David Foster Wallace and the Velveteen Rabbit

1.

Interviewed by Stacey Schmeidel for the Spring 1999 issue of Amherst Magazine, David Foster Wallace said, “The truth is I don’t think I’ve ever found anything as purely ‘moving’ as the end of The Velveteen Rabbit when I first read it.”

The Velveteen Rabbit, in Margery Williams Bianco’s children’s book, is a toy who wants to be real. It doesn’t even have hind legs. Velveteen is itself a kind of fake velvet, making the rabbit doubly ersatz. It’s stuffed with sawdust, and its ears are lined with pink sateen, and it’s miserable about not being real.

Many of Wallace’s characters feel the same way. Atwater in “The Suffering Channel” is in profound despair over his own shallowness, his fatal flaw that he has “no innate sense of tragedy or preterition or complex binds or any of the things that made human beings’ misfortunes significant to one another.” Atwater thinks his being disturbed about what a woman “apparently thought of him was possible evidence that she might actually have him pegged, that he might be not only shallow but at root a kind of poseur.” A man in genuine agony over how fake he is.

“The Depressed Person,” subject of one of Wallace’s most excruciating stories, is so possessed by the fear that she cares only about herself that her most desperate need is to talk about this fear to other people. She winds up reduced to tears by her own inability to feel anything.

Here’s a passage where the Velveteen Rabbit gets some dangerous advice from the Skin Horse:

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

D.T. Max reported in the New Yorker that part of Wallace’s reason for going off the drug Nardil was his fear that the anti-depressant was interfering with his writing — “He worried that it muted his emotions, blocking the leap he was trying to make as a writer. He thought that removing the scrim of Nardil might help him see a way out of his creative impasse.” It’s unclear how much of a factor this was in Wallace’s ceasing to take Nardil, but we know he stopped taking Nardil in the summer of 2008 and killed himself that fall.

In their book Faking It, Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor write, “Especially in the music aimed at white teenage males, authenticity is seen as the sine qua non of artistic success,” and “Listeners have learned to associate authenticity with a kind of clawing at the essence, an attempt to expose the rawest of nerves.” Of the likes of Kurt Cobain, Barker and Taylor ask, “It’s too simplistic to say that it is our fault, but deep down we wonder: if we had not encouraged them – if we had thought less of ‘authenticity’ and more simply of good music – might they have survived?”

Or does that kind of pressure only come from within? The protagonist of Wallace’s story “Good Old Neon” is provoked to suicide by a joke from the TV show Cheers! – Lilith telling Frasier, “If I have one more yuppie come in and start whining to me about how he can’t love, I’m going to throw up.” This unnamed character’s realization, amid the canned laughter, that “nearly everybody in the United States had already seen through the complaint’s inauthenticity… more or less destroyed me, that’s the only way I can describe it…”

Which is painfully paradoxical, since isn’t someone who could be destroyed by a gag in a sitcom too sensitive, rather than too superficial…? Why is the complaint “inauthentic?” In some spiritual traditions, inauthenticity can be defined as the inability to love – which for Wallace is the ultimate sin – so it’s not as much that the man’s complaining is inauthentic, as that inauthenticity is the complaint he suffers from? Maybe the tone of the complaint is inauthentic, because “whining” stems from a sense of entitlement, not a sense of responsibility? Is it Cheers! that’s inauthentic? TV shows that depict relentless nonstop social activity are reportedly particularly depressing for depressed people to watch. Don Gately in Infinite Jest believes he has “a special personal relationship with Cheers!” because of his eerie resemblance to Norm who “drank foamer after foamer without once hitting anybody’s Mom or pitching over sideways and passing out in vomit somebody else had to clean up,” suggesting one way in which Lilith’s joke is inauthentic – it’s a joke about throwing up, set in the fictive community of a bar where nobody throws up…

But the yuppie’s real problem is that he’s feeling sorry for himself — when who suffers most from his inability to love, himself or other people? Zadie Smith wrote in Changing My Mind — “There is a weird ambient sameness to Wallace’s work. He was always asking effectively the same question. How do I recognize that other people are real, as I am? And the strange, quasi-mythical answer was always the same, too. You may have to give up your attachment to the ‘self.’

