Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Her … and Us

 

Late in the holiday season, I had the chance to view Her, the new film written and directed by Spike Jonze (whose previous directorial credits include Being John Malkovich and Adaptation). The movie stars Joaquin Phoenix as a down-on-his-luck writer in the Los Angeles of a not-too-distant future. He’s in the midst of a divorce he’s yet to make peace with and has moved from working as a journalist to creating “hand-written” letters (actually just computer-generated facsimiles of written correspondence) for hire.

In the film’s intentionally jarring opening scenes, we get a sense for the jaundiced view the script has of technology’s effect on relationships. Phoenix’s character, Theodore, doesn’t just occasionally string words together for an inarticulate suitor; In some instances, he’s penned both sides of years-long correspondences. This is a world in which it’s possible to outsource the entirety of human intimacy. The fact that Theodore works in an office swarming with other writers engaged in precisely the same craft subtly informs us that this is something more than a niche market.

This bit of background is important for those of you who haven’t seen the film, because it’s easy to infer from the marketing (and even from some reviewers, who should know better) that Phoenix’s character is a socially maladroit loner. If you know anything about the movie, it’s probably the one-sentence takeaway that it’s the story of a man who falls in love with his digital assistant (think of it as a hyper-advanced Siri voiced by an effervescent Scarlett Johansson). If Theodore’s a shut-in, that’s equal parts creepy and simplistic.

That’s not the character, however. Theodore is an affable co-worker. He’s a thoughtful friend. We see him be not only functional, but actually somewhat charming on a date. And the prose he constructs on the job shows us that he has a lyrical grasp of the beauty of human connection. He’s simply a man made gun-shy by the sting of love lost. He is singed perhaps; but not burned.

Theodore’s digital paramour, Samantha, is the product of the world’s first artificial intelligence-based operating system (and it’s a testimony to the film’s craftsmanship that you buy it). She’s charming, witty, solicitous about his feelings—apart from that little wrinkle about the lack of a corporeal presence, she’s the ideal girlfriend. And the film wisely chooses not to make Theodore some kind of freakish aberration. We learn later on that romantic relationships and intense friendships with this quasi-human OS are a widespread phenomenon. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine that realistic entities created for the purpose of molding to the contours of your personality wouldn’t inspire that kind of devotion.

Upon learning that Theodore’s new love interest resides in his smartphone, his soon-to-be-ex-wife (played by Rooney Mara) utters one of the film’s key lines: “You always wanted to have a wife without actually dealing with anything real.” That seems to be the nub of what the films wants us to ponder: is technology expanding our capacity for meaningful relationships or undermining it?

I’ll put the perfunctory spoiler warning here, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a film that takes the subject matter seriously doesn’t deliver a happy ending for Theodore and the virtual object of his affection. No technology, after all, could meaningfully simulate the depths of human interaction without also replicating its liabilities—and that’s precisely what happens in Her.

shutterstock_157364156.jpgWe talk a lot here at Ricochet about relationships—specifically about the factors influencing the seemingly decreased societal reverence for marriage. We’ve heard a lot of culprits identified: the welfare state’s marginalization of the nuclear family; the unrealistic standards that the “you can have it all” mindset imparts to women; the notion that men no longer have the proper incentives to get married. Yet, while watching Her, it occurred to me that there’s something else we may be missing.

My generation especially (“millennials,” if you prefer a term that makes the group sound as if its existence will end in a cyanide-induced suicide) is utterly conditioned to personalization. Every young person’s iPhone menu is a personality index—an atlas of the self. With every one of our digital interactions calibrated to produce maximum satisfaction, we define adversity down. Who hasn’t reacted to an unwanted pop-up ad as if someone just drove a sedan into the living room? Who hasn’t attempted to fast-forward through commercials only to realize they’re watching live television and had their teeth set slightly on edge? The more our demands are met, the pettier our grievances become.

While this trend has been an economic and technological boon, it’s also lowered our threshold for pain. And pain is the tax that’s applied to love, no matter how deep or how true.

It’s not far-fetched to imagine, as Her does, someone so conditioned to perpetually having the world arranged to flatter his every idiosyncracy that he is willing to entertain the notion of a romance that is fake but effortless over one that is sincere but strenous. That’s where Her terrifies you: when you realize “my God, people would do this.”

I see this trend in my contemporaries all the time. They’ll disqualify potential mates on the basis of Seinfeldian marginalia. If someone doesn’t tick every box—if they’re not the Match.com wish list made flesh—they may as well be the Elephant Man.

