10 things I hope you get out of Marie Kondo’s “Tidying Up” (and no, “spark joy” isn’t one of them)

Marie Kondo has a new TV show that launched on Netflix on January 1. Eight episodes of the messages of her best-selling book brought to life with couples and families looking to shed their clutter and lead a different life in their home.

It’s exciting to have a show like this on television because I think it continues to highlight what working with a professional organizer — not just a Marie Kondo type, but anyone that works with your style and preferences — can be like to help transform your home and transform your life. I’ve watched the first season, and I wanted to share a professional organizer’s review of what the show shares. I think there are some great gems to the show, but they may not be what you think. 

 

 

What’s “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” about? 

In this eight-episode season, Marie is working with couples and families in different stages of life and transitions — empty nesters, downsizers, getting ready for first baby, new couples looking to become more “adult” in their home, after the loss of a spouse, overwhelmed with raising small children, and with children but trying to decide whether or not to add a third child (and the clutter situation is telling them they can’t). She looks to help them with her approach and her methodology to work through the transition to their desired goal of life in their homes.

marie kondo tidying up netflix                                       Photo: Netlfix

Marie’s style is a unique one, and honestly, I don’t share a lot in common with her approach. You may know some of what she’s known for, including asking if your items “spark joy,” saying “thank you” to each item you let go of, “waking up” books, and greeting the house before starting work. She also believes in working in one entire category at a time, which I don’t always find to be a practical solution to getting things done with my clients. She’s very focused on proper folding of every item of clothes (I admit I’ve been telling folks about file-and-folding t-shirts since my blog launched in 2013; her book has done wonders to popularize a wonderful solution that was already around.

But as I tell anyone who asks me what I think of her or her book, “I’m all for anything the helps inspire people to think more critically about what they own and whether it helps them live the life they most want to live, or if it stands in their way.” And I can say the same thing about her show. Netflix and Marie Kondo have helped to introduce many people to the world of working with a professional organizer and helping to think differently about what they own and why they own it and helping to change lives. 

Ten Things I Do Hope People Learn

If you’re someone who plans to watch one or even all 8 of the episodes, I hope you learn these 10 things, and NONE of these are specific to Marie Kondo or her approach: 

1. Changing your life and your stuff is hard work, so you better know WHY you want to do it. 

Knowing why you want your life to change can help you stay focused and motivated during challenging times. Each of the couples and families was able to articulate “What’s at risk if we don’t make a change?” and those scenarios they described were something they knew they wanted to work hard to avoid or achieve. It was the “eye on the prize” they often needed to help keep them motivated and focused when the work seemed too hard and too big, and just giving up and going back to the way it was seemed too easy to slip into. Know YOUR why so that you can have it support you when you question your ability to see it through.  

2. Decluttering and getting organized doesn’t happen overnight.

One of the best parts of this show, unlike other shows out there that feature “makeovers,” is that it shows that these couples and families are working over a period of a month, and obviously putting the focused time in almost every day in that month to get these results. These people are working hard, staying with it, facing some interpersonal conflict and some inner conflict along the way. And in every episode, the story outlines the years it took to get this way. We can’t make a meaningful change overnight (without some gasoline and a match, but that’s not the direction most people consider a GOOD change). 

3. Find and embrace gratitude for your home and what you have.

When I work with people in their homes, it can be hard to get past the overwhelming feeling of the chaos and clutter to truly appreciate what you have and where you are in life. We know when we watch home makeover shows on television, we often hear the complaints of how “the house failed us” — too small, too old, not enough closets, not enough storage space, etc. It can be easy to blame the house and look for a new one, and not recognize our own role in filing it up. This negative feeling when you’re facing a task like decluttering can weigh you down in blame — blaming yourself, blaming others — and not focusing on how to get past where you are to love where you are. 

4. Sometimes, you need to face all of what you have in order to see a path to change. 

Whether you’re piling it all in one place or you’re going through a full category, one spot at a time, you can learn a lot about yourself and how you got to where you are today when you visualize and appreciate all of what you have. Spoiler alert: seeing the sheer volume of what you own rarely sparks joy; in fact, it can spark some weighty feelings like anxiety, shame, overwhelmed, disappointment in yourself, a feeling of money wasted, not feeling great about your weight, etc. But if you’re like most of the people in the show (and most of us have some of this in us), you probably have things you’ve long since forgotten about throughout your home. Neglected, hidden, or just plain forgotten, these items have added up to the problem these people have today, and pulling it all out and facing it is part of moving forward. 

