March 14 2017
Family/Happiness/Health & Wellbeing/Money/Retirement/Sanity

What One Year of Progress Looks Like, in Reality

In all of my life-optimizing fantasies, I’m waking up early and working out, spending loads of quality time with my children and not going down any rabbit holes online reading about the latest mind-numbing development in our government. I am living on half my salary and banking the rest. I’m killing it at work, making the most of every moment I am given. My house is clean, I cook dinner, I never order and I’m generally a model of efficiency, serenity, health and good humor.

I doubt I’m the only working mother who harbors such fantastical fantasies.

The reality, of course, is that I have gained five pounds, got a pay cut at work because my company is forever struggling, and I have spent untold hours yelling at the internet.  Cooking a proper dinner has become an event worthy of serious self-congratulations and my two children at this moment seem to be engaged in an activity that simultaneously includes one iPad and two Nintendo DS’s.  That’s one and a half devices per kid.  Not the first time I have witnessed that.

So I get a little frustrated and disappointed sometimes.

It’s a topic I was pondering recently after reading a great Centsibly Rich post about being impatient with your goals.  Amanda talks about that feeling we all have sometimes, that everyone else seems to be moving along while you’re standing still. Then, just when I needed it, the universe threw me a bone: a tangible snapshot of progress made.

The fact is, progress does not look anything like my fantasy.  Progress could easily go unobserved if it doesn’t change your life overnight. Which it usually doesn’t.  Real progress happens one day at a time.  Like your kids growing, it could elude your notice.  Until you look at last year’s school picture.

The frying-pan-over-my-head came when I met with my accountant to do my taxes.

It could not have been more glaringly different from last year.  Last year we owed money for the first time ever because of something extremely radical (and inadvisable) that we did: We cashed out part of our retirement savings to get rid of the last of our debt.  We thought we had the proper amount of taxes taken out, but alas.

It was traumatic in every way.  But it was the line in the sand.  It was the kind of thing you only do once.  You don’t go back into debt after taking such painful, dramatic action.  And we have not.  So when I sat down at the desk that I have sat at once a year for so many years with good old Rich, who scolded us profusely last year, it was as someone who was 100 percent debt free. For a whole year.  For the first time ever.  For that, I do not regret our decision.

Debt & Savings

We are making up for it every day.  The ramifications of not having monthly credit card payments are astonishing.  No, I am not banking half my salary.  But I am banking a lot more than I ever have.  Vacations are paid for in cash. When a $400 dentist bill arises, there’s no need for a credit card.  The cycle is broken.  This is a radically new way of life.  It’s pretty big, if I take a moment to reflect on it.  We’re up about $6000 since June (the month where I really started taking very careful note of everything), not including my IRA. And this included an all cash Christmas and a trip to Acadia. Unprecedented.

Retirement Savings

I’ve spoken about this a few times, but last year, as we began our quest to take control of our finances, I abandoned my terrible 401K. What a difference less than a year makes.  After years – years! – of barely noticeable returns and profit-eating fees, my new IRA, which is mostly invested in the S&P, is up 29.75%.  Since June.  Nearly 30 percent.  Granted, this reflects a rather overheated market and I do not expect such returns to continue without a break, but, for someone who has no great financial experience, I’m looking like Warren Buffet on a Ritalin drip.

Some other big things took place over the last year.

I started this blog!  Almost exactly one year ago, in April. And it has been so much fun, truly a pleasure and a delightful outlet.  I’ve discovered many bloggers who I really respect and enjoy reading. Raptitude, Mystery Money Man, Ms. Montana, Centsibly Rich, Mindfully Spent, Keep Thrifty and John & Jane Doe Guide to Money are just a few.

And while Brooklyn Bread is small and growing excruciatingly slowly, it is growing.  And getting I better, I think, as I figure out what I’m doing and what I’m really passionate talking about. It has put me in the habit of turning my angst-ridden inner dialogue into something productive and helped me ask myself better questions. It feels like an accomplishment.

Happiness-inducing new hobbies.

Many frazzled working people struggle to figure out how to allocate their time to things that enrich life, instead of draining it.  There are parts of our brain that are addicted to internet stimulation and laziness and they collude to steal our precious moments and bury them in a pit of pointlessness and remorse.  But sometimes, we manage to summon the necessary effort to do things that feed our spirit.  As I look back at this last year, there were a few legitimately life-affirming threads that I managed to find and, more importantly, to stay with.

