Stumping for the Trees

What it means TO BE OF USE

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think. If you like this newsletter, subscribe, pls.

I keep thinking about this thing my friend T did a few years ago. The anemic kindergarten play area at our kids’ school was in want of some tree stumps. Rather than navigate a thousand requests and barriers and hurdles that would make the word Kafkaesque sound like a breeze, she found another way. T got a tree company to chop up some old logs and she dropped them into the playground, where they’ve been supporting tiny bums ever since. She’s the doingest doer I know. 

I would have written a letter to the principal, and then waited 12 years for a reply, and six more for permission to stump, by which time my kids would have graduated college with PhDs in How to be More Effective Than Your Mom. I too want to throw tree stumps into the playground while no one’s looking.

I’ve written in the past about #DOINGTHINGS, but this week reminded me that those who aren’t quick-draw doers might need frequent reDOs of this message. Maybe a weekly prompt to DO DO DO, because there isn’t time to DON’T. This Doing isn’t about being prolific so much as strategic. It’s about having the confidence to just get into the work in order to usefully help something along, without hemming or hawing. Or at least not too much hawing. A little bit of hawing is fun.

This revisiting of the idea of doing was prompted by our All We Can Save Book Club. Together, we’re reading our way through a lovely collection of essays by (surprise!) women who get things done. Our current section of the book, Advocate, really stuck with me because the work of all the women (stopping coal mines! creating the Green New Deal!) felt so active. As a person whose greatest daily activity is moving from standing to sitting desk (and back again on a good day!), there was something about the work of all these women that felt more like vivid doing. In practice, this may not actually be true — it probably takes lots of sloggishly sedentary paperwork, phone calls, and emails to get ’er decommissioned. But the idea of community outreach feels very active and physical and alive to me, as I sit in my office writing and designing and communicating through a tiny, glowing box. 

I seem to crave the outward machinations. Some physical manifestation of work tangibly done, and change swiftly dispatched. Which is also probably a bit made up, really! Mary Anne Hitt’s coal plant closures are a life’s work and not the result of merely knocking on a few doors. Hi, can you close this plant, K thanks byeeee!

Talking about the beauty of doing with these book club pals was helpful in and of itself. If you’re a petition-signer and rote route follower like moi, there are still ways to move into less orthodox doing. As I voiced this desire, I realized as much. And my friend S made the very useful point that behind all the traditional ENGO mobilization there are communities doing the work, and perhaps I might find a way to support that work. So wise. 

So how am I going to do? As Covid wreaks havoc, sucking up time and attention and money and anger in our province (and everywhere), our premier is quietly dismantling some very important protections to our Greenbelt. I’ve signed the petitions, kicked in a few bucks, retweeted, and agonized while making toast. But what more can I DO DO DO DO without sticking myself into a watershed and raging like the premature granny I am? Maybe that’s actually a good plan, as I’ve been wanting to start ice bathing anyway. Two birds.

My task these next few weeks is to think about how to amplify this cause, how best to support the people already doing the work. I’ll start by ... asking them!

A poem from the All We Can Save book that we read has stuck with me so much. It perfectly captures what it means to be straightforwardly serviceful in one’s doing. It’s called To Be of Use and it’s by Marge Piercy. Here she is, reading it. It explains these comics, which are inspired by the last lines:

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.


How do you DO? LMK.


Listen to this excellent podcast interview with Tara McGowan who talks about everything I wrote about in last week’s newsletter. Except more smarterer.


Have a beautiful, wonderful week!

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PPPPS. If you’re here due to this this lovely shout out in Dense Discovery, welcome. For MVPers who don’t know Dense Discovery, it’s a gorgeous and superbly-curated dose of density and delight. Subscribe.

How to exploit social media to advance your nefarious plot to save the world (part deux)

Big tech and climate and you

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think. If you like this newsletter, hit the ol’ subscribe, pls.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about using social media to advance the climate conversation. It was the lite, individual action approach to dealing with a behemoth problem. What’s the upstream approach? Burn it all down. Or at least break it up into itty bitty pieces no greater than the size of Mark Zuckerberg’s sunblock-shellacked head.

