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Louise Palanker: One Yo-Yo Away from Realizing Her Own Potential

Louise Palanker is a writer, producer, director, comedian, filmmaker, photographer, songwriter, and drummer. She is a co-founder of Premiere Radio Networks, which is now a division of iHeart Media. Her filmmaking resume includes Family Band: The Cowsill Story, a documentary that appeared on Showtime for two years and is now available on Amazon Prime. Her short documentary, Margaret Singer: Seeking Light recently screened at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. She writes a weekly advice column for Noozhawk.com and founded the advice app for teens, Ask Weezy. Her current project, the Media Path Podcast, is Louise’s fifth podcast. With co-host Fritz Coleman, Louise explores the deep dives they take into films, books, TV, and music when they become obsessed with a given topic. 

Louise grew up in Buffalo, NY. As a kid, several role models including a teacher, doctor, and her father saw her potential and helped her find her path as a creative. After finding her potential through organizational tactics, she was able to build a unique career in show business, interviewing and working with many A-list celebrities along the way. Louise is full of stories and wisdom, all delivered in her unmistakable style.

Transcript:

BRYAN WISH: What is your One Away moment?

LOUISE PALANKER: I’m sure there are many moments that make up a person or impact a personality. I want to go back to childhood. I had great parents but I was kind of a lost case. I was a bit of a mess as a child and children aren’t really thoughtful. They’re just sort of reacting. They’re kind of in the moment and reacting to whatever is going around them as they attempt to form their personalities. I’m going to take you back to a moment where I’m in 5th grade. My teacher is Mrs. Fleishmann and she was a lovely person who really liked kids and I think, understood kids. I can remember her standing in front of the class and holding up a yo-yo and saying, “This yo-yo goes to the most improved student this week.” She made direct eye contact with me which I took as a challenge. Not just as a challenge to win the yo-yo but as an incentive between me and her where I understood that she felt I could improve. That eye contact meant that she believed that I was not working up to my potential as she would maybe write on a report card that went home. She meant it as a challenge to me, “You’re capable of improving more than any other kid in this classroom.” She looked directly at me and I was like, “Game on. Let’s do this.” 

I don’t remember how I applied myself. I just know that I won the yo-yo. It also doesn’t matter that on my way home from school, the bus stopped suddenly. I dropped the yo-yo. It slid to the back of the bus where there were two boys who claimed they never saw it but they took my yo-yo which is hardly the point. The point is that I think it’s important to let kids know you believe in them and that you believe that they’re capable of doing something difficult, of applying themselves, and doing something that seems challenging and that each of us is capable of improving in increments daily, hourly, weekly. I don’t mean that we’re not going to suffer setbacks but those are always lessons. Anytime there’s a setback, that’s a lesson. We can all do a little bit better in every aspect of our lives. We can always fine tune as we go along, as we learn more. That’s why I like that moment. I like that she believed in me enough to make that eye contact. I don’t think I would have gotten that yo-yo just because she intended to give it to me. I think she was saying, “You have to do better because I know you’re capable of it.” The carrot rather than the stick. I like that approach. It worked for me. 

BRYAN WISH: Thanks for sharing the story. Clearly a very formative moment where maybe a teacher saw, in you, what you couldn’t see in yourself. You were able to live up to that. What do you think made her give you that look? 

LOUISE PALANKER: She may have been like one of those mysterious paintings where it looks like she’s looking at everyone. She was a magical person. I think she probably saw my personality, that there was a spark there. That I was funny. That I was engaging. She thought that my work didn’t really represent what she was seeing in me, in whatever she was picking up on. Certain kids have a spark that you recognize that, “Oh, that kid has something,” and then they turn in a paper and it’s all erased and you’ve erased it to the point where you’ve torn through the pages. Back then, we didn’t have computers. My work, I’m sure, looked very sloppy because I was a mess. Back then, it would have been to writ out what you want to do, make all your erasers and cross things out, then take out a new piece of paper and start over to make it look nice. I wasn’t putting that extra what’s required into my work. I was just getting it done. I can vividly remember taking a mimeograph, that was the homework, folding it and putting it in a textbook with some vague concept that I was going to remember which textbook I stuffed this into. 

