Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Social Network

I’ll admit it…I’m a fan of ABC’s reality franchise “The Bachelor.”

Maybe it’s because the show touches my hidden romantic side, or maybe it’s because I hope to one day replace the incomparable Chris “This is the final rose” Harrison as host, but there’s just something about it that keeps me tuning in.

So when the network rounded up some of the most memorable characters from seasons’ past, threw them in a California mansion, and let them compete, connive and cry their eyes out for $250,000 in the spinoff series “Bachelor Pad,” my Monday nights were immediately spoken for.

Like most reality TV, there wasn’t much depth to the show, with each episode consisting of little more than gratuitous skin shots and over-the-top, tear-filled outbursts. When the housemates weren’t hanging by the pool or making out in the hot tub, they were competing in challenges such as pie eating races and blindfolded kissing contests to determine who would get to go out on a romantic date and who would have to stay back, get drunk, and talk trash about whomever wasn’t there. After two hours of this nonsense, everyone would cast a vote “Survivor”-style for who they wanted to send packing. The last (wo)man standing won the cash.

Given the group setting, it wasn’t surprising that cliques quickly formed among the housemates, but it was interesting to see how the divisions were drawn and how this separation affected the dynamics of everything. There were two distinct factions, and the cast nicknamed each of them to make sure everyone knew the house’s pecking order…

On one side, you had the “insiders” – the athletic, cocky, good-looking types who were born with a popped collar, the d-bags who used to show up to college spring break already tanned. They were all coupled up, and when they weren’t mounting each other, they were looking down on everybody else.

On the other side were the “outsiders” – a melting pot of outcasts who had been deemed unworthy of being included in the cool crowd. You had the “nerd,” the “rebel,” the “whiner”…you even had the “cougar,” a woman who apparently was so much older than the rest of the contestants that the producers put up “??” on the screen in place of her age whenever they identified her.

But what the outsiders lacked in popularity points, they made up for in volume – they outnumbered the insiders. And in a game where elimination was determined by votes, the biggest alliance wielded the biggest stick. So if the outsiders could band together and vote as a unit, they could take out the insiders one by one and exact the ultimate Revenge of the Nerds.

And yet, they never did.

When it came down to the finale, and all of the cash was within arm’s length, there was nothing but insiders left fighting for it. Not because they were smarter or tougher or stronger competitors, and not because they won more challenges or had a better strategy. It was because they had something that the outsiders were desperate for:


Every week, the outsiders would consort and confer and eventually decide on an insider to send home. And every week, right before the votes were cast, one of the insiders would approach an outsider in hopes of getting that outsider to change his or her vote.

Weak-kneed and starry-eyed, the outsider would stand there in awe, gazing up at their hero, like they were offering “Mean” Joe Green a Coke. As the insider sweet-talked them, making them feel as if they could possibly be part of the inner circle if they’d just do this one favor, you could see the outsiders’ delusional thoughts dancing through their heads…

“How can someone with eyes this dreamy not be telling me the truth?”

“I know it was just a kissing contest, but this guy must have really meant it when he stuck his tongue down my throat.”

“Maybe now I’ll get to disgrace my parents by having sex on national television in the fantasy suite.”

You can guess what happened from there. The outsider would flip their vote, thus saving the targeted insider – and eliminating an unsuspecting outsider – and in the ensuing episodes, having no more use for their mark, the insiders would scheme to get rid of the very same outsider(s) who had previously helped them.

To watch this unfold over and over was maddening. It was a season-long validation of the hierarchy of high school – the cool kids bending everything their way…the losers just bending over.

But despite my urge to beat the outsiders over the head with a what-did-you-think-was-going-to-happen stick, a part of me could also identify with them.

When I was in 6th grade, I was on top of the world. I had a lunch table full of friends, I was “going with” the prettiest girl in class, and I was even voted “Best All-Around” in the yearbook.

Granted, I went to a magnet school, and my class wasn’t much bigger than the Tea Party’s Obama Fan Club, but still…that’s not something they can take away from you.

But towards the end of the spring semester, something changed. I had broken up with my girlfriend (probably because the foundation of our relationship was the occasional look from across the cafeteria and a hug at the end of the day…honestly, we never actually spoke to each other), and the rest of the girls had shifted their attention to one of the other boys. At the final dance of the year, while everyone was jamming to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” and Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality,” I was yesterday’s news, off in the corner, wasting away in irrelevance.