The deep wisdom of this Kevin Roose piece, given the result of the US election, should give us all a fright. Roose has been steadfastly sounding the alarm about Facebook’s content skew for years: Far-right content and misinformation pervade by a huge, huge margin. On any given day, you can expect an 80-20 or 90-10 split between far-right and centre/left sites. As my friend recently asked, what’s a Bongino? IDK! The far right is eating everyone else’s lunch, and breakfast, and dinner. And all their snacks, too. It doesn’t matter if Biden spent 8 to 1 on digital advertising if right-leaning lies are a million to one in earned (well, earned is a bit of an overstatement) in the other direction.

I’m not giving people who voted for Trump a free pass, but a look at what millions of people consume for hours a day on their socials provides some perspective. When combined with the robustness of right-leaning talk radio airwaves, we are seeing endless troughs of what I’d charitably call low-information content. It’s a deep sowing of untruths that can’t be uprooted with a few newspaper articles that debunk the lies. And it’s why a lot of the media analysis in the wake of this election seems off to me. THIS is the story. It all comes from here. This is where people get their information, bake it into their worldview, and serve it up to their friends and families and Facebook feeds. It’s horrible for the future prospects of a truth-based world. And it’s terrible for climate.

Like Roose, I’m a little obsessed with Crowdtangle. I use their climate tool to get a bead on what people are saying or not saying about the crisis on Facebook. It’s a sobering lens. People are not saying much. And when they do talk, there’s both deeply insubstantial and inaccurate content. It’s a giant pile of yikes.

How do we solve this? Sharing good content on our personal accounts isn’t enough. Reading it again now, it’s hard not to agree even more with Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’ breakup Facebook feature from last year. While there’s some hope that Biden will regulate big tech, and make it accountable/liable for content on their platform (!!!), it’s not one of his top four priorities. That said, by all indications, he’ll go much harder on tech than previous administrations. But I worry that we’re up against a tsunami of tstupidity. Sandbagging one outlet only helps so much.

Conservatives who don’t like the slightly increased fact-checking on Facebook and Twitter are switching to sites like Parler and Newsmax, where they can post misinformation with abandon. Which is why regulating big tech is less of a panacea, and more of a wee start in our quest to lance the lies.

What to read

What to do


What do you think about the spray of spurious social? LMK!

LAST WEEK: Positive-ish

Writes lovely Kathryn: 

Two more reasons for hope: there are two Senate runoffs in Georgia in January. Georgia has Stacey Abrams to help organize and GOTV.

Overwhelmingly, Americans support better climate policies (like 70-30). We just have really bad messaging and the deniers have a lot of money to throw around bad info. It’s the same with healthcare. Apparently Democrats’ policies are really popular, but the Republicans still win because they scare people to death…


Other Stuff

I wrote a comic on food waste for Yes! If food waste were a country, it’d be the third-largest emitter. Food for thought!

I’m looking for test audiences (in Canada) for a pilot project on climate communications. It’s a 45-minute talk designed for groups of 7-15 people, delivered online. Do you have a group that might like to participate? Your knitting club or Harry Styles fan club? Your grandmother’s pickleball club? Participants don’t need to know anything about climate. We’re expressly looking for people who feel they don’t know enough and want to know and do more. It’s free and fun and not too depressing, I promise! Message me for more information! Thank you.

People dancing

Is it weird that I want Harry Styles’ pants?

Have a wonderful weekend!

PS. Does this newsletter go to your junk mail? Please drag it from promotions to your primary inbox!
PPS. My husband always generously proofs my newsletter for typos and idiocies. Check out his newsletter today. He writes about the wonderful poet Kate Baer, who I’d never heard of.
PPPS. As always, LMK me how I can make it better! Is it too long? too first-persony? too momjeansy? I’d like to mix it up, so please share.

I told you I was positive-ish!

Because there's no other way to be.

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think. If you like this newsletter, subscribe?