5. A House “works” because everyone in it contributes to its success, and every one of those people thinks about organization differently.

With the exception of one episode, all of the couples and families were struggling as a unit with organization beforehand, but the lode of how to manage that, or whose “fault” it was perceived to be was uneven. This show does a great job of highlighting the value of everyone working together on their home, not only to get it organized but to keep it organized. You hear people talk about what they think their role has become up until now, and how they see responsibilities shifting. We learn about how people feel that they learned more about their spouses and partners through this process because an examination of our stuff often reflects, well, that its never ACTUALLY about the stuff but rather our psychological or emotional entanglement with it.

It also highlights that working together means truly that – listening, empathizing, seeking to understand each other’s viewpoints and finding a compromise that works – is part of moving forward. When I work with clients as a couple, I’m often told that a session together feels a little like couples therapy (I’m not a therapist) because they’re surprised at how much they’re talking about thoughts and feelings and less about “keep versus toss.” People are wired differently, people value things differently, people need systems designed in different ways. This comes out in our values, in how we think about money, in how we think about our space. If you’ve been in a relationship where you’ve lived with someone else, you know just how often this shows up.

In these episodes, Kondo doesn’t do much to facilitate this couples-learning process (it’s often showing up in the “homework” footage), but there’s nothing unique about these couples. They’re facing beliefs and wishes and old baggage, but they seem to be saying, “We’re in this together, and our dreams of change are a shared dream.” For change to occur in a home with more than one person, it often requires the same statement. 

6. Your stuff isn’t the museum of your life, and it doesn’t have to be in your future to prove your past existed.

We see this one in the Mario and Clarissa (the sneakers episode) in neon lights. Mario has an attachment to so many items because they represent the steps he’s taken along the way to become who he is today. It is in the exploration of trading off keeping all the things for making space for becoming a parent (his “why” on getting organized) that he recognizes that he can’t make space for his future when it’s already filled with his past, and that not every item with his past needs to move forward with him. I speak about this with my clients when I talk about the fact that just because something is memorable doesn’t mean it is important. 

7. Start with the easy stuff and then work your way up to the hard stuff.

Marie Kondo’s method has 5 stages: Clothing, Books, Paper, Komono (or “Miscellaneous — kitchen, bathroom, garage, etc.”) and finally, sentimental items. While I don’t agree that the Komono section is great (I mean, you’re going to do EVERYTHING else functional in the house in one phase? From silverware to toys?), the fact that they are all a build-up to the sentimental items rings true with me. You often need to go through understanding the value and importance of functional items long before you’ve developed the muscle and the lens to evaluate those items tied closest to your heartstrings. 

8. There aren’t always right answers on where things go, but everything needs a home.

But working towards agreement so that one home reigns supreme means everyone is able to maintain the home. In the episode with Angela and Alishia, the couple articulates what I see all the time in working with homes with more than one person: two people can have very different (and valid) ideas for where things should go, or two people may have very different needs for where things go, for reasons of accessibility or sanity. In the end, however, there must be an answer.

The episode highlighted that the key was to have a conversation, check assumptions, talk through the pluses and minuses of the options, and agree upon a compromise that makes sense. When things have homes, things can be put back where they belong easily. Having the right homes and the right containers goes a long way to making lighter work of STAYING organized. (PS – in case it isn’t totally obvious, Marie Kondo believes in containerizing so much that she has released her own line of boxes, the Hikidashi Box Set, and they’re prominently placed in every promo piece and every episode.)

9. Yes, “normal” people hire professional organizers, too, and so can you.

Another great thing about this show is that it gives people an alternative to shows that focus on hoarding disorders to see how other people live and what it would take to get organized. For the most part, the people on this show do not seem to be suffering from hoarding disorder, which is a mental illness that we often see on the popular “Hoarders” shows. Many people who find out that I’m a professional organizer follow up with, “oh, like on ‘Hoarders’?” I explain that I don’t work with people in that situation, but I work with tons of people who are just like everyone else but are overwhelmed with clutter, don’t know where to start, don’t have the tools or the energy or the focus to do it on their own.

