Friday, September 28, 2012

The Beach Boys' Mike Love Is An Awful Human Being

We can probably start here: Everyone knows Mike Love is a huge asshole, right? Are we all agreed on that?

In case you need a recap: Mike Love is the second lead singer and, even more unfortunately, sole rights licensee of The Beach Boys. He's in the news this week because he's reportedly firing both of the other surviving original members of the band -- Al Jardine and Brian Wilson -- effective after the last show of their massive 50th anniversary tour.

It seems crazy. Who would fire Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys? But Mike Love has a long history of doing crazy asshole things, and this is just the latest. It's not even the first time he's fired Brian from the Beach Boys (that would be 1982). Some of the highlights from his Crazy Asshole CV:

His constant badgering of Brian Wilson, the band's bassist, first lead singer, primary songwriter, visionary genius, resident virtuoso, and acid casualty drove Wilson literally crazy right around 1968. Wilson had composed and performed almost every note of the band's critically adored, times-changing 1966 album Pet Sounds in solitude while the rest of the Beach Boys played concerts on the road; Brian worked insane hours to create an even grander follow-up, a double album called Smile, and the first fruit of those sessions, "Good Vibrations," promised another huge sonic leap forward.

But when Mike Love came in to add his nasal baritone to the new songs he made a huge deal about the weird lyrics and browbeat Wilson -- who by this time had already begun to invent Eccentric Rock Stardom as a thing by turning his thousand-square-foot living room into a sandbox with his grand piano at the center -- until Wilson had a nervous breakdown, shelved the entire album, and spent the next 20 years in his bedroom a shell of his former self, never coming anywhere near the twin highs of Pet Sounds and "Good Vibrations."

(Tangent: I recently acquired a 45 of "Good Vibrations" and it sounds amazing. 45s sound amazing, especially the well-recorded ones. If you see one, buy it, unless you hate music that sounds amazing.)

Love's concern was apparently that the band -- the biggest-selling American band for several years to that point -- would sell fewer records if it strayed from its cars/girls/fun-in-the-sun lyrical formula. The artistic strides Brian was making, and the unanimous admiration of their peers for Pet Sounds, appear not to have persuaded Love in the least, and the world was robbed of an enormous potential legacy. Imagine if Brian Wilson had been a functional human being at the same time that Stevie Wonder took control of his own work in the '70s? Wilson was always competitive, and saw Pet Sounds as a direct response to the Beatles' Rubber Soul. What would his response to Innervisions have been like? Sounds In The Key Of Life? What if they got in a room together and stared each other down over matching ARP keyboards? It boggles the mind. We can only imagine, and for that we can blame Mike Love.

Ironically, around the same time as he was psychically terrorizing his cousin, bandmate, writing partner, and meal ticket, he was also discovering Trancendental Meditation and heading off to India to study at the knee of the Maharishi alongside the Beatles. This kind of striving for inner peace would seem to preclude the kind of meanspirited, wantonly antagonistic, pathologically litigious outbursts he'd dedicate the next 30 years to, but that would only be if you didn't know Mike Love. (For his part, John Lennon was quoted as calling Love a jerk.) It seems more like he's an asshole, he knows he's an asshole, and he periodically tries to be (or at least make it appear that he's) less of an asshole. He's also widely rumored to be a wife-beater, but even the internet can't seem to substantiate that.

(Here I have to acknowledge that the Beach Boys' history is possibly the most bizarre in all of rock, including as it does a prolonged close encounter with the Manson Family, the ongoing antipathy between Love and middle brother and drummer Dennis Wilson, Brian Wilson's breakdown, and on and on and on... but we're focusing here on Mike Love, so I will do my best not to digress into the many tempting byways in the Beach Boys' saga.)

(Okay, just one Fun Fact: Love had an illegitimate daughter named Shawn, and his bandmate Dennis Wilson made her his fifth wife in 1983, after she'd already borne him a son at age 19. I'm not saying this reflects well on Dennis Wilson, but even an asshole wouldn't do that to a relative and bandmate unless that relative and bandmate was a much, much bigger asshole.)

Wife-beater or no, Mike Love never goes anywhere without a stupid baseball hat, obviously to hide the fact that he's bald as a volleyball under it, and even worse he favors the naval kind with the gold laurels on the brim.  I really think this is just as bad as a combover, and it speaks to deep psychological flaws within the man.

But don't take my word for it! If you want to know just how big an asshole Mike Love really is, look no further than his speech at the 1988 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, when the Beach Boys were inducted along with the Beatles. It just so happens that I have seen this video, and I encourage you to do the same:

