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Banking on KC – Becky Blades & Taylor Kay Phillips

 

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. With us on this episode is the mother-daughter creative duo, Becky Blades and Taylor Phillips. Becky is a writer, artist, strategist, and self-described startist. She's just released her second book called Start More Than You Can Finish. Taylor is a writer for HBO's Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, and she recently won an Emmy award for outstanding writing for a variety series. She's also the author of a book called A Guide to Midwestern Conversation, which is due out next spring. Welcome.

Becky Blades:

Good morning.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

Thank you so much for having us.

Kelly Scanlon:

First, congratulations to both of you, Becky, on your new book and Taylor on the Emmy. I mean, you've had some really exciting times in your family over the last few months, it sounds like.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

It's been a hoot one thing after another, all great family Zooms and group chats.

Kelly Scanlon:

I bet those things are just going constantly. Let's talk about the Emmy, Taylor. What's it like to win an Emmy?

Taylor Kay Phillips:

I mean, it's just amazing. I think that's the party line for anybody who has had this incredible honor. I think something that was funny about my experience that I think is true of everyone's is there are actually a lot of logistics involved. So you hear the name of the show and you're so excited and you are kind of trying to process the moment, but it's a lot of moving parts. You've got to figure out where you're standing, there are 14 of us, then they take you backstage and they take a lot of pictures, but then you sign a contract that says you won't sell the Emmy and then they hand it to you when you're in a big group like that. And it was really fun. But I think for me, I was doubly, almost triply lucky because my husband, his name's Felipe Torres Medina, and he is a writer for the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. And so not only was he there with me because he and his show was also nominated, but it meant that we both got to bring plus ones.

So I wasn't only there with my husband, I was there with my sister, Tess, who had just come back from producing at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. And I was there with my sister-in-law, Felipe's sister, who's a designer. She's 17. She'd made her own dress. She designed my bag, Felipe's shoes. And it really just felt like this celebration of the four of us being able to, after three years, get back out into the world and be around other people who were making things. And logistically it was a lot of hustle and bustle. But then when we took a minute and we're all there together, after the three years we've had of COVID, it just felt nice to be with the people I love and feel like an artist again.

Kelly Scanlon:

How interesting, that whole behind the scenes description. I mean, you just think it's so spontaneous when you watch stuff on television. Again, congratulations on that. Becky, let's shift gears a bit and talk about your new book. It comes just a few years after your first book, Do Your Laundry or You'll Die Alone. And I have to tell you, just the title of that book. You talk about a hook, you have to buy the book just because that's such an interesting title, and it did in fact enjoy quite a lot of success. So with this new book, Start More Than You Can Finish, what's its premise? I mean, just on its surface it seems to contradict the advice that we get from the time we're little kids, which is don't start more than you finish.

Becky Blades:

That title's a hook too. Nobody's going to read a book unless they pick it up. And that title really is not saying don't finish. I would never say that. But when our parents told us, don't start more than we can finish or don't bite off more than we can chew, they weren't helping us finish anything. They were just making us start less. So that's what I'm flying in the face of here because we have to be starting more. Everything Taylor just said about where her life is, is because she is a startist. She starts things. If she has an idea, she acts on it. And that's where we see what we are made of. It's where we see where our ideas are made of and society needs our creativity. Society needs our ideas, but mostly we need our ideas because it's what makes us whole, it's what makes us alive. Getting our ideas out of us, it gives us our joy, it gives us our growth, it gives us our story.

Kelly Scanlon:

So what you're saying is that with every start that you attempt, even if you don't finish it, you're learning something in that process, you are refining your creative abilities and you will use that, what experience, what have you learned there in the next thing that you start or some start down the road? Is that what you're saying?

Becky Blades:

Partly. It is practice. I mean, every time we face the blank page, every time you start this podcast and face the blank stage, you are exercising that starting muscle. So when the idea comes along, that is going to change everything. Not only do you recognize it as a quality idea, so your curator becomes better, but you also have no fear. We reduce the odds. The more things we start, the less we have at stake with each one.