I didn’t have good workflow. I wasn’t organized. I was all over the place. It was a matter of get me more focused and get me to understand that there are consequences to every behavior; that you’re going to pay for this later. If you placed it somewhere kind of vague right now, what makes you think you’re going to remember where that is a day from now? Because you won’t. We have to learn from those wounds of feeling you walked into class and you don’t have your homework and you don’t know where it is. That has to feel so uncomfortable that you don’t want to have that feeling again. So you put a system into place that will help you remember where you put things and remember your workflow and where you were. Where did you bookmark yourself? Where do you need to pick up? Instead of thinking, “I have to do my homework” and then thinking, “Oh, I don’t even know where to begin because I don’t know where I left off.” These are the things we need to learn in school or in college. Where did I bookmark myself? Did I bookmark myself so that when I go back to this task, I’m not so overwhelmed by not knowing what I’ve done and haven’t done that I don’t know how to finish it. I think that’s critical to success. Knowing how to finish something and sometimes knowing how to finish something simply means knowing where you left off. I think that’s where a lot of people get stuck and get overwhelmed. 

I think you asked me what Mrs. Fleishmann saw in me. I don’t know. She probably just thought that I was a smart aleck and was getting a lot of laughs in class and therefore, I must be smart and my grades should be better than what they are. That’s a teacher that doesn’t just see a goofy kid but sees, “Oh, well, a goofy kid is probably a smart kid.” That’s a teacher that sees layers in people. That’s a gifted teacher. 

BRYAN WISH: Totally. What a gift for her to maybe teach you a lesson like that so early. As you look back on it today, the organizational development and realizing maybe perhaps early that being a messy creative isn’t the most optimal way. There’s a lot of things I’ve read over the years that the creatives that are the most organized are the ones to get the farthest the fastest. What a prominent lesson you got to learn at a young age. Do you think you parents influenced some of those behaviors that you didn’t know how to finish the job? Was there anything from childhood that stands out that maybe created that initial gap that the teachers saw that you could overcome?

LOUISE PALANKER: I’m not really sure. My mom had four kids back to back to back to back. She had four kids five and under. My dad had suffered from polio and lost his ability to walk. Here’s my mom running this household with absolutely no help from my dad in terms of the physical needs of the household. I’m not saying he wasn’t emotionally present and he didn’t support us in every possible way financially, emotionally, and otherwise but if you’ve got two slippery kids in the bath and another kid running down the hallway, you can’t yell, “Marv, grab Amy” because he can’t. Or “Could you grab the baby powder off the top shelf?” You just don’t have that extra set of hands. It’s all on you. My mom got to that point of just being overwhelmed every day, I think, when we were all little. 

When I got into middle school and was still pretty lost and disorganized, they hired a tutor named Dr. Zachary Clements. He was a college professor, I believe, but he was making some extra money giving kids good study habits. There’s a guy who came into my bedroom. We sat at my white desk and he didn’t actually help me with my homework. He just showed me how to focus and how to concentrate. He noticed things about me that I appreciated in myself that no one else in the household appreciated. For example, I was a drummer and no one ever wanted me to play the drums or make any noise at all. He’d hear me creating a little rhythm on the desk and he’d say, “Wow, do that again.” No one ever, in my household, had ever remotely complimented me. It was always, “Stop drumming.” I think if we can notice the things in kids that they value, that’s a belief in them that they may not be getting if you have to live with that child day-to-day. You’ll be able to give that child reassurance or that appreciation because it’s so annoying to have to live with it day in and day out. 

Just him saying that to me that he appreciated the little rhythm that I was able to create and he’d do things with flashcards where he’d write a vocabulary word on the front and on the back, I’d write the definition. He taught me work ethic and how to apply myself to a task. If you’re going to start this homework assignment, don’t stop as soon as Batman comes on. Finish it because you’re not going to remember where you left off. Those types of things. As long as you’re at it, get it done. Put it in a folder that’s marked what it is. A folder for this subject, a folder for this subject. Only put things where they belong so that you don’t have to handle the same piece of paper several different times. Don’t put it half way through the house. Walk all the way through the house and put it on your desk. 