That’s when I decided a change of scenery could do me some good. Since I knew a bunch of people at my neighborhood school, I transferred there over the summer, hoping that this recent fall from grace had been a mere bump in the road – not a sign that I had peaked in life as a 12-year-old.

Seventh grade is a critical time for a Jewish teenager. Not only do you become an adult in the eyes of your religion, but because there is this never-ending string of Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations among your classmates, you quickly find out how popular you are. You see how many invitations show up in your mailbox. You see who talks to you at parties. You see who is willing to slow-dance (arms fully extended) with you. For the first time, you really start to get a view of the social landscape, and you see exactly where it is that you fit.

Unfortunately for me, I was more totally geek than totally chic.

While I was invited to a lot of these functions, I wasn’t really included in the festivities. Everyone seemed to be having the time of their lives, decked out in their Z Cavarricis, swaying arm in arm to “That’s What Friends Are For.” Me? I would just float through the banquet rooms, searching for a group of people to latch onto, hoping to promote the appearance that I wasn’t all alone. I blended in like I was wearing centerpiece camouflage, and I don’t think anyone would’ve noticed had I spent those Saturday nights at home watching the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling.

It’s not that I didn’t have any friends, because I was fortunate to have some really good ones. But I just always felt like I was on the outside looking in. In the social story that was playing out all around me, I was nothing more than a fringe character – the guy who everyone said hi to (but didn’t talk to again), the guy who nobody had a problem with, but, at the end of the day, the guy who was just…there.

And so it went for me…

In high school, where glamour sports like baseball and football were king, I played golf, which did nothing to help my cause. Nobody seemed to be impressed by our matching polo shirts or logoed golf bags – especially not the popular girl who I used to stare at in English class. When I finally got the courage to ask her out, she initially answered yes, and I spent the rest of the week with my feet 10 feet off of Beale. But on the day of our date, she didn’t respond to my calls, and when I went to her house to see what the deal was, her mother told me that she was out for the night.

It was a significant moment in my dating career: the first time a girl had given me the runaround. And it was something that, looking back, I needed to get used to.

But it wasn’t exactly the “first” I’d been hoping for.

When I got to college, I joined the fraternity that my brother had pledged. It was definitely the right place for me…I made a bunch of friends – friends I’m still close with today – and I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. But because we were viewed as the “nice guys,” and because we were at an age when girls are generally attracted to anything but, our barbecues sometimes had too many hot dogs for any of our liking.

Since graduation, I haven’t gotten any cooler, nor have I succeeded in the areas – money and power – that now determine one’s place in society. But while I’ve had the occasional date go south when it was revealed that my job description included terms like “assistant” and “entry level,” I somehow haven’t felt that many negative repercussions from my current (lack of) status. I guess I’ve just been lucky.

But I’m still scarred.

Those wounds that started accumulating way back in sixth grade haven’t just washed off like some sort of temporary tattoo. I carry all of that pain with me, and it affects how I view and interact with the world. I often feel as if I’m invisible. I lack confidence in social situations. I expect to be rejected when I put myself out there.

That’s just the way it is for me. If you get left out enough, if you get rejected enough, if you go unnoticed enough, you begin to believe that there’s something wrong with you. It gets ingrained on your DNA, and it can turn your life into an anxious and isolating existence.

Because while it’s nice to be funny or good looking or rich, few things compare to being accepted.

When you’re a part of something – a group of friends, a team, a club, the mafia – you feel validated. This person likes me, and that person likes me, so I must be okay. There’s a sense of structure, of support, like there’s a place for you.

But too often we sell out for this acceptance, doing anything and everything we can, just to try to fit in. We agree to eat at a restaurant we dislike. We let someone else pick the radio station. We don’t express an opinion. We substitute somebody else’s judgment for our own. We let our pledge masters pour Tabasco sauce down our boxer shorts.

These things may seem harmless on the surface and really, if you look at them individually, they are pretty insignificant (well, except for the last one…that one actually is harmful on the surface). But when you stack them one on top of the other, instance after instance, they take a toll, because the more you concede, and the more you conform, the more inauthentic you become.

And honestly, what good is it to be accepted for being someone you’re not?

Lord knows I fail miserably at it, but I guess the trick is to not allow your self worth to be reliant on any type of exterior approval. Like happiness, it’s an inside job, and no matter how much pressure you feel or how lonely things get, you have to figure out a way to stay true to who you really are and be okay with it – everyone else be damned.

Sure, it may cost you a rendezvous in the fantasy suite, but it might just be your best shot at $250,000.

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?