Kelly Scanlon:

Becky, if I remember right, as you prepared to write this book, you went back and tried to chronicle all of the different things that you had started. I don't remember if it was throughout your lifetime at this point or whether it was within a certain year period, but you came up with something like 2,800 things that you had started but not finished. So talk with us about that and why you felt like you needed to get this message out. You started to talk about it a little bit with people need our creativity, but expand on that.

Becky Blades:

Well, after I sold my business, I started doing lots of different things and actually my daughter, Taylor, here helped come up with the word startist. I was a startist. I said it proudly. Contained in that was a little bit of an insult in that I didn't finish. People would say to me what they say to all creative people. "Oh, have you finished that? Remember that story you started, or that novel you started, or that company you started, what's going on with that now?" Well, creative people have a lot of things in the works or they have a lot of things on the cutting room floor, and I think that's great. But there was a time in my life after I sold the business where I started to wonder if it was all that great because I was looking through my studio and finding unfinished paintings. Now we have on our computers these files that face us every day of the article we started and didn't finish or the email we started and didn't finish.

And I just started evaluating that. And it was in the process of writing the first book, which was an advice book to my girls, in which Taylor told me, she challenged me to make it into a book and to put my art in it. So I had to go digging through my art files. But I think when you look at your past beginnings, you start to see how they have built you, how they've built your skills, how built your body of work, how they've shown you that there are some things you don't want to spend your time on, and how would you ever have known that, and how would you ever have embraced where you are today if you don't really make peace with your unfinished work.

Kelly Scanlon:

In addition to that message, what are some of the other tools and resources that they will receive when they read it? What kind of tools does it provide?

Becky Blades:

Well, it provides kind of a framework for starting. It uses neuroscience about how we actually make change and commit to ideas. And there are 15 exercises to move your ideas from your imagination into the world. I have tips to surround yourself with art supplies and inspiration, hacks to start more things at a time.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

There's also a lot of interrogating what we mean when we say start a creative project. So it really is about the act of starting. It is not just start a novel or start a television show. Sometimes it's like start what my mom has made, which is the world's longest piece of fringe, or start a crocodile fan Twitter account. The starts are not precious. They're not precocious. And the idea that a start has to be this grand, grandiose thing, that's one of my favorite parts about it is the range of things that can be started.

Kelly Scanlon:

Actually sometimes having that mindset that it has to be some grandiose, world-changing sort of thing keeps you from starting.

Becky Blades:

That's the point, Kelly. That is the point.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

Absolutely.

Becky Blades:

Is that the fear is in the finish line. And as we know, the creative process changes the finish line, it moves it and it moves it to a better place. So the guy that knows what's going on is the first step. We have to ask the first step. And too much planning, too much wondering, overthinking gets in the way of creativity.

Kelly Scanlon:

I understand that Kansas City is well represented with examples in the book. Can you give us a couple of those?

Becky Blades:

Oh yeah. There's Laura Schmidt of Notes To Self Socks. I tell the story of ...

Kelly Scanlon:

She's been on this show.

Becky Blades:

Oh, she has? Yes. How she thought of her Notes To Self Socks, and I won't give the story away. There's a story of Bill Rose, an artist who didn't even know he could draw until he picked up a pencil late in his 40s and he's the guy that painted the mural that's now in the Kauffman Stadium. And then of course there's the story of the five year old that started a backyard theater because she wanted to put her mom in a bathrobe as Mrs. Hannigan.

Kelly Scanlon:

Taylor, I assume this is you.

Becky Blades:

Talk about Taylor Kay Phillips.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

It is me, the creative director of Phillips Backyard Theater in 1999.

Becky Blades:

Taylor's the example I use. I walk through the four stages of starting and give examples of then how to do them like a startist. So Taylor at five years old is the example of how to act like a startist. And that is to act like a five year old who just wants to be Annie with a karaoke, means you just do it, don't overthink it.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

Grab the neighborhood, you got a sister, you got some beds, you got a dog. That's a big part of Annie is a dog. You got the dog.

Becky Blades:

The dog.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

Put your mom in a bathrobe.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. So just take what you have around you and just go have fun doing it, it sounds like. Taylor, what's it like to work for a Show Last Week Tonight? Where do you find inspiration for your writing for John Oliver?