First up we have Brian, who despite reading his speech to the audience like a 10-year-old giving a book report still comes off much better than anyone in the room probably expected, as his personal struggles were common scuttlebutt at the time. Interesting that he's totally wearing Coke-bottle grandpa glasses here, considering he was still in his forties. He gets his words out reasonably well despite clearly being petrified, and who is there to step in and rattle him further but Mike Love, who of course is wearing a Naval-style baseball cap with his tuxedo.   As Brian gets a cheer for calling "Be My Baby" his favorite wake-up record, and visibly begins to feel a connection to the audience, Mike Love steps forward and adjusts Brian's microphone stand, and Brian stumbles a little; then Love takes the mic and says "You're taller than most of these executives in the record business. You're a -- He's a giant!" And Brian completely loses all flow, his mouth moves and no sound comes out, then he stammers for like ten seconds while Love drapes an arm around him and beams at the crowd. After a painful pause, Brian pulls it together and starts reading again, the crowd makes an encouraging noise, and Mike Love slinks around to the other side of him, and stares at the side of his face like a kid trying to start a fight. He's actually, literally upstaging Brian. You can't let Brian Wilson have his moment? Dude has been locked in his bedroom for 20 years. He's the Howard Hughes of rock n' roll in 1988. Everyone there is hanging on his every word, and Mike Love is tapping on his shoulder to say "may I cut in?" Brian finishes his very sweet remarks by noting that "in 27 years I hope we can come back and get reinducted all over again." This is only the first of the many comments in this video that will seem especially sad in retrospect and in light of the band's recent history. Then comes Carl Wilson, baby brother to Brian and Dennis, who played guitar and led the band onstage, sang a lot of harmonies, wrote and produced most of their '70s records while Brian was out of it, and most memorably gave one of the best lead vocal performances in the entire rock canon on "God Only Knows." (Weird how nobody knows that. Or even probably that there was a third Wilson brother. He died of cancer in 1998.)  He begins his Tweet-length remarks with an odd formulation: "I've been asked to say a few words on behalf of our beloved Dennis, who's gone."  (Dennis died diving off a friend's boat in 1983 despite being a very strong swimmer -- I told you this band has a weird history!) "This would have thrilled him beyond belief, so from Dennis Wilson I thank you." I include the full remarks only because they are so brief, and so puzzling: doesn't Carl want to say thanks on behalf of himself? Why was he *asked to* say a few words on Dennis' behalf? They were brothers! Wait, I said I was going to stick to Mike Love and that's what I'm gonna do. Mike's speech begins abruptly. Is there an edit here? It really seems like it. I have to wonder if Love began with a preamble even more horrifying than the following remarks. Did he say something about reparations or deny the Holocaust? What could he have said to warrant a flagrant tape splice? I guess we'll never know. 
"You heard from cousin Brian the reason that we started making music and the reason that keeps us going. And it sounds corny, but you can hear it in the harmonies. Those of you who are musicians. And the reason why people like the Beach Boys is because we love harmony. We love music and we love harmony. And we love all people, too." Oh wow. Any other member of this band would be credible using the band's trademark vocal harmonies as a metaphor for getting along and goodwill toward men. But not the (alleged) wifebeater. Not the one who took out a restraining order against his own drummer. Not the one who crushed a fragile creative genius' spirit to sell a couple more records. After a couple more halfhearted nods to the Beach Boys' musical influences, Love decides it's time to settle some old scores. "And I think it's wonderful to be here tonight, but I also think it's sad that there are other people who aren't here tonight. And those are the people who have passed away, those are the obvious ones. But the other not-so-obvious ones are people like Paul McCartney, who couldn't be here tonight because he's in a lawsuit with Ringo and Yoko. That's what he sent a telegram to some, uh, high priced attorney in this room, you know. Now that's a bummer, because we're talking about harmony, right, and the world." Here is where I'd like to point out that Mike Love sued Brian Wilson more than once. He sued for writing credit on all the band's early songs in 1994 and won $13 million. He sued Brian again with less success in 2005, arguing that a promo CD included free in a newspaper and featuring tunes from Wilson's re-recorded 2004 Smile album -- a project that Mike Love had absolutely nothing to do with and in fact actively obstructed and ultimately killed -- "misappropriated Mike Love's songs, likeness, and the Beach Boys trademark, as well as the Smile album itself."  The suit was scornfully thrown out of court. Am I the only one who sees the irony here? Love goes on to also call out Diana Ross for skipping the ceremony (she was also involved in lawsuits with the other Supremes). I don't know about you, but if I had made remarks like this to an assembly of the entire rock and roll industry and the entire rock and roll press, I would hesitate to so flagrantly contradict myself by suing my bandmate. But I guess Mike Love didn't see YouTube coming. "The Beach Boys have continued to do, about, we did about 180 performances last year. I'd like to see the moptops match that!" Here of course he's calling out The Beatles, who he might have known could not do 180 performances in that or any year after 1980, when their most famous member was shot in the back. Kind of insensitive, right? "I'd like to see Mick Jagger get out on this stage and do 'I Get Around' versus 'Jumpin' Jack Flash,' any day now." Wait, is he suggesting that "I Get Around" is better than "Jumpin' Jack Flash"? Or is he just suggesting that he, Mike Love, would outperform Mick Jagger head-to-head? Actually it doesn't matter because either suggestion is totally ridiculous. Now Love makes a weird left turn, says a few sentences with little relation to each other, and then with alarming hostility calls out Muhammad Ali from the stage. By the time he demands that Ali give an "Alaikam a-salaam" to Love's "A salaam alaikam" his jaw is set and there's an evil, angry gleam in his eye that makes me wonder if this speech wasn't the whole basis of Bryan Cranston's performance on Breaking Bad. Love follows that up with some incredibly ugly, dismissive remarks about Woody Guthrie -- inarguably one of the two or three fathers of modern music -- that then fade into a recitation of his family's immigrant, bootstrapper bona fides, and then a weirdly hostile appeal to One World unity in the form of a jam session. "And I'd like to see some people kick out the jams, and I challenge the Boss to get up on stage and jam."  Here the house band, who if I'm not mistaken was Paul Shaffer's band from the Letterman show for all these early RNRHOF inductions (if indeed they're not to this day), tries to play Love off, like it's the Oscars -- Shaffer plays the theremin line from "Good Vibrations." So Love goes into his closing remarks. "I wanna see Billy Joel, see if he can still tickle ivories. Let me see. I know Mick Jagger won't be here tonight, he's gonna have to stay in England." (Mick Jagger was in fact there, to induct the Beatles.) "But I'd like to see us in the Coliseum and he at Wembley Stadium because he's always been chickenshit to get on stage with the Beach Boys." Here again, I have to point out a couple of things. One: The Rolling Stones shared a stage with The Beach Boys for The T.A.M.I. Show, a black-and-white concert film from 1964 most famous for James Brown's performance. And two, the Beach Boys' set was great but the Rolling Stones generated an energy and an edge, even with that pre-"Satisfaction" material ("It's All Over Now" in particular) than the Beach Boys can match. So what is this taunt all about? It's just weird. And three: this is not a voicemail that Mike Love left for his agent that was then released without his consent. He said this from a podium to the entire world music press. He put on a tuxedo (and a Naval hat), squared his shoulders to the crowd and set his jaw and called the single biggest rock star of all time, whose accomplishments dwarfed his own by any standard, "chickenshit."  And, what exactly are we supposed to imagine Mike Love might contribute to a jam session with Mick Jagger, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and the surviving Beatles? Some rewritten Chuck Berry lyrics? It doesn't sound to me like Mike Love can even sing in more than one key. You know all those soaring high harmonies that the Beach Boys are known for? That's all the other Beach Boys. It's really surreal that the band's least talented member would step up and talk this kind of smack. So yeah, Mike Love is an asshole. I knew we'd agree on that eventually. So it shouldn't be all that surprising that he's firing Brian Wilson. Because, to be fair, it can't have been easy to deal with Brian Wilson for the last 50 years. Can you imagine having to depend on a guy who wore only a bathrobe for 12 years to make your living? Can you imagine having to go into a living room sandbox and beg a man who won't stop listening to the same record over and over and over again to write some more tunes, or come out on the road, or do something to generate fresh interest in the Beach Boys (other than die)? That must have sucked. And it can't be a whole lot better now. Imagine trying to get Brian Wilson out of a hotel, into a car, then onto a plane, then into another hotel, then onto a stage. It sounds awful. You know what? I changed my mind. Mike Love has made some mistakes but he was driven to them by his half-wit cousin. I know I can get a little frazzled when my 5-year-old doesn't want to put his shoes on. Imagine dealing with someone like that for 50 years! All is forgiven, Mike Love! You did what you had to do. A Salaam Alaikam! (Just kidding. Mike Love's an asshole. Whatever you do, don't pay money to see "The Beach Boys!")