For this segment of the population anyway, we may be over-thinking the hangups with marriage. It’s not necessarily an outgrowth of economics, public policy, sociology, or religious belief. It might just be that love is hard. And, increasingly, ‘hard’ is something we’re not willing to do.

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  1. genferei Member
    genferei Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Millennials don’t like pain? What’s with all the gyms and jogging, then?

    I would also suggest that “this segment of the population” is really rather small, being populated by middle-class, elite-college-educated, coastal metropolitans.

    • #1
    • January 8, 2014, at 2:05 AM PST
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  2. PsychLynne Inactive

    I read this last night before going to bed and refrained from commenting on it because I wanted to savor the beautiful way that you’ve taken a concept I struggled with articulating and given voice to it.

    This morning after re-reading it, and I’m impressed yet again. When I’ve had an astoundingly good match of wine and food, I like to say my mouth is dancing – you make words dance.

    • #2
    • January 8, 2014, at 4:53 AM PST
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  3. Stu In Tokyo Inactive

    A version of this already exists……

    Love Plus

    • #3
    • January 8, 2014, at 5:04 AM PST
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  4. PsychLynne Inactive

    Now I’ve coped with my writing envy can comment.

    Two common experiences immediately came to mind while reading:

    First, I have had many conversations involving some variation of the following comment:

    “So what if all you like the same bands, he’s inconsiderate and borders on blatantly disrespectful–how do those balance out?”–Seinfeldian marginalia

    Second, when I was in “therapy school,” my most astute clinical supervisor would say one of our most important tasks was to help people learn to tolerate anxiety and pain–because most bad decisions came out of trying to minimize those feelings.

    While this trend has been an economic and technological boon, it’s also lowered our threshold for pain. And pain is the tax that’s applied to love, no matter how deep or how true.

    Of course, it doesn’t seem worth it. And if it’s easier to avoid without any seeming cost, why wouldn’t you? With their life shaped by personalization, how do you teach a generation to tolerate the pain and anxiety that come in relationships?

    I’m not exactly sure what to do at a societal level, but this piece will definitely impact my parenting.

    • #4
    • January 8, 2014, at 5:10 AM PST
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  5. flownover Member

    Can I shoot right through the pleasantries about emotional placebos and get to the Freudian castration complexes ? 

    The idea of hiding within a virtual dataset for intelligent men smacks of a feminist plot offering up the aforementioned cut job .

    This is another brick in the wall of the emasculating of our ranks. 

    A review of Wolf of Wall Street with ludes and hookers will now appear to be the yin to the yang of “Her”. Trouble is that Wolf is tale of warning and “Her” has a subtler message, but much more dangerous . 

    Imagine the impact on a sexually frustrated 14 yr old ( that’s 99.9% of the biggest movie goer demographic) that is already lost in a world of automatic porn, facebook and twitter personalities, now enforced by the false world of the flickering image that tells him not to be a man, not to find a mate, not to make a family. That is really dystopia.

    It horrifies me.

    How about you ?

    • #5
    • January 8, 2014, at 6:12 AM PST
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  6. Crow's Nest Inactive

    I haven’t seen Her yet, but now I will.

    Troy Senik, Ed.

    I see this trend in my contemporaries all the time. They’ll disqualify potential mates on the basis of Seinfeldian marginalia. If someone doesn’t tick every box—if they’re not the Match.com wish list made flesh—they may as well be the Elephant Man.

    For this segment of the population anyway, we may be over-thinking the hangups with marriage. It’s not necessarily an outgrowth of economics, public policy, sociology, or religious belief. It might just be that love is hard. And, increasingly, ‘hard’ is something we’re not willing to do.

    I’m on about something very similar over here

    • #6
    • January 8, 2014, at 6:23 AM PST
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  7. Great Ghost of Gödel Inactive

    I’m immediately reminded of Ender’s relationship with Jane, an AI, and how it is irrevocably transformed when in a moment of impatience he yanks the “jewel”—the means of communicating with Jane—out of his ear for an hour. An hour, to Jane, is many, many lifetimes. The description of how spectacularly hurtful to Jane this is is genuinely heartbreaking, and Card is not at all sparing in his description of how this utterly ruins what can only be described as the intimacy of Ender and Jane’s relationship.

    It’s a far cry from the (always rather silly) AI-as-emotionless-logic-machine view—although, to be fair, in Star Trek’s case that was never anything more than a device to create dramatic tension for Spock, Data, et al.

