Weird Childhood Delusions And Beliefs

It seems like we all, as kids, harbor some bizarre beliefs and fixations. I, being typical, was no different. I’m not talking about The Monster Who Lives In The Closet or Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy delusions, but far less explainable ones.

I also recall being puzzled by the crazy shit some of my peers believed, such as their belief that golf balls contained some radioactive substance deep inside that would kill you if you handled it, but if you were a normal kid, this was hardly a deterrent. You’d labor to crack open any stray golf ball you found, unwind two miles of stringy crap, and then find out that the real truth about the center of a golf ball was very, very boring and not lethal at all (unless you cracked open your dad’s brand new golf balls and destroyed them, in which case you might get beaten into the middle of next week).

The List Of Some Of The Stupid Things I Believed Or Was Fixated Upon As A Child 

I was sure:

1. That if I put my left shoe on first each day, my right shoe would feel neglected and sad, so I had to alternate which shoe got to go first. Just to be fair. The same thing applied to favored stuffed animals. No matter what my real feelings were, I had to maintain this fiction that I loved and liked them all the same…much like my mother did with me and my sibling. We weren’t fooled.

2. That even license plates and advertisements on billboards can be entertaining. I learned to read at an early age, so when reading things forwards got boring, I’d spell them backwards in my head. Then I tried rearranging them into new and better words. Many a billboard was rendered far more interesting this way. Nowadays I KILL at Jumble, Boggle and other useless word puzzles.

3. That inflammable meant that whatever was in there would never, ever catch on fire, because flammable was clearly the word that meant that. It made no sense to have two words mean the same thing. When corrected, I revised this belief. Inflammable meant much more flammable. Like, you could set it on fire just by looking at it cross-eyed. This made me very nervous on interstates. Also, imagine my confusion upon encountering the word cleave, and realizing that it could mean two completely contradictory things. English? Illogical.

4. That I could communicate with all animals, given enough time and patience. There may be some validity to this delusion, as I approached growling, slavering, strange hounds, picked up and fondled unknown varieties of triangle-headed snakes, caught bees by their wings when they fed on the flowers in our yard, poked grouchy skinks, carelessly thrust my bare hands in unknown dark bolt holes, and otherwise tempted death or injury on a regular basis and never even so much as got a scratch. This includes the time I went wading in a creek behind our house and was suddenly alarmed to realize I was surrounded by a squadron of cottonmouths / water moccasins. I pretended to be a branch, moved very slowly, and escaped being bitten. This also includes the many times I went blackberrying barefoot, temping fate not only to cause me to step on a briar-y, thorny vine, but also risking pissing off rattlesnakes. Oh, I also believed that rattlesnakes ate blackberries, when rattlesnakes actually eat the small animals who eat blackberries.

5. That food tastes crappier if mixed together. The procedure to avoid this horror is simple: eat each food item separately. Start with the good stuff, then chip away at the crap stuff until you can be excused from the dinner table. Realize that at least you’re not as much of an asshole about food as your brother, who has learned to yark on cue when fed string beans. As compensation for having to sit through dozens of vomit-enhanced dinnertime follies, no one’s behavior at the dinner table will ever be able to put you off your trough ever again. You will cheerfully eat rare steak while watching The X-Files or surgery shows or Forensic Files. You ordered Chinese? The resemblance between the fried rice you’re happily chomping on and the seething maggots on the dead body that the cops on the telly just found won’t bother you a bit. Gross your boyfriend out by offering him chunks of Chinese pork.

6. That if you stare at the back of someone’s neck long enough, not only will they sense it and turn around, but you can also Influence Them to do stuff. This…may be true. *stares at the back of your neck* See? You now feel…compelled…to leave a Comment.

7. That gold-colored Volkswagen Beetles had rare magical properties and could grant wishes. There was a whole system, if I remember right. You had to cross your fingers when you saw a gold Bug, and then wait until you saw a dog to make a wish. We expanded this to silver Bugs, and you had to loop all your fingers over the top of your hand (it is easier to show than to tell what I mean by this) and wait to see a cat. I don’t recall either method working worth a darn. Green-colored M&Ms had magical properties as well, but damned if I could figure out what they were, because the big kids weren’t telling.

8. That using pottery paint from the pottery craft kit you got at a yard sale to decorate your neighbor’s sidewalk with flowers and hearts will be interpreted as a gesture of friendship, affection, and general goodwill. Also, pottery paint will wash off easily with a garden hose. I was very wrong on both counts. What I am trying to say here is that pottery paint is permanent. Also, if you buy a used pottery craft kit at a yard sale, the clay will have hardened into the form of a pile of small rocks.

9. That all dogs are boys and all cats are girls. This belief persisted for a while, even after getting The Birds And The Bees Talk.

10. That mixing generous portions of Mom’s lotions, powders, shampoos and conditioners together in a cereal bowl will create a new and improved beauty product that will earn you a bajillion dollars and make you famous. What it does is get your butt beaten.

11. That aspirin and Coca-Cola mixed together do something very important, but, again, the big kids aren’t telling. It probably makes your stomach blow up. Not a good plan. But that Pop*Rocks and Coke rumor is definitely a big lie. You’d have to be a real idiot to believe that.

12. That even though your dad kills slugs by putting pie-pans full of beer under a thin layer of pine straw all over the backyard, the likelihood that you will step in one or more of them every single week while running like a crazy person through the camellia or azalea garden is nearly nil. This will in no way affect your enthusiasm for trying beer when you are older. Except, alas, it will, and the smell of beer will forever remind you of the nausea you felt while digging mashed, stinky, beery slug corpses out from between your bare toes.

13. That people could float or fly or turn invisible if only they knew the magic word. So if you read the dictionary from cover to cover, you’ll eventually find it. Also: the word “gullible” isn’t actually in the dictionary.