2.

An Adam Phillips essay, “Farber’s Quibble” in Promises, Promises, argues that authenticity is “always an unconscious parody of honesty. It coerces us into believing that there is a way of being that takes the difficulty out of truth-telling.” Does the Skin Horse fall into this trap when it tells the Velveteen Rabbit, “once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand?”

Wallace is hard to parody: the parodist reads with an eye for the moment when an author gets too magisterially comfortable with his own style, and slips momentarily onto autopilot, and Wallace frantically avoided such moments. The Howling Fantods ran a David Foster Wallace Parody competition in 2004, and what makes the authors of the winning entries in this competition not sound like Wallace is precisely a certain stylistic comfortableness/smugness/polish. E.g. several of the parodists chose to recreate the celebrated poet who is skewered in the story “Death is Not the End” – “a poet two separate American generations have now hailed as the voice of their generation,” or in other words the phony of phonies, a velveteen genius. Comparing the original with the parodies clarifies where the original gets its force, namely from Wallace’s sheer terror that the person he’s lampooning might be himself. What keeps that story “authentic” is Wallace’s own fear of being inauthentic.

When young people are obsessed with authenticity, it may be because they don’t know yet who they are. Perhaps for a while, until we reach maturity, we are all fictional characters, all velveteen? David Lipsky’s 2008 article on Wallace in Rolling Stone quotes Jonathan Franzen on Wallace’s “notion of not having an authentic self. Of being just quick enough to construct a pleasing self for whomever he was talking to. I see now he wasn’t just being funny — there was something genuinely compromised in David.”

Is being quick enough to construct a pleasing self for whomever you’re talking to actually a liability for a writer? If we adopt a mental modules approach, we might hypothesize that certain parts of our brain construct a pleasing self for whomever we’re talking to, while another module supplies us with the illusion that this “self” is us — perhaps it was the latter module that malfunctioned in Wallace. The constant horror of the simulacrum throughout his oeuvre makes him unsettling to read. Such glancing phrases as “a small vase of synthetic marigolds” can make one wince at the sheer lameness of our times. Wallace unforgivingly uses words like “fructose” and “bioexperiential” that in themselves seem to suggest something’s seriously wrong. Or consider the scarily long list of chunks of velveteen language he placed at the beginning of his “Harper’s Magazine” article “Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage” — phrases like “Your efforts to recover from the experience of growing up in an alcoholic family may be very difficult and threatening for your family to hear about and accept, especially if they are still in the midst of their own survival.”

Such words are disturbing to read because, even through the dead language, one can still feel the pain.

I was puzzled once to hear Wallace say on NPR that, whenever he felt a writer was trying to manipulate his emotions, he put the book down. Puzzled because surely, necessarily, most of what fiction writers are doing is trying to manipulate readers’ emotions. Perhaps Wallace was thinking of passages where he, as a reader, felt an author was trying to make him feel something the author didn’t feel. His point maybe was that people are too ready to accept the velveteen emotions of prime time TV and political speeches instead of the real thing, and that writers have to be constantly on guard against serving up the same kind of thing, cashing in on a debased emotional pseudo-currency. He identified, as a key moral characteristic of our time, the prevalence of quasi-meaningful rhetoric we can’t believe in, the inflation of empathetic rhetoric masking an absence of actual caring — and went overboard trying to write in a way that circumvented or highlighted this problem.

