Lost and found

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I thought I was losing it yesterday when I couldn’t find my keys (my entire set, for house and car, which are kept all on one key fob).

Has anyone seen my keys?

It was the first day back after the Easter holidays, so we were keen to be on time for school and work. Just prior to our normal departure time of 07:20, I looked in the zip compartment of my large tote bag and my keys weren’t there.

I remembered that I’d used a different bag over the weekend. Maybe they were in there?

Nope!

Pockets?

Nope!

Anywhere else? NOPE!!

My husband, Andrew, dug out the spare set of car keys, so we left the house not knowing if my own set was in there or not.

Hunt the keys

On returning home, the family game of Hunt the Keys began. We looked in all the obvious places, then began to look in the less-obvious ones.

Andrew asked me to think. Think about what I was doing the last time I remember having them. My mind was a blur. Remember that post about being present? I couldn’t even recall if I’d used the keys the previous day.

Think!!!

Are they in the bin?

As it happens, Monday is refuse collection day in our corner of Kenilworth. It was ‘grey bin day’ (the fortnightly collection for rubbish that goes to landfill). So, Andrew had pulled the bin back into the garden before its contents could be irrevocably lost.

After turning the entire house upside down, with reluctance, I donned my yellow rubber gloves and started going through two weeks of rubbish. This is a horrid job and I won’t go into details but it caused me to notice the bulky items in the bin that could not be recycled.

New-found insights

What do we really chuck into landfill?

As I searched through our household waste for the missing keys, I began to notice more closely what we threw away (rather than recycled).

In addition to cellophane wrapping (about which I wrote here), the three most noticeable categories of rubbish were:

  • Tetra Pak cartons (from juice, almond milk etc.), which we cannot recycle in our fortnightly collection
  • Polystyrene containers (fruit packaging)
  • Disposable feminine hygiene products and cotton wool pads (from the two ladies in the house: me and Amy)

Seeing two weeks worth of trash in a single location made me really take stock.

If we, a little family of three plus Cockapoo produce this much in just two weeks, imagine the vast quantities across our town, throughout the county and across the entire nation!

Yeah, we need a change, yeah…. Do it today*

I have to make some changes.

We are already recycling a greater volume of items than we throw away each fortnight but I know I can still do more.

Decision time

I’m going to redouble my efforts to make my own nut milk. It’s more expensive than the Tetra Pak option, but I’d like to see our personal contribution to land fill go down.

I will consider if juice in a recyclable carton is better than Tetra Paks. I’d welcome any views on this. Do you juice your own or avoid juice altogether?

I’m going to redouble my efforts to buy more fruit and veg loose.

Finally, I’ve ordered a Mooncup and will revert to my muslin cloths for cleansing my face, rather than using wasteful cotton wool.

What about those keys?

After all that searching, I went and sat next to Andrew who was working away in the study. And then it hit me. I knew exactly where my keys were.

I had placed them carefully in the glovebox of our family car the previous morning when we went for a dog walk. We had discussed it at the time and we both knew I’d done it. However, we had both completely erased the fact from our short term memory.

I didn’t even need to rush outside and retrieve the keys. I knew they were there.

Lessons learned

At least the experience had taught me some valuable lessons and might just nudge me further towards some more eco-friendly purchases.

In the meantime, maybe I need to buy just one small thing.

Does anyone know where I can get one of those ‘find my iPhone’ devices for car keys?

*Lyrics from Heather Small – Proud

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New online course

Did you notice, I’ve added a new Courses page to the blog? In just a couple of weeks, I’ll be running a small, private online course: Exploring Minimalism. I’d love to share the benefits of a minimalist lifestyle with you, so really hope that you can join me!

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On being present

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Since listening to Brooke McAlary’s interview with Justin Coulson on The Slow Home podcast a few weeks ago, I have been thinking a great deal about what it means to be present. That is, really paying attention in the present moment, being fully available to listen and to take in what’s happening right now.

What does it really mean to live ‘in the moment’ or ‘be present’? And what difference could it make to our lives?