Those types of things, I’m still very conscientious about because I think I am ADD and I think the best way for an ADD person to function is to complete tasks and to know where you put your bookmark so that you can return to it and pick up where you left off. To take an item into your home, don’t set it down on the steps. Walk all the way up the steps and put it where it belongs and come back down the steps. It’s good exercise anyway. You’ll spend even more energy looking for it when you put it incrementally along your path instead of where it belongs. Those are some of the things that I think I learned from Dr. Clements. Those kind of study habits and life habits that help you spend your day less frustrated and give you more peace of mind. That tasks are completed and that when you think about the tasks, you’re not thinking, “Uh-oh, I don’t know if I paid that bill and I don’t know if this is the most recent bill or where I put the original bill.” If you’ve got a piece of mail that says there’s money owed, go to your desk, write a check, get a stamp, put it in the envelope, and take it down to the mailbox. Just handle every piece of paper once whether it’s virtual or physical. Leave yourself a note, “When I wake up tomorrow morning, this is what I’m going to do,” then you never have to think about it again. You don’t have to wonder, “Did I do that?” Or laying awake at night, “Did I do that? Did I call him back?” I learned at a young age if you do the thing while you’re thinking about the thing, then the next time you think about the thing, you can know you did the thing. 

BRYAN WISH: I don’t want to speak for you but maybe because your mom was handling so much, there were so many things she got to 70-80% but never got to 100 because she was scrambling with so many responsibilities. That kind of bled into who you were without realizing it. 

LOUISE PALANKER: I think in good ways. Hopefully, we can learn by negative example as well as we can learn by positive example. Maybe one of the drawbacks to that household was that I didn’t have any kids by choice. Of the four of us, only one of us has had a child. We weren’t good breeders. I don’t know if that’s related to seeing a father – marriage as a sacrifice of your own talents. I just don’t know. It’s something I think about quite often. For sure, there was a lot of love and a lot of laughter. It was chaotic. There was a lot of chaotic energy and my dad would come home and if my mom was in a bad mood, he’d behave as if it must be our fault. You internalize that as a child. He just wanted a happy wife, happy life. He was trying hard to keep my mom happy and then we were making that difficult. For people raising kids especially during Covid, you guys are the heroes of the world. 

BRYAN WISH: I’m curious about your relationship with your dad growing up. You seem to speak so high of Mr. Clements and what he saw in you. Based on your relationship with your dad, do you think you saw something in Mr. Clements just because he was so present with you that a male figure hadn’t?

LOUISE PALANKER: Mr. Clements was a doctor. He must have been in his 30s. He had like a tie clip and I would look at the initials because I didn’t know anybody who had a Z as a first name back then. I’d wonder, “What does the Z stand for?” He was just Dr. Clements. It’s Zachary. He was a scholar. He went on and did a lot of lectures in education. He came out to California. I met up with him down in Orange County. I got to see him in action. Just a mesmerizing motivational speaker. He has a ton of personality. He’s not even as old as my parents. He’s probably still with us. What a cool guy. He was a young guy. He was handsome and he was paying attention to me. That was all good stuff. My dad and I were very close. My dad got me and I think that a lot of successful women will say that. I think you find patterns where successful women will say they had a dad who believed in them. My dad was a business man. He had fought in WWII. Came home without a scratch. He had a very impoverished childhood growing up in the Depression. Then he fights in WWII in the trenches, on the frontlines throughout the Normandy Invasion, the Battle of the Bulge. He comes home without a scratch and then three years later, he catches polio. You kind of wonder if his immune system didn’t take a hit because those guys on the frontline in WWII, they were malnourished. We had to get supply lines down from the Russians or we weren’t going to be able to push through into Germany. That’s what the Battle of the Bulge was. You just wonder. 

In a lot of ways, polio was referred to as infantile paralysis and my dad catches it at age 27 from a guy h was playing golf with and that guy was fine. It’s not like Covid. You could be fine. Then my dad got it and polio is a virus, a fever raging through you. While it’s raging through you, it’s taking out muscle tissue, muscle motor neurons. You still keep your sensory neurons unlike if it were a car accident. You can feel everything. You just can’t move the muscles that have been affected. Once the fever abates, you’re left with the damage that you’re left with. For a lot of people, that included their diaphragm, their ability to breathe. For my dad, it was his legs and he didn’t have enough muscles left to walk. Everything else about him was completely normally and it probably cut his life short because when you’re not mobile, when you’re not walking, you’re not creating the vascular pumping that helps your heart and move blood throughout your system. The blood pools. You ankles get swollen. Your muscle atrophy. Your heart is working super hard. 