14. That the best way to play Circus and to have your Barbie tightrope artists walk across thread tightropes is to hang them by thread nooses around their necks from the curtain rods. This will not freak your mom out in the least, and you will not be dragged off to see a child psychologist, who will idly test you, determine that you are fairly normal (whatever that means) but also very, very smart and frequently very, very bored, and he will proceed to conspire with you to feed you forbidden sweets, ignore you so he can do crossword puzzles and nap, and then bill your hysterical, over-reacting mom for it.

15. That I could literally scratch myself to death if a tag was left on my collars or underwear. Clothing tags were my mortal enemy. If my parents failed in their duties and forgot to remove them, I’d rip them out with my teeth. In part this was due to “Princess And The Pea”-like skin sensitivities, but it was also due to me being weird. That labels also had washing instructions on them was emphatically not my problem.

16. That when I am trotted out to perform and look cute for a gaggle of adults, no one will think to look for me if I get overwhelmed and feel shy and then crawl under the table, and I will definitely be left alone. This will, of course, not embarrass my mother at all. And I will not be pinched black and blue for this transgression.

17. That baby dolls are evil and want to eat your brains in your sleep. Barbie dolls, on the other hand, are perfectly fine, and not the reason I tied the waistband of my hateful, giant-sized, poofy underwear into a knot to give my pudgy six-year-old self an hourglass figure. (It worked.)

18. That making thread loops and tying them around big round plastic bracelets and then putting the thread loops over the tops of your ears will fool everyone into thinking your ears are pierced.

19. That this daring fashion statement is best set off by a red, yellow, blue and green straw sombrero from Nassau.

20. That if I flush the hideous Buster Brown shoes that give me blisters down the toilet right before church, I will either not have to wear the hideous Buster Brown shoes that give me blisters or I will not have to go to church. Either way, win-win. In reality, I will have to go to church with one wet shoe, and one bare foot, and it will be Communion Sunday, and I will be marched up the aisle like Diddle Diddle Dumpling My Son John, and all the old ladies in the church will hiss and tch and tut and cluck at each other about what a neglectful slattern of a mother I have.

21. That the cat really enjoys being worn as a fur stole. Or a hat.

22. That I will be able to care for a baby mole I find in the gutter after a spring thunderstorm, and that “Holy Moley” is a fantastic name for him, too. His inevitable demise will naturally give me guilt spasms for years afterwards.

23. That since I swung on the power lines all the time when up in the magnolia trees, I must be impervious to death. This revelation, oddly, makes me feel even more depressed, since I was an unhappy kid and remembering that I was so unconcerned about whether I died or not is an unpleasant memory.

24. That candy tastes better if you separate it into same-coloured piles first. Additionally, odd numbers are superior to even numbers. (Instructions: Drive self crazy when the piles are not identical by trying to determine how to tackle this life-altering, very important decision process.)

25. That when I grow up, I will be a rich and famous artist and people will all like me. Also, the universe is inherently fair, and being a good person is sufficient to keep bad things from happening to you.

26. That God gives a crap about your maths test today.

27. That he who smelt it, dealt it. It is also always okay to blame flatulence on Daddy or the dog.

28. That my mom is the most beautiful lady in the entire universe, and should be a supermodel. The only reason she isn’t is because she clearly did not have any interest in it.

29. That it’s okay to swim in the neighborhood’s public baby pool. Decades later, you will put two and two together and realize you willingly marinated in diluted baby pee. Repeatedly.

30. That playing in sewers is fun. Well, actually, it is fun, but pretending it was a creek and not a tidal run-off and sewer overflow thing is, at best, delusional. But, yeah, big fun. With turtles and skinks and snakes and tadpoles all up in it.

31. That success selling greeting cards and Girl Scout cookies door-to-door as a child definitely indicates that I am destined to have success in business as an adult. That winning a statewide cake bake-off means that I will actually become a competent cook as an adult. Not so much. (I can bake, though!)

32. That Ice Cream Soup is a real recipe, and that it tastes better than unmolested ice cream.

33. That if I concentrate hard enough, my little brother can be returned to sender, just like the itchy grey sweater Crazy Aunt Judy gave me for Christmas. That because I do not want a pony, thus not putting undue pressure on Santa, then I will get the Barbie crap I asked for, and not the weird educational crap I did not want but which I ended up with instead, including The Visible Man kit, which traumatized me with all his little plastic innards and clear skin. My parents found out I had a high IQ, and that Christmas was pretty dire, since almost every single gift under the tree was designed to appeal to teen and adult hobbyists who could afford to buy the parts the kits did not come with, but they were definitely not designed with an 8-year-old in mind who really just wanted a fucking Barbie doll for fuck’s sake.

34. That puns are freaking HILARIOUS! No one should ever get tired of puns. Even the same one, told multiple times in a single hour. Funny, man. And have you heard the orange and banana knock-knock jokes? I know a million of ’em! Thank you! You’ve been a great audience! I’ll be here all week! Try the buffet!

35. That brown sugar + white sugar = cinnamon sugar. Not an expensive mess of wasted baking ingredients. That bologna + Velveeta + white bread + toaster = edible meal. Don’t worry about that red plastic strip around the bologna, you can just peel it off later if you forget to do it before putting it in the toaster. Just ignore the smoke and toxic fumes.

36. That the brown bottle with the pictures of fruit on it is a special and tasty fruit juice that the grown-ups have been hiding from you. It is not, conversely, a strong amaretto. Therefore, drinking the whole bottle should be okay. This will, in no way, ruin amaretto for you for the rest of your life.

37. That Kotex pads are the perfect Barbie doll mattresses. Also, cutting up the seed pearl necklace your grandmother gave you and giving it to your Barbie dolls to wear is the best way to show appreciation for such a generous gift. I still feel absolutely terrible about that one, but no one told me it was real.

38. That trichotillomania is fun, not a sign of depression or stress. It took twenty years for my widow’s peak to grow back in.