This newsletter is about climate, but climate is tied to everything. So while the fact that nearly 70,000,000 votes were cast for a candidate who will exacerbate the climate crisis is a crushing blow on its own, the fact these votes were cast for a racist, misogynistic, fraudulent, authoritarian liar who has openly encouraged violence and let hundreds of thousands of people die makes it ... that much worse. 


We always knew the path was going to be hard. The fact that nearly 70,000,000 Americans voted for said racist climate denier just makes it that much harder. And though the path is steeper than we’d hoped, visibility is clear. There’s no ambiguity when it comes to what people feel — the hate isn’t lurking in the shadows but is open and vile and wearing an ill-fitting made-in-China minidress with Trump’s face printed all over it. The voting priority of maintaining patriarchal, white supremacy above all else makes it clear that people will fight, fist and gun, for their power, even as the tides of brackish water swell around their ankles. It’s existentially bonkers and ideologically consistent. And it makes this Florida girl cry tears of hot frustration.

So, a bummer. 

But at the risk of being a toxic positivist, I’m going to go forth with optimism. Not with blind hope, but with ambitious courage. It’s true that I did feel a Biden + Senate win was our last, best shot for staving off the worst of the climate crisis. But there are other avenues that are both more arduous, more centrist, and in some ways, more true to where the world is now. A resounding Biden victory would have been another chapter in the mythic story of American Exceptionalism. But a lot of the ideas about not being able to do this without the US of A are just that — ideas. Even as those millions of Americans rushed to cast their ballots against climate, the world was pulling away. China further strengthened its climate commitments, and a slew of other countries committed to Net Zero. Even your favourite shirtless horseman is committing to climate, if only to goad you know who. As the US struggles with white supremacy, other countries are building hydrogen opportunities and solar panels and their future economic viability and power. As Gernot Wagner puts it, the future always bats next.

It’s sad to watch a country lose its game so vigorously, especially when it’s your country. And the geopolitics of a world where power rests in different places presents its own complications. But we live to breathe another day. And we will put all our might and money into Georgia. And we will build on. And we will convince our neighbours that racism and misogyny and the climate crisis and Emily in Paris are all bad things that need to be fixed. And we will turn this world around yet. 

Eric Holthaus already has a great list of things a bicamerally-hampered Biden can do and guess what — there’s a ton

Gernot Wagner also wrote a perfect column on what kind of climate action Biden and the world can take. The whole thing’s not online yet, but let’s start here:

Still, there’s a lot a climate president could do. Even the simple step of returning to science-based policymaking would be an enormous improvement and an important first step. A task force put together during the campaign and led by former Secretary of State John Kerry and Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, identified 56 policy moves on climate and energy that that don’t need help from Congress.

To those who want to take us back to the unjust past, we must bring our empathy, and we must not patronize. To those who have done the work and knocked on the doors, and built the coalitions and tabled through the vitriol (I see you, mom!), we must add our support.

So shake that rage into a Patrick Dempsey-inspired dance, get some sleep, hug the people you love (if they’re in your bubble), eat a nice sandwich, fortify yourself with some good music, get help from your helpers, and let’s keep going!

And finally -

This week

How are you doing? LMK!

People dancing

Thanks to my friend Jess for alerting me to the #joytothepolls hashtag. Dance against the injustices!

Have a wonderful, sleepful weekend after this most enervating week!

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It's time to emit how little we know

Why a modest amount of carbon literacy is key to quashing the climate crisis

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think. If you like this newsletter, please subscribe.

This week’s edition is an opinion piece I wrote for Yes! Mag on climate literacy. There’s a double whammy of injustice when you think about the fact that the burden of solving climate has been unduly shunted to individuals, who are then deprived of the information necessary to do what they’re being told to do. I got to interview two excellent academics who work on climate at the intersection of psychology, engineering, and behavioural science. They’re worth checking out: Jiaying Zhao, Shahzeen Attari.

We know less than we think we know about climate. And we know even less than that about our carbon footprint. This doesn’t mean we’re all idiots. Instead, it means that we live in a world where this information isn’t widely available, or particularly well-conveyed. This needs to change. Very quickly.

