Long_Reads

The Best Original Features You Missed When You Weren’t Following MEL

You’re on vacation, so treat yourself to a couple thousand words on the Rock's stunt double (and cousin!)

We get it: Most of the year, you only have the time (and energy) to skim an article long enough to get the gist of it. This week, though, things are different. In all likelihood, you’re either completely off work, attempting to find enough to do at the office while everyone else is on PTO or still stuck amongst relatives and long past the expiration date of family fun time. In other words, it’s a perfect time to get caught up on some of our longest, most ambitious stories of the year. Such as…

My Year Without a Nose

In 2016, Steve Bean began waking up to a pillow covered in blood, before ending each day with his sinuses completely congested. Soon after, he was diagnosed with sino-nasal squamous cell carcinoma. To stop the cancer from spreading, doctors completely removed his nose. Somehow, throughout it all — and despite an even more dire diagnosis in August 2018, when doctors predicted he’d only have another nine to twelve months to live — Bean kept his sense of humor. Here, for example, is how he described the hole where his nose used to reside:

“Even today, inside The Wound is an entire world — a vast cave, a chasm. There’s a complete alien landscape in there, on a planet never before explored. How can there be so many shades of pink, so very many shades of what Crayola used to call “flesh-colored,” such a rancid rainbow of maroon, green-yellow, black and even white? So many types of tissue and terrain! I half expect to see tiny sparkling shards of crystal embedded in the walls. There ought to be tiny miners in there, suspended from ropes, holding miniature searchlights and pickaxes. The whole thing is indescribably disgusting. It’s A Horror, and I cannot turn away from it. It’s also a secret — no one is meant to see it.

“I’m compelled to continue to find ways to describe it, as if to describe it might somehow be to make sense of it: Inside my head, there’s an ancient, lost, underground world.

“Standing on the cave floor, when you look up, you can see flesh stalactites. The Wound, to this day, continues to be a source of fascination and disgust. There’s always a fatal car crash going on inside of my face, and I can look at it anytime. Often, I just can’t look away. On a positive note, having no roof-of-mouth and a hole for a nose does create exciting new possibilities for finger puppetry.”

Not Quite the Rock

The Rock is a marvel to behold. Those workouts! That diet! But what of the man who has to emulate all of this in order to be the Rock when the Rock isn’t around? That is, what is it like to be his body double? To find out, earlier this year we sent famed writer Mike Sager to Hawaii to spend a few days with Tanaoi Reed, the Rock’s body double, and as it turns out, distant cousin (a fact the Rock was unaware of until he first met Reed):

“One day Reed was in the makeup trailer, being fitted with a wig — his head freshly shaved to match [Dwayne ‘The Rock’] Johnson’s — when Johnson entered. Perhaps unaware that [his previous stuntman] had been replaced, Johnson seemed surprised: ‘Are you my new stunt double?’ he asked. Their resemblance was immediately evident.

“Johnson took the next chair, and the two began to chat. ‘Inside, I wanted to scream out, We’re related! We’re related!” Reed remembers. ‘But I didn’t want to say nothing, right? I wanted to be super cool.’

“At some point, Johnson asked the standard small-talk question: ‘So where are you from?’

“‘Hawaii.’

“‘Oh?’ said Johnson. His mother is from a famous family of Samoan pro wrestlers. His father, Rocky Johnson, who was African-American, was also a well-known professional wrestler. Growing up, Johnson had lived all over the world, including New Zealand and Hawaii. ‘What part of Hawaii are you from?’ he asked.

“‘Laie,’ Reed said.

“‘Laie,’ exclaimed Johnson. ‘I have family there.’

“‘I know,’ Reed said. He began reeling off names: ‘Uncle Salesa, Uncle Neff — ’

“‘Wait! How do you know them?’ Johnson asked.

“‘That’s my Grandma Vaitai’s cousins.’

“Johnson raised his trademark rubber eyebrow: “What’s your family name?”