He ran a successful business. He raised four fantastic kids. He was a wonderful husband to my mother. They were engaged when the polio happened and had to put off their wedding. He was a very insightful person who knew how to listen. He know how to look at your face and know if you were troubled? He’d question you until you were willing to tell him what was bothering you. He was that type of empathic person. People were really drawn to him. He had a quiet charisma. He was very handsome. He was the person that all my cousins would say is their favorite uncle. What better compliment could you give to someone? Quite a testament. 

BRYAN WISH: Sounds like a special man, a fighter, and someone who really sought to understand. You’re very much like that. Inquisitive and empathic. I’m sure he passed some of those qualities down to you. I want to go back to your teacher who identified that gap in your effort. You seem to really look after those who are younger, who have talent, and to bring that out of them. Can you share with us how you think those experiences, from a young age, have shaped you and some of the pursuits you’ve taken on today?

LOUISE PALANKER: I think it’s really important for all of us, no matter what we do with our lives, when we’re in the presence of a young person to pay attention and to listen, ask questions, make eye contact, and show them that what they think and what they feel and what they hope and dream is important. I’ve tried to do that as I’ve walked through the working world and made my way into becoming a boss. I ran a large company, Premier Radio Networks, and hired people that were younger than me predominantly. You just want to pay that forward. You want to be that person in their lives even though you expect something from them because they’re earning a salary. It’s not quite a mentorship but it’s more of an exchange. Sometimes you do have to let people go because work quality is suffering and everyone around them is suffering if they’re not pulling their weight and doing what’s expected or what’s necessary for the team. When it’s working out which is 95% of the time because you went through a vetting process to hire this person. These are really important relationships if you’re somebody’s first job. They’re going to look back on that the way they look back on their childhood. They’re going to look back on that and everything is going to compare to it. It’s going to be this frame of reference that you’re creating. This is a touchpoint that they’re going to look to and things are either going to be better than this first job or never compare to it. Then they’re going to become bosses and you want them to be inspired by the way that you treated them in the workplace and create a culture of kindness but also on in which we kind of encourage the best in one another. A lot of brainstorming, a lot of really positive energy, group think. That’s what I try to do. I try to take what I had learned from my dad, from Dr. Clements, from Mrs. Fleishman and help that create, in me, a nurturing, positive presence in the lives of those with whom I worked. 

BRYAN WISH: You said when you’re in the presence of a child, it’s good to look at them in the eyes and make sure that you listen. What’s it take to be extremely present when you’re with individuals you’re working with and giving them foundations to grow? 

LOUISE PALANKER: Have you ever taken any improv classes?

BRYAN WISH: I have.

LOUISE PALANKER: You understand the rules of improv really apply to all of life. If you’re in a meeting and somebody says something that isn’t maybe a great idea, you don’t shoot it down. You say, “Yes, and…” You move the conversation forward. You don’t create an environment within which someone would be afraid to say their next idea which might be the killer idea. You always want to keep people contributing and move the conversation forward in a productive way. You don’t want someone weighing something down that keeps saying stuff that doesn’t make any sense but why would that person be in the workplace anyway? You’ve hired these people because you believe in them. These are all ideas that they should, if it comes into their mind, they think it’s worthy of sharing – I think it’s important to listen and to treat everybody’s thoughts with respect even if it wasn’t the idea that fueled the next idea. Maybe it made someone think of something that they weren’t going to think of if that person hadn’t said something. You really want to keep the atmosphere healthy so that good things can grow. The soil is fertile. So that good things can be planted and good things can grow. When someone speaks, they’re not getting some side eye from someone thinking, “Who cares what she thinks.” It’s important that people are valued and there’s nothing worse than that feeling of saying something whether it’s in class or in a meeting at work and feeling, “I shouldn’t have said that.” That’s going to keep you awake at night and it’s going to keep you from saying the next thing that comes into your mind. You always want people to feel valued. 

BRYAN WISH: There’s some people out there that you need to see that light in everyone you’re working with to realize how to create an environment for them that they can thrive. Even if their first idea isn’t the best, how do you aid the conversation along to make them feel supported so they can speak up again? That’s hard to do at times. It creates a very strong rooted environment for people to walk on. I know you’ve worked with a lot of different people through your career and a lot of different kids in different respects. Are there one or two people you’d like to talk about where you feel you’ve made a significant difference on their life by seeing something in them that their parents or people around them didn’t?

