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Biking Mama: An Interview

I sat down with Sarah Tschida and her daughter, Willa, to talk about her role on the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition’s board, her experience of biking as a parent, and how we can support new parents and encourage them to bike with their kids. 

Biking in Mpls: Tell me a little about how you got into biking.

Sarah: I have worked at the University of Minnesota now for over 11 years. At the time we were living in Prospect Park and I had a coworker who would bike into work all the time. He would bring his bike into our office. He would always say, “Sarah, you should give biking a try.” Every day my excuse was, “Well, I don’t have a way to carry my stuff,” or, “I’ll show up too sweaty,” or, “My bike isn’t tuned up and I don’t have the right gear.”

One day I finally decided, “I’m going to give this biking thing a try.” I had biked around for fun but had never bike commuted. I gave it a try and it only took me about fifteen minutes. I remember going into my coworker’s office and saying, “I did it! I biked to work!” He was super happy, I was super happy. From then on out I was hooked on being a bike commuter. It’s been a huge part of my life for the last eight or nine years.

How did you end up serving on the board of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition?

A few years ago I was looking for ways to get more involved in our community. I was excited about all the cool things happening in Minneapolis with small businesses, the breweries, new parks, and infrastructure. I happened to see a post come across for the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition seeking board members. I had no experience in the bike world or active transportation besides the fact that I did it myself. I went for it and I feel like they took a huge chance on me.

When I first joined the board about two years ago, I thought it would be about how we just need more bike lanes and that would be the extent of the work. It’s been so inspiring. The people that I work with on the board have been super inspiring. It’s made me think about our community and how we can each contribute to making it strong. Making sure our spaces are safe for people biking and walking contributes to people being out, getting out of their cars, getting out of their houses, and meeting people. It’s a way to reclaim the city from a more car-centric design.

How did you end up deciding to bike with your kiddo? Was it a natural progression?

Yes, I would say it was a natural progression for the most part. I biked a lot while I was pregnant. I’ve always had this attitude, ‘I can do it, I can do whatever!’ I felt that when I was pregnant. There’s so much fear that comes from articles, from physicians, even midwives. Luckily I had some strong women in my network who were moms and who were good role models. They told me to carry on my daily life and, yes pay attention, but still keep up with it. I took that mentality for biking and continued to bike throughout most of the pregnancy. At the end it was a lot easier to bike than it was to walk. I was just so huge and so uncomfortable. I was having lower back pain and being on a bike helped quite a bit.

I figured we’re going to be the kind of family that biked around. Willa’s going to grow up on a bike and whatnot. I had these visions that I’d be on maternity leave for four months and Willa and I would to bike around and it’s would be grand. Then I started to read more about biking with kids, and there’s a ton of fear around that too, especially with babies. The American Medical Association recommends that you wait until your kid is at least a year until biking with them. That was a really tough realization right around the time that she was born. I was going to bike on my maternity leave with her! But then I was told that I couldn’t do that.

One of the things I kept reading about was about how when your baby doesn’t have neck control, being on a bike and going over bumps can be damaging to their little bodies. That got me thinking about about how I was walking around the neighborhood with her in a stroller and she’s bouncing around quite a bit and I’m driving her in a car and she’s bouncing around there too. Why is there this notion that it’s okay to walk around with your baby in a stroller but not put them on a bike?

I didn’t bike with her right away. When she was about six months we put her in the Burley and took her out. She had her carseat bungeed in there and was all bundled up because it was December. We biked and it was great. It was really tough in the beginning coming to the realization that I was going to put off biking for at least a little bit. That was the right choice for me at the time.

Now, it’s great. She enjoys it almost all the time. I want her to be able to get around safely herself when she’s old enough to ride a bike. I want to be able to get around with her now. I want her to be able to bike and walk to school safety. That’s propelled me with the Bike Coalition work and working here in this neighborhood with the Kingfield Neighborhood Association to advocate that we can do better. We can take some easy measures to make traffic calmer, to make it easier for people to get around with kids.

Have you talked to other parents about biking with kids? Do you know what the main barriers are for them?