Friday, September 21, 2012

Mitt Romney Is Bobbling His Nerf Presidency

Twelve years ago, I voted for Ralph Nader for president. I did so not because I particularly wanted him to be president, and certainly not because I thought he ever would be, but because I wanted him to reach 2% of the popular vote, which would have made the Green Party eligible for the presidential debates in 2004. So young and naive I was, hoping to get more voices into the national debate!

Anyway, I voted for Nader but I was fervently rooting for Al Gore, and since I lived in deep-blue California at the time, I didn't have to worry about that contradiction throwing the election to Bush. But then the Florida recounts happened, Bush ended up on top, and though it wasn't the result I wanted to see, I couldn't help feeling like he won it fair and square.

I use "fair and square" euphemistically, of course, because the Bush campaign used every dirty, dishonest trick in the book, and came up with a few new ones, to win Florida (or, more accurately, to prevent Gore from winning it). But it was a FIGHT, and Bush and his campaign won it.

The point is: the 2000 recount was as good a simulated surprise crisis as a non-incumbent presidential candidate is ever likely to see, and it showed what kind of organizations the candidates were running. Gore's was sloppy, disorganized, and constantly crying foul about the Bush team's tactics. The Bush campaign mobilized immediately, sent armies of people to Florida to influence the outcome, and put its various friends in high places to work. It wasn't pretty, but when push came to shove, Bush had the better-run organization, and he won.

A presidential campaign is long, it's repetitive, and it's boring, but it's also a pretty good Nerf version of the presidency -- you can take it out and throw it around without really breaking anything. The candidates are under unbelievable pressure each and every day, every word they say is scrutinized and spun one way or another, and they sit at the head of a big organization, and they're being pulled in every direction by a million interested parties. It's ridiculous, it's antiquated, it's terribly annoying if you pay more than passing attention to it, but it's also the best indicator there is of what kind of president that candidate will turn out to be.

In Bush's case, the response to the recount situation was to immediately get in gear and throw everything he had at the problem, ethics and etiquette be damned. I admit I remember feeling in the numb first hours after the World Trade Center fell that maybe that was the right kind of guy to have in office for the situation. (It turned out to be exactly the wrong kind of guy for the situation, but hey, those were emotional times.)

Four years later, I desperately wanted John Kerry to beat Bush, based almost entirely on Bush's performance (principally his incomprehensible choice to invade and occupy a country that hadn't attacked us) and almost not at all based on any particular merit of Kerry's -- though, "not being Bush" was a pretty huge merit all by itself. The occupation of Iraq was not going well (to put it mildly) and it seemed that the war hero would be able to beat the deserter in a walk.

So, though I was disappointed that Bush won re-election, the fact that he did so by somehow making Kerry's sterling military record into a liability made me more sad that Bush would continue to be president than that Kerry wouldn't be. How could we expect Kerry to do anything well as president when he couldn't even defend his own spotless combat history?

I didn't have any particular animosity or dislike of John McCain when he began the 2008 campaign -- in fact, I might well have voted for him in 2000 if he'd been the nominee instead of Bush. I liked him, bought into all that "Straight Talk Express" stuff, and though eight years of the Bush Administration (and the Congress that enabled it) more than soured me on the idea of voting for any Republican that year, even one I liked, I still had a warm spot for McCain.

