Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Writing about food for Examiner.com 2 - Does it pay?

This is Part Two of a multi-part series of posts about writing about food and drink on Examiner.com, where I write as the Knoxville Gourmet Food Examiner and the Knoxville Coffee Examiner. For Writing about food and drink for Examiner.com Part One: How it works, click here.

In my last post, I detailed how writing for the online magazine Examiner.com works, and I also mentioned some rather tempting information about the potential pay that some Examiners prove is possible to be earning on the site. In fact, there is evidence floating around out there that some Examiners have made four figures per month writing for the site. Here's the seeming truth behind how that might be going down:

  1. They write about celebrity bullshit that people shouldn't care about but eat up like it's something I cooked;
  2. They watch Google Trends and pick the top-searched celebs to pour out info about, some of which may be suspect;
  3. They post "news articles" on those topics, many of which are simply rehashes of the most popular links on Google concerning about a dozen times a day and publish them as news, which Examiner.com gets fed into Google's news reel rather efficiently.
  4. They market the crap out of what they write on their Twitter accounts using all kinds of clever tricks and apps.
These four suppositions are based upon my memory of seeing the evidence I referred to (but cannot seem to quickly find again at the moment), and, if you're quick and relatively good, they could be a guideline on how to actually make money on Examiner.com.

Wait... ouch... "actually make money?" That's harsh.

Well, perhaps it's not warranted. There are some very web-savvy writers that produce expert-quality, solid content on their niche areas on Examiner.com that are doing fine without selling out hard to the celebrity path to riding several someones' coattails to relatively illegitimately earned internet cash. Those people seem to be making in the two-figures-per-day pay range, at least from what I have guesstimated (and having a Ph.D. in math makes me a pretty good guesstimator, most of the time). Two figures per day of nearly passive income isn't bad. It's something like $3-10k a year for what, at least on the front lines, is only a few hours of work a week. It won't pay off your house, but it actually could keep up with your mortgage if you're in the mid-to-high end of that range.

How do they do it? I wish I knew.

Maybe I overestimate my content (see Gourmet Food here and Coffee here), but I know I'm no slouch in the writing department (though some folks that outperform me from time to time are, a bit to my chagrin). As of the time of this writing, here's what typical (and atypical) Examiner.com numbers look like for me:
  • Total subscribers: 15 (food), 2 (coffee);
  • Number of articles: 102 (food), 5 (coffee);
  • Been writing since: 30 Nov 2009 (food), last week (coffee);
  • Typical daily performance earnings: $1.20-1.50 (food), $0.10 (coffee);
  • Record daily performance earnings: ~$10 (food), $0.25 (coffee);
  • Typical number of new articles per week: 4-5 (food), 2-3 (coffee);
  • Overall typical number of incentive dollars per week: ~$8;
  • Typical time spent on one article: ~30 minutes (both).
  • Overall earnings last month: $60-70 (because of their reporting mechanism, I can't say for sure until I'm paid later in the month).
  • Overall time spent per month (just writing): ~15 hours.
  • Overall time spent per month (including promotion): ~25 hours
  • Typical income per article (now): ~$1.75+$1=~$2.75 (sadly competitive with other by-hire online freelancing gigs), but woefully
While this has put a few bucks in my bank account that wouldn't be there otherwise (I can just hear my mom saying, "That's about a hundred and forty dollars (total time writing for them) you wouldn't have had otherwise!"), the average is working out to be that I'm making a little over $2 an hour in performance pay for my time writing for Examiner.com, or make that about $4 if you throw in the local incentives, but under $3 an hour again if you count promotional time. Those wages aren't too bad for a guy with a Ph.D. in math, right? Oh wait... shit... they are. Sure, $140 might seem like a lot, considering, but by the hour, given my degree, etc. that's not. It's nary a drop in the bucket.

So, why do I do it? A few reasons: (1) it's kind of fun; (2) I like to share/teach; (3) I wouldn't mind getting "discovered" and thereby make some real cash off of this, and Examiner.com is better for getting discovered than cooking quietly in my kitchen and mumbling about it on Facebook from time to time; and (4) I'd like to believe my pay could go up at some point.

