Capstone Project: Predicting Movie Scores on Metacritic

CAPSTONE: THE MOVIE

This is the capstone project I did for General Assembly. Below are two presentations in one. One is technical, the other is nontechnical. Please note that every headline and slide title, with the exception of one or two, is a quote from a movie.

No Fate But What We Make

There is an ongoing, pernicious problem in the world: people have to wait for a movie to come out to know how good it is.

This is completely unacceptable.

Sure, we can wait for reviews to come in, or, better yet, wait for aggregates of reviews to come in on sites such as Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, but wouldn’t it be great to know that the upcoming superhero movie will disappoint you before you waste time getting excited for the trailers?

Movies are not black boxes (except for The Black Box (2005) and Black Box (2012)). They’re produced by people who have produced other movies, written by people who have written other movies, performed in by people who have performed in other movies, and directed by people who have directed other movies. Given that people who work in movies tend to be consistent in their quality of output (see: Michael Bay), we should be able to predict qualities of a movie with only the knowledge of how past movies have performed.

It’s easy enough to say that the new Jared Leto Joker movie will be awful. It will be. Every DC movie has been awful except for one, and Suicide Squad, the only other movie where Jared Leto played the Joker, was truly a crime against humanity. It’s easy enough to say that, but can we teach a computer to say it?

Some Fellas Collect Stamps

The first step in my capstone project to collect a large database of films was to first try and get a list of every movie I could. I figured that Wikipedia would have as many movies as I would need, and if a movie wasn’t on wikipedia, it was also unlikely to be one that provided me with any useful information in regards to Metascore. So, I used a Wikipedia Python package.

It was after this painstaking process that I found a huge list of movies on the site movielens (https://grouplens.org/datasets/movielens/latest/). However, instead of deciding to give up my life as a data scientist and moving to the woods, I noticed that this list was only updated as of August 2017, so I knew I had more movies from my scrape. Thus, I download the .csv then extracted titles and years from it.

Finally, I used a website that collects data from Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, and a couple others and allows you to search through it. The API provided the following information:

– Actors
– Awards
– BoxOffice
– Country
– DVD
– Director
– Genre
– Language
– Metascore
– Plot
– Poster
– Production
– Rated
– Ratings
– Released
– Response
– Runtime
– Title
– Type
– Website
– Writer
– Year
– imdbID
– imdbRating
– imdbVotes

I didn’t take “Awards,” “DVD,” “Plot,” or “imdbVotes,” because all of those attributes are things you will never have access to before a movie comes out. I kept the rating values to use as my target variable.

I also didn’t take “Country,” “Language,” “Poster,” “Response,” “Type,” or “Website,” because none of these things gave any valuable information. Perhaps country or language would be somewhat illuminating, and I may take them at a future date.

My main issues with this API were that it restricted actors to the top four billed, had no other crew (Cinematographer? Hello? Composer?) and also didn’t have things like opening weekend box office, budget, months in production, whether the movie is part of a franchise, etc. There are other databases with this type of information and I plan to access those in the future.

All Clean. All Clean.

I collected quite a bit of data: 43837 separate movies. The actual cleaning of the data was as tedious and dry as the following paragraphs.

I wrote a bunch of functions to clean the data, even a few I didn’t need. This functions did things like turn data to floats or create new columns of data. Because of the size of the database, I didn’t spend much time imputing missing values. Because I were targeting Metascore, I went ahead and dropped all movies that didn’t have an associated Metascore, giving us a new DataFrame with 10192 rows. I also got rid of the other columns that weren’t going into this project.

After running a few models that performed poorly, I did a little feature engineering. I sought to weight the people involved in a movie by aggregating over their Metascores. To do this, I created three DataFrames where I isolated the directors, actors, and writers.

I pulled out my list of actors by using a count vectorizer on my features to get lists of columns and aggregate over those lists. I found every director, actor, and writer’s mean Metascore.

Finally, I saved a few versions of the DataFrame. One with directors weighted, one with directors and actors weighted, and one with directors, actors, and writers weighted. Then for each of those, I saved a version that was count vectorized only if a term appeared twice or if a term appeared three times. In total, six DataFrames to see which models the best.

Please Excuse the Crudity of This Model

For modeling, I took the practice of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what worked. I imported many different models, including linear regression, lasso, SGD regressor, bagging regressor, random forest regressor, SVR, and adaboost regressor, as well as classifiers including logistic regression, random forest classifier, adaboost classifier, k-nearest neighbors classifier, decision tree classifier, and even a neural network.

