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With the return of summer has come my return to the world of rodeo.  I find the whole experience fascinating.

Ideological, economic, and social functions permeate contemporary American rodeo. The symbolic content of rodeo is embedded in an agrarian ideology rooted deeply in American culture. The dissemination and mobilization of the agrarian value system in America is credited to the writings of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's articulation of the agrarian creed nourished a belief system advocating that there is a morally virtuous quality attached to agriculture, and that the rural life is the natural and good life (see Dalecki and Coughenour 1992). Although the United States has become increasingly urbanized throughout the twentieth century, the American public continues to identify with and endorse fundamental agrarian principles. Several studies (e.g., Butte1 and Flinn 1975; Dalecki and Coughenour 1992; Flinn and Johnson 1974; Molnar and Wu 1989) have found that an agrarian ideology continues to be widespread among the American public.
Find the whole article here.

Rodeo is fasinating.  Without a doubt, it is a subculture which plays enormous part in the American psyche.  My niece is a successful rodeo queen as a result I've had the opportunity to watch Rodeo from the edge, from the side but also to have at least a glimpse of its inner workings.

I grew up hearing stories (which I tend to dismiss as apocryphal) of wild-eyed animal rights activists freeing all the rodeo stock and doing radical things to "stop" rodeo.  Some groups (see one here) protest against the mistreatment of animals at the rodeo.  What's the line by Molly Ivins?  "Fish gotta swim, birds gotta sing, hearts gotta bleed"?  Watching rodeo I always worry about the animals.  I just think its gotta hurt.  Watching one of the rodeo queens barrel down the arena toward a tethered and madly bleating goat, I said something like, "I think this goat knows this is gonna hurt."

The woman sitting in front of me spun around and indignantly said, "It doesn't hurt them a bit!  Hmph." (I swear to god she actually said "hmph" - it was a brilliant moment.)  Within the rodeo subculture, worrying about the well being of the animals is treated as socially inappropriate; the high quality of care and feeding of the animals is much touted by rodeo enthusiasts but the actual care and feeding is displaced - the stock contractor, as for example, is tasked with these jobs for many of the animals and takes care to keep the work invisible - it happens off stage, on the sidelines where it is not seen.  Yet, a key part of rodeo includes regular assertions that the animals involved are well cared for and do not suffer.  To an outsider, however, watching the animals it is readily apparent that the animals are treated very roughly.

A key principle of agrarian ideology as embraced rodeo is the idea that animals' suffering is less than human suffering - the idea that something that would hurt a human being is brushed off as unimportant by an animal.  Thus, steer wrestling or team roping or regular roping doesn't hurt the animal.  This is an obviously self-serving way of thinking.  If you believe that being roped is harmful, then you would only do it if absolutely necessary; doing it for sport is wrong.  OTOH, arguing that "it doesn't hurt" the animals, allows rodeo participants to treat their activities as purely sport without addressing potential moral questions.

Rodeo subculture is resolutely sexist.  Males and females do not compete directly against one another in almost any event (I believe team roping has both male and female contestants and often has teams of both males and females).  Bull and bronc riding are open to males only.  There is an inherent tension in the rodeo experience.  Most of the women who participate in rodeo are not tiny little delicate examples of American womanhood.  No, these are big strapping American women who can throw bales of hay and who can spend the whole day on horseback and the whole night whooping it up with the boys, who get bucked off their horses, brush the dirt off and climb right back on.  These are tough women who can ride, rope drink, swear and screw with the best of the boys.  They know it, the men know it, but somehow once they arrive at the event, the women simply head off their events, the men to theirs.  There's no grumbling that any woman can ride a bull or bucking bronc and should be allowed to do so or that the men should compete in barrel and pole racing.  In an interesting twist, in 4-H equestrian events, boys do compete in barrel and pole racing and other speed events.  The divide between male and female is enforced both formally and informally.