The stylistic traits that some of Wallace’s readers find off-puttingly distancing are — another paradox –- designed to ensure that, when we do feel what Wallace is getting at, we’ll feel it for real. They are like sieves that at first glance might make Wallace’s prose seem cold, but which, by straining out schmaltz, guarantee the purity of whatever emotion does filter through. Such traits include his deliberately awkward syntax in the service of unnecessarily exact description, his narratorial insistence on twentieth-guessing himself, the metafictional digressions critiquing metafiction, the overdosing on academic jargon and generally pedagogical tone, the elaborate neuroses that, unsettlingly, take on plausibility in the act of reading about them – one character in Infinite Jest has a “crippling phobic fear of leaves,” one in The Pale King suffers from “fear of pretty much all spiral movements in liquid, across the board” — the remorseless polyphony, the precise chemical descriptions of mood-altering pharmaceuticals, the deadpan forays into ultra-technical lingo, some scenes that resemble Saturday Night Live sketches rewritten by Dostoevsky, and an alertness to signs of hypocrisy so extreme as sometimes to be counter-productive.

Wallace has the visionary’s fear of being taken in by false substitutes. His characters habitually qualify any apparent expression of honesty with the fear that it may just be a ruse. Wallace is so anxious not to seem inauthentic that his efforts in this direction – like Holden Caulfield’s struggle against phoniness – can start to seem self-defeating. Consider this parenthesis from the story “All That”:

 

(I’m not putting any of this well. I am not and never have been an intellectual. I am not articulate, and the subjects that I am trying to describe and discuss are beyond my abilities. I am trying, however, the best I can, and will go back over this as carefully as possible when I am finished, and will make changes and corrections whenever I can see a way to make what I’m discussing clearer or more interesting without fabricating anything.)

Does this seem honest or contrived? The two possibilities uneasily cancel each other out. Wallace can leave me feeling that anyone who’s genuinely trying to be genuine would be forced to communicate exclusively using distancing devices just to avoid getting a reaction they haven’t truly earned. When I watch on Youtube the interview he gave for German TV in 2003, Wallace’s sincerity is apparent not so much from his voice – which is deep and confident — as from his apologetic facial grimaces and blinks. He cannot deliver a soundbite without instantly starting to apologize for it, as when immediately after talking about the need for responsible citizenship he says, “I can hear in my head a voice making fun of this stuff as I’m saying it, and this is the kind of paradox I think of what it is to be a halfway intelligent American right now.”

This particular voice in his head rarely let up on him. It embarrassed Wallace horribly that his core beliefs were simple, traditional, civic-minded, and Christian, partly because in our world such beliefs are the last resort of hucksters. In a time of commodified sentimentalism, any author who shoots to express real feelings is bound to be called “cerebral” and “unemotional.”

Wallace cannot bring himself to manipulate the reader’s emotions without loudly examining his own motives for doing so. He struggles endlessly not to be – to quote from a footnote in Interviews With Hideous Men — “the type of real-world person who tries to manipulate you into liking him by making a big deal of how open and honest and unmanipulative he’s being all the time.” Or – to quote footnote 269 of Infinite Jest — “the sort of philanthropist who seems humanly repellent not in spite of his charity but because of it: on some level you can tell that he views the recipients of his charity not as persons so much as pieces of exercise equipment on which he can develop and demonstrate his own virtue.” Or, from one of his tennis articles, “the sort of authority figure whose office wall has every last plaque, diploma, and award he’s ever gotten, and every time you come into the office you’re forced to look at the wall and say something to indicate that you’re impressed.”

Interviewed by The Paris Review in Winter 2010, Jonathan Franzen said, “I think that Dave, up to the time when he stopped writing, was still struggling with his disgust of the part of himself that wanted to please people.”

Wallace once told Harper’s magazine, “It seems like the big difference between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love, with having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.” But often Wallace talks out of the part of himself that is afraid of not being able to find the part of himself that can love.

3.

“The first rule about authenticity is that you don’t talk about authenticity.” — Amber Mac, Power Friending: Demystifying Social Media to Grow Your Business

From Brian Atwood, in one of the many tributes posted on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency in commemoration of Wallace’s death — “Here is what I am sure I know about David Foster Wallace: He took time to sit down with a self-important pupil and told him to strive to be more authentic. He meant it as a critique of my writing, but I have always taken it as a life lesson. And, as much as anything else has in my life, it has helped.”