I then fed the dataframes through the following cell, which gave me three regressor scores, then transformed my y variable for classification (based on median Metacritic score) and fed that through three classifiers. Throughout this process, many models were attempted and thrown out. Dataframes were changed and had to be saved again and reloaded. At the end of the day I decided on the following models:

– Regression
– Bagging Regressor
– Random Forest Regressor
– LASSO
– Classification
– Logistic Regression
– Bagging Classifier
– Random Forest Classifier

Except for LASSO and logistic regression, there wasn’t much rhyme or reason for modeling choices. These just gave me the best relative scores (of the ones I tried), and also didn’t take a huge amount of time. Also, the bagging regressor and classifier, which didn’t seem to ever give me scores that were as good as the other models, still worked quickly and served as a veritable canary in a coal mine, warning me if something had gone wrong with the models.

My best classifier (logreg) accuracy was

.6945555555555556

using C = 10 with an l1 penalty.

And my best regression R2 score was

0.21850824761335874

with an alpha = .15

There is no reason I shouldn’t be able to achieve better than this given more time in the future.

Next Time It’ll Be Flawless

Future recommendations are numerous. There are many different ways possible to make this score better, the only constraint being time.

In terms of data collection, there are several other large databases to access, including imdb’s itself as well as Metacritic’s. It is entirely possible I have all the Metacritic scores, but I could always use more. Plus, Metacritic has statistics such as whether the movie is part of a franchise and how well the previous film did. I can, of course, make that data myself, but again, time is a factor here.

I would also like access to more of the cast and crew including producers, cinematographers, composers, editors, and more of the cast. After all, the theory underlying this entire endeavor is that people make movies and people are consistent in their product.

I could impute null values, especially with things like box office revenue, opening weekend box office revenue, Rotten Tomatoes scores, which could all replace Metacritic scores as the target variable. It would then be a simple mapping from one to the other. There could easily be more Rotten Tomatoes scores than Metacritic.

In terms of feature engineering, there are always more columns to make. I could use polynomial features on my numerical data. I could just use directors and writers. I could run more n-grams on the titles. I could change my min_dfs per column. I could sift down my list of actor weights. I could go back and try to get the actors’ averages like before.

Finally, there are more models for me to use. Several will allow me to tune hyperparameters to eek out better scores. There are models that work better with NLP. I can try a neural network for both classification and regression. I can try a passive aggressive classifier. And I’ll do all that and I’ll predict movie scores and eventually, they’ll make a movie about me.

What follows are the actual notebooks of the project you can find on my repository.



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Predicting Housing Prices in Ames, Iowa

This entails a project I did in my data science bootcamp at General Assembly. This particular post will be heavy in the coding department and light in the writing department, but will give you a little glimpse into how I was thinking early on in the program. First I’m going to show you the notebook I used, followed up with the tongue-in-cheek presentation I made. I put the presentation last as it is not the most professional work, but I liked it.

And here is the presentation:

Improving Participation in the SAT

Here is the first project given to us at the General Assembly data science immersion program. We were given two databases of 2017 SAT and ACT average scores by state. We were given detailed tasks involving cleaning and exploring the data, and then told to make presentations to the College Board to suggest ways of increasing participation. Here is the presentation I made with my suggestions, followed by the notebook I used. You can check out the original repository here.

The OKCupid Chronicles: No, a Dominatrix Won’t Have Sex With You

jeremy brooks

Preamble: The following is one of many accounts of dating from June 2010, when I broke up with my girlfriend of four years, to March 2011, when I met my new girlfriend.  For most of this time I had no soul, abused various substances, and only sought sex. OKCupid conversations will be included with the stories, when available.

Though it hadn’t occurred to me during the relationship, at some point I realized I was sexually repressed. Sure, I had had many partners already — mostly because I had channeled high school frustrations into a never-ending search for validation — but I hadn’t really done that much sexually. I knew about stuff — I had the internet — but knowing isn’t doing.

The girl wasn’t exactly beautiful, but she posted very suggestive pictures, and responded to my message.  She was a dominatrix. I had never tried being dominated. I guess it couldn’t hurt.

I called her one Saturday night around 11 and asked to meet. When she agreed, I figured the deal was done. It was a booty call, right?