A key component of the world of rodeo is a profound sense of legacy - the legacy of the "Old West" and cowboy culture which must be preserved.  Rodeo embodies post-modernism in ways which defy easy comprehension.  The legacy preserved is constructed from myth rather than fact, constructed in such a way that contemporary preconceptions are confirmed rather than challenged.  The inhabitants of the rodeo world consciously and deliberately employ their self-produced mythology as a means of creating and sustaining identity; to use the language of post-modern scholarship, the have written their own meaning into the texts and then used those texts as a way of defining themselves and their subculture.  To put it much more simply, they believe their own stories.

The result is a self-conscious and self-consciously created culture in which participants symbolically re-enact a constructed understanding of the past in an attempt to revivify the past.  Central to rodeo is the actual and metaphorical act of "breaking" the animal as an act of taming it.  I hve heard the term "rough stock" used for the bulls and bucking broncs - those are the men's events; the meaning is unavoidable.  The men must "break" the animal, symbolically tame it by riding it.  To make the animals buck, a strap is placed around its flank placing pressure on a number of very sensitive regions.  Watch closely at almost any rodeo and you'll see that the supposedly "wild" animals are in many ways quite well trained; the minute the cowboy is thrown many animals stop bucking, which allows the support riders to remove the strap on its flanks.  Watch carefully and as the cowboys mount the animals in the chutes, the animals are obviously preparing themselves - they know what's coming and you can see them tense their muscles and prepare themselves.  The gate opens and they leap sideways into the arena and begin bucking.  Of course, of course, these are not "wild" animals.  They have to be handled by the stock companies, meaning loaded into vehicles, transported from place to place, receive regular exams by vets and treatment by handlers.  Yet the active mythology of rodeo asks us for the sake of the performance to accept these animals are "wild".

Even a well-trained horse is still an animal and if frightened or suddenly injured, can behave in untamed ways.  A horse that gets stung by a bee or bitten by a horsefly (which hurts!) might suddenly start bucking.  Even a spavined nag can get a wild hair once in a while and start bucking.  You see the same thing at the rodeo - every now and then one of the animals exceeds normal parameters and somebody gets hurt and hurt badly.  Such cases are the exception.  The mythos of the wild animal is central to the rodeo subculture.  The experience of the truly wild animal is not.

 The cowgirl of the rodeo is as far from the real women of the old west, a great many of whom were "soiled doves" (a euphemism for prostitute), as the cowboy of the rodeo is the from real cowboys of the 19th century.  A select group of girls and women compete in the queen contests; that these contestants consider themselves the top of the social hierarchy in rodeo is communicated in ways both subtle and obvious.  The queen contest typically involves a variety of events which would not be out of place in any other beauty pageant - modeling, appearance, speech, impromptu question -  with the addition of a horsemanship (and it is called horsemanship) and a written test of rodeo rules.  The queen contest rewards a rigidly stylized femininity; the level of necessary artifice to win is as high as in any other beauty pageant.  The speech portion is intended to evoke the "western" lifestyle - and usually deals with questions of horses and the natural beauty of the west.  Utah is considered a powerhouse in high school rodeo and particularly in high school rodeo queen contests; Utah has produced national champion queens at high schools events for a number of years running.  Utah's queen contestants are accomplished at the artifice necessary to win.  (The last queen contest I attended I found myself cheering for a contestant who was clearly a fag hag in training - how can you not love a teenage fag hag?)

The queen and her attendants perform a number of highly visible symbolic duties, including leading grand entry for the performance.

Grand entry opens the performance.  Everyone who can, mounts a horse and they make a wild, high speed ride around the arena behind an American flag (carried in most performances I've seen by the queen).  The contestants then line up with the queen and her attendants in the center of the arena facing the audience.  The audience rises, the national athem is sung and then the performance begins.  It's easy to see this ritual in the same light as the national anthem at any sporting event.  My observation tells me that that would be a mistake.  The mythos of rodeo emphasizes the centrality of rodeo to the American experience.  Invocation of a patriotic identity is crucial to this symbolic relationship to the world.  Patriotic expression within rodeo speaks to a core component of the identity participants are trying to create.  When I speak here about participants, I'm not just referring to those who compete but also to their support networks of family and friends, the various people who work for and within the world of rodeo.  A panoply of flag-themed images abound within the confines of the rodeo world; red white and blue are popular color themes.