The Unlikely YouTube Superstardom of Dr. Gregory Johnson, ‘Your Houston Chiropractor’”

Speaking of Sager, after Hawaii, we put him on a plane to Houston, the home of Dr. Gregory Johnson, a 60-year-old chiropractor who struck it big on YouTube thanks to a patented maneuver called the “Ringer Dinger,” which basically entails wrapping a towel under a patient’s neck and then pulling as hard as possible in order to re-align every vertebrae in their neck/spine. It mesmerizes his fans (so-called Crack Addicts) in an ASMR kinda way, and elicits a range of reactions from those who put their necks on the line for him:

“Upon experiencing a Ring Dinger, which releases adhesions and compressions along the length of the spine (and no small amount of endorphins and adrenaline), some patients laugh uncontrollably, some turn red, some cry, some issue a stream of epithets. One woman peed herself. ‘I ain’t pulled off nobody’s head yet,’ the 60-year-old Johnson likes to joke in his twangy Midwestern accent.”

Our Love of Guns Is Often Passed Down From Father to Son

As the son of a South Korean immigrant, where military service is mandatory, staff writer Eddie Kim’s father introduced him to guns and gun safety at just five years old. In this way, it’s also a distinctly American rite of passage, as per Kim’s reporting, many fathers here also pass down their passion for shooting to their sons:

“Walt Harrington grew up in rural Illinois as a child, and he’d accompany his father on hunts for rabbits and pheasant, which helped feed the family when they were lean on money. They stopped shooting once they moved to the city when Harrington was 11, however, and it wasn’t until he met his father-in-law that Harrington found himself with a gun in hand once more. It was a beautiful Browning shotgun, intended for a rabbit hunt in the Kentucky countryside where his wife’s family had a farm. Harrington stuck out for a number of reasons, including the fact that he was a white city slicker while his in-laws were black and well-versed in rural life. When his father-in-law handed him the weapon, he knew he was joining the hunt. ‘I’d gone off to college and grad school and maybe adopted a sort of view that people who hunt for fun might have something wrong with them,’ he admits.

“Hours into the hunt, Harrington was wet from the rain, exhausted and looking forward to going home, not having shot a single round. But on the path back to the farm, fortune struck: The men’s noise rustled a rabbit from a woodpile. In a swift move, Harrington brought his barrel down and shot it dead. The bang startled another rabbit, who fell under Harrington’s aim once more. Later, around a campfire, the men grew raucous while teasing him about his accomplishment and sharing cigars and laughs.

“The experience shaped him so much that Harrington went on to write a book about it, The Everlasting Stream. He taught his own son to shoot and hunt, too. ‘Those years showed me a great deal of affection between the men, including teaching kids who were seven or eight years old,’ he says. ‘In my own case it was a matter of tradition to pass it down. I enjoyed it so much. I knew my son was growing up in a different time and place, so being connected to this passing world was important. It was about being and bonding with men.’”

Was the Sportswriter Who Invented Baseball’s ‘Save’ Stat Really That Dumb?

As baseball has gotten smarter in a Moneyball/sabermetrics world, one man — sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, the originator of the much-maligned save stat — has bore the brunt of all the stupid stuff that needed revolutionizing. But was he really that dumb? Contributing editor Tim Grierson spent the better part of the spring talking to the people who knew Holtzman best in order to assess whether or not the dean of baseball writers throughout the second half of the 20th century had gotten a bum rap — and required a saving of his own. Like most things, it depended on whom he asked:

“[Noted ESPN baseball analyst and chief Holtzman critic Keith] Law is certainly sympathetic to how a man like Holtzman can’t help but be a product of his specific environment and era. But he insists that we need to reassess Holtzman’s contribution to the game, including his influence on who got into the Hall of Fame. ‘His way of thinking about players was the old way of thinking about players,’ Law says. ‘Batting average, RBIs — if a pitcher doesn’t get 300 wins, you probably weren’t Hall-of-Fame [worthy]. I won’t [expect] a guy of his [era] to suddenly become a sabermetric advocate. But [73-year-old sportswriter] Peter Gammons has done that late in his career, which is one of the things that makes Gammons great: The sport changed, and Gammons changed with it.’

“‘I’m not going to kill Holtzman for not making that shift,” Law adds. ‘But the fact is, his way of thinking was just wrong.’”