The modern world

I work on a vibrant University campus whose surroundings include stunning sculptures, trees currently laden with blossom, borders packed with colourful spring flowers and walkways overlaid with wisteria that I can observe right outside my window.

Yet, when I head across campus for my journey home, what do I see? You guessed it. I see people with their heads down, scrolling on their smartphones (often while walking) . So, while they may be physically present, these folks are mentally somewhere else. I’m sure this will chime with you, too, wherever you live and work.

At home

Parents of pre-teens and teens will recognise the lure of tablet, smart phone or any other digital device. Even tots who aren’t yet speaking will reach over if they spot an iPhone in your back pocket.

The issue here? Apps, games and social media (in particular) become the thief of conversation. We’ve all done it. It’s so easy to be together physically but not to be present with one another.

When alone

Even though I gave up my smart phone almost a year ago, the radio (and, increasingly, podcasts) do form the backdrop to my life at home. For others, music or TV may be ever-present in the background. It’s so easy – and automatic – to get home, put the radio on and go about your business. But what if we switched off, just for a while? What difference would it make?

Some time ago, I wrote about the benefits of switching off and I do believe this is true. Without some quiet time, we fail to give ourselves thinking time or a chance to reflect or let our butterfly brain do a bit of problem-solving.

With others

We owe it to our kids (and ourselves) to switch off/put down/power off when we have the chance to be together. Our children needs to know that we are truly interested in them (no matter how old they are). Our whole-hearted attention gives them a sense of security and helps in their development, as we encourage them to articulate their thoughts and feelings. If they can’t express themselves to us, then who else can they turn to?

With our ‘significant other’, it’s our job to ask questions, to take the time to listen, to really look them in the eye and let them know we’re 110% present. It’s easy to be busy all the time (and I’m the one always folding the washing, whilst drinking tea, whilst catching up…).

Even, I am reminded by my lovely husband, we need to give a bit of attention to the dog! We will both benefit, if we do.

At work (and I wrote here about minimalism and the workplace), it’s easy to be distracted with the ping of the next email, a tap at the door, the phone ringing or myriad conflicting priorities. So, I’m working on staying focussed, remembering to ask, “What’s essential right now?” so that I can make what Greg McKeown* calls the “highest possible contribution”.

What difference does it make?

Mo Gawdat, discussing his book, Solve for Happy, reminds us that we only have the present. Right now. This moment. So, it’s our job to kick regrets from the past (or worry about the future) into the long grass. We only have the present, so we might as well take notice.

So, join me. Let’s be present.

Being present is a the best gift we can give to ourselves and to others. I’m working on this right here and now.

From *Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

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New online course

Did you notice, I’ve added a new Courses page to the blog? In just a few weeks, I’ll be running a small, private online course: Exploring Minimalism. I’d love to share the benefits of a minimalist lifestyle with you, so really hope that you can join me! 

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Razzle dazzle in London town

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After a day of decluttering on Good Friday for my mother-in-law, my daughter and I had a treat in store for Easter Saturday: We had tickets for the West End production of 42nd Street, which opened at The Theatre Royal last month.

If you love musical theatre, then I urge you to go if you can. The show is a glorious spectacle; it’s beautifully staged with an innovative set, beautiful costumes and the most talented set of performers I’ve ever seen.

London has changed

If you have visited London recently, you may have noticed a phenomenon that didn’t exist last time I was there. It felt like practically every other store was selling make-up, skin-care or perfume. In Covent Garden alone, within a few steps, you stumble across brands including MAC, Nars, Urban Decay, Clinique, Chanel, Bobbi Brown, The Body Shop and (good old) Boots. And these are just the ones I can recall off the top of my head.

What is going on?

I know that make-up is big business these days, but these brands seem to be taking over the world. By coincidence, I am reading Arianna Huffington’s book, On Becoming Fearless in Love, Work and Life. One of the first issues Huffington addresses is how we feel about how we look.

Comparisonitis

Just as Juliet Schor* talks about keeping up with the Joneses, so Huffington warns about the ‘treadmill of comparisons’ and the reality that our fears of inadequacy derive from the ‘multibillion-dollar cosmetics and fashion industries whose profits are directly tied to our levels of security’.