Taylor Kay Phillips:

I mean, what it's like to work for the show is it's wonderful. It's a dream. I wake up every morning and I write for my favorite TV show as my job. It's been eight, nine months and I am waiting for the giddiness, the feeling of I can't believe this is happening to wear off and it has not happened yet. And that's really the answer there. What it's like to work for a show like this is exactly what I dreamed, and what I worked for the eight real years in the workforce and all the years before that.

In terms of inspiration, but one of the quickest things that I learned at this job is that inspiration is totally optional and deadlines are not. Of course, there are things that I prefer to do that I feel the most comfortable doing, trying to tap into my own emotional reaction. I often like to try to think about word play in my jokes, but honestly. My biggest creative epiphany sometimes is looking at the clock and realizing that I have 15 minutes left. And it is amazing that I am somehow always able to create when my job is on the line.

Becky Blades:

Oh my gosh, Taylor is the Last Minute Queen. She is so fast. And that's what drove me crazy raising her, is that she was so driven, but I would see her procrastinating or just doing what I now know is processing, but she's doing everything but typing. And I'm like, "Taylor, don't you have a paper due in 30 minutes?" And the girl pulls it out, I'm telling you.

Kelly Scanlon:

And it's true. I love the way you brought that up, Becky, about processing because there are a lot of people who are ... The deadline is what finally drives them, that are just like Taylor.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

Well, and I also think that with this job in particular, I keep using the word deadline and when I have to turn stuff in, but at the end of the day, what I am contributing is actually starts because what I make, I do not see through, I do not finish. The end result of the things that I do in my job are someone else saying them on television. We think of starts with this mentality of there is a deadline to starting. That is mandatory. What's due at 5:00 PM today is 9 pages of starts for the show to take and turn into something. So much of it is fermented in your head in terms of what exactly it is you're doing.

Kelly Scanlon:

You mentioned that you had eight years of real world or real work experience before you got to have this dream job. So your job like everybody's, everyone's path is so individual and there's not really one track to any end. So tell us about the path that led you to Last Week Tonight. Give us an idea of how a Kansas City girl that grew up doing backyard productions ends up on a show like this, writing for John Oliver.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

Well, obviously it all started at home with the benefactor of Philip's Backyard Theater. And I also went to Barstow in Kansas City. And that is where I learned to write. My teachers there were, and they're still there, and they're superlative. My creative life as a whole, and my foundations were shaped obviously first by my family and second by the English and theater teachers in school. I was also a part of the Codery, the Codery Theater in Crown Center. They had a young playwrights round table with Jeff Church, the creative director there, and he's still running the program. And that was one of the best and most influential things in my life because you write on a deadline, you see you're writing read, and then you get to get and give feedback. So I felt like even when I went to college and when I jumped into this world, I had that kind of head start.

And from a logistical path, mom and this philosophy, really teed me up for what the eight years after college were going to be. Because basically I worked a day job in advertising and tutoring for eight years, while honestly accumulating starts, while doing standup, and improv, and writing, and truly anything to get myself and my work out there. Because something about this industry that can be good or bad, depending on how you look at it, is that there is no one path. So you can't jump on a track. You have to see what starts turn into roads, turn into finishes, and gradually with all of this work, with all of these starts, I started getting invited to apply to TV jobs or getting information about the applications from my friends. And something, it's about forming a startistry kind of collective and the idea of making yourself accountable to other people and teaming up with people. And that was a friend group that I got where if we got an application for a TV job, which in the industry they're called packets. We sent that around and we eliminated the idea of competition as a reason not to open it up to people. And I benefited from that and I've helped other people benefit from that. And after eight years of that, I ultimately got lucky, which is that Last Week Tonight was hiring and that's the luck part. And then I wrote a great packet, and I gave a good interview and I got a great job. I can't tell you the one or two things that I did. I did everything, I kept doing everything, and eventually that final 15% of luck kicked in.