We don’t need everyone to become carbon-computing experts, but we do need to make it easier to understand the basics of climate science and emissions reductions, in the hopes that people will be empowered and inspired to take climate action.

What We Don’t Know

The fancy term for thinking we know more than we do is overconfidence bias. In the case of climate, a new VICE study finds we overestimate our knowledge significantly. The study revealed that “67 percent of adults around the world said they had a good understanding of climate change terms, but when asked to choose the best definition of those terms, only 41 percent of adults chose answers that showed they knew what they were talking about.” It seems our knowledge of basic climate change is, well, not so hot.

Which is why it’s no surprise that a new University of British Columbia study finds that North Americans also don’t know much about what causes emissions. In fact, we are surprisingly off the mark when asked to make trade-offs (nope, the emissions from a transatlantic flight cannot be mitigated by picking up litter). Carbon numeracy, or people’s knowledge of the carbon impacts of goods and services, is a remarkably under-researched area, so the good news is that we’re starting to learn about how much we don’t know. “People have very incorrect ideas of what’s effective and what’s not,” says Jiaying Zhao, an associate professor of psychology at UBC, and one of the study’s co-authors.

Why We Don’t Know

There are lots of reasons why we don’t know nearly enough about climate change and carbon emissions. The consensus on climate science grows ever stronger by the day, but has only existed for a few generations, and is still highly politicized. And the science is complicated, especially when we’re not formally taught about climate change with any great breadth or consistency across our formal education.

In some areas, the public has been well educated, as is the case with the benefits of electric vehicles versus gas vehicles. In other areas we’ve been fed a lot of misinformation, such as the overstated benefits of recycling that have minimal effect on our emissions reductions.

What’s more, numbers are communicated in ways that have no relevance to the average individual who doesn't talk in megatonnes. Better to say that a transatlantic flight is equivalent to about the same amount of emissions that an average person in The Global North produces in an entire year.

Another key reason all this is so difficult is that it’s impossible to know the carbon footprint of most of the stuff we buy. Climate impacts are much more complicated than calories or personal finances, as they require understanding of energy, agriculture, and fuel efficiency. Plus, corporations, many of whom are responsible for huge amounts of global emissions, have a vested interest in obfuscating the role their products have played in the warming of the planet.

Why It Matters

All of this is so important because you can’t measure what you don’t understand. It’s hard to care about climate and know what actions to take or advocate for if we don’t know what emissions are or what we can do about them.

What We Can Do

There are lots of ways to improve basic climate knowledge and carbon numeracy. But we should focus on the arenas in which people’s knowledge gaps are the largest: What is climate change, and what are the best things to do to stop it? Upstream policy interventions are essential, but people need to understand the basics to care enough to advocate for those important interventions.

Quick Tips for Climate Shifts

The message isn’t austerity. It’s that we need to be smarter. “We don’t have to become calculators,” says Shahzeen Attari, an associate professor in the school of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University Bloomington. “We just need to know the most effective things we can do and go out and do them.”

We should be doing the things that get the most bang for our buck. Right now, we’re spending lots of effort on the wrong things. Simple heuristics or shortcuts can help people focus on the most important things to reduce their footprints, starting with how we travel, and moving on to how we power our homes and what we eat.

Label This

We should really slap carbon labels on everything. There’s no excuse for not providing people with what should be one of the most important metrics in determining what they buy. Recent polling by Canadian climate policy institute Clean Prosperity suggests 71% of Canadians would like to see these labels on their products. Another recent study by Globescan, a research consultancy, finds that people overwhelmingly want to live sustainable lifestyles but need concrete information to support their efforts.

As technology makes it easier and easier to calculate a product's emissions, the industry complaint that figuring out how to do this is untenable or expensive no longer holds water. Large manufactures manage every aspect of their supply chain. (It’s why they can do things like get rid of unsustainable suppliers, as the Mars candy company did with palm oil). Calculating emissions along the way is increasingly becoming the cost of doing business. A few big manufacturers, including Unilever, have already committed to doing so.