Huffington suggests that if we are going to compare ourselves to others, we might consider comparisons with those let fortunate than ourselves. In so doing, she suggests, we might ‘tap into reserves of empathy and gratitude instead of endless self-judgements.’

That’s all very well, but it’s not a message a 15-year-old girl is going to take on board easily. Intellectually, she’ll understand it. In reality, she will still spend time on our train journey down to London doing her make-up.

The melting-pot metropolis

What is good about going to London is that it’s a real melting pot. Here, we see every style, colour, nationality, size, shape and culture. In our capital city (to coin a phrase from another classic musical), anything goes. That’s a wonderful eye-opener for the teenager from provincial England. In a place like that, you can truly be your authentic self.

Back in woody Warwickshire, I observe a great deal of conformity in how our teens dress and how they look. For girls, long straight hair is the norm. Skinny, ripped jeans and trainers form the basis of the casual uniform. Drawn-on brows and contouring is de rigeur.

As a mother, I hope that I’ll be able to instill in my daughter the message that Huffington sets out in this early chapter:

‘..the sooner we realise that our happiness and the meaning of our life are not by-products of how we look, the sooner we can move to fearlessness.’

I do hope that the talented and beautiful chorus girls of the 42nd Street chorus might also know this, too.

*From The Overspent American: Why We Buy What We Don’t Need.

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What does minimalism mean for you?

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When I started blogging about my own journey into minimalism and simple living, I wrote an early post that encapsulated my thinking: So, what’s this minimalism all about?

What’s on trend right now?

At the time, I didn’t know that minimalism and simple living were becoming ‘a thing.’ A quick look at Google Trends is enough to see that, across the developed world, people’s interest in minimalism is on the rise.

That documentary

The boys from The Minimalists, with their much talked about documentary, have raised public awareness of how minimalism actually means living a life of more (but with less).

Watching the film is insightful if you’re new to minimalism and unsure of its benefits (check out my review). In the documentary, we meet some of the most well-known US-based proponents of minimalism and simple living: Courtney Carver, Leo Babauta, Tammy Strobel, Colin Wright and The Minimalists themselves, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. Their stories are both fascinating and compelling.

UK change-makers

Here in the UK, we have some wonderful change-makers. Not all of them would necessary call themselves ‘minimalists’ but check out the good work they’re doing:

Jen Gale – Jen’s ‘Make Do and Mend’ Year in which she bought nothing new transformed not only her family’s own experience but fostered a community of like-minded folks. Jen’s approach means saying “‘no’ to mindless consumerism, and choose instead to re-use, repair, borrow, and thrift. To Make Do and Mend.”

Caroline Jones’s fashion tribute to her late mother led to a book published last year: Knickers Models Own – A Year of Thrifty Fashion. Check out her inspiring story here.

Sarah at The Simple Life Notebook gently shares the wisdom of simplifying – especially useful if you have a young family. Check out Sarah’s free e-course if you’re looking to get a grip on your closet and develop a capsule wardrobe.

Head over to Wendy Graham at Moral Fibres whose green lifestyle blog is well worth a visit if you’re looking to reduce your impact on the environment.

Lisa Cole’s website, Less Stuff is a must-visit if you want some straightforward and accessible ways into decluttering.

Finally, there’s Sal at One Empty Shelf whose writing on minimalism also extends to her passion for the great outdoors.

Each of these inspirational change-makers has her own take on intentional living, but they all share one thing in common: they are no longer bound by a life of consumerism and know what it means to enjoy a life of more, but with less.

Seeing life through a new lens

As I see it, those who espouse intentional living (perhaps initially through decluttering and shedding excess stuff) are enabled to take a step back and see life through a clearer lens.

By eliminating distractions and getting back to basics, we can start to focus on the things that are truly important to us.

This might mean improving our relationships, combatting stress, focussing on family, improving our health and wellbeing, improving our finances, being more aware of our impact on the environment or even taking a more spiritual path.