So... has my pay gone up? Let's just use the Knoxville Gourmet Food gig for now since the coffee deal is too fledgling to know any different yet. Here's what my daily readership has done, in a nutshell, since I joined:
  • Month #1: Steadily increased (roughly linearly) from bubkus to about 70 page views per day;
  • Month #2: Steadily increased (roughly linearly) from about 70 page views per day to about 120-150 page views per day;
  • Month #3: Except one day when one article went nuts on StumbleUpon and got over 800 hits in a single day, it's been level + noise since then (This is the article, about chicken noodle soup, originally posted on this blog, that went nuts on Wednesday, February 3. Feel free to click on it and Stumble it to get that ball rolling again or something. That was awesome.).
So, that has me wondering... what's different?

Well, I went balls-to-the-walls publishing articles up until about six weeks ago, at which point my daily readership seemed to be going steadily up, more or less linearly. It had to be annoying to my subscribers (in fact, I know it was because my subscriber numbers actually dwindled during that time). Since, I've leveled off more nearly to the recommended publishing schedule of about 3-5 articles a week, and my daily performance pay leveled off just as quickly. But wait....

It seemed to me, hence the balls-to-the-walls publishing coming out of the gate, that overall performance earnings, given relatively constant quality (not really reasonable... I'd say it's gone up, at least in terms of my ability to write for the web), should be [dork warning] directly proportional to article count. Tips I received from other seasoned (and popular) Food and Drink Channel Examiners strongly backed this theory, only without numbers to confirm it. Month 3 suggests strongly to me that such isn't so, however. So... what's the deal?

According to an interesting Examiner.com writing experiment on 20sMoney, the reason is simply that older articles on Examiner.com may lose their visibility over time (due to how they index (rather poorly) with Google), cutting into the potential performance pay that those articles could generate, i.e. Examiner.com's performance pay might not really be that great a form of passive income, despite its highly competitive rate. Why? I'm with their guess: they do well in the searches because of sheer volume initially, but there's so much underqualified stuff floating around in the Examiner.com juggernaut of articles published each day that there is substantially good reason for Google to try to keep a passive lid on how much traffic they receive over time. I'm not saying that Examiner.com's approach is a bad one -- I can't think of a great way to ensure consistently high quality in the format they do across so broad a spectrum of topics with such a strong local initiative -- but that any punishment it sees in search-engine visibility is probably somewhat justified.

From where I sit, then, there really needs to be a call for more qualified Examiners to take up the mantle and start elevating the overall image of the site. With stronger credibility and a unique and effective vision, it could become a real media powerhouse without selling out to the Big-Media corporate voice that looms over seemingly most of what we see and read out there.

Of course... then there are the highly successful folks (firmly planted in the two-digits-per-day range) that make me wonder what it is that I'm missing. I have it on authority that some of the articles that some of these wonderful people wrote last year netted over $1000 for the single article (and is still getting lots of residual attention). That's some decent freelancer pay even for a well-researched, carefully designed and presented article sold to a major publication. So... it is possible to do well.

To close, since some aspiring Examiners might have a sour or bitter taste in their mouths after reading my disclosure of my position so far, I will take heart in that I've only been cultivating relationships and readership on Examiner.com for about three months. Many of the heavy hitters have been at it nearly since Examiner.com got started almost three years ago, which gives them a firm position to have made friendships and networking relationships on the site, which are, of course, for any blogger or journalist, the equivalent of manna. This article will likely need some updating three months from now to see if these Month #3 doldrums find a fair trade wind blowing through them at some point down the road, but the current lack of growth is a bit disturbing.

Stay tuned for more articles in this vein, but you can get started by seeing the original here: Writing about food and Drink for Examiner.com Part 1: How it Works. This text right here will soon be replaced by links to later articles in the series; thanks for your patience.

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Writing about food for Examiner.com 1 -- How it works

So, I haven't been too faithful about keeping this up. I find that writing about food but not talking much about the food itself is unsatisfying and kind of pointless. Still, as long as I'm writing about food for Examiner.com, I don't think I'm going to write much about food here, save to plant links to those Examiner articles, some of which, if I do say so myself, are quite nice and contain delicious recipes.