Yes, some of the people in the show seemed to have “Chronic Disorganization.” People with chronic disorganization have struggled with disorganization over a long period of time, it has had a negative effect on their lives on a daily basis, and self-help attempts have failed. I work with a number of these clients, and recognize these hallmark signs in a few episodes, like the one with the Mattisons (Sunita and Aaron and their 2 kids) and with the Akiyama family (the empty nesters with clothes, Christmas decorations, and baseball cards).

But many of the episodes just had people who were struggling, who wanted to live differently, who weren’t afraid to ask for the right kind of help to get there. People just like you or people you know and love. (Honestly, a complaint I have about the Mattisons’ episode and Mario and Clarissa’s episode is that they just seemed to magically turn a corner after some introspection, and then, suddenly, they were decluttering machines. I think this is one of the ways in which Tidying Up fails as a reality show, because there have to be some missing pieces to that reality).

10. Happier with Less is better than Unhappier with More

Okay, it’s a television show that’s been produced to support a certain thesis and viewing experience, but the answer is consistent with everyone who has thought that they’re living with too much clutter, and with everyone who has done something about it. It may be a hard process, but people feel better when they let go of things because they’ve made room for what’s important. They eliminated the stuff that wasn’t important but had been blocking them from accessing and appreciating what is. Whether the important “stuff” was actual things or just how they spent their time, you hear in the show and I hear with my clients all the time, “I feel lighter” or “I feel like a weight has been lifted.” People are happier with less, and they can see that being “unhappier with more” was a choice, not a life sentence, and they could work hard to get through to the other side. 

So what about this “Spark Joy” focus? 

Marie explains that an item you keep should be one that sparks joy, and when she shows you in the episodes what it means, it apparently means holding an item and your insides and outsides get a little squeaky with happiness. Listen, sparking joy is awesome. It would be amazing if it was all that simple – just find the things that spark joy and keep them, and let them go if they don’t.

But there are a few issues with this. First of all, not everything you should keep in life will spark joy. I mean, those spare AA batteries are going to spark something, but “joy” probably isn’t it. Your dish-scrubber probably doesn’t spark joy, but it’s certainly critical. Toilet paper? Well, I guess I know I’m happier with some brands than others, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say using my preferred brand sparks joy. You know what I mean; joy can’t be the ONLY criteria you use.

Second, as evidenced in the episode with the Mattison Family, Sunita can’t get past other sparks — guilt, fear, the ambition of goal weight — to even find the joy part. And this is how it is with many of my clients. And with the episode of Mario and Clarissa, Mario found joy in EVERYTHING. So, this is why it can be challenging. What happens when finding the items that spark joy and letting go of the rest isn’t that simple? I know many people who have said that this lens has helped them immensely; the people who go a step further and say “it’s time for me to invest in some professional assistance” probably stumbled through this part of the book or exercise and found themselves in need of a Plan B.   

So, what did YOU think?

If you decide to watch “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” remember that this is still television, and the stories have been edited to fit your TV screen and the producers’ vision of reality. There will be items thrown in to  be a little sensational, but nowhere near as much as in an episode of “Hoarders.” And you might find something to pick on with every couple and family (heck knows the Twitterverse already has). But remember that, for many people, there’s going to be an episode that feels REALLY relatable, hit too close to home, either for them or for a family member or loved one.

If it’s you, and watching the show inspires you to make some changes, CONGRATULATIONS! Picture Marie Kondo clapping for you, or heck, just picture me clapping for you. I mean, when’s the last time you can say a TV show made you want to change your life and you actually stood up and did something about it? Just remember that it’s not going to change overnight, but it CAN change. Your own work will take a lot of time, but it can be SO worth it to make a change if you’re not happy with the way you’re living today.

Want to dive in a little more to learn about what’s been holding you back from moving forward with letting things go? Well, I’d much rather recommend my own book, Clever Girl’s Guide to Living with Less, which explores the psychological and emotional barriers to letting things go, and helps you devise a plan to address some of the most common challenging categories: clothes, books, paper, photos, and memorabilia/sentimental items. Better yet, get in touch with me for an in-person or virtual organizing session, or find a professional organizer from the thousands of members of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO) to get started on making your OWN change today! 