39. That if you swallow gum, it will take seven years to digest.

40. That I have super abilities that are not being properly appreciated by my peers or family. Like, obviously I rode my bike for, like, fifty miles today. A new world record!

41. That it’s okay to wander around your neighbor’s yards and to touch whatever you want to. Free flowers! Ooh, department store catalogues! It’s time to play “What’s In That Shed?” They won’t miss this garden gnome.

42. Hark, a noise…!  Can’t sleep, aliens will eat me.

43. That picking scabs is the best kind of entertainment a kid could ever imagine. Blood? Bonus!

44. That sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Yeah, right. One of the biggest lines of bullshit ever.

45. That the Ouija Board will give you a viral, severe, jumping Jehoshaphat case of angry ghosts and you will die of haunted-ness.

46. That Jesus loves me. In fact, he knows me by name and has a personal interest in my well-being and happiness. I kind of outgrew this one by the time I was in first grade.

47. That if you go swimming less than an hour after eating, even if it is just 59 minutes and 59 seconds, you will get a cramp and drown and die. When you do go into the water, Jaws will eat you. Perhaps beaches are death traps altogether, and are best avoided.

48. That toads give you warts. Whether or not warts are a desired outcome (kids are strange), you believe that it is possible to pick up a toad without it tinkling all over your hands. The fact that you have never accomplished this feat will in no way discourage you from catching toads as often as you can.

49. That pulling up all the loose wooden parquet floor tiles and using them as building blocks is a useful way to spend an afternoon. You were so close to inventing Jenga.

50. That, while riding a bicycle, it’s possible to take a sharp corner on sand-covered asphalt without losing control of said bike, falling down on to said asphalt, and gouging a huge bloody hole in your chin. This will be a blessing in disguise, as it will discourage you from taking any risks ever again, and you will reach adulthood without a single sprain, stitch, cavity, serious burn, or broken bone.

Cool Things I Learned, Including How To Literally Judge Books By Their Covers

Commonly misused words include:

  • ‘bemuse’ (confusion, not amusement);
  • ‘devolve’ (responsibility may devolve to or on you, but situations do not devolve, as it is not the opposite of evolve);
  • ‘disinterested’ (impartial, not uninterested),
  • ‘droll’ (whimsical / playful, not dry, humor);
  • ‘enormity’ refers to describe the extent to which something is evil or outrageous and does not refer to physical size (that’s ‘enormousness’);
  • ‘fortuitous’ merely means something happens by chance and doesn’t also imply that there was anything fortunate or desirable about it;
  • ‘Immaculate Conception’ does not refer to Mary being a virgin but to her lack of original sin when she herself was conceived;
  • ‘in lieu of’ means ‘instead of’ and not ‘in light of’;
  • ‘scan’ refers to scrutinizing and not skimming something;
  • ‘schizophrenia’ does not refer to multiple personality disorder (which has a new terminology as well that escapes me at the moment…disassociative identity disorder, maybe?) so using ‘schizophrenic’ when you mean that someone seems to be of two minds about an issue is incorrect; and
  • ‘willy-nilly’ comes from ‘will he or nil he’ and means ‘whether you want it nor not’ and not ‘in a confused state’.

Ah, the joys of language.

Other things I learned:

It’s okay to swim earlier than an hour after eating. No “death from stomach cramp” has ever been recorded.

Chocolate does not cause acne. Stress, clogged pores, not washing your pillowcases regularly, leaving makeup on your face, hormones and overindulgence in sugar are more likely culprits. Chocolate also isn’t as full of PEA (phenylethamine) as previously thought: it is a negligible amount. So if you eat chocolate when stressed, the caffeine and fat and sugar are making you feel better more than any amount of PEA.

People do not necessarily become more conservative as they become older. Basic ideological preferences, e.g. political party preferences, tend to remain stable across most of one’s life span, so it is more accurate to suggest that you start as you mean to go on.

Lemmings do not commit mass suicide.

Capital punishment is not a good way to keep the murder rate down. Most people do not kill in a premeditated fashion, for one, so will not be considering the death penalty as a deterrent while commiting murder. Two, studies show that after state executions, murder rates (briefly) increase, implying a link between perceived brutality from the state being reflected in the population as a whole. Old crime records from twelve countries who abolished the death penalty showed not only a marked decrease in homicide statistics, but also other crimes.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Apparently so. Though we can’t quantify precisely what makes someone beautiful, people tend to come to the same conclusions when rating images of strangers. More disturbing, they attribute more positive moral and intellectual qualities to more attractive people. This does not mean that they possess those qualities, but the assumption is apparently there and fairly universal when tested and studied. Prettier people do get perks, such as having greater persuasive powers (influence) and higher salaries (this also applies to taller men).

Few people are actually tone deaf. With training (focusing on learning the difference between pitch and volume, for instance), most people can learn to distinguish fifths, thirds, full-tones and half-tones and even sing reasonably well. In fact, it is possible to teach yourself to have perfect pitch.

Rewards do not actually motivate people. When offered a reward to achieve a certain goal, the reward became more important than the goal. Intrinsic motivation (enjoying what you do) is better. Rewards reduce creativity. Rewards imply that the goals or objectives require a bribe because they can’t be enjoyed for their own sake. Rewards also lead to entitled behavior, wherein you lose the motivation to succeed for its own sake and insist that anything worth doing must include a bribe.

Spicy food does not cause bad dreams, and is, surprisingly, often less harmful than the usual remedy for stomach distress: a glass of milk.

There is no “Seven Year Itch.” 2% of couples split within the first year, 4% split during the next, and 5% end in each of the next three years. Couples who make it past the fifth year have a good chance of staying together into old age. There is no “sudden rash of itching” in the seventh year.