Instead, I think, at least for a while, I'll write about writing about food, specifically about writing about food for Examiner.com. This post will be the first in a series about my experience so far with Examiner, pulling essentially no punches on them and being as fair as is possible.

For those who don't know, Examiner.com is an online magazine of sorts, and its writers are independent contractors that get paid competitive wages (*more on this below*) for writing about any topic within their expertise once they're hired as an Examiner. The application process is easy: go to the website, sign up to write for them, list referrals (like me, see links below to my Examiner titles if you feel this article sways your interests toward writing for them enough to contact me so that I can properly refer you), write a short piece, give them a little bio and a profile pic, and wait a little while. As a tip if you apply to write for Examiner, keep that little piece via some version of copy and paste since you'll likely want to submit something you think is good, and you'll never see it again after the application. Keep your bio info too because there's an oddly good chance you'll have to submit it again and won't have access to whatever you spent time thinking up in the first place.

About those "competitive wages," they come in two forms, depending on your title. Everyone with Examiner.com starts as a local Examiner, which means that they're tied to and associated with the local area they apply to write for, usually the one they live in. Examiner pushes hard on an "everything local" initiative, and so local Examiners are expected to write about locally relevant content, although this can simply mean pointing a reader toward local resources for gathering more information or relevant stuff (like ingredients) to the article. In that, Examiner.com offers its local Examiners a "local incentive," via its "Rules of the Road," a short list of content rules that essentially boil down to putting a local spin on every article. That incentive is $1 per article for up to 5 articles per week (for a maximum of about $260 a year in local incentive pay, which is on top of "performance pay," by page views). That is about to double for sponsored local Examiners, which means local Examiners that are sponsored by some (local?) business.

In addition to "local incentives," Examiner.com pays everyone, including its more topical National Examiners, performance pay that works out to what seems to be about just shy of a cent per page view, taking into account a variety of factors that are kind of like a trade secret -- you never find out how they work, probably to help prevent you from gaming the system. Having subscribers (which means signing up for a free, no-spam e-mail alert system or RSS), however, seems to be more valuable than just random visitors, and apparently the time on site that a reader spends and click-through rate have something to do with it as well.

The other pay opportunities are recruitment tools and are pushed really heavily, and ostensibly very successfully: $50 per new Examiner referred and per new sponsor referred to the growing media network. It's possible to make some serious cash that way if you can talk a lot of people into getting on there to share their knowledge, but so far in my experience, people seem leery about signing up to write for them (more on that in the future too). The referral thing must work, though, because in three months I've written for Examiner.com so far, at least 7,500 new Examiner ID numbers have been given out, presumably one to each new Examiner writing on the site.

As for writing, the advanced editor they provide works very much like a blogging interface, so if you can work something like Blogger, you can definitely handle the Examiner editor. The basic editor is even easier to use and produces uniform but consistently nice articles that are relatively well laid out.

Examiner prefers its writers to publish 3-5 articles per week and requires at least one per month, but since they emphasize short, easy-to-read, attention-span-lacking articles (because of their success on the attention-span-lacking internet audience), it is certainly realistic to expect that articles can take between 10 minutes and an hour to complete, if you really want to spend an hour working on them. Personally, I believe in content, so I spend about 30-40 minutes on my articles, but I usually don't even bother proofreading them -- sure, quality counts, especially if you want to get "noticed," but I don't currently make enough money from Examiner on a per-article basis to justify the extra time. Besides, much to Examiner.com's detriment on the whole, most of the content on the site is utter crap -- poorly written, first-person, copy-paste, opinion-ridden, drivel that really should see some more editorial oversight. On the other hand, since each Examiner might be a rocking expert in their field, some of the content is absolutely top-notch and worth looking at and bookmarking, particularly some of the very creative, very successful recipes on there.