How companies label will also help people understand and quantify their emissions. Carbon Trust, a leading U.K. carbon footprint labeller suggests language like “this product is x times lower than the market standard.” Companies can also share emissions info by representing it with visual metaphor. For example, trying to visually quantify emissions in ways that people understand, such as traffic lights or a simple scale of 1-10. In this way, labels can fulfil their responsibility to disclose, while also helping improve carbon numeracy for consumers.

“I think we should label all the things we buy, so all consumer products going from a sandwich to a car to a flight we book,” says Zhao. “That doesn’t necessarily mean you can influence actions, but the hope is that consumers would become more aware and they will make different choices if they can.”

That said, Attari cautions that labels are not the only solution. “Given our limited time and attention, people need to know the things to do as individuals, and as political actors. That includes things like voting, protesting, and voting with your wallet.”

Put a Price on it

A partner recommendation to carbon labeling products is putting a price on carbon itself, in the form of a carbon tax. A carbon tax means the cost of the good or service will automatically reflect the emissions required to produce it. And in a world with far too much information to consume already, this seems the wisest, fairest, and easiest course of action. By pricing carbon, the cost of the good or service gives us important information about its emissions intensity. Together, labeling and taxing go a long way towards informing the consumer of the true cost of emissions. It’s about transparency and clarity. And you know, saving humanity.

Of course, we need a whole whack of other solutions, too. But to mobilize people in support of our most imminent existential threat, we should use the simplest, quickest tools to bring the world up to a modest degree of carbon fluency. There isn’t time for anything less.

This week

Thoughts on climate literacy? How important is it? LMK!

People dancing

Hope you are happy and healthy.
Have a wonderful weekend,

PS. Does this newsletter go to your junk mail? Please drag it from promotions to your primary inbox!
PPS. Like this newsletter? Tell a friend?
PPPS. As always, lmk me how I can make it better! Is it too long? too first-persony? too momjeansy? I’d like to mix it up, so please share.


or, five quick tips that really do work!

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think. If you like this newsletter, please subscribe. And tell your dog to as well.

If you’d told me twenty years ago that there would one day be a company that owned all my most useful communication tools and knew everything about me and most of the world and had the power to torque elections and incite genocide and that its most vocal critic was Borat, I...would have said I’m not really into sci fi.

And yet, here we are.

I’ve done the social media diet before. The one where I abstain from everything. The problem is all the tools and resources and information that I miss out on. How would I know when to next inflict my violin playing on the local klezmer jam? How would I know about the latest nimby happenings in my neighbourhood? Many people are wrestling with deleting their social accounts after watching The Social Dilemma. And I sometimes wish I could do likewise. But I need my socials for work and niche neighbourhood news.

If you need your accounts for work, life, or maintaining contact with your far-away aunties or special communities, you accept the good and bad of these platforms. But there are ways to try to use these spaces to push for change, and to make the experience richer for yourself and those around you by sharing valuable climate information, which is severely underrepresented on social media. The goal is not to try to swell your social following. The goal is to try to swell climate’s social following.

We know that Facebook and Instagram algorithms prioritize a certain type of engagement: enragement. It amplifies the emotional, like angry Trump rants or a cute baby dance. What does this mean for someone who shares climate content? Lots. 

Climate content is often downvoted because it’s not exceptionally engaging. This isn’t because people are evil and don’t care about the world. It’s because they came to Facebook to look at their second cousin’s new sailboat with the tasteless name. Not to be confronted with an article about the world’s rapidly exhausting carbon budget. 

Herewith, Five tips for Planetary PR: 

1. Be a first-rate curator (without ever referring to yourself as a curator)

Share the most thoughtful articles. The ones that don’t front load APOCALYPSE. Share beautiful pieces with good data and great art and resonant ideas. Amazing stories of magical plastic-eating enzymes, hydrogen trucks, game-changing forest regeneration techniques, the rapidly dropping cost of solar. Share these things not to hide the dire, but to get people to be able to see our possible future at scale - the world where life is actually better (less pollution, less inequality, more dancing). Add thoughts (RT with comment!) about why you’re sharing what you’re sharing, and what you want people to take away from it or do. Highlight the most salient bits for the time-deprived (everyone). (More last week on what kind of positive news to share.) And look for stories that bridge divides.