The rich do get richer and the poor do get poorer. U.S. policy-makers seem to believe that the promise of financial reward will make rich people work harder and invest more whereas it makes poor people lazy and under-motivated. So the rich get tax breaks and the poor get their food stamp programs cut.

Familiarity does not breed contempt. If you have no aversion to begin with, we like things more as we get used to them.

Women’s moods do not change during “that time of the month”. Part of this is fulfilling expectations; we expect to be moody, then we are. This seems counter-intuitive, but studies show that when women are asked to rate their moods (without knowing what the study is measuring), their moods do not significantly alter from the norm during their periods. Conversely, when they are asked to chart menstrual moods, the expected result is shown.

Whether absence makes your heart grow fonder or whether being out of sight and out of mind ring more true for you depend on whether or not a particular person is a primary attachment figure or not. Absence tends to exaggerate your feelings, whether positive, neutral or negative. Relationships with family members (that were positive to begin with) improved with distance, but high-school romances (in particular) of short duration tend to fade.

The full moon has no effect on behaviors, moods or crime statistics. This has been so thoroughly debunked by law enforcement, hospitals, mental hospitals, and so on, that it depresses me a bit. I kind of liked the romantic notion that the moon made a difference of some sort, even when I never intellectually bought into the idea.

The squeaky wheel does get the grease. Bargainers attain higher and more satisfactory outcomes when they begin their negotiations with extreme rather than more moderate demands. The glitch here is that this can backfire. View negotiations as mutual problem-solving rather than adversarial combat to get best results. The lesson here is not to be modest and undersell yourself when applying for a salaried position.

Are victims of child abuse more likely to turn into abusive parents? Yes. Will all of these victims, or even a good number of them, wind up abusing their children? No. A variety of factors play a part: how severe the abuse was, how early it occurred, how smart the child was, and how s/he perceived the episode. When they are adults, how much social support they receive, how they feel about having children, how openly they have confronted their abuse all have relevance to the likelihood of whether or not they break or continue the cycle. In this case, nature can outweigh nurture.

Time (perception) really does fly when you’re having fun. Time estimates are a lot less reliable before you’re 8 years old, if asked several times to estimate a given time interval, guesses tend to be too long the first few times to attempt it, you’re likely to overestimate a short time and underestimate a long time, your body temperature affects your ability to estimate time, caffeine or a fast-ticking metronome make time “feel” faster (and, oddly, that tasks performed this way are more pleasant), and anticipation of an event tends to make time feel slower (e.g., kids and Christmas, or watching a pot boil).

Dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) did not shorten the length of the war or save more lives. It was done primarily as an experiment; the Japanese were prepared to surrender and asked only that they be allowed to let their emperor maintain his title. The Strategic Bombing Survey in 1946 determined that “certainly prior to 31 December 1945 and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945 that Japan would have surrendered even if atomic bombs were not dropped, if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion was planned or completed.” Japan was (according to Churchill, Eisenhower, and others) thoroughly “beaten” by late July. US policymakers also knew beforehand that Japan was ready to surrender. So, why? We had spent so much money and time developing the bomb that we were determined to try it out. Note also that one bomb was plutonium and one uranium, which lends credence to the “scientific experiment gone mad” theory. The intended audience may have been the Soviets, not the Japanese: the US was gearing up to take political and economic control of as much of the postwar world as feasible. The bomb allowed the US to breach specific understandings Roosevelt had reached with the Soviets with respect to the future of Europe. In sum, using the bomb was one of the most horrific crimes in human history.

Laughter is not the best medicine. Its affects on mood and positive attitude help, but most efects are temporary. A good joke won’t help the underlying issues.

Reading in the dark won’t ruin your eyes. Glasses that are too strong don’t make you nearsighted (but may give you a headache). However, training your eye to do more close focusing (reading) than distance focusing (getting outside and viewing things at a distance) may indeed exacerbate nearsightedness. There’s some truth to glasses indicating intelligence if reading books voraciously has any relevance to I.Q.

Subliminal advertising and backwards masking have no effect.

Breakfast isn’t the most important meal of the day unless it is your ONLY meal of the day. A balanced diet, no matter when it is consumed, is more important than making a point of eating early in the day.

Competition does not build character, it produces people who are less sensitive and trusting to the needs of others, less generous and empathetic, less likely to see other people’s points of view, and less likely to use higher level moral reasoning than those who are not competing or personally competitive. competition also does not build self-esteem or faith in oneself. Instead, losing feels terrible and, like building tolerance to a drug, more and more victories and wins are required to provide a lasting sense of security. Reducing situations to “winners v. losers” instead of focusing on cooperative behavior is the primary result of competitive behavior. You can build tenacity and discipline without doing so at the expense of others. Competitiveness also increases anxiety and the feeling that you lack control over your environment and situations.

Great minds think alike…sort of. Many great thinkers can make unpredictable, even bizarre, connections between ideas and this remote association between various ideas is fairly common among geniuses. On the other hand, the unpredictability of this associative behavior, and the fact that it, by definition, runs counter to any expected trend or pattern, underscores the dissimilarity of the thinking processes of geniuses.

There are no vision-related benefits to eating carrots. In the developed world, it is rare to have a deficiency of vitamin A (beta-carotine), and eating it in excess has no benefits.

Playing hard to get is more likely to backfire than succeed.

Cold weather and chicken soup have no effects on a cold.

Picking up babies whenever they cry doesn’t spoil them–on the contrary, infants that are reassured by their parents in early life have their emotional needs fulfilled and can become more independent as a result. Deprived infants who learn that the can’t count on a loving adult to soothe them when they need it internalize the feeling of abandonment and helplessness and may grow up to spend their lives searching for the love, affection and physical contact denied to them in infancy. Note that responding to a child’s needs is not the same of being afraid to say no when appropriate.

Power does corrupt.