I think there’s a lot of fear and gear can be a barrier because it’s expensive. Like everything with a kid, they grow out of stuff. It can be a big investment. One of the things I would love to see is a network where you can swap and test gear. Out in Seattle there’s a family bike organization that holds a gear fair where families can bring their gear so you can try out different gear and talk to about what it’s like to bike with that gear.

The amount of logistics you have dealing with a kid, it’s incredible how long it takes us to get out of this house any time we need to go anywhere: did you grab the diaper, did you grab the bottle, did you grab an extra set of clothes? That’s already so intimidating in general, so to add the bike helmet, and sunscreen, and a blanket, it can be overwhelming.

What I’ve found is that biking might take me ten or fifteen minutes longer to get there, but it’s going to be much more enjoyable for the two of us if we go by bike. That extra fifteen minutes helps me get some exercise in. I don’t have time to work out all that much, so that’s where biking for me is like killing two birds with one stone. I can bike to work and get my workout. I can bike to daycare and pick her up while getting a little exercise in and getting her some fresh air.

If you look at the big picture, going by bike is very beneficial.

What do you think would help new parents decide to bike with their kid?

Seeing more people do it and celebrating biking with kids. I haven’t been the direct recipient of parent shaming, [when people say] “Oh I can’t believe you’re putting your kid on a bike, it’s so unsafe.” But I know that’s out there. The more of us that can own it, like, “Yes we bike and we’re biking with our kids and we’re going to be okay.”

Having a place to connect with other people. This past summer I wanted to go to ArtCrank in Northeast. Nick was out of town. What I really wanted was to meet up with someone in my neighborhood and bike over together. I tried to look online to see if there was any way to connect with other parents who might be biking. It got me thinking, we have so many niche bike groups in the cities but as far as I know, I don’t know any specific group that’s for moms biking. I don’t know that there’s anything for parents biking in general. Being able to easily connect with people to meet up for rides as well as to talk about gear and getting tips could really help with some of the barriers.

I feel like everyone I’ve talked to who bikes with kids has a big community of people who do it.

I think it’s really necessary. Becoming a parent can be isolating in some ways especially if there aren’t a lot of kids in your friend group. I think biking is a great way to find a community. It’s important to support one another and to not feel like you’re the only one out there being a crazy biker with kids.

What’s your favorite thing about biking?

There are so many things that are my favorite thing. I think it comes down to the connection. The connection that I feel to getting exercise and getting fresh air. The connection that I feel to having a quiet moment to think. I feel like that’s where I come up with some of my big ideas. It helps me to reflect on things that happen at home or at work or life in general. My bike time is my thinking time. That connection to my body, that connection to my thoughts. The connection to the community and talking to people and interacting with people I would have never interacted with had I been in a car.

I think about all the time I was biking when I was pregnant. I distinctly remember this guy yelling out, “You go, mama!” And I was like, “Yeah!” We would’ve never had that interaction. It made me smile and I think it made him smile too. When the Blaisdell protected bikeway was finally finished, Willa and I were biking on there. The pure joy that was probably on her face was so apparent to people that were walking around. There was this guy walking his dog he said something to the effect of, “I bet you feel so great biking on this street now!” And I was like, “Yes I do!” That human interaction that you don’t always get. It’s so easy to walk around and put your head down and not interact with people. You notice things more [on a bike]. You miss so much by not getting out of your car.

Sarah Tschida is a cyclist, parent, and board member of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition. She lives in Minneapolis with her partner and daughter.

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Let’s all oppose anti-cycling bill HF 499

Rep. Quam just introduced bill HF 499 at the state legislature to require anyone who wants to use a bike lane to first take a course, pass a test, and then pay a fee to register. It would also make it illegal for anyone under the age of 15 to use a bike lane. This is the same representative who wants to legalize LGBTQ discrimination in Minnesota. He’s clearly a stand-up guy.

This is a garbage bill clearly aimed to appease angry Star Tribune commenters who shout about cyclists needing to be licensed. Sure, it doesn’t sound like a terrible idea for people to have more engagement and education, but it is a bad idea to force people to complete unnecessary and time consuming tasks before they’re allowed to legally ride a bike. Why don’t we use the money that would be spent on enforcing this to increase Safe Routes to School funding in our schools, or incorporate bicycle training into drivers’ ed courses?