NEXT STORY: How I Learned to Stop Being a Hater and Love OKCupid

We were to meet at 2:00 a.m. on Ditmars in Astoria. She walked from her apartment, I from mine; we would meet halfway. There were very few people out except for bar hoppers and a homeless woman rooting through garbage.

“Evan?” The homeless woman said to me.

Oh.

“Jody?” I said. I took a closer look at her. She was overweight, more so than her pictures led me to believe (standard OKCupid etiquette), Indian (I could have sworn she was a Latina by the pictures), wearing taut jeans and a T-shirt with “PORN” written across her breasts. She displayed a sundress.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“Is it from the garbage?”

“It’s free!”

“It’s garbage.”

In Jody’s defense, this particular garbage bag was filled only with old clothes. However, this was not the most auspicious start.

Strange formalities ensued. She hadn’t realized I was her OKCupid date. She thought I was there to sell her drugs. Apparently, the drug dealer was named Evan as well. She sent some texts and made some calls, deliberating until I eventually convinced her to hang out with em. After all, there we were.

“Sorry, I’m on Ambien,” she apologized.

Jerry Maguire flashed through my head. You had me at “I’m on Ambien.”

I took her back to my apartment. We drank. She turned out to be quite, clever, fun, and grew more attractive to me as the minutes passed. At some point, she broached the unspoken.

“So, you’re the kid who wanted to try domination.”

I stammered like Hugh Grant before confirming it. I had just suggested it to get her attention. I wasn’t against it, but it wasn’t like being dominated was a life’s dream of mine. She took it in stride, the got down to business.

“I know it’s your first time. Most of my clients like it when —”

“Clients? You’re like a professional dominatrix?” This had not been explicit online. Many women say they are dominatrices. Doesn’t mean they have fucking clients. What kind of date did she think this was?

“You said you wanted to try it.”

“Not for money! I wasn’t trying to hire you. I just wanted to hang out. Like a date. Like OKCupid.”

She was silent for a second, obviously caught off guard. It was as if I had told her I was high on Ambien.

“Well, I have a boyfriend,” she said. I wanted to slap my forehead. “You’re pretty cute, though, so I’ll do it for free.”

“Okay,” I said, wondering how her boyfriend would end up killing me.

She said she would keep it light. Start off by calling me names. Pig. Dog. Stuff like that. I was already smiling, finding the whole situation ridiculous. Degrading names couldn’t hold a candle to my own (lack of) self-worth.

She told me to take of my shirt. She pinched my nipples for a little bit, and slapped me. I can now say with certainty I do not derive sexual pleasure from having my nipples pinched.

“Maybe I’ll step on your chest,” she said.

“Okay,” I said, keeping my perpetual smirk.

As she started, I tried to prepare myself for death. She wasn’t too overweight, hovering around one hundred and sixty pounds. Still, every time she took a step on my chest all I could think about was how easy it would be for my ribs to give way, break, and puncture my heart, killing me instantly. Instead of killing me, however, she interrogated me.

“What do you want?” she barked at me.

Interesting. People don’t usually ask me that question, as people very rarely care about what I want. So I didn’t know what to tell her, except that I didn’t know.

“I don’t know.”

“What do you want?” I could tell she was looking for an answer, but I wasn’t sure what it was, so I told her the truth.

“To fuck you?”

It wasn’t what she was looking for and it took the wind from her sails. She sighed heavily and stepped off of me.

Thinking back to it, I’m pretty sure the right answer would have been “More, Mistress. I want more.” Or, conversely, an okay answer would have been “Stop, Mistress. I want you to stop.” Either way, it was something she could have worked with. She stepped off me.

“I could hit you with your belt.”

“Uh,” I said while still laying shirtless on my back, “why don’t we call it quits and just hang out for a little bit.”

We actually had some good conversation after that. Most guys who liked domination were men who in regular life always had power over women. This is probably why I didn’t like domination. I don’t think there’s a woman alive who doesn’t have power over me. Be cute and I’ll murder for you.

Jody and I agreed to hang out again. And hey, if I ever wanted drugs, I could buy them from her.

Of course, I never saw her again.

The biggest lesson I took from this is one that I will carry to my grave: A dominatrix doesn’t have sex with you.

SEE MORE:
• Even Stand-up Comics Hate Stand-up Comics

Evan Jacobs is a 31-year-old schlub who used to do stand-up comedy, excel academically and slay the ladies. These days, between the time he spends trying to publish his novel and teaching at a for-profit Manhattan college, he complains incessantly about nearly everything.