Expressing hostility does not get it out of your system; it sets a precedent for angry behavior. Catharsis, or not bottling up emotions, is healthy. Encouraging expressions of anger or aggression when venting, however, is not. It tends to lower your inhibitions against violence and make it more likely that you’ll behave the same way in the future and it raises the bar, so that more frequent and more explosive expressions of rage are required for the temporary relief they bring.

He who lives by the sword does die by the sword. In Seattle, the majority of gunshot deaths occurred in homes where the gun was kept, the guns are more likely to kill a resident than an intruder, and, in Detroit, more people died from handgun accidents in one year than were killed in home-invasion-style robberies over the previosu five years.

No pain, no gain? Wrong. Coaches and athletes feel that the person who trains the hardest and most often is the most fit, but you can beat yourself to a frazzle to the point where you get worse and not better. Training with pain is generally counterproductive and demotivating. You do have to stress yourself for the body to grow stronger, but setting a reasonable schedule and backing away from “more is best” will give better results.

Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone? True. Unhappy people tend to drive away those people whose support and acceptance they need, thereby worsening their need for that support and understanding.

Religious people are not necessarily more altruistic. A study of Episcopalians in the 1950s turned up no discernable relationship between involvement in the church and charitable acts. Another study in the 60s revealed only a slight correlation between altruism and a belief in God and none at all between altruism and attendance of religious services. In the 70s, born-again Christians, conventionally religious people, non-religious and atheists were studied. None were more or less likely to volunteer their time to the community or to resist temptation to cheat on a test. (Except for one group: atheists were the least likely to cheat, and the only group where a majority of group members did not cheat.) In the 80s, religious involvement could not be tied to sociability, helpfulness directed towards neighbors, or participation in neighborhood organizations. Most recently, a study of people who helped rescue Jews from the Nazis showed that rescuers and bystanders did not differ much from non-rescuers with respect to their religious beliefs and practices. In sum, simply being religious does not make you a more moral, kind or helpful person.

Spare the rod and spoil the child? False. Corporal punishment for offenses merely teaches children that beating up on others is a viable solution to problems.

There is no correlation between suicide rates and the holidays. The myth is that suicides go up during the holiday season. April, not Decfember, is the cruelest month. (Beware the Ides of April and taxes!) Suicides peak in the springtime. Americans and Canadians are LEAST likely to top themselves in December or January.

Marijuana is not a “gateway drug”. If you want to predict who might be likely to try and abuse ‘hard drugs (e.g., heroin),’ a criminal record is a far better indicator and predictor of serious drug use and related offences than is smoking marijuana. The other primary factor is availability of the hard drugs, not use of marijuana. Caveat: the link between marijuana use and smoking crack has not yet been definitively explored.

The Guide To Buying Books (according to Paul Collins, author of Sixpence House):

If a book cover has raised, metallic, (or both) lettering, it is likely to be an easy-to-read book about espionage, romance, murder or a celebrity (or a combination of the above). To readers who care about such things, this lettering tells them Hello, I am crap. Crap books can only use glossy paper. Serious books can use glossy paper, but ONLY serious books use matte finish. Tiny paperbacks are aimed at the uneducated. Small hardcovers are aimed at the educated, except for the very small hardbacks that are religious books aimed at the uneducated. Highly rectangular format hardcover books are aimed at the somewhat-but-not-entirely-educated. Paperbacks with a rectangular vertical format tend to be pocket travel guides (educated); a rectangular horizontal format (e.g. Garfield Eats Lasagna Again) are aimed at the uneducated.

Bright colours and shiny colours are for the Hello I am crap market, and black will work too, but only to set off the bright and shiny colours. A work of serious literature will probably be presented with muted, tea-stained colours. Black is okay, but only to accentuate cool greens, blues and greys.

On both Crap Books and Serious Books, you will find the author headshot. The author will be posed unnaturally looking pensive or staring into the middle distance. The size of this photo is in inverse proportion to the quality of the book. If the author photo is in colour, it is not a serious book. If there is no author photo at all, it is a serious book indeed–maybe even a textbook. If a full colour author photo occupies the entire front cover, the book is unequivocal crap.

He also points out what happens when books break the rules. Reviewers railed against The Bridges of Madison County because the diminutive hardcover and muted colors tricked readers of Serious Tomes into buying Crap. Conversely, when the Harvard University Press released Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project with gigantic raised metallic lettering, it’s not unlikely that disgruntled Tom Clancy fans were annoyed or bemused to discover that the topic was not war or espionage or murder but a thoughtful cultural analysis of 19th century Parisian bourgeoisie.

I, personally, own my fair share of Crap. I know it is Crap. Crap is for reading in the bathtub or on an airplane. Crap is cheap and disposable and won’t keep me up at night pondering the Meaning of Life or who created God or if there is, indeed, anything as lovely as a tree and, if so, have I ever seen it? Crap is light on Deep Thoughts and heavy on Tom Swifty-type speech verbs and loving descriptions of the main character’s new shoes or daily routine or whatever. I mean, hey, it’s Crap. Most of it was bought for 25 cents per book at thrift stores. It’s bubblegum for the brain.

I also, however, own a LOT of non-Crap. These are the books that stay with me even as I go through periodic Crap Purges. I have to admit, Paul Collins is right. None of my favorite books have raised, metallic lettering (or die-cut covers, or full-color author photos). The again, I’ve been known to read textbooks and encyclopedias for funsies, so perhaps I am more susceptible to the Serious Book Bug than some.

When I go to the library, I tend to get a fairly equal mix of Crap and Non-Crap. Sometimes I think I’m getting Non-Crap and am disappointed; Crap is sneakier about disguising itself. It’s more likely that Crap will break all the How To Sell Crap Rules than it is for serious books to break them. Damn you, Crap! Anyway, I see it as cleansing the palate for deeper and better things. Two books to grow and think on, and one to give my voracious reader brain a little candy. I’m happiest when my Crap Ratio is under 40%.