The great spiritual movements of the world

The Bible teaches that, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15, ESV). Living frugally is not confined to Christianity, of course. Buddism and minimalism (for example) are also well aligned, as that great movement teaches us to ‘let go’ and be more mindful about how we live.

Maybe minimalism is a new way to express eternal truths in today’s consumer-driven society? 

What does minimalism mean for you?

In our local meet-up last weekend, Jane shared some of her eco-minimalism tips with the group, as we explored different aspects of minimalism and simple living. For me, it has been about simplifying my life to reduce stress and to increase happiness (it worked, for the record).

So, tell me about you? Are you one for whom Marie Kondo’s message of ‘spark joy’ resonates? Perhaps your interest lies in reducing debt, or carving out more time to do the things that matter? What does minimalism mean for you?

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How post-bereavement decluttering offers tips for living in the present

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When my dear father-in-law passed away recently, we began the process of decluttering and tidying the home in which he and my mother-in-law have lived for over forty years. Whenever someone dies, it’s inevitable that there’ll be some personal belongings to sort through (be they numerous or few in quantity).

Access all areas

My mother-in-law is a wheelchair user, so she has not enjoyed an ‘access all areas’ experience to the family home in recent times. As a result, whatever needed sorting out was down to the man of the house. We photographed the rooms upstairs so that my husband, Andrew, could ask his mum to decide what she wanted to do with the items we uncovered.

As we went about our task, I had a number of realisations, which prompted me to think about how we can all live more minimally in the here and now.

Man drawer mayhem

Comedian Michael McIntyre wasn’t kidding when he described the many and varied contents of ‘the man drawer‘. In our own home, we have a kitchen drawer that serves the purpose of a multi-use drawer for every day bits and bobs.

In my parents-in-law’s house, the man drawer housed nails, a hammer, masking tape and similar DIY-type stuff. Yet, this drawer was seldom used and in a central location within the home.

Keep useful things close by

My sense was that this useful storage space could be better served keeping every-day items that needed to be accessed regularly.

So, think carefully about what you use daily (or weekly) and store those items in an accessible location. Place seldom used equipment elsewhere.

Things that no longer work or which are no longer needed

If you are unable to get to the local recycling centre, the likelihood of holding onto things that no longer work (or which you no longer need) increases.

If you’re in this situation, ask a visitor to ‘disappear’ such items, find out if your local authority can offer a collection service or see if any local charities can help. This helps avoid stuff building up, which takes up valuable space in your home (and makes cleaning more difficult).

Have a place for ‘goods out’ 

At home, I have a dedicated drawer for ‘goods out’. When it’s full, I take the items to my local recycling centre or charity shop. We’ll do that for my mother-in-law.

Out-of-date foodstuffs

When we were students, my sister and I worked for our local supermarket. A mantra we learned whilst there was:

If it’s got a date, you must rotate!”

When you buy items with a long date (such as cans or jars), the ‘rotate’ rule still applies to these types of items just as it does to perishable goods.

In the case of my father-in-law, he wasn’t able to get into the back of his cupboards so we found some items that were up to 4 years out of date. I’m sure this is not unusual in this situation, but if you are able to do so, get into the back of those shelves from time-to-time and bring forward items you need to use imminently.

Check anything with a use-by date regularly

Pantry items such as flour and other baking products often need checking.  It’s a good idea to narrow down your list of store-cupboard staples so that you regularly use what’s there. Only invest in more unusual things if you know you’ll use them. And local friends, if you need a particular herb or spice for a special recipe, I probably have it (my weakness) so please ask before you buy!

Multiple items, dispersed throughout various locations

One of the things I noticed when decluttering was that there were various little storage boxes (plastic or cardboard) containing small items of a similar nature. We discovered duplicate (and even triplicate) versions of tiny things like paracetamol, matches and so on. Keeping such bits and pieces in one place will enable you to use up what you have before buying more and save you time and money.