    • #7
    • January 8, 2014, at 6:37 AM PST
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  8. Frederick Key Inactive

    Thanks for the thoughtful review! It’s so good I feel like I don’t have to see it now.

    Interesting to see that movies are exploring our post-relationship era. I’ve worked with a lot of women who seem to find it hard to see the point of dealing with men, and I’ve known a lot of guys who would rather just stay in the basement.

    • #8
    • January 8, 2014, at 6:44 AM PST
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  9. Crow's Nest Inactive
    Frederick Key: I’ve worked with a lot of women who seem to find it hard to see the point of dealing with men, and I’ve known a lot of guys who would rather just stay in the basement.

    The irony being: neither of them really want that, if you caught them in an accidentally honest moment of vulnerability.

    But they’ll defend it if you dare challenge it. Especially then.

    • #9
    • January 8, 2014, at 6:51 AM PST
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  10. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Troy Senik, Ed.

    It’s not far-fetched to imagine, as Her does, someone so conditioned to perpetually having the world arranged to flatter his every idiosyncracy that he is willing to entertain the notion of a romance that is fake but effortless over one that is sincere but strenous.

    Yes, I think we all feel jilted by Obama.

    • #10
    • January 8, 2014, at 6:52 AM PST
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  11. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    A relationship with someone who does nothing but talk?

    Well, at least she has an off button.

    • #11
    • January 8, 2014, at 6:59 AM PST
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  12. Z in MT Member

    Troy,

    Do you consider yourself a millennial? I don’t think you are that young. There is another generation between the Gen-Xer’s and the millennials. Sometimes they are called the Generation-Y, but most of the time they are forgotten. (I am a member of this group.)

    • #12
    • January 8, 2014, at 7:35 AM PST
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  13. Mike K Inactive
    Vance Richards: A relationship with someone who does nothing but talk?

    Well, at least she has an off button. · 20 minutes ago

    Some of us have known women who didn’t. The old saying that “it takes two to make an argument” isn’t always true. I divorced my ex-wife 25 years ago and we are now getting reacquainted. A lot of water went under the bridge.

    • #13
    • January 8, 2014, at 7:37 AM PST
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  14. The (apathetic) King Prawn Inactive

    I’m too tired to fully digest the content, but I must say that there is some beautiful writing in this. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll have more substantive comments.

    • #14
    • January 8, 2014, at 7:51 AM PST
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  15. FightinInPhilly Thatcher

    What a great post Troy. I spent a year or two before I was married in the match.com scene, and found it mostly discouraging. What I found was that among the folks in my scene, we were all pretty good on the phone, pretty good at representing ourselves nicely on email, pretty good at putting attractive pictures of ourselves in our profile (who wouldn’t?) and yet when we’d meet for the eventual drink or dinner or coffee, the reaction more often than not was “huh? Um, no thanks”. All my dates were perfectly nice, and it wasn’t just me. I could see it in the girl’s reactions too – I wasn’t the guy they expected to see. Neither of us had lied or anything, but our cultivated online selves were better than reality.

    • #15
    • January 8, 2014, at 7:55 AM PST
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  16. KC Mulville Inactive
    • Women fart.
    • If you’re not prepared to accept that, don’t have a relationship.

    I love the fact that a work of art (a movie) can address the contrast between reality and personal fantasies, and call the audience to see the true beauty in reality. It’s ironic and yet wonderful when a movie can push a person to deal with (and even enjoy, and prefer) reality over fantasy. 

    Side note … since we live in a world where computers calculate what choices we’d make based on our previous choices, it bears reflection to see what the computers think we’ve been choosing. Maybe they can tell us something about ourselves that we aren’t consciously aware of. Instead of dismissing that information as just sales/computer nonsense, maybe we should treat it reflectively and see if it says anything:

    • What are the last five books you bought on Amazon?
    • What are the last five movies you went out of your way to watch?

    Maybe … just maybe … such data really does say something about us, even if we don’t always like what it says.

    • #16
    • January 8, 2014, at 8:29 AM PST
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  17. Owl of Minerva Inactive

    So he wrote a script about contemporary Japan and set it in America? I kid, but only sort of.

    • #17
    • January 8, 2014, at 8:35 AM PST
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  18. Vespacon Member

    Man I wish I could write like that. Glad to have a place to read it.