Attack Of The Glurgemonster

Everyone has received some weird e-mail spam at least once. The worst of the lot are so-called “inspirational” or “heart-warming” tales. If I want inspirational, I’ll read a biography about Gandhi or Helen Keller. If I want heart-warming, I’ll get take-out from Taco Bell and add lots of hot sauce.

My cousin S. is one of the worst offenders, frequently sending me Jesus-related spam. Jesus apparently doesn’t mind being misquoted and used to back the Conservative Christian political agenda. Who knew? I thought he was a long-haired, bearded Jewish hippie carpenter who liked feeding people, supporting being kind to your neighbors and offering free healthcare, and who wasn’t keen on money-changers, the rich, or government.

A cute little rant called “If I Were The Devil” (often falsely attributed to Paul Harvey) started circulating the Internet in 1999. Eventually a new rant from an opposing viewpoint was penned and circulated in response. So what would happen if we put both rants side by side, line by line? We’d have a SPAM FIGHT!

And it begins….now. (Remember, each point of view is saying what he or she would do IF The Devil actually existed, and IF s/he was The Devil. If you forget that part, the following makes little sense.)

CONSERVATIVE and LIBERAL, in unison: If I were the devil, I would gain control of the most powerful nation in the world;

CONSERVATIVE: …I would delude their minds into thinking that they had come from man’s effort, instead of God’s blessings;
LIBERAL: …I would delude their minds into thinking that a 3000-year-old collection of superstition and mythology called the ‘Bible’ was a more valid guide to the modern world than reason and science;

CONSERVATIVE: …I would promote an attitude of loving things and using people, instead of the other way around;
LIBERAL: …I would promote an attitude of valuing economic expansion and personal wealth over people and the environment, instead of the other way around;

CONSERVATIVE: …I would dupe entire states into relying on gambling for their state revenue;
LIBERAL: …I would dupe an entire population into placing the greatest tax burden on their poorest citizens;

CONSERVATIVE: …I would convince people that character is not an issue when it comes to leadership;
LIBERAL: …I would convince people that image rather than achievement was the most important issue when it comes to leadership;

CONSERVATIVE: …I would make it legal to take the life of unborn babies;
LIBERAL: …I would ensure that men maintained control over women’s bodies and sexuality;

CONSERVATIVE: …I would make it socially acceptable to take one’s own life, and invent machines to make it convenient;
LIBERAL: …I would make it socially acceptable to deny terminally ill patients the right to end their own lives with dignity, and instead force them to spend their final days in continual pain and suffering;

CONSERVATIVE: …I would cheapen human life as much as possible so that the life of animals are valued more than human beings;
LIBERAL: …I would promote the exploitation and suffering of animals as much as possible, so that business profits would be valued more than treating living things humanely;

CONSERVATIVE: …I would take God out of the schools, where even the mention of His name was grounds for a lawsuit;
LIBERAL: …I would coerce schoolchildren into worshiping my god and call it “freedom of religion”;

CONSERVATIVE: …I would come up with drugs that sedate the mind and target the young, and I would get sports heroes to advertise them;
LIBERAL: …I would come up with drugs that sedate the mind and target the old, and I would get B-list celebrities to advertise them and I would criminalize marijuana;

CONSERVATIVE: …I would get control of the media, so that every night I could pollute the mind of every family member for my agenda;
LIBERAL: …I would get control of the government by stealing elections and leading the country into unnecessary wars, so that I could twist the laws of the nation to suit my agenda;

CONSERVATIVE: …I would attack the family, the backbone of any nation.
LIBERAL: …I would attack minorities, foreigners, women, homosexuals, and every other powerless group, the backbone of any nation;

CONSERVATIVE: …I would make divorce acceptable and easy, even fashionable. If the family crumbles, so does the nation;
LIBERAL: …I would force couples to remain in unworkable marriages. Unhappy people are easier to control;

CONSERVATIVE: …I would compel people to express their most depraved fantasies on canvas and movie screens, and I would call it art;
LIBERAL: …I would suppress freedom of speech and expression, and I would call it protecting society;

CONSERVATIVE: …I would convince the world that people are born homosexuals, and that their lifestyles should be accepted and marveled;
LIBERAL: …I would convince the world that people choose to be homosexuals, and that their lifestyles should be reviled and demonized;

CONSERVATIVE: …I would convince the people that right and wrong are determined by a few who call themselves authorities and refer to their agenda as politically correct;
LIBERAL: …I would convince the people that right and wrong are determined by a few bigoted religious zealots who refer to their agenda as Christian;

CONSERVATIVE: …I would persuade people that the church is irrelevant and out of date, and the Bible is for the naive and I would dull the minds of Christians, and make them believe that prayer is not important, and that faithfulness and obedience are optional;
LIBERAL: …I would persuade people that the Bible, a book that condones xenophobia, slavery, subordination of women, and stoning people to death, is a relevant guide to modern life;

CONSERVATIVE and LIBERAL, in unison: I guess I would leave things pretty much the way they are.

Some Urban Legends Refuse To Die

Urban legends (modern folklore*) are wildly improbable stories that travel at the speed of light, precisely because the people who tell them are so utterly convinced they’re gospel. Most often, the teller insists that the event happened to their cousin’s boyfriend or an uncle’s ex-wife or to ‘a friend of a friend’. (That’s why a lot of Urban Legend collectors refer to these tales as FOAF’s–Friend-Of-A-Friend stories.)

You know the ones I mean: stories about a woman bitten by venomous spiders nesting in her beehive hairdo; stories about angry ex-spouses and cement-filled Cadillac convertibles, microwaved Chihuahuas and kids decapitated by a ceiling fan while jumping on a hotel bed. Never happened, any one of them. Simple common sense would tell you that. But urban legends still crop up regularly. Most surprisingly, sometimes they are even true. Usually, however, they aren’t.