But when his campaign advisers shot down his out-of-the-box, Mavericky idea of making left-leaning Independent Joe Lieberman his running mate and opted instead for a pretty face with an empty head, it indicated that this guy was not driven by anything but winning, and that he was not personally in control of his own campaign -- a bad omen for how effectively he'd actually stand up to his party, which was his main selling point, once in office. Then the banks collapsed, and he almost literally went crazy, first suspending his campaign (whatever that actually means) to go assist in the crisis, and then not actually doing anything once he got there.  I was never going to vote for him, but I was amazed that anyone did after all that. Who would trust this guy in a crisis? 

This is how your species expresses mirth, yes?
It will come as little surprise that I am not going to be voting for Mitt Romney in November, and I won't pretend that his weird, alien-impersonating-a-human bearing, his totally vague/secret policy prescriptions, his total fealty to the Israeli Prime Minister (see also: Iran), his seeming inability to relate to anyone not from his country club, or his apparent willingness to say absolutely anything to anyone if he thinks it will net him one more vote aren't huge factors in that. By the same token, I realize that the people who are going to vote for him are doing so because of their total opposition to the (largely imaginary) policies of the president.

But when candidates lay out their policies, it's like they're showing you their Christmas list, and it's important to remember they're not going to get all the presents they want. It's not like Obama gets to say "from now on rich people will literally carry a poor person on their back with a government-mandated harness" or Romney gets to say "from now on poor people will be boiled into heating oil to warm my guest bathroom") and BOOM, that's suddenly the law of the land. Whoever wins, he'll have to deal with an at least half hostile Congress, and he'll be lucky to get even one of his initiatives enacted. Or had you not noticed the total gridlock in Congress? We're not voting for a demigod, we're voting for an executive to either veto or sign the bills Congress doesn't pass.

As we learned (but forgot with alarming speed) on 9/11, and then learned again with Hurricane Katrina (and forgot again, even faster), the presidency is about more than policies and the officeholder's preferred top tax rate. Shit happens! And when it does, it's more than a little helpful to have someone in charge who can keep a cool head, who can adapt to swiftly changing events, who's, you know, competent. And as in all the previous campaigns I mentioned, this one has been more than a little telling about what kind of president Mitt Romney would be.

"Nice country you've got here! You've clearly got
no idea how to run it, but it's great. Is that a wig?"
When he went to London before the Summer Olympics and suggested that the UK may not be fully prepared to host the games, thus insulting America's closest global ally, he showed that he may not be cut out for diplomacy with, say, Vladimir Putin.

When he tried to bet fellow primary contender Rick Perry $10,000 on stage during a debate, he showed that he fundamentally does not understand most people's relationship to that sum of money, and that he has very poor impulse control.

When he refused to release his tax returns, he showed that his administration will very likely be secretive about even the most mundane matters, which will stir up controversy when he's in office even if everything he does is legal and morally upright.

His response to the recent attacks in Benghazi, Libya was especially telling. To grossly oversimplify the story: Muslim [protestors in Libya and Egypt were moved to violence by an awfully ungallant, video -- a video whose production values make me feel pretty good about my own efforts in the (secular) video field, not as good about the traffic they get -- about their prophet. The local U.S. embassy, anticipating the imminent violence, distanced the U.S. government from the video and its extra-crappity worldview, but the protesters went ahead and rioted and ended up killing four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

Romney's response was to rush in front of cameras and accuse the president of treason, for having sympathized with the attackers (his interpretation of the embassy statement condemning the wanton slur on the Muslim religion). Upon learning (or being reminded?) that the embassy's statement had come before the violence and was totally benign, Romney doubled down and spun his own attacks as a defense of the video author's First Amendment rights.

This was a fascinating little preview of a Romney Administration: when a crisis occurs, react immediately in the manner most politically expedient, before getting the actual facts. If actual facts don't support your course of action, spin the actual facts. If called out on an error, double down, change the subject, do your best impression of Pee-wee Herman:

We spent the 2000's with that kind of beast lumbering around the White House and he wrecked all the china (and, ironically, fed the shards to China). Do we really want that again? Romney voters: Really? You'd really rather have another shoot-first lunatic running around the Oval than let Obama propose a three-percentage point increase on your taxes that will never pass the Congress anyway? I also found Romney's recently leaked "47%" comments revealing, but not because I think he was explicitly writing off 47% of Americans, except as potential Romney voters. The Democrats are getting a little carried away (though they're certainly not wrong to run as far with this ball as they can -- god knows Romney would if the roles were reversed). He was talking about campaign strategy. But it still bothers me because in the age of the permanent campaign, when a president's every thought, word, and deed is weighed against its future resonance with voters, there's no effective difference between ignoring half of Americans in your campaign and ignoring them in your administration. The other thing that bothers me about it is that it got videotaped at all. What kind of security is the Romney campaign using? If they can't lock down a McMansion in Boca Raton how are they going to hold down the White House? This guy's gonna get shot quicker than McKinley and then we'll be stuck with Paul Ryan, who's so stiff and unconvincing he makes Romney look like Gene Hackman. Bottom line: it's hard to run for president, probably about 60% as hard as it is to actually be president. Some people can't really do it without wigging out a little, and I think when someone tells us with their actions, in flashing red letters, that they get frazzled under pressure, maybe we should take that information to heart.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Trashiest, Most Satisfying Show of the Summer

I just watched the most satisfying television season finale I've seen in a long time. It paid off long story arcs, it had surprises, it had romance, it had betrayal, it had reversals, and like the all best dramas, every revelation was at once completely surprising, and totally made organic sense. I refer, of course, to Bachelor Pad 3.