As for how the money works out... well, I'll go into super detail about that in a later post, but some Examiners literally make thousands of dollars a month just via performance pay. I don't think most of them write about food and drink, but on the other hand, some of the top Examiners in food and drink are getting at least thousands of page views per day, which comes out to possibly $10-50+ a day in relatively passive income at the low requirement of what amounts to probably about 2-3 hours a week writing time (which doesn't include marketing, promoting, or researching time). While this sounds highly enticing, I have absolutely no idea how to achieve numbers like that (again, more on that aspect later!) and don't come anything close to it yet. Then again, I apparently have absolutely no idea how the hell social networking plays a role in advertising except that I post many of my articles on my Facebook page and get a very modest number of clicks from that source (I currently consider my experiment with Twitter to have failed... I still can't get into that crap). I'm routinely in the top five Examiners in my local network (Knoxville, TN), however, which given my rather low readership is quite, quite the scary commentary on overall traffic to and through the site.

If you're interested in seeing what I've put on Examiner.com so far, I currently hold two local Examiner positions, the former vastly more successful than the latter (which is new but seems not to be growing very quickly):

  1. Knoxville Gourmet Food Examiner (x-31650)
  2. Knoxville Coffee Examiner (x-39092)
Just follow those links to see a complete list of my articles under each title, which are handled and sorted separately. I'd love it if you check them out, especially if you subscribe, and if this article has made you interested in writing for Examiner, I'd appreciate an e-mail or a comment so I can refer you properly. If we communicate via e-mail, I'll be more than happy to share the upsides and downsides with you freely about writing for the site, so far as I see them now. For what it's worth, since I love writing and sharing what I know, writing for Examiner is fun, and it almost pays for my internet connection now (though not for my time), and the possibility for being "discovered" by someone that pays much more substantially is a nice bonus.

Click here to roll on through to Writing about food and drink for Examiner.com Part 2: Does it Pay?

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Surprise lunch with my wife at Hot Rod's 50's Diner

I love when errands turn into me getting awesome lunch.

I volunteered to ride around a little with my wife this afternoon while she ran some errands (actually, I ended up driving). We did that and then at the spur of the moment went to try to meet up with a new business contact of hers and found out that she was out to lunch at one of our favorite spots: Hot Rod's 50's Diner (in Maryville, TN, where we live). Since we like it, since we're hungry, and since her peeps are cool, we dropped by, did a little talking, and did a lot of eating.

I tell you what: that place can make a burger and fries. If you're ever in the Maryville/Knoxville area, you should definitely try to make a trip by there. It's really good.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Working the social media thing and not getting it

So... I joined Twitter tonight, and as I'm sure about 80 million people have said before me,

  1. I don't get Twitter;
  2. I don't know how to work Twitter.
I think I know my username (@JLindsayCooks - because "UntrainedGourmet" has one too many letters for precious character-counting Twitter and because I want to use it to promote my food blogging and writing for Examiner.com), but I'm not even sure of that. I have no followers and don't really have a clue of how to find people on there that I know. In fact, I don't know anyone that uses Twitter. If you use Twitter and want to keep up with what I'm doing or in any other way think I'm awesome enough to follow, come follow me. It will be fun. I'll be eternally grateful. You get bonus points if you tell me
  1. What's the magic of Twitter;
  2. How to work Twitter.
I'm not a total moron (I've got a Ph.D. in something hard like math), so I know the basics of how Twitter works, but what I can't figure out is how you get followers. I found some guides on the web that told me to give a book away or something. I don't have any books that I can e-mail you (unless you want a copy of my dissertation -- BORING!!!), so that's out. Luckily, I'm funny as hell, so following me will be totally worth it. As a bonus, I'll usually be talking about what I'm cooking or eating, which will be awesome.

While I'm sitting here confused about the role of social internet media in the "promoting myself online" world, I'll point out that StumbleUpon, which you can clearly see I'm a part of, is one of the biggest mysteries on the internet. Seriously. I submit some good work to them; no one clicks. I click on some stuff; no one clicks. I submit something else; 70 people click (?). I submit something else that I think is better; 23 people click. I submit something else I don't think is quite as good; 800 people click (???). I submit other stuff; no one clicks. I'm totally mystified. I don't have time to go "Stumble around the internet" for hours a day clicking on bullshit that I don't care about or even that I think is neat, and I don't really get how it's any form of social outlet.

The big confusing one is Digg. I tried to play their game. I don't get it either (less than I get Twitter). L.a.m.e. Social media confuses the hell out of me. Why can't internet marketing be a little less confusing?