Some especially persistent (or amusing) Urban Legends:

We only use 10% of our brains–FALSE

“Eureka” on the Sci Fi Channel and “The 4400” on USA Network both cite the “we only use 10 percent of our brains” non-fact. The legend is repeated on Eureka by a genius / mechanic who should know better. On the 4400, a very smart computer technology guru repeats the legend to explain how the 4400 gained supernormal abilities…apparently, even 50+ years in the future, the legend lives on. The legend is particularly beloved by psychics and mystics who assert that their paranormal abilities and powers stem from their ability to use “more than ten percent” of their brains. They may genuinely be gifted, but this is not the reason.

Drugged travelers awaken in ice-filled bathtubs only to discover one of their kidneys has been harvested by organ thieves. –FALSE

The plot of the 2 April 1991 episode of the TV show Law and Order (titled “Sonata for Solo Organ”) featured the theft of a kidney. Law and Order is a story-driven hour-long drama that prides itself in taking its script ideas from real-life contemporary news. In this case, the writer said he’d heard this tale from a friend, and the friend had assured him it came from the pages of a newspaper. Yet no one could find that article.

The 6 February 2006 episode of the TV series Las Vegas (titled “Urban Legends”) references this legend when Danny and Mike enter one of the Montecito’s hotel rooms to discover a man missing a kidney lying in a bathtub full of ice.

This legend also shows up as the plot of the 1993 movie The Harvest. You’ll also find it in the 1998 Will Christopher Baer novel Kiss Me, Judas, and it makes a gruesome appearance in the 1998 slasher classic Urban Legend. The 2001 film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back includes a sequence during which one of the lead characters dreams he wakes up in a tub of ice after selling one of his kidneys.

Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand mentions in The Baby Train that he first heard this horrific story in early 1991. Very shortly thereafter he was swamped by it coming in from every direction, told as happening in various large cities. In this earlier incarnation, friends discover the victim either in his blood-soaked hotel bed, on the floor, or propped up against the side of a building. It’s only at the hospital that the grim “truth” of the missing organ becomes known.

By 1995-96 a couple of interesting little twists were added to the basic story — the victim was now being left in a bathtub full of ice, the “friends” seemingly disappeared, and the “If you want to live, call 911” message became firmly woven into the fabric of this tale. The traveler was now clearly on his own, his fate solely in his own hands. (A much scarier story that way, don’t you think?)

Yet another noteworthy change saw the businessman version of the legend seemingly localize to Las Vegas. No longer told as happening in Your Town, USA, this flavor of the myth appeared to have taken up permanent residence in Sin City, the place where Bad Things Happen To The Unwary (especially “the unwary” who were seen as having deservedly brought it upon themselves, married men intent upon getting up to some play-for-pay hanky-panky). In this “Las Vegas” version, the man was drugged in his hotel room by the very woman he’d brought up there with him, the ubiquitous Vegas hooker.

The kidnapping, string of murders, and wood chipper incident portrayed in the film Fargo actually took place in Minnesota in 1987. –FALSE

Fargo opens with: “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

Great opening. And not a word of truth to it.

Fargo’s Fargo creators, the Coen brothers, are known for their playfulness, the inclusion of “little touches” that add to a film. Given the Coens’ reputation for this, you’d think any responsible film reviewer would have made at least a stab at confirming this bold claim before blithely passing it along as fact. (Had they done any checking, they would have quickly discovered that nothing so much as vaguely resembling that level of carnage had occurred in Minnesota. Not in 1987. Not ever.) As a result of those reviews, an even greater number ended up believing what the Coen brothers had to have thought no one but the incredibly gullible would fall for. Their little leg-pull went over big time.

The Coen brothers like a good in-joke as much as anybody. Next time you view Fargo, look for the name of the actor who played “the man in the field.” You’ll discover the entry listed as an odd squiggle that looks very much like Prince’s signature. (I’m told the fellow who actually filled that role was J. Todd Anderson, one of the Coen’s storyboard artists. The squiggle is Prince’s signature laid on its side with a smiley face added. Wonderful joke, that. Laid on its side because the character is lying dead in a field.)

If there’s still any doubt, follow the credits through to the very end. You’ll find the standard tiny-print disclaimer about “no resemblance to any persons living or dead . . .”

The film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was based on a true story.–PARTIALLY TRUE

When The Texas Chain Saw Massacre hit movie theaters in 1974, it quickly supplanted the previous year’s top horror flick, The Exorcist, as “the most terrifying movie ever made.” Unlike The Exorcist, however, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre eschewed standard production values and modern special effects in Leatherface favor of a grainy documentary-like approach with decidedly low-tech visual effects. The tale of five young students who unwittingly meet up with a sinister hitchhiker, the mask-wearing maniac Leatherface (whose mask is actually made from dried human skin, not leather), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre turned “a lumberjack’s tool into the stuff of nightmares and the blood-curdling scream into an art form,” in the words of Toronto Star writer Melissa Aronzyk.

The 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has been touted with the tagline “Inspired by a true story,” leading many horror fans to wonder whether the grisly film was actually based on real events, or whether the claim is simply another bit of Hollywood promotion intended to attract filmgoers via the extra-chilling lure of a macabre tale not entirely the product of a screenwriter’s imagination.

So, true story or not? Certainly there was no real family of cannibalistic chainsaw murderers slaughtering people in Texas, nor any actual series of chainsaw-related killings. Writer/director Tobe Hooper said the inspiration for the film came from his spotting a display of chainsaws while standing in the hardware section of a crowded store.

Hooper has also said that he based the character of Leatherface on Ed Gein, a Wisconsin farmer who robbed graves (his own mother’s supposedly among them), allegedly engaged in necrophilia and cannibalism, and murdered at least two women in the 1950s (one of whose corpses was found hanging naked — decapitated and disembowelled — in Gein’s residence).