Bird-watching was one.  Taking regular walks in nature with my dog was another.  That turned into hiking with my husband and hopefully soon, the kids, as well.  And finally, since we got a digital piano for Christmas, I have been playing just about every day, and re-discovering a skill from my childhood.

The benefits of playing a musical instrument, especially as as we age, are well known. Using different parts of my brain, quieting my inner dialogue, cultivating a skill for pleasure, all these things have enriched my life over the last year and pulled me away, at least for a little bit, from the many self-defeating traps that are everywhere.

Lots of room for improvement.

There has been one very bad life-draining thread this year.  Donald Trump has derailed me in so many ways.  He has sent me into news reading binges the likes of which I have never experienced.  Together with Congress, he has had me yelling at my television screen, my computer screen and and my phone screen.  Far too much.  He has sent me marching into the street, which is a good thing.  Being civically engaged is a good thing.

Going into a stomach-churning news vortex is a bad thing.  I struggle with it every single day.

To add to the offense, the current political situation has affected some of our family relationships.  It is taking every ounce of wisdom and strength to figure out how to keep these relationships from degrading beyond repair.  Some might say “how could you let politics affect family relationships?”  But it is not politics.  It is the despair and disappointment of knowing that someone you love believes something that you have a deep, fundamental lack of respect, even, in some cases, disgust, for.

The only way many people have found to deal with this new family-splitting politics phenomenon is to simply steer clear of large swaths of conversational territory.  Which is fine.  But the relationship is downgraded.  It’s a step away from close, deep and intimate, and edging toward social, shallow and superficial.  Better than nothing, I suppose.  Salvaging those genuine bonds is difficult and complicated and I can’t find a manual on how to do it.  But I am trying.

Finally, the typical working mother short-falls…

There has been some slippage on cooking and working out.  Melanie from Mindfully Spent alleviated my guilt, somewhat, while making the case that we do have certain natural rhythms and sometimes, deep in February, all you want to do is cuddle up with a good book.  I am a natural early riser once daylight returns, so, hopefully, I will find some motivation to exercise more come spring.

Cooking is just hard when you work.  There is no easy trick, aside from planning.  Which is the far greater challenge for me. It’s the thinking, not the cooking, that I so often just can’t do.

But if there’s any revelation from my birds-eye look on the previous year, it’s that we simply can’t focus on everything.  While we’re out setting ourselves up for wins in some areas, we can’t help but let some others slide.  It’s just math.

So I’m taking a break from beating myself up and savoring the fact there is always progress to be found.  You just have to look for it.

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  • It can definitely be hard to see progress when you are mired in the day-to-day. I have a Post-It note on my desk that just says “Progress.” I use it to remind myself just to move forward every day. Even if you progress and improve just a tiny bit every day, that compounds and becomes serious growth in the long term. Thanks for the reminder!

  • I can relate to so much of this. Except the all cash vacation. We mananged a cash-funded overnight for the adults, but we are so looking forward to the day when we can cash fund a bit more travel. It’s a huge accomplishment! I also haven’t quite managed 100% debt-free yet. And especially not “100 percent debt free. For a whole year.” Like someone who works hard to lose 80 lbs and then starts sliding back into weight gain, maintenance can be hard. You must’ve made some lasting life change to be able to “keep the weight off” per se. The election cycle was hard on our family, most particularly my husband. He has taken strength from three places. First, the cheesy one- Oprah. He listened to a multi-part interview with her and she boiled down that life choices basically come from two places, fear or love. Unsurprisingly, she made a strong argument for the latter. Second, the Notorious RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsberg – pardon any misspelling) was recently describing the cyclical nature of government and politics. Third… audio books that balance out the news, specifically jazz muscian biographies and interviews with Buddhist monks. I’ll bet your piano playing hits a similarly peaceful place. Taking a break from beating yourself up should be permanent. 😉 Moving in the direction of our goals is awesome work; berating ourselves when we fall short never seems to do much to help us get back on track. There is so much good stuff here, Linda. And there’s even more that what you’ve summarized here. I learn something and see value in everyone of your posts. I hope you and your family are celebrating all of it!