In other news, particularly the kind that pertains to food, I decided that my Southern-Chinese fusion recipes (bacon fried rice and peanut fried rice) are a little too hee-haw to publish on Examiner, so I wrote an article about Ugli fruit instead because it's like a super-weird, gourmet tangerine. I also told folks the secret to my flatbreads, which apparently everyone loves. Furthermore, I got hired on by the Examiner team to write articles under a second title: Knoxville Coffee Examiner (in addition to my regular gig as Knoxville Gourmet Food Examiner), and I wrote my first article for them today, a long piece about the loveliness and use of a French press, the rarity in use of which still surprises me.

Ah well, at least I understand how blogging works. I get to come on here, say my piece, pretend people read it, and feel great about myself and all of the cool links I get to plant. If you're in the mood to humor me, check out the links, subscribe to my feeds on Examiner, follow me on Twitter, and Stumble everything I write, though I guess shameless paragraphs like this don't make that kind of thing happen.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Experiments with coconut and bacon, but not at the same time

We've kind of run out of things here and really need a trip to the store. That's led to some rather creative dishes over the weekend that were really pretty good, to be honest.

First, since the only meat we had left in the house was bacon, I decided to go for a Southern-Chinese fusion dish by making "bacon fried rice," which is every bit as uncomplicated as it sounds. Basically, I started several strips of bacon in the wok, fried them up nicely, and used the oil to make fried rice (with eggs, peas, and carrots, along with some onion, garlic, and ginger, of course) and then added the bacon, chopped up roughly, at the end, tossing it all through. It was surprisingly good... better, in fact than last night's similar dish (we have a lot of rice): fried peanuts in fried rice, which was also quite good. The essential idea there was to shallow-fry some raw peanuts until they were crunchy and then make them the primary protein component in the fried rice. I label it creative and good and am glad I made it.

In other news, since I do a lot of working out and need the protein, these kinds of meals wouldn't cut it. I had to make some protein drinks. My usual recipe is just (whole) milk, whey protein concentrate, evaporated cane juice, and (Ghirardelli or better) cocoa powder with the occasional dash of cinnamon powder or vanilla extract. Feeling a bit creative and needing to use some leftover coconut milk from the curry of the day before, I added that in place of half the milk (about 6 oz. or so). Whoa. Seriously. Whoa. Seriously. Whoa. What a good idea!

The weekend was rounded out with some of the best barbecue available in Maryville, the stuff over at Full Service BBQ, which is fantastic. The beef rocks, the pork rocks, the potato salad rocks. I had a good time with that stuff.

I feel sad, however, that I'm a little too busy with life and doings to have time to post much on here... right after my reinvention of the blog! I'll get better at it hopefully before too long, so hang in there with me. As for now... I'm working on some whole wheat and flax flatbread that hopefully will get a little dose of pizza toppings put on it.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

A new direction -- my relationship and experience of food

So I'm still writing recipes and food whatnot for Examiner.com as the Knoxville Gourmet Food Examiner, and that takes up enough of my writing-specifics-about-food time to where I have little left for blogging about it, particularly since the theme so far of this blog has been sharing the recipes I've tried and loved, which is exactly where I get most of my material for Examiner. Since I don't want to double-post, and I don't want to think up second-rate stuff for the blog, I've just kind of let it fall by the wayside. That changes again today, but with a different bent: I'm going to spend my time on here talking about my relationship with food and saying the things I can't say on Examiner (where I'm a "journalist" that has to follow the rules that only few others seem to follow: write in the third person and leave personal notes out).

SO! If you used to come here to find cool recipes to try, then you'll probably only find links to them as I put them on Examiner (do feel free to click those links, go to those pages, check out the recipes, enjoy them, and become a subscriber of my Examiner feed, which delivers my posts to you for free in your e-mail). This blog is about to get a bunch more personal instead of being about showcasing the recipes so much: it will be about my experience of recipes, foods, and other topics related to me the person... and a good deal about the food still. I think it's fair to say that I will continue to shamelessly promote myself and my Examiner articles, so expect a fair many links (which, like I suggested, you can or might should click on to visit them in their glory and then become a subscriber so you can enjoy them more regularly).