Reprinted from Hypervocal

Even Stand-up Comics Hate Stand-up Comics or Why I Quit Comedy

Everything has a purpose. Everything happens for a reason. Your life has meaning.

But seriously, folks. Your life matters as much as the last Olympics. I should know. I was meant to be a stand-up comic. And for seven years, I was. Then it turned out I was meant to quit comedy. Why? I’ll tell you. If you’re thinking about being a comic, first read this list of reasons you shouldn’t.

1. You don’t really want to be a comic.

Out of college with a worthless degree in math and years of loving comedy, I knew it was my time to share my voice with the world. I left for New York to spend eight months and $8,000 at a comedy school, my first of many mistakes.

Many comics claim to want to share their voice. They’re lying. Like me, they want to be famous. I wanted immortality in memory, assuaging my fear of mediocrity and death simultaneously. But even that’s not accurate. In hindsight, I realize I wanted validation, which is much easier to get on OKCupid.

2. Comedy costs money.

The $8,000 comedy school was pretty worthless. I came out with nothing but a certificate on nice paper. I ended up learning everything at open mics.

Open mics (hereinafter “mics”) are “comedy” shows where anyone can perform. They usually cost five dollars and/or a drink, not to mention the travel cost and the cost of drinks to gain courage before performing and to wash away the hurt after. Multiply that by five times a week for five years and I have that CPA course I could have taken.

3. Amateur comedy feeds on happiness.

One of the monsters in Harry Potter is the Dementor, a creature that feeds on hope, happiness and souls. In comedy, we call this monster an open mic. On any given Wednesday night, I’d go to a mic, pay, then sit at a darkened table, working on my material until my name was called. The paradox is everyone else at the mic did the same. I was preparing jokes for an audience of only comics who were’t going to laugh at them even if they had listened to them. After all, I didn’t laugh at their jokes. New comics suck, and when they don’t, you’re too jealous to laugh.

4. Comics are bad people.

I’m friends with comedians because I’ve met hundreds. I was bound to get along with a couple. Most are incredibly awkward and worse, not interesting. Comics are either on — funny at every opportunity, constantly jostling for social position — or they’re off (depressed). So social interactions with comics tend to oscillate between battles of one-upmanship and suicide prevention.

a. “On” comics are intolerable.

Surely a funny friend is a good thing. He’ll be just like Donkey in Shrek! But there’s a reason Donkey isn’t in every scene in Shrek, and a reasonShrek only lasts two hours. People who are trying to be funny don’t listen, they simply wait until it’s their turn to talk, which means you can’t form a meaningful relationship.

b. “Off” comics are intolerable.

Comics are not happy people. There’s nothing funny about being happy. And when a comic lets down his defense mechanisms (joking), all that’s left is anger, bitterness and depression. It’s necessary, though. All good stand-up comes from sadness. Just ask me: I’ve been taking anti-depressants for 14 years now.

c. Comics form impenetrable cliques.

Instead of being helpful to everyone, comics like to exclude people, because they were excluded in high school. Worse, most of the people in cliques are those who book shows, the next step up from mics. Thus, you must break into the cliques. But, I might as well tell you to join the Illuminati while you’re at it. Acceptance rates are higher.

d. Comics judge.

Many of us use personal constructs for evaluating people. Is this person kind or cruel? Compassionate or selfish?

Comics, however, use one construct: funny or not funny? As soon as a comic gets his first few laughs, comics forget “funny” is subjective and learnable. Thus, if they don’t find you funny, they’ll never find you funny: they don’t want your association holding them back and they definitely don’t want to give you a second chance. It’s really an evil practice; I should know, I did it too.

e. Fuck comics.

All this adds up to bitter envy. I hated comics who started after I did, worked harder and got on better shows. I despised comics who aren’t as funny as me and were on TV (read: Anjela Johnson). It works both ways, though. I once got into a comedy festival and briefly felt happy until I realized some of my friends were jealous.

5. You won’t make money.

After five years in comedy, I thought it was time to make money. But how to make money was and remains somewhat of a mystery. There are several requirements: a half hour of incredible material (which I didn’t have), a car (which I didn’t have), self-promotion (which I didn’t have), work ethic (which I didn’t have) and luck (which I didn’t have). Even if I had all those things, I wouldn’t know what to do with them. Most of the people I know who have been paid did it by being selected to open for a friend who was already established. If everyone is getting money through people who already make money, who was the first guy to make money?