    • Thank you so much, Melanie. I honestly feel the same way after reading Mindfully Spent. And I hope Justice Ginsberg is right – I am praying. I will say this: I have tweaked my shopping and spending ways, for sure. But the simple act of keeping $2000 to $3000 in my savings account for unexpected bills and trips has radically changed everything. And keeping that money there is do-able when you are not paying a credit card bill. Some months I can pump $300 into savings. Other months, I can’t because I am paying for stuff in cash. This has changed everything. -Linda

  • I enjoy reading your blog; as someone who cooks all the time, I am the first one to acknowledge how tedious and unrealistic it is, for a working parent, to be cooking every day. Even on weekends, it becomes too much. There is no such thing as a 30 min meal (- a media invention really) unless you have someone to shot and clean and stuff. My question: how much do you think a 2 working parent / 2 kids in Bklyn spends on ordering in / prepared meals in a week?

    • I would say, for us, somewhere between $20 and $100 a week. We order pizza every Friday night, something that my mom always did (probably a tradition that has to do with not eating meat on Fridays) but I think it works well because by Friday, I am just dead, and my son has Cub Scouts so dinner needs to be easy. And just one other night of ordering or eating out is going to put you at $60 to $70 – everything else is a lot more expensive than pizza. Anyway, I just checked out your site – you need to open a Park Slope satellite. We have no kids cooking classes here, if you can believe. I know because I have searched. Would do very well here! -Linda

  • You’re so right – we really do have to look for those signs of our progress so we don’t get lost in the “same as last week mindset”.

    I’m finding that blogging and looking back at my old posts is a great way to see that progress. In January of last year, we still had a car loan! It seems decades ago but it’s so motivating to realize the things we accomplished in 14 short months.

    Reading this post, you guys have accomplished some amazing things in the last year. And I’m sure the next year will include even more. I’m excited to read along and hear all about it!

  • My life-optimizing fantasies include still schooling my son at basketball….then we hit the court and reality sets in pretty quick lol. I love the idea of incremental change, and the cumulative effect of small wins, it’s powerful stuff. Thanks for the encouraging post Linda, I look forward to the next one! : )

  • Sounds like a lot of positive things happening in the Brooklyn Bread household, Congrats! Even dads stride for life-optimizing fantasies. My wife works often into the evening, and on weekends so a lot of cleaning and cooking is left for me. All about finding the motivation, and dare I say routine that keeps you going. It’s great to step back and look at the big picture we often overlook our progress when we are in the middle of the day to day.

    • Thank you Brian. All working families are different, yet all working families are the same. It is hard to catch your breath sometimes. And when you do – you cook dinner, you don’t sit down and compare all your stats to a year ago!

  • “The cycle is broken.”

    I’ve lived the debt-enslaved life, and for 11 years now I’ve been living the debt-free life. The debt-free life is so much better. It’s amazing how serene life becomes when the next car repair bill–regardless of how large it is–can’t possibly bring a financial crisis down upon your head. Thanks for sharing your trials and tribulations, Linda. Very inspiring. And congrats on your progress.

  • I’m so impressed that you got out of your bad 401(k) and do something else with the funds, including getting out of debt and opening a better investment.

    There’s a reason personal finance is personal. You did something that for a lot of folks could be problematic for many (cashing out that money) and did something that worked extremely well for you. One size does not fit all, and that’s why it’s great that there are so many voices in our community and we don’t all sound the same.

    No answers on the blue/red relationships. I struggle with it, too. I know I love my family, but I also know I want to make sure my kid grows up with my values. That can make some things especially tricky, when her favorite aunt starts talking what I can politely call bull.

  • Hi – good post. I’ve never had to dig myself out from debt, but your comment about the 401k caught my eye. Was that work based? It’s great that you’ve started and maintained your blog. I love to write but never had enough ambition to keep at it. Your comments on picking your priorities are spot on, and something I’m still working on. I hope someday we’ll have a chance to meet at a bird walk – I’m over in Manhattan, but do cross that bridge to Brooklyn on occasion, more often with Heather’s walks in Brooklyn Bridge Park. If you get a free moment please send me an email – I’d love to start a conversation off social media. Note the middle initial R in my address – leaving it out has sent too many great conversations astray : )

  • When I was younger, my parents gave me an awesome piece of advice. Don’t have kids until you’re financially stable. I’m so glad I followed that advice. Although having kids is great from a psychological and personal perspective, it can be really tough if you’re not financial stable.