Speaking of shameless plugs, the article I wrote for Examiner today is kind of strange. It was really good, really interesting, and something I ate yesterday: oven-baked sweet potato French fries in both purple and orange. The strange bit, other than the vibrant purple of the purple sweet potatoes, is that it would be a perfect recipe for Halloween, and it's dead in the middle of February, which is pretty much the least Halloween-like month of the year. I'm betting I'll repost it. Here's what it looked like with both of them on the plate:
Neat, huh? They were good, too. The oven-baked quality of them seemed like it would leave me with soggy fries, but the reality is that with a quick par-boiling first, they come out almost every bit as crispy from the oven as they will from a deep fryer, though it takes considerably longer to get there.

If you wonder, I'm now a purple sweet potato fan (I can't wait to try them mashed, if only for the novelty of the appearance of the outcome) -- they're a little denser and drier, it seems, than the orange kind, and a bit less sweet, so overall, particularly in a savory use like this, they are really, really good (particularly smothered in some spicy barbecue sauce: Joe's Mo-Hotter XX Hell Sauce, which has a name I wish I was making up and which ended up in my kitchen only because we got some of it as kids to laugh about the name and have been laughing about it ever since... over 15 years of humor from pepper sauce).

Dinner tonight... well, it rocked. The recipe probably won't end up on Examiner due to their "local" initiative and the extreme difficulty of connecting "Chinese-style beef steak and mushrooms in coconut sauce over plain fried rice" with "Knoxville, TN." It's a shame, really, because it was really, really good. Maybe I'll change my mind and write about it, but I should have taken a picture because I don't have one to go with the article... unless the leftovers tomorrow come out nice looking.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the new format of the blog, even though the readership of this blog is so weak right now that I can probably expect that no one will see this post. If you do, welcome aboard... this should be kind of fun.

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Perfect chocolate chip cookies, great recipes, and some restaurants... writing for Examiner still

Granted, I'm not doing such a great job of keeping up with writing on this blog like I used to. It's difficult to come up with great material on one topic in two places, and frankly, I get paid to write for Examiner. So, while it's perhaps less than any readers I have left might hope for, here's another link-dump to stuff I've been writing on there as the Knoxville Gourmet Food Examiner.

Since it's coming up so soon, in case you missed it or just ran into this blog, you should definitely check out my list of New Year's resolutions that involve food and drink. I've already started doing some of them, and even if you're reading this in mid-April, it's never too late to start a new, healthy habit like trying out new foods or learning to cook.

In as big a surprise to me as it will be to many of you, Vienna Coffee Company (a popular topic here on The Untrained Gourmet because it's local to my Maryville/Knoxville area and because they do a great job) has thoroughly impressed me (and my wife and coffee-snob brother) with their high-quality Colombian coffee roasts that can't be missed.

Some of you might remember JB's beef and potato stew from way back when. I liked it so much the last time I made it that I decided it needed more exposure in my quest to have it be shared with the world on Examiner, so do check it out (especially if you're new here and don't remember it!).

I went to eat at Metro Pizza in Alcoa (between Maryville and Knoxville) recently and was quite pleasantly surprised. I'm glad to know there are still a few good non-chain pizza places around. I wrote a glowing review for Examiner that's worth looking at if you like Metro Pizza or are interested in checking it out. Metro Pizza serves authentic New York style pizzas that are hand-made by folks that know and love what they're doing. It's also a family-run operation, which is nice in the corporate-jungle world we live in today.

Another classic from this blog, way back when, the Madagascan chicken in coconut milk, akoho sy voanio, was also featured due to my belief that everyone should find (and love) this fantastic dish. Have a look!

Who doesn't like potato soup? A great variation on the classic using fried potatoes for a different taste and texture can be found on Examiner now thanks to my recent article on the matter. Oh, and if you don't like it, you probably just need more bacon in yours. That's a tip to take home with you.

My mom makes the best chocolate chips in the universe (probably). In fact, they're so good that I violate my long-standing, otherwise-firm rule about vegetable shortening to enjoy them (the rule is: don't eat anything containing vegetable shortening). I put her secret best chocolate chips in the world recipe up on Examiner for the world to find and profit from (with her permission). Thanks, Mom!

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