write, draw, imagine. Beautiful things can be created through this process.

29. The monster is often bigger in our minds than it is in real life, if it even exists. The sooner we face it, the sooner we realize it’s not spooky or insurmountable.

30. And one last one for good measure. Your best benchmark is previous versions of yourself. May we always strive today to be better than yesterday, and tomorrow to be better than today.

Disclaimer: you may have read these lessons elsewhere, or at least something similar and so am not claiming they’re original…perhaps some are lessons I’ve been told or read about and implemented along the way…but all are lessons I find to have worked in my life…hope you benefit from being reminded of them.

Natural Remedies

Her body was racked with coughs. She felt aches in parts of her body she didn’t know existed. Her symptoms waxed and waned. She’d feel congested one moment, the other beset by a runny nose. Her head would throb, the pulse quickened with every cough which scratched her throat and made her chest feel heavy.

She treated her illness in the best way she knew how. Lemon ginger teas. Black seed oils. Basking herself in the steam of eucalyptus oil. Six cloves of garlic – cut up into tiny pieces and swallowed with milk to edge the pieces down her throat. Vix rubbed across her chest.

She did everything possible to avoid going to the doctor. She knew it would be a long wait, which she dreaded – especially in her current condition. She also knew that they’d most likely tell her it was the flu and with all flus, the best medicine was fluids and rest. Which she already knew. So why drag her tired, aching body out of bed, disrupt the rest they asked her to get and wait around in a cold, sterile, depressing waiting room for a doctor to tell her what she already knew? Plus, they’d probably end up giving her 4-5 different medicines she was sure were being pushed by pharmaceutical companies. Medicine her body didn’t really need.

—–
She brought her a big spoon of honey. In this household, and many others, honey was the cure for all. Particularly coughs and colds. She didn’t want to insult the bees but she knew her body had never warmed up to the idea of honey, unless in small doses with kita. Regardless she couldn’t get out of it. Her only point of negotiation was to take it with a slice of lemon. She squeezed the juice into her mouth trying desperately to lessen the taste of the honey, cancelling the too sweet taste with the bitter of the lemon. The nausea kicked in right away. Reminded her of childhood days when a spoon of honey early in the morning was a dreaded rite before leaving for school. On days where colds and coughs had decided to reside in her body, the honey was mixed with warm orange juice or worse yet warm milk. It almost prolonged the ordeal. Rather than suffer and be done with a spoonful, she was forced to taste the honey with every gulp until the glass was empty. Sometimes she held her nose to avoid tasting the contents… often to no avail. She ended up throwing up, unable to stomach what she had just been forced to swallow.

It was never politically correct to dislike honey, particularly as bees and their products have a special place in Islam. It’s a wonder that something sweet and with so many medicinal purposes is produced by hard working bees.  Having acknowledged this however, she was sure she was allergic to honey. Just as she was allergic to bees. Well, more accurately to bee stings. It was a shame, both for her intense allergic reaction to bee stings and her dislike and possible allergy to honey that the home she grew up in was also home to bee hives.  Six of them. This meant bees were always about and fresh honey on the comb readily available.

She would get stung frequently.  Every time, the area of her skin where she got stung would turn the color of tomatoes, swelling two to three times it’s original size. She would break out in hives, feeling the urge to scratch her skin raw. She felt as though she was on fire with no air to breathe.   She was rushed to the clinic to get an injection but her symptoms were so severe that each additional minute before the contents of the injection met her bloodstream felt like torture. She must’ve mirrored outwardly what she felt internally for after that, injections were kept at home. She craved those injections, if only to be able to breathe again. Freely.

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Addis Streets

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They stood in the middle of the street nonchalant/ unbothered that a car was coming their way at high speed. Perhaps it was defiance. Or indifference. Or masochism. I wasn’t quite sure which. My grandma’s words rang true: ‘back in the day, pedestrians used to be fearful of cars. Today, it’s the cars that fear pedestrians’. I swerved to the right of them. They stood still, unfazed, not even bothering to look my way.

It’s funny how the people on the streets stand timidly in disbelief at a zebra crossing when a car stops for them. Perhaps they’re not used to cars making way. And yet in the same breath cross streets and jump over barriers on highways where cars are coming and going at high speeds. The first I would’ve imagined is because they fear for their lives and are too used to cars having no mercy for pedestrians and oblivious or disregarding the fact that a zebra crossing is meant to give pedestrians the right of way. The second however makes me think the exact opposite. That people are reckless and don’t value their lives much. Is this a reflection of how bad things are in this city? That people are willing to lose it all on the streets? That perhaps the streets are where they assert control, making up for the other aspects of their lives where they feel powerless? Is it a defiance of all those wealthy enough to own a car in a country where cars have been inflated 2-300%?

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