    • Only problem is I still wouldn’t have kids! Or maybe I’d be getting pregnant with my first at the age of almost 42. As some point, you have to go for it. Never a perfect time to have kids.

  • I’m not sure how old your kids are, but I just gave the task of my child cooking two nights a week. It’s wonderful (aside from all the dirty dishes and messy counter left over). She picks the meals, adds to the grocery list, helps me shop, and cooks while mom enjoys a glass of wine. I’m fortunate that she is a pretty good cook. I tell her mac and cheese with a side sald is fine. But she makes tofu Asian dishes with plate set up. It’s pretty cool.

    • Wow. That is incredible. I am seriously impressed. My sons are 9 and 5. I think the 5 year old will cook when he is a little bigger. My 9 year old does not seem as interested. But it is definitely a goal. Being able to cook the things my mother cooked me as a child is something that brings me just joy. My mom’s chicken soup, my mom’s lentil soup, the octopus salad we eat on Christmas Eve – being able to hold on to tastes from my childhood are life affirming. That happens when you show your kid how to cook. And that definitely starts with simple things like you mention. And definitely, that small break from cooking is worth a little extra cleaning I would imagine!

  • As someone who has been reading your blog since (semi) beginning, I have to say that reading this makes me really happy. I didn’t think it was possible, since your posts have always been so good, but each one you write is better than the last and I think that is only a surface sign of the underlying progress in yourself and your life. This is so true and I love the picture of the plant because it puts things in perspective. As someone who no longer lives in the city and doesn’t have kids yet, this is extremely relatable on so many levels. I love your honesty, introspection, and as always your humor. As a reader, I am forever entertained and leave feeling enlightened and energized. As a fellow blogger, I am inspired and in awe of your writing. Absolutely incredible and look forward to seeing a progress post next April as well! Congrats on one year!!!

    • Oh Aleks – thank you for such a heartfelt and encouraging comment. My blog is small and certainly not making me any money, so aside from the personal satisfaction of having an expressive outlet, which is definitely substantial, I’m sure you feel the same for your blog, it really does mean everything to me if even just a handful of people can relate, on whatever level, to the things I am thinking or feeling. In any case, you know the feeling is mutual… Linda xo

    1. Aleks F. 08:33pm 05 April - 2017 - Reply

      As someone who has been reading your blog since (semi) beginning, I have to say that reading this makes me really happy. I didn’t think it was possible, since your posts have always been so good, but each one you write is better than the last and I think that is only a surface sign of the underlying progress in yourself and your life. This is so true and I love the picture of the plant because it puts things in perspective. As someone who no longer lives in the city and doesn’t have kids yet, this is extremely relatable on so many levels. I love your honesty, introspection, and as always your humor. As a reader, I am forever entertained and leave feeling enlightened and energized. As a fellow blogger, I am inspired and in awe of your writing. Absolutely incredible and look forward to seeing a progress post next April as well! Congrats on one year!!!

      • Brooklyn Bread 09:45am 06 April - 2017 - Reply

        Oh Aleks – thank you for such a heartfelt and encouraging comment. My blog is small and certainly not making me any money, so aside from the personal satisfaction of having an expressive outlet, which is definitely substantial, I’m sure you feel the same for your blog, it really does mean everything to me if even just a handful of people can relate, on whatever level, to the things I am thinking or feeling. In any case, you know the feeling is mutual… Linda xo

    2. Stupid Debt 09:03am 28 March - 2017 - Reply

      I’m not sure how old your kids are, but I just gave the task of my child cooking two nights a week. It’s wonderful (aside from all the dirty dishes and messy counter left over). She picks the meals, adds to the grocery list, helps me shop, and cooks while mom enjoys a glass of wine. I’m fortunate that she is a pretty good cook. I tell her mac and cheese with a side sald is fine. But she makes tofu Asian dishes with plate set up. It’s pretty cool.