 

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34 Comments

  1. Michelle

    Great post, Kathy! You point out a lot of the really positive aspects of this how.

    Reply
    • clevergirlorg

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the article, Michelle! Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  2. Rosemary

    I have watched two episodes. Thanks for the article. I will have to see what I think after I watch all of the episodes. I am a professional organizer also!

    Reply
    • clevergirlorg

      I hope you’ll hop on back here and share your thoughts as a professional! Would love to hear your perspective. Thanks so much for stopping by!

      Reply
  3. Meredith

    I haven’t watched yet but now I’m curious! I totally appreciate your practical, down-to-earth approach- because there is simply NO MAGiC! Thanks for a thought provoking post!

    Reply
    • clevergirlorg

      Thanks so much, Meredith. Please do let me know if you watch it and what you think! (Also — there is a scene in one of the episodes in which the concept of “magic” comes up, and I was happy with how it was handled.)

      Reply
  4. Cheryl

    Terrific breakdown of the show and how it translates to our work. I’ve only watched the first episode but plan on watching them all. It is nice to have an alternative to Hoarders for people to talk about!!

    Reply
    • clevergirlorg

      Thanks for reading, Cheryl! I’m so glad what I wrote resonated for you and how we do what we do!

      Reply
  5. Jocelyn Kenner

    Brava, Kathy!! I am a colleague and thank you for expressing so “cleverly” and thoughtfully your take on Marie Kondo and her show/method. I couldn’t agree more!! I look forward to sharing this article with clients and friends. You have a gift for dissecting the truths and presenting them in a supportive, digestible way. I’ve referred to your post from 2016, “Facing Sentimental Items While Trying to get Organized” numerous times and have sent it to many clients.
    I hope this Kondo post gets the attention it deserves because it not only benefits those of us in the industry, but also the people we help.

    Reply
    • clevergirlorg

      What a thoughful note to share! Thank you so much for your feedback… and please, do share the post with your network so that we can get the word out about us! 🙂

      Reply
  6. Sylvia

    Thanks for this post. Lovely read.

    I enjoyed the show because – unlike a lot of other reality TV – it doesn’t put its participants down. It shows that everyone has an experience in their past that made them and their home who they are today. That to me was very refreshing.

    Especially the dynamics between the family members. I’m sure there were rough times but the producers chose to show scenes where even when there’s disagreement it’s done respectfully and from a place of love.

    I’m from Germany and I had only known Marie by name but never looked into her method before.

    I was extremely surprised that we as a family already used a lot of similar techniques when we moved into and renovated our current home.
    It made me appreciate the effort every member of our family – including myself – has put into making this house a home. At the same time I realized that I can have more understanding for them when they are on a different page with some items than me.

    Overall I enjoyed the program and look forward to a second season.

    Reply
    • clevergirlorg

      I completely agree, Sylvia… there is kindness, rather than humiliation, that is going on with how they choose to film and edit these families and their situations. It’s impossible not to root for their success! I love that it helped you appreciate how you and all of your family have contributed to building your home. Thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts!

      Reply
  7. Seana Turner

    This is a great post, Kathy. I am thinking about the man in the sneaker episode. Sometimes clearing away the past can feel like a loss… we don’t want to let go, even though we are doing so to make room for something good in our future. I remember a man telling me that he had to give up a vintage car when he had children. It was rough for awhile, because that car felt like part of his identity. But now, he doesn’t miss it at all. He’s thrilled with his family and new life. It took a bit of time and perspective to see the situation this way, however, so it has stuck with me.

    Reply
    • clevergirlorg

      I know exactly what you mean! He was so self-aware of his struggle, and KNEW he had to face the sneakers issue, KNEW in his mind it was the right answer for his future, but the tradeoff he seemed to feel he was making was heartbreaking at times. PS — does it bother you about the show that we don’t know if he sold his sneaker collection or not? I mean, it would be hard to imagine he didn’t, but he also didn’t sell them all in a week before the camera crew returned. (ahhh.. the magic of television!) Thanks for reading and sharing!

      Reply
      • Get organized already

        I totally wanted Marie to address the issue of selling the sneakers!