6. Even if you do get famous, the best-case scenario is suicide.

I spent years afraid to sell myself; I did comedy out of self-hatred. However, what would money and fame get me? Not happiness.

A working comedian can’t be happy. With the amount of work going into being a professional, you have no time to have close relationships or have a family that’s not dysfunctional. Are you really going to skip out on Kimmel to see your kid’s baseball game? Your kid ain’t putting hollandaise on the biscuits. The only thing to bring happiness is validation, but comics are forgettable. Once you’ve left the stage, people are already laughing at the next guy. And besides, at that point, anyone who laughs at your jokes is an idiot.

7. You’ll never be funny enough.

No matter how well I performed, it was never funny enough. It’s a paradox. I performed to gain validation and thus self-esteem. But, if I had self-esteem, I wouldn’t need the validation, so I wouldn’t perform. Now take this paradox and multiply it by hating your own jokes. Even your funniest jokes aren’t funny once you’ve told them eleven hundred times. And by the way, nobody laughs when coming up with their own jokes; you can’t surprise yourself and jokes are about surprise.

8. You hate comedy.

I used to watch and listen to comedy all the time, but now I can’t watch an episode of Alf without being jealous of whoever the fuck it was who played Alf (Paul Fusco). I should be the one trying to eat those cats! And it’s not just Alf. I wanted everything comedy related to suck so when I came along, I was good by comparison. I was the contra-positive of Mohammad Ali. Instead of “I am the greatest,” my mantra was “everyone else is the worst.”

Worse, when something was funny, I hated it out of jealously. Comedy was pain, a constant reminder of my limitations.

9. You hate yourself.

Why wasn’t I spending every waking moment writing jokes or performing? I knew the only way to get good was to do an unbelievable amount of comedy. I needed to forget my social life. Only do comedy. Only hang out with comedians. Then I realized that only doing comedy and only hanging out with comedians sounded fucking awful. My dream had become a nightmare. I was going to have to try half-heartedly forever or quit and cut my losses.

And that’s what I did. I quit comedy and cut my losses. Without the constant pressure on myself and trying to fill my need for validation, I’ve actually never been happier. No, not the HGTV/Mormon type of happy, but at least not wanting to slit my wrists. I don’t need to worry about comedy anymore. Besides, with enough articles, I’ll be a famous writer soon.
Evan Jacobs is a 30-year-old schlub who used to do stand-up comedy, excel academically and slay the ladies. These days, between the time he spends trying to publish his novel and teaching at a for-profit Manhattan college, he complains incessantly about nearly everything.

Image via Flickr/CC.

Reprinted from Hypervocal

How to Lose a Girl in Ten Semesters

 

Evan Jacobs recalls the one that got away, and how he let her go.

To me, she was Becky. To anyone else: Rebecca. I met her my on first day of college. I turned down a dorm hallway, and there she was, standing at her door, about to enter for the first time. She had black hair with telephone-cord curls, a face as round as a Peanuts character, and a nose upturned like a blunted checkmark. She stood off my shoulder in a cute, gangly body consisting of rectangles. In her lilting Chicagoan accent, she spoke as if we were old friends.

“I think this is my room.”

“Are you Emma Lam from Hong Kong?”

“I think that’s my roommate. I’m Rebecca.”

“Rebecca? I’m Evan. I think I’ll call you Becky. Can I call you Becky?”

“Uh. I guess.”

Now, Becky was resoundingly cute, and I was resoundingly attracted to her, but I had only ever had sex with one person—and I was still with that person. Thus, I befriended Becky in the way I befriend anyone—methodically and psychotically.

We shared two classes, Biology and Calculus, and lived a couple hundred feet from each other, so I always had an excuse to talk to her. Besides, Emma, her bite-sized roommate shipped from China, existed solely to giggle at my antics.

♦◊♦

My doomed long-distance relationship persisted the first few months of college, so any romantic moment Becky and I shared (if there were any) was lost. Still, our friendship grew. We learned about each other. Becky was the oldest of four sisters and a baby brother. Her parents were kind and caring. Her mother once witnessed me hugging her and said, “Take your hands off my daughter.” It was a joke, but she must have seen the glassy sheen of my eyes when I ogled Becky.

Eventually, I gave my girlfriend the ol’ fashioned “Hey, remember when I said we’d be together forever? Yeah, about that…” Then, I had a decision to make. As I’ve brusquely spewed before, I have eternally believed happiness directly increased with the amount of women I bedded. I knew if Becky and I explored a romance, it would go well. I couldn’t foresee a break-up with Becky. So I would wait. Like a horror-film ghost, I had unfinished work.