Kelly Scanlon:

As if you're not busy enough with this dream job that you have, you also have a book coming out, I mentioned it's next spring, I believe it's next April, about Midwestern conversations. Tell us a little bit about that book and give us some of your favorite examples.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

Sure. Well, the book was originally a piece in an online humor publication called McSweeney's, Internet Tendency called A Guide to Midwestern Conversation. And for three years, my mom was like, "This is just the start of this. This is a book, make this a book. Why haven't you made this a book?" And I kept being like, "Yeah, sure, fine, fine, fine." And eventually it came to me in time. My agent is actually also from Kansas City. So it's a book that is a guide to what we Midwesterners say and what those phrases mean to us. And it's a love letter to these little nuances of our language with one another.

And my favorite examples in the book, and there a lot, and I'll just give you a glimpse of a couple of them, is the nuance of when one little word or the addition of one little word or sound can really change what we mean. For instance, when a Midwesterner says like, "You betcha" that's our way of saying yes, 100%, I could not agree with you anymore. But if we add an "Um yeah." If we have a um, yeah, you betcha. What we're saying is I stopped listening a long time ago. Please finish up.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. But I was too nice to let you know that. Yeah.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

Exactly, exactly. So the idea of an um yeah just totally changing the meaning of a phrase and the way that I have ... There are a couple of those in the book, and those I think are near and dear to my heart because that's when I feel the Midwestern hug.

Kelly Scanlon:

Let's shift now to the debate about nurture versus nature when it comes to creativity. There's some studies that say that there's absolutely no genetic basis, but as I sit here talking with the two of you and knowing a little bit about your family, it seems that your family would be an example, actually does fall on the side of nature. Besides the two of you and everything you have your fingers in that require creativity, I know that you mentioned your sister, Tess, and she's a producer. Becky, your husband. Taylor, your father is a standup comedian and a public speaker. So talk to us about what each of you thinks about that nature versus nurture when it comes to creativity, or is it a blend of both maybe?

Becky Blades:

I wouldn't have thought of our house so much as creative when the girls were kids. I had a business, I think I was very intense. A lot of focus on academics. I think that creativity kind of, yes, there's the backyard theater and drama was always a part of it. I was terribly upset that I had an art studio that my children were never curious about. They're not visual artists. I thought I'll leave the paints down here. I'll rip the carpet off the floor. They can come play in the paints, and I'll have these creative little masterpieces walking around and they could have cared less.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

That's so true. And obviously, you don't think about it when you're a kid, but I had just never thought about how ... I mean, painful is maybe too strong a word, but how frustrating that must have been because the way that my sister and I talked about it was like, "Oh yeah, mom's got more studio all over the house." And it never occurred to us that we could take some of that too.

Becky Blades:

But I will say, but I think it's nurture because they could both have been nerds. We're kind of nerds too, my husband and I. But Taylor, aren't a lot of your comedy people nerds?

Taylor Kay Phillips:

Oh yeah. I mean, we're all huge nerds. And I think that from a nature versus nurture perspective, I think the thing that our family did that I didn't really realize was the case until I got out into the world was one, I think my parents operated with an, I don't even know if they realized this. But they operated with a lack of fear. I watched both my parents switch jobs in huge ways, at least twice while I was still living in the house. And it was not a scary thing. It was just like a, I'm interested in this and therefore I will pursue it. And there's a level of curiosity that trumps this fear of whether it be failure, or ridicule or whatever, that it didn't even occur to me to have.

Kelly Scanlon:

Through their example, you never knew that wasn't normal. You just thought that was the way things were.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

And the other thing is creativity is a type of work or a way of looking at the world. And I think that people who either are more afraid of creativity or don't think of themselves as creative, which I think is what my mom's book is so good at bringing out of people. They think of creativity as being frivolous because they think of it as being fun all the time or very surface level all the time. But creativity just starting, it's a lifestyle and it's a commitment, and it's not always easy, but it's a choice that is cool and requires something of you, but give so much back. And I think I was just surrounded by what it gives back at all times of my life.

Kelly Scanlon:

And when you eventually make your living dependent on creativity, that's even more true, that it's not always fun. That it's like it's go time. I've got a deadline in 15 minutes. You're absolutely right. It's not always just this dreamer, kind of carefree individual that so many of us have a stereotype about.