        Also completely agree about the hoarding tendencies that *poof* disappeared!

        I love watching the show and talking about it with people, though. There aren’t many shows I say that about!
        -Nonnahs

        Reply
  8. Lisa

    You are clearly critical of what Marie Kondo does to some extent (and perhaps it’s jealousy), even though you are trying to promote organizing using her examples. This backhanded complimenting/criticizing doesn’t look good on you. I’m a journalist, thus naturally critical, but the good on her shows far outweighs the items that you are not-so-subtly bashing. I liked watching them simply because her non-judgmental nature and the fact that the people had to do their own work however it worked for them was very appealing.

    On the other hand, I found your post highly unappealing, and not because I’m a Marie fan, but because I want to hear what you promote, not what you don’t. It’s too unpleasant to read this. I don’t want to wade through your side notes, yikes.

    Reply
    • clevergirlorg

      Thanks for stopping by to read my post, Lisa. I seem to have upset you to the point of your spending time to share your feedback. I was upfront about my criticism of her approach, didn’t hide any of that. I wish you’d been able to wade through my side notes to see the positive I did share, but so be it.

      Like most bloggers, I have the option of approving or deleting posts on my page, and I just wanted to be sure that people know I approve comments even when they’re not “approving” of me or my writing.

      Reply
      • Denise

        There’s always one, Kathy.
        Those of us who know your style from being a part of your Clever Girl groups completely get where you’re coming from. I guess the saying is true… “You can’t please everyone every time”, but your work and your book prove that what you do works for those who choose you.
        I didn’t click on this link to see you praise the show. I clicked it to see your OPINION of it, just like you said in the post.

        Reply
        • clevergirlorg

          Denise, thank you for this VERY thoughtful reply! Your support means a lot to me!

          Reply
  9. Rosie

    I wonder if the “spark joy” idea is most useful for clothes (rather than, as you say, the dish scrubber). Do you think it’s useful at all, though maybe less than Kondo suggests?

    Reply
    • clevergirlorg

      Thanks, Rosie! As with all things, the answer is, “It Depends!” It depends on whether or not it is helpful! I think for many people, it *can* be useful, if it allows them to reconsider what they own and why they own it, and it helps them get unstuck.

      If you watched the episode with the 2 gentlemen looking to “adult” more, I think this issue came up a bit in real-time. For one, none of his clothes sparked joy, yet all of his books did. For the other, it was the opposite. And they each struggled to relate to the disconnect the other was having with it.

      So, in both cases, working through how “Spark” could help them make decisions wasn’t as simple as just that. If everything sparks joy in a collection, there’s much to hold onto and it doesn’t help you choose. And if nothing sparks joy, the answer may not be “just get rid of it all, then”.

      Reply
  10. Ilia Beecher

    I read Marie Kondo’s book, and have watched about 4 episodes of the show. While I personally don’t feel her techniques work for me, I fully agree that there is room (and plenty of work!) for all types of organizers. Japanese culture is deeply rooted in minimalism, quite the opposite of American culture. Not that I enjoy seeing people struggle or suffer, getting to the psychological root of clutter is important for long term success. I don’t see that in KonMari. However it’s like finding a good therapist or a life partner- might have to try a few before you find the one that clicks for you.

    Reply
  11. Hazel Thornton

    Just read Lisa’s comment. Ouch! When I was writing about Marie Kondo’s book, in 2016, no one ever accused me of being jealous, but perhaps that’s because one of my “Five Stages of Marie Kondo” is Depression: “It’s so hard to know what to say about her and her book, when asked, without sounding jealous or unprofessional. And I don’t even have a competing book!”

    “I believe Marie Kondo to be 90% just like any other organizer (with fantastic PR and timing), 5% lost in translation, and 5% unique.

    My problem is not with Marie Kondo. It’s with the media hype surrounding her.”

    And you, Kathy, have captured the 90% that all professional organizers want people to know.

    Reply
    • clevergirlorg

      Thanks so much, Hazel! Yeah, I didn’t love Lisa’s comment, but I don’t need to censor it, so I’m fine with leaving it out there. I’m with you — Marie Kondo has a tremendous PR machine, and good for her! She’s certainly not doing anyone any harm out there… If she had a PR machine *and* I thought her approaches were questionable and potentially provided setbacks for people, I think all of our colleagues would be a bit more vocal about it!