Everything in its place

Whether you live alone, with a partner or in a family situation, an ‘everything in its place’ rule will help you consolidate, as you:
– see what you have in a particular category
– avoid losing things of value
– avoid waste (and save money)
– save time (as you know where to find what you need)
– maintain a sense of order and make cleaning so much easier

So, our decluttering continues and I know it won’t take long to get things sorted out. I know my mother-in-law will appreciate knowing that her home is a little less cluttered, which will help her keep it clean and tidy.

To live minimally in the here and now

So, to live minimally in the here and now:

  • Keep genuinely useful things close by (all in one place)
  • Have a place for ‘goods out’ (and let them go)
  • Check anything with a use-by date regularly
  • Adopt the ‘everything in its place’ rule

What can you do today to help you on your journey towards a clutter-less life?

In memory of Kenneth Gordon 1928 – 2017

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Minimalism and messy teens

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This recent article from the BBC, entitled Get out of my room! The truth about a teenager’s bedroom really caught my eye.

When you embrace minimalism and lose the clutter, it’s certainly not the case that you’ll bring everyone else in the family with you. This is especially true if you have one or more teenagers in the house. If they have their own room, this period in their lives is when they are beginning to assert their independence. If they choose to have a messy room, that’s their business, right?

But, how, on earth, does one marry the so-called ‘apocalyptic mess‘ of the teenage lair with a minimalist home?

Is a messy teenage bedroom really about self-determination or is there something else going on?

In the MidsMin household

I don’t stress too much about the rooms in our house that ‘belong’ to other family members.

What I do concern myself with are the shared rooms, particularly downstairs, where the rear of our home is open plan. By paying attention to these communal spaces, we can welcome visitors at any time. That’s a nice feeling.

In spite of being able to ‘live and let live’, I still nag remind our teenager about tidying and cleaning her room. After all, a clean and tidy environment will support her wellbeing and help with self-organisation.

What is really going on when messy becomes the norm?

In the BBC article, Laurie Taylor argues that the messy teenager is merely rejecting the family norm and exerting her own independence. I think it might be more than that.

Clearly, tidying up is not the teenage priority. What is the teenage priority, though?

I’ll tell you.

It’s homework, make-up, FaceTime and Snapchat. Not necessarily in that order.

Remember when you were a teenager? Did life seem quite as busy then as it is now?

Here’s the thing: the sheer volume of activity that today’s teens cram into their lives makes weekly scheduling a master-task in diary management. Yet, even though I wasn’t quite as ‘busy’ as a modern teen, I have to tell you something:

I was a messy teenager, too.

So, how can we help our high-achieving, over-scheduled teens avoid overwhelm? How can we support them?

Teenagers need you more than ever

In the battle of teen vs. clutter, you’ll all recognise the ‘clothes on the floor’ scenario. I think it’s our job to encourage, to remind and to help when they let us. I like Brooke McAlary’s idea that the first day of the holidays be devoted to a good old-fashioned sort out. That’s on my list for the first day of the upcoming Easter holidays.

In addition, rules such as ‘washing downstairs on a Friday’ do help and introducing teens to the vacuum cleaner is no bad thing.

More important than sorting out the messy bedroom is the attention we pay our young people. Being heard is what they want and need. A hug doesn’t go amiss from time to time, even when they are bigger than you.

And remember:

The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice – Peggy O’Mara

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When minimalism met consumerism: my visit to an amazon fulfillment centre

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How does it feel when (as a minimalist) you get a behind-the-scenes look at the self-styled ‘earth’s most customer-centric company’?

Today, with my husband, Andrew, I visited an Amazon fulfillment centre at Rugeley in Staffordshire. Here’s my account of our visit.

Retail that makes Costco look like a corner shop

The Rugeley site is 1 of 13 in the UK (and there are around 100 such sites worldwide). Anyone can book to visit and I’d recommend it if you’re a school teacher or Business student studying Operations Management. It’s an interesting experience, made enjoyable by the pleasant drive through the pretty city of Litchfield with its medieval cathedral (the only one in England with three spires).

To give you an idea of the scope and scale of the Rugeley operation, at its busiest, during a recent Amazon prime promotion, this site managed one order every 8 seconds. Here, we could witness shopping on a vast scale that makes a Costco warehouse look like a corner shop.