Becky Blades:

One thing that I think is of tremendous value that I explore in the book is the topic of creativity on demand. I hadn't realized, I ran a marketing communications firm for 13 years, and that's what I did in my career before I started that company. And every day, people came to work and they listened to what the client needed, and then they created writing and images. And there's a lot of people that have jobs like that. Those people are not afraid of the blank page. They do it every day. So you can see within an instant of when somebody gets comfortable creating on demand that it changes everything. It changes how they come up with ideas, how they select ideas. So I just hope that people get a breakthrough. Those people who have just one idea, I want to start a book club, I want to start a donkey rescue, that maybe they'll practice on starting a limerick or starting a conversation to get to that place where they have the courage to start on demand for the idea that might change their life.

Kelly Scanlon:

It's interesting. Whenever you act on your creativity, whether it's telling somebody that you're going to start a donkey farm using your example, you've now got somebody that might hold you accountable for that. Or whether it's a really public thing, like writing a book for everybody to see, there's some vulnerability to that. And anyone who shares that part of them sets themselves up for rejection at one point or the other, either because you don't finish it and people are going uh-uh, or because you laid out this part of you for everyone to see, and not everybody thinks it's as great as you thought it was. And sometimes that happens multiple times. So how do you cope with that?

Becky Blades:

It's a sport. Is that right, Taylor?

Taylor Kay Phillips:

No, I think that's a really great question, and I just don't let myself think of it using the word cope. Because living as a writer and a performer, you've got to go into it knowing that it's going to be mostly rejection. Rejection is going to be a higher percentage of the job than any other part. In fact, I had a friend once who, particularly in my job, who said that, "Succeeding as a comedy writer is just getting rejected by more and more important people as you go through."

Kelly Scanlon:

Love that, yeah.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

First, you write jokes for your friends, and then they read them, and then you write them for the executive producer of the show, and then you write them for the host, and then you write them for truly, the American people. So you're just getting rejected by more and more higher profile people as you go through. But when you decide that rejection is part of the job, you can work that into your creative goals. And last year or two years ago, I kind of worked that into my goals for the year to get 12 rejections from The New Yorker Shouts & Murmurs, the humor arm of The New Yorker.

Kelly Scanlon:

You actually put a number on it. You put a number on it. 12. Interesting.

Becky Blades:

Well, because she had to start 12 times, she had to do 12 a month. She said it in terms of what she could do, not what they could do to give her the finish she wanted.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

But that's exactly what it is. I set a goal to get 12 rejections, and I failed, but I failed because I kept getting pieces in.

Kelly Scanlon:

Good for you.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

And it's very cool, but when you're chasing rejections, which again, mom will say a rejection is just proof of a start. That's all it is. But it's easier to work without fear when either way, when every time you push submit to send that off to the editor, it's a success because it's part of the job. And it's part of the life that I've been blessed enough to find myself living.

There's a rule in comedy that I subscribe to, which is that you don't want to punch down. It's not fun to make fun of someone at a "lower status" than you because it feels like you're picking on them. You're not speaking truth to power. You're not identifying anything that you can sort of needle at. You're just kind of kicking somebody while they're down. But a lot of people on the East Coast think that making jokes at the expense of Midwestern people is inherently punching down. And so when I first submitted A Guide to Midwestern conversation to McSweeney's, in fact, I learned later that the editor was hesitant to publish it because he was afraid that people from the Midwest might get offended and might feel like they're being picked on.

Kelly Scanlon:

Whereas we take it as a point of pride actually.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

Exactly. And that's what was so interesting to me, is it's like the idea of don't punch down, therefore don't make jokes about people at the Midwest, is this kind of thing where it makes me feel like, oh, you're telling on yourself. Because I don't consider myself below you. I think that we're all on the same page. And if I can of point at my friend and say, "Hey, we're doing this thing together and it's funny, and let's laugh at the truth of it." I don't think that there's a Midwesterner in the world that is going to say, "Oh, wow, when I add um yeah to you betcha, I do want people to shut up, but I can't believe you'd say that." No one would say that. They'll say, "Ha-ha. Yeah, that's me." We all like to see ourselves. So I think that that's the perspective and experience that I've had with that is just saying, we're people and we think we're just as good as you, if not better sometimes.

