Just Another Effin' Observer

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Location: Huntsville, Texas, United States

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Of Golden Apples and Golden Hair

While cleaning out a closet the other day, I found an old book, which, given that 'words on paper' thing (if it's words, and it's printed on paper, then it's a moral imperative), I started reading, and suddenly found myself transported back in time to the days of my dissipated youth (which actually includes my last birthday, but that's a topic for another day); remembering two fine gold chains, from which were suspended two gold charms, in the shape of an apple; an apple with the word KALLISTI engraved upon it. I wondered whether those gold chains still encircled two slender necks, whether they still occasionally got entangled in long blonde hair. I had a profound weakness for blondes in those days, one of many weaknesses I had back then, some of which I eventually outgrew. Two tales of bittersweet romance, painful at the time, but now little more than poignant memories, encased in the protective amber of a great many intervening years. I've changed a lot since then; I'm older now, and I like to think wiser, and absolutely certain that my taste in women has improved.

The story I found in that musty old book reminded me of how I said goodbye to two women I should never have said hello to in the first place. The story began with a party, a long, long time ago, in a land far, far away . . . .

To celebrate the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, Zeus hosted a wedding feast. He invited all of the gods and goddesses of Olympus, with one exception: Eris, the goddess of discord. Zeus wanted nothing to disrupt the festivities, so he felt that not inviting the goddess of chaos was a wise precaution. He couldn't have been more wrong.

Eris, quite understandably, was somewhat put out by her exclusion from the list of invited guests. Not to put too fine a point on it, she went downright logarithmic over Zeus' obvious snub, and vowed to get even. Hell hath no fury, and all that.

The party was in full swing, everyone just having the grandest time, when the doors opened and a solid gold apple was thrown into the ballroom. Thrown in by Eris. On the apple was engraved the word KALLISTI, 'the fairest'. Three goddesses -- Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite -- immediately pounced upon the apple, each claiming it for herself; each considered herself the fairest, and thus deserving of the prize.

A near riot ensued. In an effort to restore order to the proceedings, Zeus commanded that a contest be held. For this first-ever recorded beauty pageant, Paris, son of Priam, king of Troy, was selected to be the judge. (Zeus knew a no-win situation when he saw it, and wisely decided to let somebody else take the heat. One winner meant two losers, and one of the potential losers was his wife; like a lot of long-married couples I know, they didn't get along all that well. And an omnipotent, supremely honked-off deity can lay some serious hurt on you, even if you're another omnipotent deity.)

Paris, as the legend goes, was reputed to be rather naive, just this pretty, dumb kid who hung out on Mount Ida, tending his sheep. In his favor, it must be said that he wasn't too thrilled by the spot Zeus had put him in, for exactly the same reasons. Ticking off goddesses was, as a rule, not exactly conducive to a long and healthy life. Whatever; each of the goddesses put her case before the reluctant judge; in other words, all three contestants offered him a bribe. (Things like morality, honor and fair play were virtues that the gods of Olympus didn't have much use for.) Hera offered Paris power and riches beyond his wildest dreams; Athena offered him glory and renown in war; Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world as his wife.

Paris proved to be not as naive as everyone had assumed: his hormones took over, and he awarded the apple to Aphrodite. (Although I suppose it should be acknowledged that his decision may actually have been based on the objective merits of the case; the Goddess of Love was reputed to have been exceedingly beautiful, and Hera was getting a bit long in the tooth by then, and probably beginning to sag a bit in all -- well, both, anyway -- of the wrong places. And Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, probably had a certain bookish, Marian-the-Librarian look about her, and although I personally find that almost irresistably attractive, a guy spending all of his time alone on a mountaintop, with nothing but sheep to keep him company -- and no, we are not going to go there -- might well have been of a different frame of mind.) In return, Aphrodite awarded Paris the most beautiful woman in the world: Helen. (Yeah, that one.)

There was just one minor complication to this arrangement. Helen was already married, to Menelaus, king of Sparta. A complication, yes; an obstacle, no. After accepting a bribe and making formidable enemies of the two runners-up (another characteristic of deities: they were notoriously ungracious in defeat), was a little kidnapping going to stop him? Not bloody likely. Paris, aided and abetted by the goddess of love, seduced Helen and convinced her to elope with him back to Troy. Menelaus raised an army to get her back. The result was the Trojan War. It lasted ten years, reduced the city of Troy to rubble, brought down Priam's kingdom (to say nothing of the fact that Priam didn't come out of it too well, either), and decimated the ranks of the heroes of ancient Greece.

And all because Zeus didn't want any trouble at his party.

Reading about the Judgement of Paris, and about the Trojan War, reminded me of those two golden-haired vixens, and I wondered where they are now. I wondered if they ever think of me, and if so, whether they recall me with a twinge of regret at what they turned away, or with an enormous sigh of relief at their narrow escape. (Probably the latter; I am very much an acquired taste, always have been.) The golden apple charm was a sort of symbolic message to them. I have always been fond of myth and legend, and that particular myth is one of my favorites, being about how the wrong woman can really screw up your world. Anyone who has ever been in love, or thought he was, knows very well just how foolishly a man will behave while in the grip of that particular form of insanity. To this day, I am persona non grata at several restaurants in Houston, and for a while I was on a first-name basis with at least half of the staff at the crisis-intervention hotline there. I still get Christmas cards from several of them.

In the three decades and change since I discovered the fundamental differences between males and females and, more importantly, the reasons for those differences, there have been only two recipients of the golden apple; the two women who goobered up my life so totally that the experiences changed me forever.