My Month as a Member of the ‘Wild Wild Country’ Sex Cult

There was no need for contributing writer Bridget Phetasy to binge Netflix’s six-part docuseries Wild Wild Country. Because a few years ago, she lived it, staying at a similar “sex cult” ashram in Australia for 16 mostly miserable days, where there was indeed some sex, but also a lot of cash grabs and manual labor:

“After a freezing cold shower and a hearty breakfast of porridge, it was time to work, but the Guru called me into his office. He explained that I wouldn’t have to work as hard as the live-in residents if I paid more per day. (I was already paying $30.) He wanted to know a lot about my finances. Did I have a ticket home? How long did I intend to stay? Did I want my own cute little cottage instead of sharing a room with a stranger? (I did, but lo and behold, it was extra.) How much money had I saved to travel? Did my family have money?

“I hadn’t been on the ashram long, but I’d lived enough to know a grifter when I saw one. I explained I was broke, very happy to work and left it at that.

“That said, the work was exhausting. It was a lot of hard physical labor such as chopping wood, creating paths through the jungle, gardening and endless fucking raking. At times I felt like I was in a montage from Kill Bill, training for some epic battle. Especially when I was hauling a wheelbarrow up a hill for the fifth time in the sweltering jungle heat, the Guru patiently awaiting me at the top, tapping his foot; or when I was raking the endless rows of lawn clippings from two football-sized fields and collecting them in a tarp that dragged behind me so that they could be used in the gardens.”

“The Single Men of Ashley Madison”

Phetasy arguably went to a darker place, however, when she posed as a married woman on the infamous dating website Ashley Madison. It was a counterintuitive bit of gonzo journalism, the conventional wisdom being that the site is overrun with married men looking for single women to hook up with no strings attach. But it turns out that they’re more interested in making cucks of their fellow man:

“Part wannabe savior, part narcissist and part thrill-seeker, these guys want to hear all about how my husband is failing me as a lover and how they can be the man he isn’t. ‘I have a taste for women who know what they’re missing and I love filling that need — and their pussies with my huge cock,’ writes TasteeDee33.

Smiley face. Wink. Puke.

“‘I’m just into the sexual intensity of married women and how you generally know what it is you’ve been craving and you take it,’ JoeSchmow007 messages me. ‘So, what have you been craving?’

“It gets to the point where I’m feeling bad for my imaginary husband because part of the foreplay for the Cuck-makers is nitpicking said imaginary husband’s inadequacies. SlickWilly1998 wants to know, ‘Did he cheat on you?’ (Apparently a lot of the married women who are on the site are there after they find out about their husband’s infidelity.) ‘A gorgeous woman like you deserves to be worshipped like a goddess. Does your husband worship you?’ SlickWilly1998 presses. ‘I bet he doesn’t.’

“‘Let me inside you before your husband gets home,’ another man messages me.

“Even if these Cuck-makers don’t initially express the desire to cuck my husband, about a third of the interactions end up with the man conveying some kind of desire to outperform my mate. ‘I came four times last week,” HornyTowed claims. ‘Can your husband still do that at 40?’”

The NYC Punks Who Built a Support Network for Sexual Assault Survivors When the Justice System Failed Them

Long before #MeToo, Colin Hagendorf and the collection of punks at Support New York were working with survivors of sexual assault to help them process and heal — as best as possible — from what had happened to them. This even included meeting with their assailant (whom Hagendorf prefers to call a “perpetuator”), a stressful, fraught proposition that members of Support New York would attend and arbitrate:

“We’d meet with the perpetuator for the first time, and they were allowed and encouraged to bring a friend. Because a lot of this is about building trust with the person that did the harm — to make them feel comfortable to be vulnerable and try to acknowledge what they did. So at the first meeting, we tried to be friendly. But if they weren’t willing to engage, there was sometimes a little more pressure put on. Most people seemed pretty willing, though. Even if they didn’t believe in the process, they at least believed in the false notion that if they completed it, it would absolve them in the eyes of everyone else.

“At the first proper process meeting, we’d get people to sign a contract saying that it was going to be guided primarily by the other person’s experience. Next, we’d have them tell us their account of what had happened. That would be the last time their account was ever brought up — but it felt important to do once.

“Then the survivor makes a list of demands, and part of the process was about helping the person to willingly comply with them. A lot of times, if the person was a prominent activist, one demand was that they needed to step down from being the face of their organization, to not do any organizing work that put them in contact with volunteers. Like, you need to pull yourself out of situations where you have this bevy of idealistic 20-year-olds available to you.