I talked about the idea that rodeo employes a self-consciously created myth.  Like many sub-cultures, rodeo has a sharp sense of self-awareness.  The self-awareness is on display as rodeo enacts its symbolic recreation of the west.  That self-awareness extends in many areas and directions.

Although it has been the subject of a great deal of humor in the broader culture, the gay rodeo is absent from the majority of rodeo experiences; to bring it up at the rodeo is regarded as an example of extreme bad taste; so uncomfortable is the "mainstream" rodeo world with glbt persons that the very existence of the gay rodeo is aggressively ignored.  In high school rodeo it's impossible to miss the compulsory heterosexuality.  Within the world of rodeo, heterosexuality is assumed and the glbt existence both actively and passively edited.  The gay rodeo - if mentioned at all - is treated as an extremely bad joke.  The gay rodeo exists because there was no place within the world of rodeo for glbt persons to be honestly themselves.  Rodeo's casual, resolute sexism makes accepting the notion of successful gay rodeo performers almost impossible.

A troubling aspect of rodeo which I which to mention is the reflexive anti-liberalism.  Rodeo invokes and re-enacts an agrarian ideology and mythology, one which is embodied in the perception of the rural as "real" America.  As it self-consciously writes and identifies with its mythology, the world of rodeo also rejects the symbols of liberalism - urban America in general and the East Coast in particular.  Rodeo's hostility to liberals and liberalism is every bit as symbolic as its embrace of the Old West.  A rodeo queen saying she admired Nancy Pelosi would be regarded as downright odd and subversive, someone who could not be trusted.  Yet when pushed, most of the people could tell you little about her beyond her place of residence is San Francisco and she's a liberal.  Liberalism is regarded as little more than an extension of urbanism, which is seen as a threat to the world of wide open wilderness of the American west.  As an interesting aside, I don't recall hearing folksy, stylized language at rodeo that characterizes Sarah Palin speeches.  

The general sense within the rodeo world is that you don't upset things, you don't make demands or ask for changes.  Such actions would represent betrayal at mutliple levels - betrayal of the past as imagined by rodeo.  In the Old West, men were men, women were women, they had separate spheres and roles.  If men were to start competing in a rodeo king contests or goat tying, it would strike at the core mythology of the rodeo world; in the same way if women were to demand to ride bulls or broncs it would threaten to unravel the mythology of the rodeo world.  Again and again, the rodeo world invokes the life of the Old West - but an image of the west closer to Bonanza than reality.  The hardships of life in the Old West are glamorized - the cowboys sitting around the fire singing songs, telling tales replace the reality of physical exhaustion, emotional isolation and very real danger; the realities the lives of women in the cowtowns of the west are equally glamorized - rather than hardbitten whores selling their favors they become the elegant and stylized queens in their custom-fitted, brightly colored leather dresses, perfect makeup and ritualized speeches.  The West in the mythology of the rodeo is a place of beautiful sunsets, wide open spaces and contented cowboys, beautiful cowgirls.  It is a world in which nature is being actively tamed by men, decorated and accessorized by women, and smiled upon nature.  It is a powerful myth, but at the end of the day no matter how powerful it is a myth created to serve the purposes and needs of today and bears only passing resemblance to the reality of history.

Originally posted to glendenb on Sat May 19, 2012 at 10:55 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Interesting perspective (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kkmd, kyril, ichibon, BusyinCA, foresterbob

    Not a rodeo fan, at least not the guys side.  Barrels and poles are fun to watch, but I've seen my share of steers get their necks broken to know it might not hurt, but they're still dead.  I've also witnessed some awful cowboy accidents.  I stopped watching rodeo about 4 years ago and have no interest in returning.  Nor do I want to spend my money to promote the culture.