LOUISE PALANKER: In a lot of cases, I feel they were going to be successful anyway, such as you. You can always see the potential in people the way they see the world and the way they’re able to troubleshoot or articulate their thoughts. My nephew is one of those people where he didn’t really need me. Hopefully, I was part of the equation but he’s a brilliant guy now, 24 and working in high tech in Sunnyvale. I worked with a lot of  – I taught a standup comedy program as an after-school program for kids. I thin it nurtures self-esteem, creative thinking, and just the ability to speak in front of people which is a gift that you’ll cherish throughout the rest of your life. One of the kids and there’s been hundreds of kids – one kid that stands out is a kid named Jeff Feldman. He was a kid who I met at a boys and girls club and I didn’t realize it when I met him but he was in the process of losing his mother. She died. This was a kid where maybe at the age of nine, he took the microphone and I’ve never really seen anything like it since. It was like this makes you believe in reincarnation because that kid was a comedian. I didn’t have to teach him anything. He had the presence and bearing of a comedian. 

He needed a lot of special attention because he had hit a wall. He didn’t have a dad. His dad had suffered an aneurysm when he was a baby and lived in a care facility in Florida. Jeff was lifting with his grandmother after his mother died. He had a lot of behavior problems. I believe there were already some really severe red flags in terms of what he was doing to comfort himself. He got adopted by a wonderful couple when he was 13. They saw all of his potential as well. He wound up putting himself through college even at the age of 24, 25, 26 because he wanted to be a  person who had gone to college. He made all that happen. He’s gotten back to doing standup comedy which is completely his choice. Most of the kids I teach standup comedy to aren’t going to become standup comedians. It’s kind of a skillset that’s helpful just like an improv class is. He just stands out to me as being a very resilient person who has been through a lot and has created himself. You can find Jeff Feldman on Instagram. He’s positing his standup stuff all the time. I’m very proud of him.

One of the things I’d like to add in terms of whether you’re teaching or mentoring or just in the workplace with people, what’s truly important is to forge one-on-one relationships with as many individuals as possible. As your company grows, you’re not going to be able to know everybody’s name. To the extent that you can, it’s not just enough that you’re their boss and that they’d come to you to ask for a raise or with a concern but to know them as people and to have had one-on-one conversations with each person that’s meaningful where you find out some of their history and they learn some of yours. I did learn through my career that you had to set boundaries. If you were going to be somebody’s boss, there had to be healthy boundaries. I wasn’t always really good at establishing them or knowing where they should go. I’m going to say, within healthy boundaries because I do think they’re important in an employer/employee relationship, they should know that you know them. That you know the name of their spouse or the name of their dog or child. These are good things that you should learn not just because a book says, “Learn his child’s name” but because you actually care. “My child is trying out a new school.” “Hey, how did that go? How did his first day go?” You should care enough about people, when you’re in business and when you’re functioning in any capacity at a high level. You should not just be caring about the bottom line. 

You should be doing this because you really want to give everyone a place, that they’ve devoted their lives to, to come and work for you. That’s their life. That’s most of their relationships and that’s most of their day when they’re not with their family or asleep. They’ve chosen to be with you. They’re not just there to perform a function for you in exchange for their salary. They really are on your team. You should be doing this as much because you want to make a good living as because you want to create a great place for people. The more you know about the people, the more fun it is to create a great place for them. It’s exponentially fun. I just highly recommend that you don’t just set up boundaries to the extent where, “Oh, it’s better if they don’t know anything about me and I don’t know anything about them.” You need to know them. You need to care about them. You need to want to create the best workplace environment so that they’re healthy and happy. In exchange for that, they are more productive. It’s not just because it’s the right thing to do. It’s also the wise thing to do for your company that your employees are happy and that they feel like you really get them and know them and value them. 