“People complied with stuff like that all the time. They changed the way their whole life was being organized in order to accommodate the needs and desires of someone they had harmed.

“The process was either six months or a year, and it involved a lot of readings and writing exercises. There were some somatic exercises, too — learning how your emotions manifest in different parts of your body, then doing physical exercises to interact with those emotions.

“The goal of the process was usually to have two letters written. One was a brief public statement about the abuse and the work that had been done in the process, just to have something on the record if this person tried to deny that they’d done harm. The other was a more detailed letter of apology to the survivor. We were always adamant that doing the process didn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be forgiven by this person. You can do all this work — and it might be really hard — and this person will still be mad at you. But you still have to do the work so you don’t do this kind of thing to anyone else.”

“Wu-Tang Clan’s U-God on Being a Child of Rape, Nearly Fighting Leonardo DiCaprio and Talking to Ol’ Dirty Bastard From Beyond the Grave”

And that’s just the half of it. None of our MEL Conversations this year were as wild, wide-ranging or deep as Zaron Burnett’s discussion with U-God. Case in point, the Wu-Tang Clan member’s thoughts on death:

“I think about death a lot. I’ve seen death a lot. It’s a question mark for every human being on the planet. The great unknown. I can’t think of a day where I don’t think about death. Because life and death are one and the same. We here, but we’re certain every last one of us will have a death. We all share that in common. Whether you’re white or black. Whether you’re gay or straight. We all products of death. And we can’t escape that shit. The thing about it is: You never know when your shit is coming. That’s the curse of being alive. And it bothers me. It fucks with me. Because I’ve seen so much.

“I mean, bruh, I’ve given brothers pounds, ‘What’s up, my G?’ and the next day the niggas be dead. Know what I’m saying? I just gave a nigga a hug, and now he’s dead. A nigga just gave my son $100. He gave my little man $100, and the next fucking day, this nigga’s dead. You walk around a corner and see a muthafucka, and then when I come back around the corner, this nigga’s dead. I’ve seen that. That’s a part of my life that just fucks my head up. Like, I need therapy on that shit.”

“A Cultural History of Sylvester Stallone’s Rock-Hard Abs and Shredded Everything Else”

We are all put on Earth for different reasons. This remarkably detailed, incredibly fun rumination on Sylvester Stallone’s ever-changing physique, however, could very well be why the good lord gave us Oliver Lee Bateman, who, for the task at hand, pretty much re-watched every one of Stallone’s films (even Over the Top and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot) and charted how he went from Italian beefcake to ripped gladiator to paunchy wannabe Oscar contender to age-defying hardbody:

“I grew up worshipping Stallone. Most of the other kids in school loved Schwarzenegger, but I didn’t much care for him beyond Predator (1987), The Running Man (1987) and Total Recall (1990) — great work that owed as much to the directors deploying their mannequin-like action star in the appropriate way as anything Schwarzenegger did. Stallone, on the other hand, was a constant source of inspiration. He wasn’t the biggest guy — even when he’d gotten as big as he conceivably could —  and he always played characters who were beaten down yet still prevailed against all odds. And in his own distinctive way, Stallone could actually act; he wasn’t an iron-pumper who later turned to acting (a la Schwarzenegger), he was an actor who pumped up his career by pumping iron.

“For the most sweeping of sweeping looks at that transformation, I got together with the two people closest to me (one by proximity, one by marriage) to binge-watch the signature moments of Stallone’s career. My next-door neighbor and friend Ryan Christie, a retired Army cavalry scout and sometime-writer, had already watched nearly everything that Stallone has appeared in, and cited the actor’s portrayals of various laconic he-men fighting to win America’s unwinnable wars as a major reason he enlisted after 9/11. Meanwhile, my wife Bethany, a therapist at a local university, had watched none of the Stallone canon, and thus, offered a fresh pair of eyes that had previously been trained primarily on Colin Firth’s depiction of Mr. Darcy in the BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice.

“Our hope, as we watched and discussed these movies, was to parse not what made Stallone such a bankable star — we figured we’d leave that to Variety and The Hollywood Reporter — but how and why his body kept evolving, and the ways in which that impacted our viewing experience.”