    I'm a Kennedy Catholic.

    by EquiStar on Sat May 19, 2012 at 11:32:30 PM PDT

  •  myself, i prefer dressage... (7+ / 0-)

    the only sport where you will find participants dressed in top hats and tails happily shoveling sh*t (that's cuz we know and love the source!)

    as for riding bucking broncs - my first horse used to "discipline" me when he was mad - but he would always buck me back to the center of his back so he could express himself for a longer duration!  i used to try to suppress the laughter at the high-falutin' dressage barn where we boarded and had to fight hard not to raise my hand over my head and whoop YEEE-HAAAAA!

    not proper decorum, but having a horse who bowed at X for a national judge (last time i let HIM read the tests!) kept me laughing and kept everything in perspective.

    my number two "son" (lost number one in 2008 at 28 yrs old) can still buck at 25 and i can still sit it at 66!

    love horses - and, as for rodeos, i'm always routing for the broncs and bulls...  don't watch much - but a good bucking horse or bull seems to really enjoy "winning" the match.  their strut after they cause an "involuntary dismount" is a thing to behold.  they KNOW they are the best and don't hesitate in showing it.

    •  btw, as for the western "rodeo queens" - (8+ / 0-)

      they work their butts off for that chance to "dress up" instead of smelling like manure, being covered in dirt and grime for the majority of their time spent with their horses.

      they also spend hours and hours grooming, exercising, riding, taking lessons and working very hard to learn how to ride gently and without causing their horses discomfort.

      riding is 1 hr in the saddle and a minimum 3 on the ground taking care of the horse.  the riding is such a small percentage of the time spent with the "pony" - but if you don't put in that ground time, your horse will not be a happy and willing partner in the fun.  they seem to enjoy the shows and show off as much as their humans do (for the most part).

      this isn't an easy sport - and, actually, it isn't so much a "sport" at all as it is a partnership based on trust, hard work and love.  it is all consuming and worth every minute spent.

      horses are cheaper than therapists... 8^)   (sorta)

  •  Thanks (5+ / 0-)

    Well written article summarizing the sense of rodeo. I have long been a semi-regular PRCA rodeo attender. Loving the spectacle, the food, the animals. For the last 6 years I have been on the sidelines of 4H horse projects with my daughter. It was after my mother's death a year ago, when my family was reviewing old photos of a two-generation ago family ranch in Idaho, that I realized that the horse interest was really my "heritage connection" to my family's past. I just keep my "liberal" mouth shut and enjoy the show.

  •  Interesting diary (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kkmd, gwilson, BusyinCA, foresterbob

    that gives me an insiders look at how one aspect of our "American culture" (rodeo) strives real hard to maintain its mythology.  Perhaps we all should look at other aspects of our culture and within our own lives to understand how we too strive to maintain our own mythology.  

    "Growing up is for those who don't have the guts not to. Grow wise, grow loving, grow compassionate, but why grow up?" - Fiddlegirl

    by gulfgal98 on Sun May 20, 2012 at 08:40:33 AM PDT

  •  I attended the Pendelton Roundup (6+ / 0-)

    a number of years ago. It was a pretty fascinating experience for a boy raised in Illinois where almost nobody 'played cowboy.'

    Rodeo is like one big homage to the past. They do things the way they do them because that's the way they think it's always been done. (which is not completely true because in the past women were allowed to compete in some of the more dangerous events until several were killed)

    I agree with most all of your observations. The animals are well trained athletes, ready, if not exactly totally willing to play their part in the drama.

    The question I never could figure out is how it all worked financially? First place finishing money wasn't too bad but below that and all the contestants that didn't place-the costs for competing had to be enormous.

    How do they do it?

    I ask him if he was warm enough? "Warm," he growled, "I haven't been warm since Bastogne."

    by Unrepentant Liberal on Sun May 20, 2012 at 08:52:28 AM PDT

    •  they save and hope (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      kkmd, BusyinCA, pengiep, foresterbob, ER Doc

      My Bestie is a "former rodeo rider" who is dying to do it again.  Last time he busted a rib and spent his prize money on the hospital visit.  This was over 5 years ago.  Now he is working side jobs to cover an entry fee in another one - without telling his wife.  She wants the money, but doesn't want to take care of him if he gets hurt.  She's something else.

      When he talks about rodeo he gets sidetracked in a whole mythology about who HE is based on his one experience on a bull.  He full on expects people to judge him for his subtle clothing cues - to me at any rate -  adherence to the rodeo/country "way of life" - shoes, sleeveless shirts, western theme tattoos - except he is a city prosecutors son from Mesa.  Definitely didn't grow up a cowboy.