      Thanks for taking the time to hop over and share your thoughts. I know you’ve done a fair amount of thinking and writing on the subject yourself!

      Reply
  12. Natasha

    I’ve only watched one episode, but I read her book. I’m not interested in talking to my clothes etc, but I was really inspired by the way she talked about how an organised home feels. I just appreciated the good advice and ignored the more kooky bits.

    Reply
    • clevergirlorg

      Thanks, Natasha! I’m glad the idea of how an organized home feels… there are many ways to get there! Stay inspired and find the right path for you (ignoring the kooky bits 🙂 )

      Reply
  13. Sharon Lowenheim

    Kathy, what a brilliant analysis! I’m happy for any show that alerts the public to our profession. I’ve watched only the first episode. Unlike other shows that I’ve watched, I like that this program demonstrates that it takes many hours of hard work and that the organizer doesn’t do all the work while the clients go to a hotel for the weekend. I also like that Marie doesn’t make fun of them and their stuff like other shows did.

    Reply
    • clevergirlorg

      Thank you so much, Sharon! I’m so glad you stopped by to read this and share your feedback. I agree – I think my *favorite* part is that Marie is obviously very kind to the participants in the show.

      Reply
  14. Charlene Orsine

    Very Nice post Kathy! I think the biggest takeaway for me is your comment ” I’m all for anything the helps inspire people to think more critically about what they own and whether it helps them live the life they most want to live, or if it stands in their way.” Nothing Truer could be said.

    As I see so many friends start to comment on FB about how inspired she has made them to declutter their spaces, I couldn’t be happier to see people beginning this journey.

    Reply
  15. Soledad

    Dear Kathy, I read this piece per a link on the Boston Globe. As just a regular person who is always trying to make a weakness into a strength, live with less clutter and more organized- I absolutely loved how you distilled the most essential lessons and pointed to the potential complexity and hard work in getting organized. I especially appreciated the directive of being clear about the WHY to support the long, difficult journey (which indeed it has been for me) ahead. I must also mention that although I don’t share the same sentiment that Lisa conveyed, before reading her post i was struggling with feeling a bit estranged by some of your comments that did seem a bit cynical and even perhaps competitive with respect to Kondo. I only mention this because it did seem like such a departure from the much fuller, richer and illuminating points you were making in the rest of the piece. Please know that your post has really helped me think about persisting and in understanding more of the nature of the challenges I am facing. Thank you.

    Reply
    • clevergirlorg

      Thank you so much, Soledad, for taking the time to read my post and share your thoughts! I’m so glad that it spoke to you and helped you think through some of the spots in this process that you’ve been facing. Best of luck with your continued efforts on your journey! And thank you for your candor on the rest of it; I appreciate the feedback!

      Reply
  16. Lauren Williams, Certified Professional Organizer

    Points 1 & 2: Yes, show does an excellent job teaching organizing effort is hard, long & involved work. It is critical to be motivated by a thoughtfully-developed goal. It’s an element of our job to help our clients define those goals. Barry Iszak in his Garages book says he refuses to answer “How long is this going to take?” (p. 21). That’s a daunting prospect. 3: Yes about gratitude, the more studies show how healthful it is. I find that people often feel more gratitude after decluttering. 4: I don’t think it matters whether we mix & match Julie Morgenstern, Judith Kolberg, our own techniques or others,, sooner or later we & our clients confront some 1 thing which accumulated more than others. Takes courage. 5: Everyone contributes to a household’s functionality. YES!!! Peter Walsh in his book It’s All Too Much does a brilliant job of navigating those dynamics. 6 & 7: I disagree with Kondo entirely – it’s not just that “spark joy” can be applied to everything, maybe ought not be applied to batteries. It’s that her order is superficial: I’ve had clients where clothes had to be last or we’d never get anywhere. Books first because that was the overwhelming hazard in the house. Too much 1-size-fits-all. 8, 9 & 10: Brilliantly said.

    Reply
    • clevergirlorg

      Lauren, thank you so much for such a thoughtful and thorough review of what I’ve shared! I love that you brought your own expertise into view here. Thanks for the time and the feedback!

      Reply

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