2. No Smug Prescriptions

Do NOT I repeat DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT share content that talks about lifestyle changes we have to make in a hierarchical or judgy manner. I learned this firsthand when I posted an article about reducing air travel, and then took a six-month break from Facebook because I disliked the conversation I had kickstarted so much. People get defensive about the idea that we might need to change our ways (hello, loss aversion!). These articles send people into games of gotcha with the science or math on offer, IE engaging in tradeoff thinking: Well, I don’t drive a truck, so it’s okay if I eat hamburgers. This is extremely unhelpful because we are actually very horrible at tradeoff math, aka carbon numeracy

It’s also not helpful because a lot of these ‘Stop doing this, you bad person’ pieces are predicated on the narrative that we have to sacrifice. Much research shows that this is simply untrue. Decarbonisation does not mean we all have to suffer through frigid winters eating only rutabaga (has anyone ever eaten a rutabaga?). 

Plus, a lot of these pieces take a core ideological belief (we should not eat animals) and dress it up with emissions-reductions facts, belabouring individual action with no thought of how unfeasible it is for so many. Indeed, behaviour change is necessary, but only as means of catalyzing systems change. Needless to say, your uncle Joe didn’t come to FB to hear that his steak and his truck and his steaktruck (mmm…) are killing the planet. Nor does your under-resourced friend need to be harangued with impossibly expensive and time-consuming lifestyle swaps. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you’re looking for climate articles that support a pre-existing belief you already have (hello confirmation bias!). I know I’m deeply susceptible to stories that gel with my worldview and always want to share those in ALL-CAPS with all the emojis and some jazz hands too.

If you ARE really interested in carbon literacy (me me me too!) there are lots of great tools that you can share that help people learn about their footprint on their own terms. A key climate communications (and life) truism is to ask people questions so they can reason out the answers for themselves.

3. Be a generous amplifier

Climate invariably gets less engagement on social, but we can subvert this by liking, commenting, and supporting this content with our best GIFage. Sometimes, I’ll like the same piece of content a dozen times. It’s about amplifying and supporting climate so that it will get more eyeballs. A key benefit of doing this is that it pushes the poster to continue sharing their climate news and views. Which is really important, as people often stop sharing climate content when it gets no social love. It’s hard enough to put challenging thoughts out there, harder still when you get zero response to your serious climate shares. Reward this brave vulnerability with a bit of your time and attention if you can.

4. One for you, one for Zuck

Despite no concrete proof of this, my anecdotal research tells me that you can tweak the algorithm by alternating your energy. If I post a silly meme or adorable malapropism by one of my children that garners much engagement, my content gets shared more widely. And then I can post something substantive about the state of the planet, and tank my algorithm once again. An alternating current of earthly delight and despair.

5. Don’t take it too srsly

Be honest, and be yourself. This video speaks to my soul and communicates my existential grief with humour in ways that a serious post about trying to deal with climate emotion never ever could. 

Sharing (intense and important content) is caring. It’ll never get the most love and engagement or win you friends and fans, but honestly who the eff cares. We have a planet to save and every little micro dose of climate information helps. So don’t despair. And don’t feel bad if you get it wrong now and then. I invariably learn new things and hear new perspectives when I do. There’s always another side to a story, and good-faith commenters often help me get out of my privileged and blinkered silo.


And if all else fails, amplify the methane out of positive social norms!!!


How do you share climate content on social media? LMK

LAST WEEK (well, a few weeks ago!)

I wrote about a few very important and positive global climate indicators. Then I heard a great episode of The Energy Gang where they go very deep on the significance of all of these BIG CLIMATE COMMITMENTS, if you’re interested!

People dancing

Hope you are happy and healthy.
Have a wonderful weekend,

PS. Does this newsletter go to your junk mail? Please drag it from promotions to your primary inbox!
PPS. Like this newsletter? Tell a friend?
PPPS. As always, lmk me how I can make it better! Is it too long? too first-persony? too momjeansy? I’d like to mix it up, so please share.

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