      The type of country music he prefers is insecure - there is an awful lot of choruses about if you're not like me then you're bad - and a sense of self segregation within the music.  We're this way.  We're "country" and those other people aren't "real Americans" like us.

      I didn't realise until I was listening to it in his car all the time - but popular country music today is much more divisive than it was twenty years ago - and I wonder how much of an effect it is having on listeners.

      And we sail and we sail and we never see land, just the rum in the bottle and a pipe in my hand...

      by Mortifyd on Sun May 20, 2012 at 10:42:45 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  So much of the stuff is crap in which the singer (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        foresterbob, ER Doc, Mortifyd

        goes on about how "country" they are and that they were that way before it was "cool". Very tiresome and crap music. I attended grad school at TAMU in an ag discipline. There is probably not a more "country" major university in the world and I still like Willie and Waylon and the boys. But this "Countrier than thou" stuff is just awful and mean.

        At TAMU, we got lots of foreign students, and in fact, being a Yankee, I played soccer on the International Students Association's team. When asked about my origins by the student activities funds disbursers,  I told them I was Canadian. It turns out, since my dad's parents were born in Quebec I could have been Canadian if I'd signed the right papers back then, so it wasn't really as much of a lie as I thought it was at the time, but having been through the draft and all I never bothered.

        Anyway, a visiting delegation from Mali attended the Snook, Tx rodeo. When asked what he thought of the rodeo by my thesis supervisor (who was at the time concerned about what the visitors might have thought about the treatment of the animals in the rodeo) the head of the Malian delegation replied that he enjoyed it. He also volunteered that, though he didn't understand the scoring system, it looked to him like the animals had won.

        "Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens," -Friedrich Schiller "Against Stupidity, the Gods themselves contend in Vain"

        by pengiep on Sun May 20, 2012 at 05:15:32 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  A lot of different stuff in this (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BusyinCA, Jack K, foresterbob, ER Doc

    Animal husbandry is full of painful moments for livestock. Cruelty is relative. A modern branding chute, in which the cattle are restrained by the neck and squeezed into immobility by the sides of the chute, may be less painful than roping in the open and dragging the cow to the branding fire, but only by a few degrees. The biggest difference in humane treatment mostly comes from the faster speed of the processes in the chute.

    Even so, I have participated in the old style many times. There is much more risk to humans when a cow is roped, and held  down by a couple of men (it's called 'mugging') while a hot iron is slapped on, but given an experienced branding crew, the process can be much faster than a chute.

    The main differences in time come from the non-painful cutting  (separating) the calves from their mothers. Cutting is distressing to both the mother cow and the calf, but is not painful. Cowgirls are often the cutting crew.

    The bucking animals are indeed trained through their experience. Many of the bucking horses learned the skill all on their own, and became chronic buckers that could not be trusted as working horses any longer. Rodeo stock companies pay high premiums for these horses, because they are willing buckers.

    In my opinion, rodeo cowgirls and queens are just the same as professional cheerleaders in football. I think football is much the same as rodeo in it's mythology, traditions, and separation of the sexes. There's no reason why a woman can't kick a field goal any better than a man- many soccer playing girls are accurate and strong kickers.

    Pretty girls are pretty girls. They parade in every round of a boxing match for no other reason than to keep audience interest high, and in rodeo, a pretty girl on a pretty horse running at top speed is a ton of flash.

    Barrel racing is at least as dangerous as any other event. Horses running at top speed in a tight turn around a barrel often slip and go down, and land on the girl. As often as not, when a horse's feet go out from under it, the girl is slammed into the rim of the barrel, which can be fatal. Most rodeos, but not all, have adopted the used of rounded plastic barrels, the kind seen in road construction, but they are only marginally safer.

    The rodeo cowboy's mythology is an exaggerated version of working stockmen and women. In the early days of rodeo, a bucking horse was ridden until it quit bucking, not for 89 seconds. The female bronc riders of the past were often more popular than the men, and many had long careers.

    Rodeo cowboy gear and clothing is designed for flash as much as practicality. These days, especially in bull riding, even the cowboy hat has been replaced with a football helmet with a face guard, and bull riders are now wearing body armor to keep their serious injury rate down.