All the twos

This place alone, situated at the foot of gigantic cooling towers from a nearby power station, has 20 million product lines and 2,000 staff. Further, the fulfillment of customer orders persists 22 hours in every day.

Lots of little things

Our friendly and informative guide, Jo, told us that the Rugeley site didn’t handle everything Amazon sold, but focussed on the smaller items. We witnessed this from the many thousands of products we passed, as we were invited to undertake a walk-through of the various parts of the Centre.

Goods in

The first part of our tour was the ‘inbound’ section. That is, all the items coming into the fulfillment centre, ready to be sold, were there.

The random nature of the items on the shelves was a key talking point. In terms of the where these items are stored on the racks, there is no ‘right place’ as there would be in a library. Rather, the randomisation of items makes them more distinctive on the shelf. That means they are easier to pick, reducing errors and maximising the use of the available space.

A barcode-driven business

A barcode-driven business, this is an empire built on the ability to scan and store information. Once a member of the inbound team has found a suitable location for a new item, the product is placed on the shelf with its location recorded by the scanning of the product barcode and shelf label. Clever!

Row upon row of plastic and cardboard

What struck me at this point was the sheer number of items we could see that were essentially plastic encased in cardboard. There was everything imaginable from slug pellets to whey powder and coffee makers to drinking cups. But does anyone actually need any of this stuff? Even our guide talked about ‘buying tat’ and tat* is what this is.

[*If you’re unfamiliar with this slang word, ‘tat’ means ‘tasteless or shoddy items’]

Here’s where I was able to appreciate the scale of the operation, but – inside – I just felt dismayed.

What are we actually paying for?

As consumers, what are we actually paying for when we buy such products? Surely, the human and environmental cost of producing these items is even more vast than the warehouse from which it is despatched?

Statista.com says that, in 2016, Amazon’s fulfillment expenses amounted to 17.6 billion U.S. dollars, up from 13.4 billion U.S. dollars in the year before.

So, when we spend our hard-earned cash to buy online, we are paying for so much more than the product itself.

In the ‘goods out’ part of the tour, it was possible to see how the products that are picked come together. From the initial random dispersement of the items stored, here’s where items are gradually brought together into one order for packaging and despatch.

Here, I could see what we actually pay for when we place an online order.

We’re paying for the shipment from the manufacturer to the fulfillment centre (never mind the wages of the employees who craft the products from the raw materials the manufacturer buys). We’re buying the packing paper crumpled into the Amazon delivery box, as well as the proprietary box in which the products come. We’re purchasing the internal packaging that surrounds the product (polystyrene, bubble wrap, tissue paper). We’re funding the tape used to seal the box. And so it goes on. Oh, and I almost forgot. We’re buying whatever is inside that box, whose actual value can only be pennies at the most.

Grotesque parcels?

I asked a question: how it was possible to receive an item in a box that was clearly too large for the product? For exampe, we once received a selfie-stick in an enormous Amazon box that was so large we thought it was a mistake.

Amazon calls these mis-matched packages ‘grotesque parcels’ but I can’t help feeling there’s something grotesque about the whole thing.

Doing good?

Yes, these types of businesses provide employment to those who work in their fulfillment centre, as well as workers throughout the supply chain. Yes, sites like Rugeley support local charities. Yes, the company is supportive of educational programmes that means they offer to pay 95% of the fees of a college course to employees who want to reach their goals. That’s all great.

Good may be being done, but at what cost?

Slow shopping

So, as I reflect on today’s experience, it makes me even more determined to be mindful as I purchase what I need. I’ve written about slow shopping before, but now I value it even more than ever.

I suppose what struck me most was how this highly sophisticated and complex operation had been established to provide consumers with products no-one truly requires.

Delivering what exactly?

Today, we witnessed just a small part of Jeff Bezos’ mighty empire. Yes, it was an impressive operation, but it didn’t make my heart sing. If you look at the Amazon logo, you’ll see a smile from the A to the Z. Rather than delivering happiness, I suggest they’re delivering tat that none of us actually need.

I’ll think twice before I click that button next time.

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