The next step for this bill is to go to the Transportation and Regional Governance Policy. Please write to the members of this committee and ask them to oppose the bill. You can find their contact information here. If one of them represents you, make sure to note that in your email.

Here’s what I wrote in my emails. Feel free to modify and use it yourself:

Dear Representative X,

I’m writing to strongly oppose bill HF 499. Making people complete a course, test, and pay a registration fee to use urban bicycle lanes would serve little purpose except to discourage people from riding bikes. As a public health professional, I know the benefits that come from bicycling, whether that is biking commuting or casually biking around the lakes as recreation.

One of the best things about riding a bike is that it’s equally accessible for all people. Young and old, fit and not-so-fit, enthusiastic rider and casual pedaler. Making people jump through hoops to ride bikes will mean that less people do it. As we’ve seen through numerous studies, the more people out on the street riding bikes, the safer it is. Restrictive cycling laws only serve to discourage people from biking which makes biking less safe due to fewer cyclists on the roads.

Biking is good for individuals and good for our communities. Getting around by bike reduces air pollution while improving individual health and helping folks save on transportation costs.

I implore you not to support bill HF 499 since it will create unnecessary barriers to riding a bike, something that should be accessible for all. Will you plan to oppose this bill?

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Living a Local Life

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I was already writing this post when this election gave it a new slant. I’d started writing about how much richer my life is when I frequent local businesses and services than when I go elsewhere for those things, like the suburbs or online. It makes me feel more grounded in my community, helps invest my dollars into the local economy, and gives me more time for the things I love. After the election, I feel these things even stronger. And I feel that local action is one thing we can still hold on to, even in the hard times to come.

Bringing things in

Lives are made up of many choreographed puzzle pieces. When one thing changes, the whole fabric becomes a little different. Sometimes those shifts are small, like getting a new job pretty near to your old job. But sometimes they’re large, like moving way closer to work so you save an hour a day that you used to spend commuting. While you probably can’t get a new job, get new friends, and get a new place to live, you really don’t need to. You just need to notice the places that you spend most of your time and focus on finding the rest of what you need near there.

A few years ago, my good friend Dan lived in a swanky light rail adjacent apartment in Bloomington. He’d moved there with a girlfriend, and even after they broke up, he planned on staying. One day we were talking on the phone, I was in my bedroom in Whittier and he was at the coffee shop formerly known as Bull Run on 34th and Lyndale. He mentioned he was planning on renewing his lease. And I said some simple words that have thoroughly changed the fabric of his life: “You should move to uptown.”

He was complacent. He liked his apartment. His lease was coming up and he was just going to roll with it. He works in Edina and spent all of his free time in my neighborhood: reading at coffee shops, going to events, visiting friends. He’d never considered moving. Now he’s lived in Whittier for several years and loves it. But it almost didn’t happen because he was stuck.

There are little changes you can make that will improve your life and your neighborhood. Instead of going to the dentist in the suburbs, find one nearby that you can walk or bike to. Instead of ordering batteries from Amazon, pick them up at your local hardware store while walking your dog. Instead of driving to the suburbs to visit shopping outlets, frequent your local thrift or consignment store.

When you make these changes, you make living life a little easier on yourself. You don’t have to navigate traffic and unfamiliar streets every time you have to run an errand. You get the small pleasure of walking or biking in your neighborhood and possibly seeing an acquaintance en route. You start to recognize the baristas at your favorite coffee shop, and they recognize you. It makes the connections around you feel closer. It makes living in even a large city feel cozy and comfortable.

Moving forward

Choosing to be more rooted in your community can be good for your own sanity and for building connections. Now it has become more than that. Since the election, I’ve been inspired by the words of our Mayor Betsy Hodges and my boss, Council Member Lisa Bender. To conclude an event we held on Thursday, Lisa said that Minneapolis will continue to fight to protect all residents. Our elected leaders will do what they can to keep us safe. It was a glimmer of hope on a dark day.

I don’t just see locality as a good way to make your life more walk and bike friendly. I see it as the only way that we’ll be able to make progress in the next couple of years. We will now be entering into an era with a unified GOP federal government, and a GOP-controlled state legislature. I’m afraid of big things, like disruption of international agreements and the systemic persecution of people of color, immigrants, and women. And I’m afraid of smaller things, like a complete dearth of federal and state funding for transit projects. It’s easy to become paralyzed by that fear and horror. So I’m working to focus on the things I can impact now, with my time, my voice, my energy, my money.