I have made a few embarrassing admissions in this space. I confessed to having quit drinking because of multiple bedwetting incidents. I revealed that I once plotted the murder of my roommate's dog. I admitted to almost burning down a cabana at the best destination wedding ever. But I am really genuinely embarrassed to reveal this, because I could feel my own standards lowering with each commercial break, but at the same time I feel a need to scream what a great piece of entertainment I just witnessed, the same as I felt when I was the only person I knew watching Homeland last season.

First: What is Bachelor Pad 3? (Other than the greatest reality show ever?) It is the third season of the trashy, (more) exploitative stepcousin of The Bachelor franchise, filmed at the same opulent Los Angeles mansion used for The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. (You can't let a place like that sit vacant, with no trashy reality shows filming in it, for more than a few weeks -- that's just dollars and sense.) Like The Bachelor/ette, it is a competition, but unlike The Bachelor/ette, the grand prize is not a wedding engagement that will go south faster than cheese left in the sun -- it's $250,000, which should last at least a couple of weeks longer.

The contestants are already familiar to the audience, because it is composed entirely of past Bachelor/ette hopefuls, a gene pool characterized by a willingness to do almost anything on camera, including but not limited to:
a) proposing marriage
b) using the word "bro" more than three times in one sentence
c) declaring undying love ten minutes after meeting
d) open disdain of clothing that might obstruct the camera's view of one's rigorously maintained abs
e) Listing "VIP Cocktail Waitress" or "Data Destruction Manager" or (my favorite) "Luxury Brand Consultant" as your actual occupation, right under your name and face, on national network TV

The genius of Bachelor Pad is that while the object of the game is to win money -- not to pretend to fall in love -- the game is structured to encourage and then exploit the relationships that always blossom when you put 16 under-30 tanning enthusiasts in a big house with a pool, a hot tub, 24 cameramen, and ten cases of liquor (per person). Everyone is expected to pick an opposite-sex partner, who they are not required to (but in nearly all cases immediately do) sleep with, to compete against the other teams for the money. There is a ridiculous, Double Dare-esque challenge each week, and the winners are both immune from being eliminated in that week's voting. Since the contestants (as opposed to the audience) vote each other off the show, alliances are formed, hollow promises are exchanged freely, and bald-faced lies are currency.

There is an alarming amount of discussion as to who does or does not "deserve" to be on the show: it is Bachelor Pad's version of The Bachelor/ette's contestants constantly accusing each other of not being on the show "for the right reasons." I don't understand what they're arguing about -- from what I could see of these people, each and every one of them "deserved" to be lied to, double crossed, sexually humiliated, revealed to be genuinely stupid in a spelling bee, run through a totally demeaning hot fudge sundae obstacle course, and made to sing completely off-key to a packed house.

A few different story threads came together to make this season so enormously satisfying. The first was the game of musical chairs conducted by a lunkhead named Chris, who only a couple weeks before Bachelor Pad had just made it to the final "hometown" round of The Bachelorette only to be dumped (and then take it as badly as any contestant ever has). Emily, the bachelorette, as well as all the ladies on Bachelor Pad, mentioned how handsome Chris was every time they ever said anything about him ever, which just goes to show how bad I am at judging male attractiveness, because I thought he looked like what a handsome guy would see if he looked in a funhouse mirror that stretched all his features toward the center. 

Dreamboat/optical illusion Chris.
Anyway, when Chris arrived, he was quickly claimed as a partner by "VIP Cocktail Waitress" Blakely, a tall, conventionally beautiful, obviously damaged young lady (though, at 34, by far the oldest on the show) who drove Chris insane by interrupting their strategy/makeout sessions to make him swear repeated loyalty oaths and reassure her that their week-old relationship would last forever. (At some point, she also revealed she'd worked at Hooters for 13 years, which is not relevant in any real way but I still feel bears mentioning.)

Soon Chris was sneaking away from Blakely to see Jamie, a slightly less overbearing but no less insane bikini enthusiast who interrupted their makeout sessions (undiluted by strategizing, as they were not partners) to talk about nothing in particular. Blakely soon realized what was going on, and Chris continued to seperately assure both Blakely and Jamie that he would be with them until the end -- though he maneuvered to get Blakely voted off, presumably to replace her with Jamie as his partner. But Jamie got even more annoying than Blakely in short order, talking about love and babies and the future three days after he'd slept with someone who he obviously hated.

Chris shocked everyone in the house when, after winning the right to go out on a date in one of the challenges, he passed over both Jamie and Blakely for dropped a girl named Sarah, who no one had previously noticed was on the show (including the guy she slept with in the second episode) and who either lied when she told the producers to list her age as 28, or has lived her life to this point like Robert Mitchum. They hit it off spectacularly and literally got a room while Jamie told the cameras at surprising length how much faith she had in her future with Chris.

All this is to say that Chris didn't make many friends on the show, but despite being hated by every voting member of the house with an intensity you could feel through your TV, he managed to make it to the final round because he kept winning challenges, which gave him immunity at all the key moments. He eventually had the pleasure of personally eliminating the (first) woman he scorned, Blakely (thanks to one of the show's many delightful mid-episode rule changes), but she got her own little happy ending when Tony, the affable if slightly dopey lifeboat she'd leapt to from the Viking funeral of Chris' bruised (but quickly recovering) ego, proposed to her in the finale. Despite its being the most obviously doomed union since Michael and Lisa Marie, it was still kind of sweet to see these two genuinely swept away by an unexpected romance: unexpected by Tony because he clearly thinks Blakely is the most beautiful woman on planet Earth and thus way out of his league, and unexpected by Blakely for exactly the same reason.