But the word “striving” here is already somewhat counter-productive… isn’t “striving” for authenticity what marketing professionals do? How could anyone feel genuine while constantly interrogating themselves about how genuine they’re being? Unless it’s superficial of me to think a writer could be genuine without such self-interrogation? I find this a disagreeable train of thought to try and sustain — can being authentic really be this hard?

Wallace was freaked out by how good our culture is at co-opting new manifestations of authenticity in order to sell product. According to an article called “Who do you Love?” published by Bill Breen in Fast Company, authenticity is a “priceless commodity” and “the benchmark against which all brands are now judged” — and “playing the authenticity game in a sophisticated way has become a requirement for every marketer” – and “if a brand can convincingly argue that its profit-making is only a by-product of a larger purpose, authenticity sets in.” The article asks, in bold type, “Can you be authentic when you’re trying to be authentic?”

On the cover of one of Seth Godin’s books appear the words “authenticity is the best marketing of all.” Your personal brand needs to be built on authenticity — such a sentence could induce suicidal feelings in someone who lacked the usual protective filters.

With the stuff being manufactured this ingenuously all around us, how can your product genuinely be authentic for real? Wallace agonized over this. When he seems smart-alecky, he’s usually protesting against an emotionally damaged world. A story in Oblivion contains the line, “It was not an empty professional corporate smile, but the soul effects were similar.” What would it be like to live in a world where all smiles might just as well be empty professional corporate smiles? Wallace suggests an answer to this question in “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” describing the way people smile when they’re trying to sell you something –

… what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.

Unnatural smiles are among Wallace’s tropes, along with strange deformities and inexplicable feelings of dislike. He once described Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as “men who aren’t enough like human beings even to hate – what one feels when they loom into view is just an overwhelming lack of interest, the sort of deep disengagement that is often a defense against pain. Against sadness. In fact, the likeliest reason why so many of us care so little about politics is that modern politicians make us sad, hurt us deep down in ways that are hard even to name…”

4.

Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind — “You don’t hear the word parable much in connection with Wallace, but I don’t know why not – he wrote a lot of them.”

In August 2007, Wallace talked to “Le Nouvel Observateur” about some writers he admired — St. Paul, Rousseau, Dostoevsky among them, adding “what are envied and coveted here seem to me to be qualities of human beings — capacities of spirit — rather than technical abilities or special talents.”

An obsession with authenticity is maybe one commonality between St. Paul, Rousseau, Dostoevsky, and Wallace. Others are a haunted, accusatory tone and the fact that all of them have been diagnosed – necessarily somewhat tentatively in St. Paul’s case – with depression.

Here’s a quote from The Brothers Karamazov that’s very David Foster Wallace: “A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone else, and he ends up losing respect for himself and for others. When he has no respect for anyone, he ceases to love.”

The last of the interview stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men – for me the strongest of the stories in Wallace’s strongest story collection; the one about the woman who deals with being raped by trying to focus love on the rapist — attains a Dostoevskian level of insight and unsettlingness. It’s hard to conceive of the strength that would be required for a woman to project love and forgiveness onto a man who is raping her, and Wallace’s project here, bringing to a close his typology of sinners, is the creation of a saint – the one authentic character in a collection of inauthentic ones.

To make her believable, Wallace uses all the distancing devices he can. The narrator of the story wants to dismiss the woman as a “quote Granola Cruncher, or post-Hippie, New Ager, what have you” type with “that essential at-center-life-is-just-a-cute-pet-bunny fluffiness about them that makes it so exceedingly hard to take them seriously or not to end up feeling as if you’re exploiting them in some way.” The woman is called a bunny twice but also a “really sexy duck,” suggesting that like the rabbit-duck illusion, she can be variously interpreted. But deep down the narrator cannot help perceiving this foxy duck-rabbit as stronger and more authentic than him – an Easter bunny, in a Christian interpretation — while he himself is a narcissist, guilty of treating other people as props in his own narrative. This Velveteen Rabbit is real, but a man is trying – or two men are trying — to objectify her:

The crux being that despite the terror she is somehow able to think quickly on her feet and thinks it through and determines that her only chance of surviving this encounter is to establish a quote connection with the quote soul of the sexual psychopath as he’s driving them deeper into the woody secluded area looking for just the right spot to pull over and brutally have at her. That her objective is to focus very intently on the psychotic mulatto as an ensouled and beautiful albeit tormented person in his own right instead of merely as a threat to her or a force of evil or the incarnation of her own personal death. Try to bracket any New Age goo in the terminology and focus on the tactical strategy itself if you can because I’m well aware that what she is about to describe is nothing but a variant of the stale old Love Will Conquer All bromide but for the moment bracket whatever contempt you might feel and try to see the more concrete ramifications of – in this situation in terms of what she has the courage and apparent conviction to actually attempt here, because she says she believes that sufficient love and focus can penetrate even psychosis and evil and establish a quote soul-connection, unquote, and that if the mulatto can be brought to feel even a minim of this alleged soul-connection there is some chance that he’ll be unable to follow through with actually killing her.

While desperately bracketing and air quoting anything he thinks might cause you to dismiss what he’s saying out of hand – it’s when he’s most on form that Wallace can be most cringe-inducing – he’s really willing himself and us here to believe that Love Will Conquer All.

The way the interviewee’s testimony breaks down at the story’s end suggests there’s something that’s intolerable to him. He’s a man who makes himself feel non-superficial by seeing superficiality in others — it doesn’t get much more superficial than that — and it’s clear on rereading the story that the Granola Cruncher duck-bunny saw through him from the start. Telling her story forces him to confront his own superficiality — the contrast between the fakeness of the hideous man being interviewed and the realness of the heroine-protagonist becomes unendurable – until finally the interviewee disintegrates. I used to think the unbearable truth he’s confronted with is the possibility that he himself is not very different from the rapist, that the way he is attempting to use the woman is not so very different from rape: the rapist is a psychopath, but the interviewee is a sociopath. Because it’s as true of the sociopath as of the psychopath that “in his cosmology it is either feed or be food – God how lonely, do you feel it?”

But maybe his problem is rather that the heroine of the story has used him as an object. He thought she was the solipsist, the self-obsessed spiritual narcissist, but she has shown him that he is the solipsist, exposed him as less than fully human. She is the one whose world is unfiltered, as symbolized by her removing the filters from her cigarettes, while his world is composed exclusively of filters. She is “rhetorically innocent” and has the ability to tell her story “in such a way as to deflect attention from herself and displace maximum attention onto the anecdote itself,” qualities and abilities that the narrator, trapped in his own amour-propre, one more yuppie whining about how he can’t love, conspicuously lacks –

“I do remember listening for some acknowledgment from her that I was crying. I felt embarrassed – not for crying, but for wanting so badly to know how she took it, whether it made me seem sympathetic or selfish. She stayed where he left her all day, supine in the gravel, weeping, she said, and giving thanks to her particular religious principles and forces. When of course as I’m sure you could have predicted I was weeping for myself.” Perhaps we recall Dostoevsky’s unfair dig at Turgenev — that when Turgenev watched a shipwreck, children dying, he noticed his own tears running down his face.

The saintly Granola Cruncher – a Rousseauist innocent defeating with her innocence a Hobbesian state of nature — has driven the rapist to suicide, and may have destroyed the interviewee too. Like the mirror works line inspector in The Pale King who, after eighteen years of repeatedly inspecting mirrors for flaws, hangs himself and becomes a ghost, he has seen too much of himself.

5.

The Pale King — despite being unfinished, despite having been assembled posthumously from mostly-unordered fragments by a heroic editor — seems to me to be Wallace’s most coherent novel, and its overriding topic is not so much boredom as responsibility. Although certainly the book emphasizes that responsibility is boring. Our tax system is a perfect example of this – it’s sort of our national conscience. We have a responsibility to pay our taxes, and our leaders have a responsibility to balance the budget, by not simultaneously lowering taxes and increasing spending indefinitely. In this way The Pale King is a sort of spiritual audit. Here are a couple of its findings –

“… if you really focused your attention there were also a lot of the little embedded strings and clots which painters tend to leave when they’re paid by the job and not the hour and thus have motivation to hurry. If you really look at something, you can almost always tell what type of wage structure the person who made it was on.”