    Back in the 80’s (before email) I had the misfortune (or fortune) of falling for a girl who was in college 1,000 miles from my home. We wrote letters almost everyday for two years and I came to know her in ways I don’t believe I ever would have otherwise. Now, after 25 years of marriage we are still building on our “flesh of flesh, bone of bone” relationship. I often wonder if it might have been different if we had email, Twitter, etc. Heck, I would have settled for cheaper long distance phone service. 

    I get what FightinInPhilly says…

    FightinInPhilly: Neither of us had lied or anything, but our cultivated online selves were better than reality. · 33 minutes ago

    I’m sure we presented ourselves better than reality, but maybe because we already had the face-to-face, our virtual discussions became treasures that took us deeper. I don’t know. 

    • #18
    • January 8, 2014, at 8:46 AM PST
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  19. Profile Photo Member
    FightinInPhilly: All my dates were perfectly nice, and it wasn’t just me. I could see it in the girl’s reactions too – I wasn’t the guy they expected to see. Neither of us had lied or anything, but our cultivated online selves were better than reality. · 11 hours ago

    Two of my friends came to mind reading this. Both are attractive and successful women in their late 20’s. They’re fun to be around and both are extremely outgoing. So I found it surprising that they felt they needed to date online. They usually have someone pining after them but felt that no one was quite cutting it.

    Now both of them are encountering the same thing you described. You spend time looking at someone’s “ambassador” online, talk to them via phone and email, and when they finally meet there is almost always disappointment.

    I call it the Prince Charming effect. People set their expectations to high picturing some sort of love at first sight moment, or that all the person will check off all of their “boxes”.

    When you don’t recognize that every human is flawed in some way, then everyone comes up short.

     

    • #19
    • January 8, 2014, at 8:50 AM PST
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  20. Susan in Seattle Member
    Susan in Seattle Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Admittedly, when we saw the trailers for this movie, we said, “Big pass on that one.” However, after reading what you’ve written (which is fantastic, by the way), we may reconsider.

    • #20
    • January 8, 2014, at 8:51 AM PST
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  21. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Virginia Farmboy

    I call it the Prince Charming effect. People set their expectations to high picturing some sort of love at first sight moment, or that all the person will check off all of their “boxes”.

    I think part of it’s this.

    Part of it is also that writing is a more deliberate behavior in a very controlled environment. Interaction face-to-face involves all kinds of accidents (good and bad) from reactions and off-the-cuff decisions. It involves non-verbal communication and all the senses together. It involves exhibition of skills and habits beyond communication (like driving without scaring your companion or enduring a long line with patience). It involves commitments. And it involves doing things together.

    It’s not just whether or not both of you enjoy football. If you take the fumbles in stride but your companion is throwing coasters at the TV, football might not be a passtime y’all truly share.

    • #21
    • January 8, 2014, at 9:37 AM PST
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  22. Trink Coolidge
    Trink Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    It might just be that love is hard. And, increasingly, ‘hard’ is something we’re not willing to do. · · 15 hours ago

    Look around you, Troy.

    I know unmarrieds who have done that . . . surveyed the alarming statistics, the carnage left in the wake of failed marriages.

    Perhaps it isn’t the fact that “love is hard” – that steers the young away from marriage. Perhaps it’s the increasing probability that one may have to survive the debris field of heartbreak and broken families when love shatters on the rocks of modern life.

    • #22
    • January 8, 2014, at 9:43 AM PST
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  23. Troy Senik Contributor
    Troy Senik
    Trink

    Look around you, Troy.

    I know unmarrieds who have done that . . . surveyed the alarming statistics, the carnage left in the wake of failed marriages.

    Perhaps it isn’t the fact that “love is hard” – that steers the young away from marriage. Perhaps it’s the increasing probability that one may have to survive the debris field of heartbreak and broken families when love shatters on the rocks of modern life. · 45 minutes ago

    That might be part of it. Interestingly, though, I find that a lot of children of divorce (of which I’m one) end up having an elevated respect for marriage as a result. That may also explain some of the reticence — they’re afraid of screwing it up (and the quest for perfection may be an overcorrection for the perception that their parents regarded the institution too casually).

    • #23
    • January 8, 2014, at 10:31 AM PST
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  24. Troy Senik Contributor
    Troy Senik
    Z in MT: Troy,

    Do you consider yourself a millennial? I don’t think you are that young. There is another generation between the Gen-Xer’s and the millennials. Sometimes they are called the Generation-Y, but most of the time they are forgotten. (I am a member of this group.) · 14 hours ago

    Most of the definitions I’ve seen start the Millennial Generation with those born in 1980. I qualify under that definition, though not by much.