Running parallel with this storyline was the Passion of Michael and Rachel. Michael had actually split the $250,000 purse from Bachelor Pad 2 with his ex-fiance, who he'd spent the season trying to win back but who ran off with and later married another dude on the same season of show. Michael claimed that last time had been for the money, this year was for the honey: that after squandering the hookup possibilties of the Bachelor manse on a lost cause, this time he was going to rip through the female cast like a chainsaw. (He put it a little more delicately, but not much.)

Having won the previous season, Michael quickly asserted himself as the puppetmaster, the learned sage, the power broker in the house, telling people who to vote for, assuring the people he was maneuvering off the show that he was doing no such thing, and generally assuming the air of a bemused dictator. (Michael is one of those guys who seems way too handsome to be so intense, until the camera pulls back to show that he's about 5'3" -- then everything else about him suddenly makes sense.) He won a group date in one of the challenges, and brought three of the ladies and after making out with all of them, one at a time, on an uncrowded dance floor, he chose Rachel, the least (visibly) crazy girl in the house and thus the most attractive, to be his Puppetmaster Queen.

From that point, while everyone plotted and schemed and swore allegiance and declared war and double-dealt empty promises all around them, Michael and Rachel were content to make out on a wicker couch by the pool, pausing only so Michael could take his tongue out of Rachel's mouth long enough to tell one of his lieutenants who everyone should be voting for. It seemed they would soon cruise to victory, the cash prize, and the storybook ending all Bachelor/ette winners dream of: a four-week engagement, followed by six months of vicious tabloid backbiting.

The contestants were soon told that in the next round of voting, they'd only be voting for women, and that whichever woman was eliminated would decide on her own which man would be leaving with her. (The on-the-fly rule changes are never not awesome.) Since Chris was by this point persona non grata around the house, Michael engineered a plan to get everyone to vote for Erica (the player most obsessed with the "deserve" issue), while tipping her off that Chris was behind it, thus getting rid of Chris.

It looked like it was working -- so well that Erica confronted Chris and promised to take him down with her. Chris responded by taking her in the voting both with him and voting for someone else, so when she was eliminated she took Michael with her, leaving Rachel sobbing in the driveway, heartbroken and left without a partner.

And so it was that the other pair of finalists came together: Rachel was forced by default to team up with the only other unattached player: Erica's partner, Nick, a muscular, 6'3" bit of curly-haired beefcake that had not opened his mouth in any of the previous episodes. Rachel was despondent to be separated from her true love of the last nine days, and threatened to leave the show repeatedly, while Nick shrugged, gave her a lot of pep talks, and tried to keep her head in the game. They reached the finals by winning the final challenge, which was to perform "Sister Christian" as a duet and be judged by its authors, the founding members of Night Ranger.

A short aside on this challenge: I have always believed that even people who can't sing anything can sing something. Like "Mary Had A Little Lamb," or something by The Doors. The three couples who participated in this challenge definitively proved me wrong.

After winning the last challenge, Nick and Rachel were awarded the right to choose their opponents in the finale, and Nick had a surprisingly difficult time persuading Rachel to make the totally obvious move and choose the hated Chris and Sarah -- an obvious move because the winning couple would be decided by balloting all the eliminated players, all of whom loathed Chris. Rachel wanted to bring her best friend's team, which would have been incredibly stupid, as they were the best-liked couple in the house.

All of this brings me to the finale.

There was Tony and Blakely's engagement, as I mentioned, which was sweet, but it came paired with the revelation that Michael, despite many on-camera declarations of love and long-term intentions for Rachel, had forgotten her the moment he left the house and continued chainsawing through the female cast of Southern California. He offered some unconvincing apologies and she seemed to fully realize, right there on camera, that he was a tool when she cut him off, mid-forced apology, with a terse "We get it, Michael."

The final vote was little more than a formality; Chris tried to apologize to Blakely and Jamie for treating them like an allergy sufferer treats Kleenex, in hopes of salvaging enough votes to win, but Nick and Rachel took it in what may have been the first "landslide by default" in the history of televised democracy. 

Just before the knife went in.
Look at her: she doesn't suspect a thing.
And here's where things got really good: Nick and Rachel had one more task, which was to separately declare whether to keep or share the $250,000 prize. If they both said "share," they split it down the middle. If they both said "keep," they both got nothing and the loot would be divided among their fallen castmates. If one said "keep" and the other "share," the one who said "keep" would get it all and the one who said "share" would get bupkus.

This looked like it would also be little more than a formality, partly by precedent: both prior winning couples had shared the cash, and there was no reason to think that wouldn't happen again. Indeed, Rachel made a dramatic feint in her vote-casting speech like she might say "keep," but she didn't, because what kind of asshole would do that?

This kind, it turns out: Nick stunned a nation of hardened, cynical reality TV veterans by keeping the whole prize for himself, gleefully (and quite correctly) explaining that no one had given him a moment's thought the whole season -- no one had even bothered to try and sway his votes one way or the other, much less seen him as a threat. He went on to remind Rachel that she'd threatened to leave three times, and that she'd spent 89% of their partnership sobbing on the phone with Michael. (In subsequent interviews, Nick has also said that he saw the last two episodes of the season the night before the finale was taped, and saw Rachel repeatedly dogging him, which tipped him off the keep/share fence.)