      • Brooklyn Bread 10:02am 28 March - 2017 - Reply

        Wow. That is incredible. I am seriously impressed. My sons are 9 and 5. I think the 5 year old will cook when he is a little bigger. My 9 year old does not seem as interested. But it is definitely a goal. Being able to cook the things my mother cooked me as a child is something that brings me just joy. My mom’s chicken soup, my mom’s lentil soup, the octopus salad we eat on Christmas Eve – being able to hold on to tastes from my childhood are life affirming. That happens when you show your kid how to cook. And that definitely starts with simple things like you mention. And definitely, that small break from cooking is worth a little extra cleaning I would imagine!

    3. Troy @ Market History 04:41am 27 March - 2017 - Reply

      When I was younger, my parents gave me an awesome piece of advice. Don’t have kids until you’re financially stable. I’m so glad I followed that advice. Although having kids is great from a psychological and personal perspective, it can be really tough if you’re not financial stable.

      • Brooklyn Bread 11:03am 27 March - 2017 - Reply

        Only problem is I still wouldn’t have kids! Or maybe I’d be getting pregnant with my first at the age of almost 42. As some point, you have to go for it. Never a perfect time to have kids.

    4. Meryl 10:16am 25 March - 2017 - Reply

      Hi – good post. I’ve never had to dig myself out from debt, but your comment about the 401k caught my eye. Was that work based? It’s great that you’ve started and maintained your blog. I love to write but never had enough ambition to keep at it. Your comments on picking your priorities are spot on, and something I’m still working on. I hope someday we’ll have a chance to meet at a bird walk – I’m over in Manhattan, but do cross that bridge to Brooklyn on occasion, more often with Heather’s walks in Brooklyn Bridge Park. If you get a free moment please send me an email – I’d love to start a conversation off social media. Note the middle initial R in my address – leaving it out has sent too many great conversations astray : )

    5. Emily @ JohnJaneDoe 11:17am 20 March - 2017 - Reply

      I’m so impressed that you got out of your bad 401(k) and do something else with the funds, including getting out of debt and opening a better investment.

      There’s a reason personal finance is personal. You did something that for a lot of folks could be problematic for many (cashing out that money) and did something that worked extremely well for you. One size does not fit all, and that’s why it’s great that there are so many voices in our community and we don’t all sound the same.

      No answers on the blue/red relationships. I struggle with it, too. I know I love my family, but I also know I want to make sure my kid grows up with my values. That can make some things especially tricky, when her favorite aunt starts talking what I can politely call bull.

      • Brooklyn Bread 08:59am 24 March - 2017 - Reply

        You are totally right about one size does not fit all. Incidentally, my company finally got a better 401K, which I have now bought back into…

    6. Mr. Groovy 07:30am 16 March - 2017 - Reply

      “The cycle is broken.”

      I’ve lived the debt-enslaved life, and for 11 years now I’ve been living the debt-free life. The debt-free life is so much better. It’s amazing how serene life becomes when the next car repair bill–regardless of how large it is–can’t possibly bring a financial crisis down upon your head. Thanks for sharing your trials and tribulations, Linda. Very inspiring. And congrats on your progress.

      • Brooklyn Bread 03:59pm 16 March - 2017 - Reply

        Yes, writing that felt so powerful – it was such a revelation! Thank you Mr. G! xo

    7. Brian 12:59pm 15 March - 2017 - Reply

      Sounds like a lot of positive things happening in the Brooklyn Bread household, Congrats! Even dads stride for life-optimizing fantasies. My wife works often into the evening, and on weekends so a lot of cleaning and cooking is left for me. All about finding the motivation, and dare I say routine that keeps you going. It’s great to step back and look at the big picture we often overlook our progress when we are in the middle of the day to day.

      • Brooklyn Bread 02:36pm 15 March - 2017 - Reply

        Thank you Brian. All working families are different, yet all working families are the same. It is hard to catch your breath sometimes. And when you do – you cook dinner, you don’t sit down and compare all your stats to a year ago!

    8. Mystery Money Man 11:29pm 14 March - 2017 - Reply

      My life-optimizing fantasies include still schooling my son at basketball….then we hit the court and reality sets in pretty quick lol. I love the idea of incremental change, and the cumulative effect of small wins, it’s powerful stuff. Thanks for the encouraging post Linda, I look forward to the next one! : )

      • Brooklyn Bread 08:06am 15 March - 2017 - Reply

        Thank you MMM. I hate to say it, but if your son is schooling you in basketball, the only progress in store is probably going to be his! lol!