It is now up to us to do the work to bring about the world we want to live in. It is up to us to start protests, to attend protests. It’s up to us to caucus for our preferred City Council candidates in April. It’s up to us to put our hands to work volunteering for organizations that we value. It’s up to us to step in when we see hate in action and to call out bigotry wherever we encounter it. It’s up to us to organize, to have conversations, to stay engaged. All this work can happen locally, and indeed, it must happen locally. Just because we are small doesn’t mean we are powerless. There are things that need to get done here, where we live. And if we harness this energy that many have felt since the election, we can put it to good work in the places where we’re already planted.

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Dressing like a biker

Photo courtesy of Brian Fanelli.

Photo courtesy of Brian Fanelli.

The way we choose to dress is not a fringe or frivolous issue. Women’s bodies are policed, especially in professional environments, so being able to bike is often dependent on being able to look put together. One of the most frequent questions I’ve gotten from other women, especially women who don’t bike, is how I end up looking clean and well dressed as I arrive at work. I’ve heard questions targeted at fellow biking babes expressing amazement that they bike in heels, wear make-up while biking, or don’t carry a change of clothes. This amazement comes from a place of misunderstanding what a biking life can be like. You do not have to have a special spandex wardrobe. You do not have to bike so fast that you get really sweaty. You do not have to carry a change of clothes if the clothes you have fit your lifestyle.

There’s no definitive answer to why women are less likely to bike than men, making up only a quarter of the bike commuting population. Over at FiveThirtyEight, Mona Chalabi writes about how both fears of traffic and crime, coupled with additional care taking duties and lack of wealth, combine to make it difficult to suss out women’s one ultimate barrier. One study found that women’s barriers to cycling are mainly the same as men’s: distracted driving, hostile road conditions, and insufficient bike facilities. In that same study, about one third of respondents said they “have to wear nice clothes and look well-groomed at [their] destinations.” That doesn’t mean that fashion prevents women from biking, but it does indicate that it is a consideration for many women-identified bikers.

We live in a world that tells women they cannot be seen sweating, they cannot show a glimpse of thigh while biking, they cannot deviate from the employee dress code, and they must look feminine and professional. And then, even if they do all these things, they still aren’t respected or paid as much as men. These expectations create barriers to riding a bike, especially riding a bike to work and integrating it into the fabric of your life. Even if you do bike, drivers honk at you when you’re biking in a skirt, strange men under bridges approach you and ask if they can ‘be your man,’ your boss gives you a hard time for wearing a sleeveless top when you’re hot from arriving by bike, or your relatives criticize your helmet-flattened hair.

For me, dressing like a biker means making my own clothes. It means being able to choose the way that I express myself while ensuring I’m comfortable on a bike and in a wide variety of social settings. I don’t have to be limited to the narrow band of styles that are in stores. While I choose to make my own clothes, this is a recent endeavor that came out of frustration with the options available to me. I understand that most folks don’t have the time or inclination to do it. There are plenty of ways to find personal style, be it through clothes that are handmade, thrifted, swapped, or bought new.

Sewing means I can make dresses with traditional feminine silhouettes that fit my personal style and my particular body, but that are made from modern materials to allow for movement.  I hate having two wardrobes, one for work and one for play. Dresses allow me to feel like myself in most any situation. And since I have a one-track mind, I like the consistency and simplicity that comes with having a uniform. For rides shorter than three miles, I don’t wear bike shorts, but for longer ones I do. I don’t wear a helmet. I often ride slowly. I like that my wardrobe and the bikes I ride are stylistically similar, it makes me feel like I’m firmly planted right in the middle of a Venn diagram of beauty and practicality.

In her essay, Dressing like a feminist, Morgan at Craft & Bee writes that “making your own clothing can be an act of resistance to the shortcomings of mainstream fashion.” So often, the clothes that women are told to wear are constrictive, revealing, or impractical for biking. On the other side, the clothing that’s made specifically for bikers is often primarily sporty, available in only certain sizes and colors, and, in some cases, produced by a company that objectifies women in their advertising. Developing a personal style that combines form and function allows us women-identified folks to navigate the world in whatever way we prefer.