And this is where it transcended it genre and became the most satisfying dramatic enterprise in my recent memory, because as Rachel pouted indignantly and Nick patiently and logically explained why he didn't owe her squat, you could see it slowly dawning on the faces of all the other players that Nick was right, that he'd well and truly WON THE GAME, and that he was the first person to correctly use the word "deserve" all season. Nick didn't just win Bachelor Pad, he was the Richard Hatch of Bachelor Pad: the one who won and through winning showed everyone how the game is supposed to be played.

I seriously doubt that a team of Oscar-winning screenwriters could have come up with such an organic but still totally surprising, logical, character-driven plot, so, even though I'm still embarrassed to admit that I even watch you, my hat is off to you, Bachelor Pad. I wish they would just get rid of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette and just have four seasons of Bachelor Pad a year, because this season was a definite game-changer (in the literal sense of the word), and I can't wait to see how future players approach it.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Pay Heed, Allergy Sufferers, For I Am Your King!

As the summer comes to an end, I can't help but feel sorry for the poor, desperate souls who've suffered through the season in one of two miserable states.

One: sniffling, nose red, chafed, and sore, rubbing their eyes, sneezing more often than not sneezing, spitting out the mucus that never stops running down their throats when no one's looking, constantly clearing their throats as a way to scratch the itch that said mucus creates, and walking around with one pocket full of fresh Kleenex and another pocket full of spent Kleenex (or, looking around wild-eyed for something to use as a Kleenex: napkin, paper towel, old newspaper, candy wrapper).

Or, two: shuffling around in a Sudafed/Chlor-Trimeton/Benadryl haze, feeling like your head has gained twenty pounds, ever so slightly tingling from head to toe and unable to shake the fantasy of lying down and trying to bond with your comforter at a subatomic level.

I feel this pity for the so afflicted because until a couple of years ago, I was one of you. I may well have been your king! I realize that this sounds like hyperbole, but I mean it literally and truthfully: I have never seen anyone else suffer from allergies as much as me. They handicapped me to the point of near-total paralysis. I once ruined -- not tainted, not dampened, RUINED -- a Thanksgiving dinner at my wife's uncle's house because I was so allergic to their cats my eyes swelled and turned the color of an old tomato and I couldn't stop sneezing for even ten seconds. Again: not exaggerating.

This problem goes back to when I was a kid. I guess I was about ten or so when it got bad enough that my mother took me to the doctor, who sent us to an allergist, who told us I was allergic to grass and trees. He prescribed some pills that I don't remember ever making any difference. We laughed, as a family, about the futility of a ten-year-old boy in the suburbs trying to avoid grass and trees. I wasn't laughing so much a couple of years later when I was deemed old enough to start mowing the lawn.

At first I was excited to mow the lawn. Placed in charge of a piece of dangerous, semi-heavy machinery? It felt like a rite of passage, my first true entry into grown-up responsibility. But that enthusiasm soon waned when I realized that mowing the lawn effectively meant the end of my weekend: the sneezing and the itchy eyes, ears and throat and the runny nose that began the moment I started the job would mean I'd have to spend the rest of the day (at least) hiding in the climate-controlled house -- with any luck, the sneezes would slow enough in frequency that the feeling would return to my face sometime after dinner.

I complained to my folks that I'm allergic to grass and trees, pointing to the allergist's diagnosis to bolster my case, and suggesting it might be better for my health (and maybe everyone would have an easier time hearing the TV later that night) if someone else cut the grass. My mom, ever the nurturer, drew me close and gently suggested that if I wanted, next week I could wear a surgical mask while I cut the grass.

It was around this time that I began to grow familiar with the numb dysphoria that comes with taking antihistamines by the handful. I was never relieved of lawnmowing duty, even though I have a brother who's a year and a half younger and not allergic to anything. I plan on reminding my parents of this when the time comes to choose between the modestly priced nursing home that smells like formaldehyde and medicated powder, and the more expensive one that smells like lavender. ("You can always wear a surgical mask!" I'll cheerfully point out.)

Anyway, when I grew into a young adult and moved to San Francisco, my allergy levels, which had already turned me almost completely into an avid indoorsman, began to rise even when I took refuge inside. It took me a while to realize that San Francisco, with its abundant fog and "rainy season," is, in addition to being stunningly picturesque and easily the world's best place to spend your twenties, bar none the moldiest city in America, and that in addition to grass and trees, I am deathly allergic to mold.

This harsh reality came into focus when I decided, "Hey! I've got a steady salaried job, complete with health insurance, thanks to an Internet tech bubble that will never, ever burst -- I should go to a doctor and get to the bottom of these allergies. Maybe advances have been made in allergy medications that can help me!" My wife has since confided that on our first few dates, she found it exceedingly odd that I kept a full-size box of tissues in my car, right in front of the gearshift. 

So I went to the doctor, and he referred me to an allergist, and I told him my respiratory life story. He nodded and wrote a few things down and said, "All right, the nurse is going to come in and give you a test, to see exactly what we're dealing with here, and then we'll go from there." In comes the nurse, an attractive young woman in scrubs, not much older than myself. She explained that she would prick the back of my arm, in the shoulder/tricep area, with a variety of allergens (grass, trees, mold, cat dander, dog dander, etc. etc.), like 24 of them or so, in a grid formation. She would give the pricks a few minutes to react or not react (in the form of swelling around the puncture) -- the size of the swelling, which she'd measure by comparing it to a series of small, variously sized holes in a card, would indicate whether, and to what degree, I was allergic to each allergen.