    Of course, it is a parody of our largest myths. It's a sporting event. Is it cruel? Yes. But it is less cruel than the guaranteed lethality of Spanish bullfighting, a sporting event that shows no more sign of disappearing than rodeo, and is more popular worldwide. Both are remnants of our lingering taste for blood sports.

    Right many are called, and damn few are chosen.

    by Idaho07 on Sun May 20, 2012 at 01:59:11 PM PDT

    •  A buddy of mine had his leg shattered while (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      foresterbob, ER Doc

      branding cattle. Someone in the crew didn't hold the animal properly and it kicked out hitting my friend a couple inches below his knee. Gave him a compound fracture and smashed both tibia and fibula into multiple fragments. He almost lost his leg, but they were able to piece it together and get him back walking in a year or so.

      "Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens," -Friedrich Schiller "Against Stupidity, the Gods themselves contend in Vain"

      by pengiep on Sun May 20, 2012 at 05:20:18 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for a look at a part of the American mythos (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    foresterbob, ER Doc

    I went as a spectator to my first rodeo last year. (Salinas, CA) I only went because we were escorting an elderly friend for her day-out event. We all enjoyed it immensely. I also have a whole new appreciation for the rodeo scene.

    As we arrived late, we had nose bleed seats (except for our chair-bound friend and her chair driver). And my eyesight is poor, so I missed out on some of the fan admiration of the rodeo queens.

    I did not know about the self imposed sex segregation, but it is not a big surprise, since many churches I know of still have separate activities for the men and the women.

    I have spent many years of my youth around animals, and it isn't hard to see that all of these animals are loved and well taken care of. I was actually more concerned about some of the riders, and some of the stunts they tried to pull.

    We did see one young man (a bull rider of course) carried off on a stretcher and onto a waiting medical bus. So while much of it may be as choreographed as 'professional' wrestling, the chance for injury is still very real, and still seems to be more of a risk for the human participants.

    I did not know high schools had rodeo competition, I thought you had to be adult age to consent to such a dangerous activity.

    We also don't know what happens behind the scenes, but from what I saw from the stadium seats, as someone inclined to decry the abuse of animals, I felt that there was a display of a deep love and appreciation for, and a partnership between the humans and other living things.

    Thanks for the education and entertainment, everyone. Or should I say, Y'all. heh :)

    •  The Texas prison at Huntsville has a prison rodeo (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      foresterbob

      in which the inmates compete. Huntsville is about an hour from College Station. My favorite events were "easy money" in which the inmates compete to grab a bag of cash tied between the horns of a bull and an event in which 4 contestants sit at a card table and they release a bull into the ring. It's a game of "chicken" as the last guy to get up from the table wins the money. I won 2nd door prize (a nice hand tooled western style wallet that I lost) at one of those rodeos. It was fun, but rodeo is dangerous. I saw one convict get bucked off his bull and the bull stepped right on the poor guy's crotch. They carted the poor guy off on a stretcher.

      "Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens," -Friedrich Schiller "Against Stupidity, the Gods themselves contend in Vain"

      by pengiep on Sun May 20, 2012 at 05:25:14 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I am not all that much troubled by what you (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ER Doc

    refer to as "the reflexive anti-liberalism" that you describe in rodeo.  As I mentioned in my comments to your similar diary  about the mythos of All Things Rodeo last summer, I've lived amongst these folks my whole life, and a reflexive anti-liberalism informs the lives of most of these folks beyond any expression of such an attitude at a rodeo.  The vast majority of rodeos (both PRCA and smaller non-sanctioned amateur events) occur in those red pixels all over those silly county-by-county "who voted for who" maps that the media insists on cranking out after presidential elections...

    This same mythos that you write about in the rodeo setting inhabits the sense of self and place for many people outside of that setting, if my careful scientific observations (at least those taken before the beer kicked in) in cowboy and logger bars across the northwestern US for the last half century are any measure...

    "In a nation ruled by swine, all pigs are upward mobile..." - Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

    by Jack K on Sun May 20, 2012 at 06:00:13 PM PDT

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