I'm still partial to blondes, though. Some people just never learn.

The Rest of the Story...

Monday, October 10, 2005

Belaboring the Painfully Obvious

Practically everyone with a blog (which seems to be, these days, practically everyone) has posted repeatedly, and with the periodicity of a tolling bell, on the manifold failures of the Mainstream Media, or MSM. (A brief and utterly irrelevant aside: These acronyms always annoy me, in a vague, inchoate way, ever since people started referring to the year 2000 computer bug as Y2K, thereby perpetuating -- and practically trademarking -- the same sort of half-assed, lazy shorthand that got us into that particular mess in the first place!) The evidence abounds, and you don't even have to go near Dan Rather to make the point. The post-Katrina revelations of the media's breathless reportage about the descent of New Orleans into utter barbarism is a good example, probably better than most.

We've all heard the story by now: the lurid tales of widespread looting, rape, wholesale slaughter in the Superdome and Convention Center, Visigoth-caliber pillaging of the city, and general rampant chaos turned out to be -- what's the polite word? -- somewhat exaggerated. In fact, practically none of it was true. So how did the media get so thoroughly snookered? Hey, I'm not a professional journalist -- I don't even play one on TV -- but if an Arkansas National Guardsman told me that there were 30 to 40 bodies piled in a freezer at the Convention Center, before I put that story on the AP newswire, I'd be strongly inclined to open the door for a first-hand look-see into the abatoir. The reporter in question didn't do that. As it turned out, the bodies on the floor that the Guardsman pointed out to the reporter with his flashlight didn't exist, either. It was all just regurgitated rumors, accepted uncritically and without corroboration as fact, and disseminated around the world at the speed of light, less signal attenuation and router latency; the truth attenuated even more dramatically, especially since there was never much of it to begin with.

I found it deliciously ironic that one of the reporters who broke the story -- that most, if not all, of the descent-to-Hell reports were not, in fact, true -- was one of the most enthusiastic propagators of the initial, subsequently-proven-false, horror stories. It was a journalistic trifecta: breaking news, which turned out to be manufactured news, which led to breaking the news about the manufacturing of news. Anyone want to bet that this guy will be in the running for a Pulitzer?

Did these nitwits learn nothing from the New York Times' Jayson Blair debacle?

The big question, in my mind at least, is why? Why did these outlandish rumors start circulating? Why were they so readily accepted as fact by the news media? And why did they gain such traction that practically everyone on the planet believed them, and in several cases (the Mayor and Police Chief of New Orleans most notably come to mind), even elaborated on them? What does it say about us as a culture, as a civilization, hell, even as a species, that we are so ready, willing and able to believe the absolute worst about our fellow human beings?

Tough questions, to be sure. And the answers, if we can summon up the courage to hear them, are liable to be extremely uncomfortable. But what are the answers?

The answer to the first question is both simple and profound: how does any urban legend get started? "Word gets around, guys talk, you hear things," as the old beer commercial tag-line went. The situation in New Orleans, particularly in the Superdome and the Convention Center, was dire; there simply is no other word for it. If it was bad where you were, you didn't want to imagine how bad it was in the cheap-seats or the nosebleed section. And what you don't want to imagine, you just can't help but imagine. And it was all so plausible.

As for the second question, why the media accepted all those horror stories as fact, without bothering to check them out, that one is even easier to answer: because they desperately wanted the stories to be true. Let's be candid here, they made for good copy. The stories had "legs", as they say in the business. They were, in the immortal words of the producers of 60 Minutes Wednesday, "too good not to run with". It isn't necessary to ascribe any venality to the media for wanting to believe the tales coming out of New Orleans; ratings and circulation numbers are all you need by way of explanation. You don't have to believe that the media's eagerness to promulgate unsubstantiated rumors as fact illustrates their shockingly low opinion of humanity -- their pervasive belief that this is the way people in a dangerous, stressful situation are likely to behave -- although I'm inclined to think that that was a factor. The news media are some of the most cynical people in the known Universe; they have seen so much of the absolute worst of human nature, that they think it's the norm.

And why were the stories so widely believed? The answer to that question is the easiest to answer of them all, and that answer is the most disturbing. It is because the tales were so easy to believe. It is true that journalists are among the most cynical people in the world -- with the singular exception of the rest of us. We don't just believe that people, when left to their own devices, will descend to the most loathsome behaviour imaginable -- we know it. Hell, we've heard it from everyone: our politicians, our teachers, our syndicated columnists, our celebrities (with our sports stars providing real-life, show-and-tell examples), even our parents have drilled it into our heads: people are the scum of the earth; we're a blight on the planet. The veneer of civilization is wafer-thin and easily fractured. And when that thin veneer of civilization shatters, we are, underneath it all, worse than animals. We eat our dead; sometimes, we don't even wait for them to be dead before chowing down on Braised Brisket of Barney with steamed asparagus and au jus. The most aberrant, deviant behaviour, the most reprehensible conduct, is blithely explained away as being "only human".

And that, my friends, answers the final question, for it speaks volumes about us as a culture, as a civilization, as a species. We believe the worst about us because we've been told that we really are as bad as we've been told. We believe it because we're just dumb enough to believe it. We believe it because we've heard it so often, and from so many quarters, that we've come to accept it as true, on the theory that "if three people say you're sick, lie down." And we believe it because not enough of us have had the courage to answer the charges with a single, all-encompassing rejoinder:


The Rest of the Story...