The process was painless, and I waited ten minutes or so while the nurse attended to other patients, maybe administered some other allergy tests. I thought to myself what a strange job it must be, to give 24 pinpricks to multiple people each and every day, and to then evaluate the swelling. I guess it's like anything else, I thought -- you just get used to it until it's no big deal.

Then I heard the door open, and the nurse's clipboard clatter to the ground, as she gasped in unfeigned shock: "OH MY GOD." My condition was apparently the worst she'd ever seen -- and this was her job. All 24 punctures had swelled up bigger than her little card could measure. They'd swelled up the way Toll House cookies spread out when you cook them: they'd started out small and totally separate, but were now more like a 24-part Venn diagram.

It was soon explained that I was allergic to everything they'd tested me for. If allergy-test pinpricks were basketball players, my set of samples was the '96 Bulls, with grass, trees, and mold the Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman. The fact that my then-girlfriend now-wife and I had just moved in together in a half-basement apartment (it was the basement of a house, but the house was set into a steep hill so the back half of the basement was above ground) indicated that I would not be escaping mold anytime soon. (It wasn't until a couple of years later, when I'd moved to Brooklyn and my condition once again restricted itself to when I was outdoors, that I understood that San Francisco is, in addition to its many more charming qualities, just seven square miles of mold from which there is no escape.)

So, the doctor, who entered chuckling, "Well, Alexander! You are a very! Allergic! Young man!" recommended that I begin immunotherapy at once, and I agreed before the details were even explained to me.

Immunotherapy would ostensibly build my tolerance to all these allergens over a period of several years, and ultimately cure me of the allergies once and for all, if I followed the course of treatment: I would be issued a set of syringes and a set of vials full of allergen cocktail, and I would have to self-administer an injection to a roll of my belly fat, pinched between my fingers, twice a week. (I swear I'm not making this up.) The doctor acknowledged that sticking a needle in my own belly might make me squeamish, and that if this was the case I could bring my girlfriend (or whoever) and they'd teach her (or whoever) how to give me the injections. My then-girlfriend now-wife agreed to take on this duty, but when she got a look at what it actually entailed, she blanched and pulled the ripcord immediately. I was on my own, and so I embarked on the very strange ritual of sticking myself in the belly with a syringe twice a week. (The weirdest part wasn't the sticking in of the needle, but that a little of the medicine or whatever you'd call it always oozed out the puncture hole when I took the needle out.)

Did it work? It might have, but we'll never know because about six months later I, along with everyone else in San Francisco, lost my job when the tech bubble burst and tertiary, non-essential personnel such as the editorial staffs of money-losing websites were turned out into the street, marking the end of both my Ecstasy subsidy (that's a '90s San Francisco joke) and my health insurance, and with it, the immunotherapy.

But this story, a story of crusty shirt cuffs and ruined pillowcases and half-heard movie dialogue and very awkward (they would probably say disgusting) close encounters with the opposite sex has a happy ending, because I discovered a wonder drug that has changed my life. I want to tell you about this wonder drug because when I see other people suffering the way I used to suffer and I mention it to them, they seem not to understand that I am whispering the answer to their prayers. I am shining a light in the black wilderness.

That light is called Claritin, my friends, and I came *this close* to naming my son after it. (He was spared this fate because what I actually buy is the generic Rite-Aid version, which goes by the name of the active ingredient, Loratadine, which is obviously a girl's name.) Whereas I used to spend April through October with my sinuses tingling, clawing at my insanely itchy eyes, and teetering on the verge of 19 consecutive sneezes, while innocent bystanders went from  a patient "Bless you" to "Bless you again!" to silently staring with pity to staring with barely veiled contempt, I am now (respirationally) a normal person, suffering from neither crippling allergies nor differently-crippling allergy-medication side effects, and I have Claritin (Loratadine) to thank.

Whenever I encounter a fellow allergy sufferer, I try to tell them about the wonder drug, how it's changed my life, that they really ought to get on it. Most of the time, they just shrug and say they tried it and it didn't do anything. That's because they're doing it wrong!

Claritin (Loratadine) is not like Sudafed or Benadryl or Chlor-Trimeton. You don't take one and then see immediate, 6- or 12-hour relief (or the accompanying 6- or 12- hour low-level too-much-coffee-ish buzz that comes with it). It's more like birth control pills, or SSRIs: you take one every day, and after about two weeks, your allergy symptoms just gradually start to vanish. (I chose that word, VANISH, very carefully.)  There are no side effects that I've noticed, just an absence of misery. I don't know why this is not explained on the box, but that's the way the stuff works -- if you just take one when your nose starts running, it's not going to help.

The only trick is that you eventually start to forget you suffer from crippling allergies, much the way people on SSRIs eventually forget they're crazy, so after a while it's easy to forget to take the pill every day, and if you go more than a couple of days without one, you start to get that familiar tingle in the nose again. I've taken to keeping my pills next to my toothbrush on the sink, where I won't fail to see them. This has become a point of contention with my wife, who feels (not unjustifiably) that a bottle of generic Rite-Aid pills at the focal point of our bathroom is an eyesore, and would prefer that I keep them in the medicine cabinet. I can usually make her back down by reminding her of the time I ruined (RUINED) Thanksgiving dinner at her uncle's.

And by the way, now that I have a back yard of my own, I made sure I never have to mow it: I filled it in with multicolored gravel.

Try Claritin!