I told myself it was a good idea. Becky had never had a boyfriend. First relationships are highly caustic and usually terminal. If Becky were to get a boyfriend, she could catch up to my level of maturity, then break up. I would pick up the pieces and live happily with Becky without her worrying about other men.

The plan was perfect.

The plan was also stupid and self-sabotaging. I had sex with one girl that year, in October. Meanwhile, Becky and I got dinner, dyed each other’s hair green (actually, she just dyed mine), smoked weed (actually, the one time Becky smoked, she almost went into a coma), and got piercings (I got two and she got zero).

Over the next year, mostly because I had colored hair, women noticed me more, and before you could say “unprotected sex,” I had had a slew of girlfriends and was rarely single. See: the Kathy story. But as I fornicated and flirted, Becky remained.

♦◊♦

When the world went from pre- to post-9/11 and my third year began, I figured I had waited long enough. Becky would be mine. As soon as she got back from Paris, that is. Becky was taking a semester abroad. In Paris, le café runs hot and les hormones run hotter. She met someone, of course.

“His name’s Jerome.”

“Is he black?”

The second most painful experience is learning the person you love has a significant other. The most painful experience is meeting and genuinely liking that significant other. I met Jerome. I’d date him, too. He wasn’t black. He was tall, skinny, pockmarked, incredibly nice, and a fellow University of Chicago student on the trip with her.

Still, it was part of my plan. I just had to wait. Jerome was the captain of the cross-country team and a likely Rhode’s Scholar. Plenty of girls would tell him he ran like a gazelle and present their heaving breasts to him for suckling. Maybe Becky would grow tired of his skinny frame and yearn for a meaty substitute in the form of me.

They would break up. All first relationships break up. But they didn’t.

We finished our last year. We graduated. I stayed in Hyde Park for a year after college. It was early June 2004, and I was moving to New York City in days. Though I tried to forget it, I couldn’t leave without knowing what could have been.

♦◊♦

Becky and I had dinner together. It was just another time out of dozens. After all, Becky didn’t smoke weed or drink, and I only smoked weed and drank. So, our shared realm was that of meals. Of course, this time, my dinner suggestion was shorthand for “Let me ambush you with a confession of love.” I could see it in my head as we drove to the restaurant together.

“Becky, I love you. Always have,” I’d say.

“I wish I knew how to quit you!” she’d say back.

“I know,” I’d say.

Okay, so that was BraveheartBrokeback Mountain, and The Empire Strikes Back, respectively, but you get the idea.

Dinner progressed normally. Perhaps I pried more than usual. “Does he treat you well?” “Ever wonder if there are better matches for you?” “Ever worry he cheats on you?” “He’s probably cheating on you, right?” “He told me he was cheating. You should cheat on him.” But no, he treated her better than I had the capacity to, it seemed. Still, selfish asshole that I was, I had to say something. After all, I had been there first!

I remember it as if it were in present tense:

We’re parked in the driveway of my apartment building. Becky’s in the driver’s seat.

“Becky, I have something to tell you.”

“OK.”

“I love you. I’ve always loved you. I loved you the day we met. I’m sorry, I know you’re happy with Jerome. But I had to tell you.”

She twists up her face and sobs.

“Evan… why didn’t you tell me?”

“I don’t know.”

“I can’t. Part of me wants to. But I can’t.”

“I know.”

I lean in and kiss her. It’s a soft, five-second, tongue-less kiss and though I don’t realize it, one of the most romantic moments of my life. She’s still crying. I apologize again and say goodbye.

The next time I see Becky, it’s at her wedding to Jerome, three years later.

Becky and I are still friends. We speak once every three to six months. Though I’ve moved on, I know if I had said something earlier, I’d probably be with her now. Of course, that would mean never experiencing any subsequent girlfriends, and, based on the girl I love now, perhaps I made the right choices after all. For now, and forever, the kiss she gave me was enough. Because at least it told me I was brave, I was worthy, and at some point, she had loved me too.

—Photo Samantha Louise Knott/Flickr

Reprinted from The Good Men Project

My Hemorrhoids Make Dating Pretty Awkward

You are about to read the most entertaining story you’ve ever read about hemorrhoids.

“This is my finger,” says Dr. Brandeis.