BRYAN WISH: Absolutely. One of the lessons I’m learning is the more emotionally developed the leader is, the more emotionally developed and the more they create an environment where other people can be heard and valued, can speak up, can challenge point of views without feeling scared. It’s paramount especially for people under 30 to 35. People aren’t as loyal as they used to be. There’s more options and exposure to things than ever before. When environments are created where people don’t feel like they belong or people don’t feel who they’re working for actually care about them, it creates a lot of turnover. It creates a lot of internal issues. How do you create a transparent environment in your life? Your work life takes up most of your time. As a leader, it’s something I’ve had to start doing, not for the first time, but really improving upon and taking a holistic look of how well do I take the time to be present and get to know my people? I care about them but what can I do a better job to take stock of what’s going on in their life? You see it firsthand through all the people you work with. 

LOUISE PALANKER: Not just their lives at home but also how thy are working with one another. You can problem solve and you can move people in a way where some people are better independent workers and not great on a team. Others do better on a team. When you see someone throwing other people under the bus or you see someone that’s pitting people against each other, these are red flags that need to be addressed. You can’t just walk away and go, “They need to work it out.” You have to dig in and figure out what’s going on. You also have to be sensitive to harassment, bullying in the workplace, hierarchies that are taken advantage of. It’s like you’re playing the Sims. Everybody’s needs have to be attended to. Not in a micromanaging kind of way but in a way where you can’t just walk away from a festering situation and expect it to solve itself. Maybe you promoted this person too young and they don’t yet have the skillset to be a boss and to understand all that’s involved in human nature. They’re great, brilliant, genius at what they do but that doesn’t necessarily translate into other people should report to them. That’s a completely separate skillset, that of being a boss. Being good at a task and being a boss are completely different skillsets. Not everybody who is good at a task should get promoted. There’s so much you have to think about. You have to watch and pay attention and be sensitive to how everyone is doing. Is everyone working to their potential? Is everyone working to their strengths? 

BRYAN WISH: Couldn’t agree more. It takes a lot of maturity at a leadership level to recognize if you’re putting people in the right spots. It’s something you do so well. You have an eye for developing individuals, seeing something in them, and putting them in the right place to succeed. Those skills are so translatable. I appreciate your thoughtful insights and your heart that you shared with us today. When it’s all said and done, how would you want your legacy to be shared. What would you want it to mean? What do you want people to say about you?

LOUISE PALANKER: I’d want people to feel inspired to be kinder to one another and to find our common threads, to find the beauty in collaboration and that although we have these competitive instincts that are probably there because they help us with survival and such, I think we spend a lot more of our day collaborating. If you think about the big picture of just flying a drone over your neighborhood, you see people stopping at stop signs and letting other cars go. You see people walking on the sidewalk, not in traffic. You see people walking into a store and using a form of currency to purchase items that somebody else has created elsewhere that have made their way into that store. The evidence of collaboration is everywhere. It’s 95% of what we do. When you feel those competitive moments like I’m in the wrong line at the grocery store and that line is moving faster, it feels like some kind of competition. All of a sudden, five minutes of my life is worth me getting aggravated. Or a parking space. Where that competitive nature just kicks in. Road rage. These moments aren’t worth it. Where are you going that you can’t be behind this slow car? When you pass the car and look in the window, yes, you may see someone texting and that’s annoying but you may see someone who looks like your mom and you’re going to be like, “Oh, okay.” Everyone is a person and they all come into traffic with their back story and they go into the grocery story with their back story and they go into the workplace with their back story. They’re all just people. You don’t have to win all the time at everything against everyone that you encounter. Most of them are contributing to your well-being. Someone in front of you in traffic could be the doctor who saves your life a year from now. We’re all here for a reason. Try to appreciate the good in each other. That’s what I’d hope my legacy would be.

BRYAN WISH: Really special. The grocery store with people in line was so evocative. 

LOUISE PALANKER: Instincts kick in but it helps to take a deep breath and go, “I’m healthy. My mom loves me. I’ve got Survivor to watch when I get home. There’s good in my day. It’s okay if I spend five more minutes paying for my groceries.”

BRYAN WISH: Thank you for your time, thoughts, and vulnerability. It was really special. You’ve been such a dear friend. I appreciate your support from the beginning of my journey. Thanks for doing this with me today.

LOUISE PALANKER: Bryan, you’re a very inspirational person. I’m so very proud of you that you’re taking all of your talents and strengths and spreading them around and creating a body of work in leading by examples in ways that just make me very proud. It’s a pleasure to be here and share these moments with you. 

One Away Podcast
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