    Truth be told, I don’t really consider myself anything. These generational classifications are imperfect at best, but there are certain trends that do seem to break pretty cleanly by era, so I’m just comfortable enough to use the classification for shorthand in a piece like this one.

    • #24
    • January 8, 2014, at 10:33 AM PST
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  25. Hammer, The Member

    What a wonderful review, Troy. Your insights into relationships are fantastic. Those same insights expand into so much beyond romance, and it is interesting to weigh the suggestion that these attitudes are merely those that come with age (a fear of the unknown), as has often been suggested, against the possibility that technology really can have negative consequences, especially coupled with every other societal factor that we’re always discussing….

    • #25
    • January 8, 2014, at 10:46 AM PST
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  26. Bruce Caward Thatcher
    Bruce Caward Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Truth be told, I don’t really consider myself anything. These generational classifications are imperfect at best, but there are certain trends that do seem to break pretty cleanly by era, so I’m just comfortable enough to use the classification for shorthand in a piece like this one. · 2 hours ago

    Might be a subject for another thread, but this reminded me of something I read at NRO yesterday in an interview with Glenn Reynolds:

    “REYNOLDS: People think that teenagers act the way they do because of biology, but the teenager is mostly a modern social invention. We turned young adults into teenagers by taking away anything productive for them to do. A century or more ago, they were important parts of a family’s economic picture. Now they’re consumers, not producers. In pre-modern times, they were around mostly adults, and tended to try to act in ways that earned respect from those adults. Now they’re herded together with other teens, and tend to try to act in ways that other teens respect, ways that are usually a lot less constructive.”

    Aren’t the “certain trends” probably arbitrary outgrowths from the way we delineate “generations”? 

    • #26
    • January 9, 2014, at 1:32 AM PST
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  27. Bruce Caward Thatcher
    Bruce Caward Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    “And pain is the tax that’s applied to love, no matter how deep or how true.”

    This sounds like C.S. Lewis writing about grief.

    • #27
    • January 9, 2014, at 1:34 AM PST
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  28. FightinInPhilly Thatcher
    Virginia Farmboy
    FightinInPhilly:

    You spend time looking at someone’s “ambassador” online, talk to them via phone and email, and when they finally meet there is almost always disappointment.

    Now that is a great line. Our “ambassador” arranges the date, but ultimately it has to be us that shows up, and the elevated expectations ultimately doom the experience. Almost like when you take a drink from a glass that is filled with something other than what you anticipate. (sprite vs water). Its borderline traumatic. You may have had sprite 100 times before but you can’t process the difference. 

    • #28
    • January 9, 2014, at 1:39 AM PST
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  29. Troy Senik Contributor
    Troy Senik
    Bruce Caward

    “REYNOLDS: People think that teenagers act the way they do because of biology, but the teenager is mostly a modern social invention. We turned young adults into teenagers by taking away anything productive for them to do. A century or more ago, they were important parts of a family’s economic picture. Now they’re consumers, not producers. In pre-modern times, they were around mostly adults, and tended to try to act in ways that earned respect from those adults. Now they’re herded together with other teens, and tend to try to act in ways that other teens respect, ways that are usually a lot less constructive.”

    Aren’t the “certain trends” probably arbitrary outgrowths from the way we delineate “generations”? · 6 minutes ago

    I think that’s probably a big part of it. During the brief window when I worked for Newt Gingrich, he used to relentlessly harp on the fact that ‘adolescence’ was a creation of the Victorian Era. We’ve gotten into an ugly cycle where we give young people the benefits of adulthood at increasingly younger ages and defer adult responsibilities to increasingly older ones.

    • #29
    • January 9, 2014, at 1:43 AM PST
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  30. FightinInPhilly Thatcher
    Virginia Farmboy

    You spend time looking at someone’s “ambassador” online, talk to them via phone and email, and when they finally meet there is almost always disappointment.

    Now thatis a great line. Our “ambassador” arranges the date, but ultimately it has to be us that shows up, and the elevated expectations ultimately doom the experience. Almost like when you take a drink from a glass that is filled with something other than what you anticipate. (sprite vs water). Its borderline traumatic. You may have had sprite 100 times before but you can’t process the difference. · 4 minutes ago

    • #30
    • January 9, 2014, at 1:45 AM PST
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