I ask him, giggling, if he’s at least going to take me to dinner first. And then, abruptly, I stop laughing. This isn’t funny at all. My life as a comic feels like a separate reality.

His finger is in my ass.

But let me start from the beginning.

Reading the entire Harry Potter series on the toilet—twice—was probably not entirely responsible. After all, I have always taken my time on the toilet. The seat is comfortable; no one can talk to me; I can relieve stress in multiple ways; I can concentrate. In fact, sitting on the toilet for long lengths has probably made me the person I am today. And the person I am today is a person with hemorrhoids.

But in fact, experts don’t know where hemorrhoids come from. Some say it’s from sitting on the toilet too long (guilty). Others say it’s from straining too much (guilty). Others say it’s from not eating enough fiber (guilty). Others say it’s just hereditary (guilty). Also, there’s obesity (guilty), heavy lifting (guilty—remember when my balls twisted together?), and pregnancy (I’ll get back to you).

I’m not exactly sure when I first noticed, but at some point, during wiping (another thing, I am a notorious hyper wiper—perhaps another cause), I realized I had a little buddy. A friend. A friend who wanted to poke his head out and see what was going on.

This was about three and a half years ago. I Googled the symptoms: something in my butt. I found hemorrhoids.

♦◊♦


♦◊♦

Hemorrhoids are inflamed bits of vein that fill with blood, bleed, and are very painful and sensitive. There are two types. External hemorrhoids loiter on the exterior. You can see them in a mirror. They’re conspicuous, but, in the end, easy to take care of. That’s not what I had. I had internal hemorrhoids. They form inside the rectum and tend to hang down and peek out until they’re physically, unceremoniously, forced back in.

Gross, I know.

I called my dad and asked, “Have you ever had hemorrhoids?”

“Oh yeah,” he said.

I asked how old he was when he first got them. He guessed he was about my age. “Goddammit,” I said. He just laughed.

And that was it. But I figured I had just one hemorrhoid. It often occurred to me to go to a doctor, but by the time I would get off the toilet, the urgency had subsided. That’s why I waited three and a half years.

Well, there was this other thing: anal leakage.

Anal leakage isn’t poop. It’s the anal mucosal lining that seeps out when a hemorrhoid has ventured out into the wild. I started sleeping with folded-up toilet paper against my butthole. I was dating at the time, and because there was no chance in hell that I was going to explain to my dates what was going on, I would surreptitiously remove the paper seconds before sex.

One time a girl spotted it on the floor. “Ew, gross,” she said. “What’s that?”

Poker face. “Oh, nothing. I don’t know.”

What I didn’t say: “That’s a tissue covered in anal mucus and blood. Want to sniff?”

♦◊♦

After the leakage, I started to get itchy as well. I can’t tell you how relieving it is to scratch one’s asshole. Still, this was not the way I wanted to live my life. I had to go to a colorectal surgeon, and I had to go now.

I found a colorectal surgeon, a Jew (which is how I pick my doctors in a city that has too many) named Stephen Brandeis.

So I get to the office on E. 33rd Street. There is a downstairs check-in area and an upstairs waiting room. I go to the check-in area and have a half-hour argument with the woman behind the desk about whether I have a referral. At a place like that, you shouldn’t have to go through that kind of trouble. It should be, “You’re with friends now. Have a seat on this heavily cushioned chair. We know what you’ve been through.”

I finally make it to the waiting room. There is no waiting room like the  one for a colorectal surgeon. In other doctors’ offices, you aren’t sure what condition each person is suffering from. In the waiting room for a colorectal surgeon, that remains the case. However, no matter what condition each person has, you know it’s in their ass.

I’m surprised the waiting room isn’t filled with empty chairs and people standing, looking forlornly at the seats. Mostly, people are sitting with no visible discomfort except that which comes with being elderly. I am by far the youngest person there.

Brandeis calls me in. We talk in his office for a little bit. I tell him my symptoms. Apparently my self-diagnosis was absolutely correct. This news strengthens my hypothesis that I am right about 95 percent of the time.

♦◊♦

We go into the actual room where the magic happens. Inside, there seems to be a standard bench, but this one has a outcropping to place your knees on. I was told to drop my pants, put my knees on the outcropping, and lean over the bench and relax. The doctor fiddles with something and with several mechanical whirrs, the bench rises about a foot and dips forward. I had not expected that Transformers would play a role in my butt-health crisis.