Becky Blades:

There's visual examples of things that Taylor comes back and having lived out there so long, recognizes that only Midwesterns have garage refrigerators.

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh, really?

Taylor Kay Phillips:

Yeah. Nobody does that.

Becky Blades:

Only Midwesterners have a closet of gifts that you can take to the kid's birthday party at the last minute. It could be because New Yorkers don't have room in their apartments for these things, but there are social constructs. I mean cultural, visual things that we own, that we use. And just when she brings it out, I'm like, that would be kind of funny if you'd never seen a refrigerator in somebody's garage. And then you see it.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

That's where the pizza bites and beer go.

Kelly Scanlon:

Exactly. So I've got to ask you, Taylor, what about the junk drawer? Is that Midwestern?

Taylor Kay Phillips:

Junk drawer? I think the junk drawer is Midwestern.

Kelly Scanlon:

Is it?

Taylor Kay Phillips:

I think it is. Again, I think part of it is space.

Becky Blades:

Taylor doesn't even have a drawer in her apartment. She has no drawers.

Kelly Scanlon:

Okay. So some of this is just a practical matter.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

Well, again, it's a far cry from the Midwest to my small apartment in New York City. There's a lot of space in between.

Kelly Scanlon:

In between. Right, right. Okay. So as we conclude here, everything that we've talked about and the whole idea of just getting started, a lot of listeners are still going to feel overwhelmed. So can you give us one thing to do or to maybe shift your mindset so that you can get started? If there's one takeaway you can leave our listeners with, what would it be?

Becky Blades:

Start a thank you letter to your mom. Just start the letter, the best of who we are comes in our gratitude and make it funny, make it loving, whether she's alive or dead, whether you're mad at her or want to hug her. Starting is about letting ourselves leak out into the world and give us the next idea.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

But I think something else to think about is in the realm of gratitude, is think about something or recognize something that you are so glad that someone started. Because the things in your life that exist and give you joy, or relief, or camaraderie, or escape were at one point someone's ideas, were at one point someone's fears, were at one point someone else's anxiety that they couldn't go to sleep without thinking about. And I think having an appreciation for the fact that things that you receive were made by someone makes you think about what you could make and the power that that has.

Kelly Scanlon:

So how do our listeners find out more about the two of you and how to get your books?

Becky Blades:

You can go to my website, beckyblades.com and find out about both my books. Or you can just Google Start More Than You Can Finish.

Kelly Scanlon:

Okay, beckyblades.com. And how about you, Taylor?

Taylor Kay Phillips:

Well, I'm on Twitter @taykayphillips if any of you want to follow me on Twitter. I also have a website. It is taylorkayphillips.com. And then my book is called A Guide to Midwestern Conversation. And of course, you can always watch Last Week Tonight With John Oliver on Sunday nights on HBO.

Becky Blades:

Yes, you can.

Kelly Scanlon:

Try to figure out which ones are your jokes.

Becky Blades:

It's a family sport.

Kelly Scanlon:

Ah, okay. All right. Well, it's been wonderful having the two of you on the show. Thanks for sharing your creativity rooted here in the Midwest with the rest of the world. And again, just really appreciate the fact that you took the time with us today.

Becky Blades:

Thanks, Kelly.

Taylor Kay Phillips:

Thank you so much, Kelly.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Becky Blades and Taylor Kay Phillips for being our guests on this episode of Banking on KC. These two self-proclaimed startists have a simple message: just start. Even if you don't finish, you'll learn something that will become a part of your next start. Our challenge to all our listeners this week is to start something. What is something you can do for yourself, for your family, for a colleague, for the community? It doesn't have to be world-changing or life-changing. But here's the beauty. The collective impact of each of our starts can add up to something that makes a big difference. Let's just start. Thanks for tuning in today. We're banking on you Kansas City. Country Club Bank member FDIC.

 

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