How do you think about fashion and biking?

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The Rules of the Road

DSC03341It can be hard to figure out what the hell you should be doing out there in the vast wilderness of traffic. People get angry about pretty much every behavior. Someone will get mad at you for following the law precisely, while someone else gets mad that you harmlessly break the law. Car-driving commenters love to rail about how bikers break the law and use that as an argument for why we shouldn’t invest in bike infrastructure or encourage cycling. Bike-riding commenters complain about drivers parking in the bike lane or pedestrians walking on bike paths. It’s all a hot mess. To help bring some clarity to the conversation, here are critical rules and behaviors for navigating urban streets no matter what mode you’re using. Some of these rules are not actually legal, so follow them at your own risk.

Bikers

  • Idaho stop: The Idaho stop is a law which allows bikers to treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs. I advocate for this approach, since it helps people biking establish themselves in the road. The authors of one study stated “stopping discourages bicycling, substantially increasing time, energy expenditure, discomfort, risk of collisions and risk for strain and overuse injuries.” They went on to write that, “Bicyclists enjoy vastly superior abilities to perceive and execute a safe yield at a stop than other modes, and great incentive to do so safely.” The study found that bicycle injuries decreased by 14.5% the year after the law was implemented. Whether or not the Idaho stop is officially canonized into law, we shouldn’t ticket bicyclists for running red lights or failing to stop at stop signs when this behavior can improve their safety and comfort. This is not a full license to blow through a red light. But if you come to a stop (or significantly slow down even if you don’t put your foot on the ground), look both ways, and make sure it’s safe to proceed, then go ahead.
  • Don’t bike fast like a jerk: If it’s a Saturday afternoon and you wanna cruise 25mph down the Greenway unimpeded, just stop. That’s not going to happen. If you try to zip down the Greenway and get frustrated every time someone is in your way, it’s your own fault for having unrealistic expectations. If you want to bike fast and unimpeded, bike in the street with the cars. You do not own the path any more than anyone else. This means that if you yell, “On your left,” from two blocks away and people don’t hear you, you’ll have to slow down, repeat yourself, and pass once they move over.
  • Biking on the sidewalk: Biking on the sidewalk is dangerous. A study in Minneapolis by Bike Walk Twin Cities found that 39% of motorist-bicyclist crashes occurred when bikers were entering traffic from a sidewalk. Sidewalk biking may feel safer to you, but it’s actually one of the most dangerous things to do on a bike. If you’re afraid of biking in heavy traffic, find quiet side streets to bike on. For example, in my neighborhood many people bike on sidewalks along Lyndale Avenue to avoid heavy car traffic. If they biked just one or two blocks off Lyndale in either direction, they’d find quiet side streets where there’s less traffic and slower moving vehicles. This is a better option than sidewalk biking. If you insist on sidewalk biking, realize that it’s your responsibility to yield to pedestrians, to take extra caution at all intersections, and to be aware of your surroundings.
  • Don’t pass on the right: There is no need to pass on the right. Other bikers aren’t expecting you there and if they’re about to turn right, they’re going to turn right into you causing both of you to crash. If you’re trying to pass on the right because it’s not clear to pass on the left, that means it’s not clear to pass at all. Just wait a second already!