So I make some jokes, and the doctor puts his finger in me, and I stop making jokes. He feels around. I realize that I haven’t gone to the bathroom yet that day, and begin to worry that he may effectively be destroying a dam. He brings out the finger and, instead, uses an instrument called an anal scope. I need not describe the instrument. Let’s just say it is as horrible as you can imagine. It also has a light on it, because, obviously, my ass is poorly illuminated.

“You have three or four in there.”

This is bad news to me. I go from thinking that I have a one-time hemorrhoid and that was it, to realizing that this is a chronic problem I might have for the rest of my life. Just what I needed, regular visits to the sodomy doctor.

I clean up and go back to his office and we talk about options. It’s funny, because he says “options,” but when we discuss the “options,” there are two. The first is doing the one thing he suggests. The second is going to a different colorectal surgeon. Option one is a banding procedure, which, thankfully, is exactly what I want.

A banding procedure is placing a strangling rubber band around the base of a hemorrhoid. Within six to 12 hours, it sloughs off.

“Let’s do it,” I say. “Let’s do all of them. I want to get it over with.”

Brandeis immediately tells me that we should start with one and see how that feels, harboring an expression on his face that lets me realize how painful this procedure would be.

We go back to the room. The magic happens.

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I’m still worried about going to the bathroom, but here we are—que sera sera. Brandeis shows me the instruments he will use to do the banding procedure. One long metal device is like a tube that goes around the hemorrhoid. It has a rubber band ready at the end to be fired onto the hemorrhoid’s base. The other tool is a long, metal, toothed clamp that pulls the hemorrhoid into the tube. He’ll use the two like he’s picking a lock.

Gross, I know.

I bend over the bench.

“Oh, let me get my assistant in here.” When he says this, I get a feeling that the assistant’s a girl, and I am right. He pokes his head out the door. “Hey, Karen, can you come in here?” Karen is obese, an unattractive 20-something, but she’s a girl.

“OK, this is going to feel uncomfortable,” Brandeis says, as if it weren’t already.

He slides the instrument in. The room disappears. Karen disappears. All that exists is me and my asshole. I immediately understand why most girls aren’t into anal sex. And people who talk about prostate massaging have obviously never had a hemorrhoid removed.

He moves around a lot.

“Relax.”

“I’m trying.”

“Stop clenching.”

“That’s easy for you to say.”

“Just relax your muscles.”

“I have a guy sticking metal instruments up my ass—what am I supposed to do?”

At some point he changes positions from one side to the other and I feel like I’m being opened up like a bag of potato chips.

“Jesus fucking Christ!”

“Hey, if cursing makes you feel better, go for it.”

It doesn’t make me feel better. The only thing that makes me feel better is when he pulls that goddamn instrument out of my ass.

♦◊♦

We set up follow up appointments. I walk slowly—very slowly—to the train. There is a rubber band in my ass and I feel it with every step. Interestingly enough, it’s not just my ass that hurts, it’s my entire body, as if I’ve been hit by a car or just had a boxing match.

Over the next two weeks, every time I go to the bathroom it is an adventure. What’s going to happen? How’s it going to feel? What’s going to come out? Will it be normal, or will it look like chicken entrails? Will there be blood or will there be a shitload of blood? Am I going to see veins?

I get through it and go back to the office for two more appointments. I’m used to things now, even though it just seems to get worse. I greet Karen by name when she comes in the room and tell her, afterward, that I feel very close to her. I am back to my old jokey self, though again, when objects are actually inside my anus, it is hard to maintain humor.

Now, as I sit writing this, I am hemorrhoid free—but I know that this will not last forever. I like sitting on the toilet too much. I eat too poorly. Of course, the most practical, applicable, and scientific reason that I will continue to get hemorrhoids is that the universe insists on punishing me. I can’t just be successful, content, and healthy like many people.

If that were to happen, I might be able to meet a girl I like, get married, and pass on my DNA. I might be able to live a long, rich life with little tragedy and lots of accomplishments. I might be able to be normal. And nobody wants that.

Nobody wants me to be a happy person, because then they would feel bad about themselves. My life, shitty in every single aspect of it (documented here), gives others hope. No matter how bad things could be for them, they could have all those things and five hemorrhoids. Five. Five distended growths in their assholes. Thus, in order for the universe to have some semblance of order, I have to be miserable.

At least the misery will give me something to write about.

In the meantime, I have to go throw up.

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More stories by Evan Jacobs:

—Photo dlisbona/Flickr

–Reprinted from The Good Men Project