    9. Chris @ Keep Thrifty 06:10pm 14 March - 2017 - Reply

      You’re so right – we really do have to look for those signs of our progress so we don’t get lost in the “same as last week mindset”.

      I’m finding that blogging and looking back at my old posts is a great way to see that progress. In January of last year, we still had a car loan! It seems decades ago but it’s so motivating to realize the things we accomplished in 14 short months.

      Reading this post, you guys have accomplished some amazing things in the last year. And I’m sure the next year will include even more. I’m excited to read along and hear all about it!

      • Brooklyn Bread 07:06pm 14 March - 2017 - Reply

        Thanks so much, Chris – here’s to another year of building on small wins… all around!

    10. Food Art for Kids 05:31pm 14 March - 2017 - Reply

      I enjoy reading your blog; as someone who cooks all the time, I am the first one to acknowledge how tedious and unrealistic it is, for a working parent, to be cooking every day. Even on weekends, it becomes too much. There is no such thing as a 30 min meal (- a media invention really) unless you have someone to shot and clean and stuff. My question: how much do you think a 2 working parent / 2 kids in Bklyn spends on ordering in / prepared meals in a week?

      • Brooklyn Bread 07:04pm 14 March - 2017 - Reply

        I would say, for us, somewhere between $20 and $100 a week. We order pizza every Friday night, something that my mom always did (probably a tradition that has to do with not eating meat on Fridays) but I think it works well because by Friday, I am just dead, and my son has Cub Scouts so dinner needs to be easy. And just one other night of ordering or eating out is going to put you at $60 to $70 – everything else is a lot more expensive than pizza. Anyway, I just checked out your site – you need to open a Park Slope satellite. We have no kids cooking classes here, if you can believe. I know because I have searched. Would do very well here! -Linda

    11. Melanie of Mindfully Spent 12:12pm 14 March - 2017 - Reply

      I can relate to so much of this. Except the all cash vacation. We mananged a cash-funded overnight for the adults, but we are so looking forward to the day when we can cash fund a bit more travel. It’s a huge accomplishment! I also haven’t quite managed 100% debt-free yet. And especially not “100 percent debt free. For a whole year.” Like someone who works hard to lose 80 lbs and then starts sliding back into weight gain, maintenance can be hard. You must’ve made some lasting life change to be able to “keep the weight off” per se. The election cycle was hard on our family, most particularly my husband. He has taken strength from three places. First, the cheesy one- Oprah. He listened to a multi-part interview with her and she boiled down that life choices basically come from two places, fear or love. Unsurprisingly, she made a strong argument for the latter. Second, the Notorious RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsberg – pardon any misspelling) was recently describing the cyclical nature of government and politics. Third… audio books that balance out the news, specifically jazz muscian biographies and interviews with Buddhist monks. I’ll bet your piano playing hits a similarly peaceful place. Taking a break from beating yourself up should be permanent. 😉 Moving in the direction of our goals is awesome work; berating ourselves when we fall short never seems to do much to help us get back on track. There is so much good stuff here, Linda. And there’s even more that what you’ve summarized here. I learn something and see value in everyone of your posts. I hope you and your family are celebrating all of it!

      • Brooklyn Bread 03:29pm 14 March - 2017 - Reply

        Thank you so much, Melanie. I honestly feel the same way after reading Mindfully Spent. And I hope Justice Ginsberg is right – I am praying. I will say this: I have tweaked my shopping and spending ways, for sure. But the simple act of keeping $2000 to $3000 in my savings account for unexpected bills and trips has radically changed everything. And keeping that money there is do-able when you are not paying a credit card bill. Some months I can pump $300 into savings. Other months, I can’t because I am paying for stuff in cash. This has changed everything. -Linda

    12. Matt @ Optimize Your Life 10:48am 14 March - 2017 - Reply

      It can definitely be hard to see progress when you are mired in the day-to-day. I have a Post-It note on my desk that just says “Progress.” I use it to remind myself just to move forward every day. Even if you progress and improve just a tiny bit every day, that compounds and becomes serious growth in the long term. Thanks for the reminder!

      • Brooklyn Bread 03:31pm 14 March - 2017 - Reply

        I have a sign in my office that I printed out that says “FOCUS.” lol! I love hearing the things people to do try to hack into their own brains!

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