Drivers

  • Slow down: Speed is dangerous. Driving faster increases the likelihood that you will kill a person walking or biking if you hit them. If you’re driving at 20mph and hit someone, the chance that they’ll die from their injuries is 5%. If you’re driving 40mph and hit someone, the chance that they’ll die from their injuries sky rockets to 85%. If you’re in a crowded pedestrian area or on a residential street, 25mph is plenty. Driving slower means you’ll have more time to respond to someone in the street and will be less likely to seriously injure or kill someone if you do hit them.
  • Stop for pedestrians and bikers: Did you know that in Minnesota, walkers have the right of way at every corner? Every corner where two roads come together is an unmarked crosswalk, which means you should be stopping when you see someone waiting or starting to cross. It’s a law that most drivers ignore and most pedestrians are too afraid to take advantage of, so the norm is that drivers don’t stop at unmarked crosswalks and barely stop at marked ones. You can and should change this norm by respecting walkers and bikers who are trying to cross the road.
  • Move over: If you are passing someone on a bike, you must give at least three feet when overtaking them. This is to avoid sideswiping them or hitting them if they swerve to avoid debris in the road. This is not a simple courtesy, it is a matter of life and death. You will probably have to cross the center line to pass a cyclist safely, and that is okay. If you can’t change lanes or there’s oncoming traffic that prevents you from crossing the center line, then just wait. It’s common sense. Don’t put someone else’s life at risk just because you’re impatient.
  • Don’t honk, seriously: It’s loud. Honking is illegal unless you’re in imminent danger. Honking is scary for people outside of a vehicle. If you’re honking at a person on a bike, you might cause them to lose their balance and fall over right in front of you. Just don’t do it.
  • Don’t give up your right-of-way: I know you’re trying to be nice when you give up your right-of-way and wave a biker through a stop sign, but you’re making things worse. Imagine being at an intersection where another vehicle has clearly gotten there first, as often happens to me when I’m on my bike. I sit and wait for them to go. They sit and wait for me to go because I’m on a bike, and they’re confused or trying to be courteous. Sometimes they’re waving me through, but often I can’t see the driver due to windshield glare. Then after we’ve been stuck in a stalemate for far too long, I eventually go. If drivers would just go in the correct order, we’d avoid a stalemate and I might not even have to put down my foot because I’d be able to time my approach to the intersection to arrive after the car has proceeded through.
  • Right turn on red: Right turn on red is dangerous, many pedestrians are hit, injured, and killed this way because drivers only look to the left to ensure they are safe to move into traffic and do not look to the right to avoid hitting pedestrians in the crosswalk. If you’re going to turn right on red, do not move into a crosswalk until you’re pretty certain you can move out of it quickly. Before turning right into traffic make sure you look right to ensure you’re not going to run over a pedestrian. If you don’t have a clear sight line to oncoming traffic, or would have to block a crosswalk for a significant period of time to get one, just wait. Red lights don’t last that long.
  • Don’t park in the bike lane: The bike lane is not there for you to park in. There is no excuse for parking in a bike lane ever. Figure out some other place to stop or park your car that is not endangering the safety of bikers.

Pedestrians

  • Don’t walk on bike paths: If there’s a bike path and a walking path and you’d prefer to walk on the bike path, just stop. The reason there’s a bike path is so people can ride their bikes on it; the reason there’s a walking path is so people can walk on it. These are two different groups that move at different speeds, it makes sense to keep them separated. In the winter when walking paths aren’t plowed, the bike paths essentially become shared use paths, so see below.
  • When you’re walking on shared use paths, stay right and stay alert: It’s great that you’re out walking your dog, but other people want to use the path too. Don’t take up the whole thing because your dog’s leash is way too long and he’s curious about those smells over there. Pay attention to your surroundings. If you’re on a shared use path, stay to the right and stay alert. Be ready to move over when people jogging, rollerblading, or biking want to pass you. It’s only polite.
  • When someone says “On your left” trust that they’re passing on your left: This means you need to know left from right and be ready to move over if someone’s coming. Please pay attention.

Everyone

  • Don’t use your phone while you’re moving: Even if you’re walking. Pay attention to where you’re going. If you must use your phone, pull over to the side of the road or walk over to an unused part of the sidewalk. Don’t block traffic, watch where you’re going, and avoid hurting or killing people.
  • Be courteous and patient: No matter how many people behave well, there will always be a contingent of people who are gonna act like assholes. Accept this. Don’t go fuming into a rage anytime someone on a bike blows through a red light. They’re one person, they’re not an ambassador for everyone who rides bikes. If a walker on the bike path is taking up all the space and not paying attention, realize that it’s not a personal affront against you or a reason to treat other walkers like enemies. If a driver cuts you off, try to let it go without escalating the situation or cutting off the next driver you see. There are lots of careless mistakes that happen in moments of confusion, they’ve happened to me and they’ve happened to you. The best we can do for ourselves and for others in our community is to assume that other people are just trying to get somewhere doing the best job they can.
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