“On Balbo, there were some remains of snowmen in front yards, whose heights indicated the ages of whoever had made them.”

Whatever we make reveals stuff about us we weren’t aware we were revealing – this is obvious to any author rereading their earlier work, especially an author as disinclined to cut himself any slack as Wallace was.

The shift from an obsession with authenticity to an obsession with responsibility is almost the definition of growing up. When Meredith Rand in The Pale King resolves to stop mutilating herself, she accepts that “it doesn’t matter why I cut or what the psychological machinery is behind the cutting, like if it’s projecting self-hatred or whatever. Exteriorizing the interior. We’ve learned all that matters is not to do it. To cut it out. Nobody else can make me cut it out; only I can decide to stop it. Because whatever the institutional reason, it’s hurting myself, it’s me being mean to myself, which was childish. It was not treating yourself with any respect. The only way you can be mean to yourself is if you deep down expect somebody else is going to gallop up and save you, which is a child’s fantasy.”

Velveteen belongs in the nursery. Like one of the characters in The Pale King, Wallace “was wise enough to be suspicious of his own desire to seem wise, and to refuse to indulge it – this could make him seem aloof and uncaring, but what he really was was disciplined.” Into his world of people suffocating from the lack of authenticity, in The Pale King as in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, there intrude brave icons of lonely maturity. Wallace is not the first to suggest that Americans have become too self-centered, irresponsible, or entitled, that we’re unwilling to be taxed at levels that tally with what we expect in return, or that we expect others to rescue us from the attention-getting damage we inflict on ourselves — but he makes these points with unrivaled sincerity. I’ve heard a Midwesterner say that The Pale King is the first of Wallace’s books in which he stops apologizing for being Midwestern.

Authenticity is achieved through responsibility. If one way to manage this is to face danger, as the Granola Cruncher does, another is to face drudgery, like the accountant in The Pale King who tells his students, “Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality – there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth – actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”

The Velveteen Rabbit also spends its life dutifully being ignored, and perhaps that was what Wallace really found “purely ‘moving’” about it.

In a review published in the New York Observer in 1997, Wallace wrote that the prominent horrors of his generation were “anomie and solipsism and a peculiarly American loneliness: the prospect of dying without once having loved something more than yourself.” You can’t be horrified of solipsism unless you’re tempted by it. The solipsist is egotistical enough to find the idea nobody else exists less sad than the idea nobody else is interested in him – what he wants above all is to believe that his own experience is unique. Ironically enough, Wallace sees solipsism as a kind of self-mutilating plea for attention.

Boredom is the feeling one has to overcome in order to cease being a child, and it’s this act of overcoming that Wallace identifies as the remedy for narcissism, superficiality, self-pity, and dishonesty. According to the accountant in The Pale King, “enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world that neither you nor I have made, heroism.”

pinit fg en rect gray 20 David Foster Wallace and the Velveteen Rabbit
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  • Blind

    Very late, but I wanted to say this is a very nice article and I enjoyed reading it very much.

  • http://memyselfandhim.com/ Dave

    Intense. Exhaustive. Thanks for posting this. The DFW passage about artificial smiles is one of my all-time favorites and one I think about, no joke, practically on a daily basis. Man, DFW just completely nailed talking about the many “faces” we all wear and the alienation that comes from living in a culture where one constantly wonders about the degree of genuineness/artificiality of others’ interactions with them. 

    I had forgotten about the quote on the disconnect from politicians. I’m grateful to have read it here. I often feel like I should be angered more about X politician or policy and feel guilty for not being so, but DFW explains why I’m not angered – bc to be angry means to be engaged in a way that’s intolerable. 

  • Deb

    Raw, confronting & insightful. What glorious writing. Thank you. 

  • Teaandcake48

    this is one of the best pieces i’ve ever read on the internet. 

  • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

    Wow. Thank you for this.