Police eventually discovered the remains of 15 different mutilated female bodies in Gein’s filthy farmhouse, parts of which (mostly skin and bones) had been fashioned into a variety of bizarre objects (including drums, bowls, masks, bracelets, purses, knife sheaths, leggings, chairs, lampshades, and shirts), as well as a refrigerator full of human organs.

Gein later admitted to killing two women, one in 1954 and one in 1957. He was suspected of involvement in the disappearance of four other people in central Wisconsin (two men and two young girls) between 1947 and 1952, but the remains found in his farmhouse all came from adult females, and none of them matched up with any of the four missing persons. (Gein maintained that with the exception of the two women he had admitted killing, all of the body parts in his farmhouse had been taken from corpses he dug up in the local cemetery.)

Gein’s story inspired (at least in part) the Norman Bates character — a young man who murders women out of a twisted sense of loyalty to his dead mother — in the classic thriller Psycho, and the Buffalo Bill character–a transvestite serial killer who murders women to make use of their skin–in the horror novel Silence of the Lambs.

Although the the Leatherface character and the events depicted in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre differ in many substantial ways from what is known about the life and activities of Ed Gein (most notably in that Gein was apparently far more a grave robber than a murderer, and he didn’t go around slicing up live victims with a chainsaw), there are definite similarities between the film and the Ed Gein story as well (e.g., hanging a murder victim’s corpse in the house, making functional use of the skin from dead bodies, elements of cannibalism). Whether these similiarities are sufficiently close to justify the statement that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was “based on a true story” is up to filmgoers to decide for themselves.

See Stephen King’s book “Gerald’s Game” for a twist on this story.

Marilyn Monroe wore a size 16 dress.–PARTIALLY FALSE

Actress/Estee Lauder spokesmodel Elizabeth Hurley was recently named “Babe of the Century” in some poll. This apparently caused her to lose her senses, because she went on to gratuitously dump on Marilyn Monroe — who’s hardly in a position to defend herself. Hurley says that the screen legend was overweight, peaking at a dress size of 16. “I’ve always thought Marilyn Monroe looked fabulous, but I’d kill myself if I was that fat,” Hurley told Allure magazine in an amazingly tactless moment . . . “I went to see her clothes in the exhibition, and I wanted to take a tape measure and measure what her hips were. (laughter) She was very big.” [Columbus Dispatch, 2000]

The fascination with this “fact” about Marilyn Monroe’s dress size is not its literal truthfulness per se, but the implication it carries: that our standards of feminine pulchritude have become so extreme that the woman who has been idolized as the world’s premier sex symbol for half a century would be considered “chunky” or even “fat” by modern standards. (Conversely, some of today’s celebrities seem to be fond of invoking the “fact” that Marilyn wore a size 16 dress as a means of asserting that they themselves are, if not thin, in better shape than the renowned Marilyn Monroe was.) Marilyn may (at times) have been a little heavier than today’s ultra-svelte models, but the notion that she was “fat” (even by today’s standards) is based on misinformation or misunderstanding.

A woman of Marilyn’s height, at the extreme of Marilyn’s weight range (140 lbs), would probably wear a size 12 dress today (which is the same dress size listed for Marilyn in the book The Unabridged Marilyn). Perhaps at one time she did wear dresses that might have been considered size 16 (or even 18) back in the 1950s, but she almost certainly did not wear dresses equivalent to today’s size 16.

Perhaps we should end by pointing out that although Elizabeth Hurley is a bit taller (about 3 and a half inches) than Marilyn Monroe, her measurements and weight are similar to the figures reported for Ms. Monroe.

One of the women in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only used to be a guy.–TRUE

The 1981 film For Your Eyes Only was the twelfth in the James Bond series and marked the fifth appearance of Roger Moore as secret agent 007. Like all Bond offerings, the non-stop action was sprinkled with bodacious babes, about one of whom questions subsequently surfaced. But Caroline Cossey was a ‘Bond girl’ in only the most fleeting of ways: She appeared but briefly on screen in For Your Eyes Only, and film credits describe her as “girl at pool,” a designation she shared with ten other actresses.

Tula (Caroline Cossey), one of the “Bond girls” appearing in that film was a transexual, a man who had undergone a sex change. Ms. Cossey began life in 1954 as Barry Cossey but later decided to live as a woman. She changed her name to Caroline in 1972, began taking hormone tablets, had breast augmentation surgery, and in 1974 underwent the final sex reassignment surgery (SRS) to transform her into a woman. From about 1979 to 1986 Caroline worked as a fashion model and actress under the name Tula, and she caught a break in 1980 when she was cast in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only. Shortly after the film’s release in 1981, however, the UK tabloid News of the World “outed” her as a transsexual and disrupted her modeling and acting career.

The babe in Power Station’s video for “Some Like It Hot” is Tula (she’s also the inspiration for the Montzo Algora-esque cover art). It’s rumoured that bassist John Taylor (also known for his work with Duran Duran) dated her–he had a well-known fixation with James Bond and Bond Girls and did date other Bond Girls (notably Janine Andrews). Only Taylor knows for sure how far his rumored ‘date’ with Tula went, but he never seemed too bothered by the fact that people discussed it.</i>

The Amityville Horror is based on a true story.–COMPLETELY, UTTERLY, DEMONSTRABLY FALSE

This urban legend annoys me to no end. The book it is based on is full of inconsistencies. The whole thing has been proven to be fake over and over again (the only people who seem to insist on perpetuating the untruth are the famous paranormal investigators who became involved with the Amityville hoax, Ed and Lorraine Warren).

I shouted at the television set more than once when advertisements for the 2005 remake were aired. Stupidity! Lack of research! Argh! Plotz!!

Some horrors just won’t die, and The Amityville Horror is a case in point. The tale of a reportedly demon-infested house in Amityville, New York, became a best-selling novel in 1977 and a hit horror film starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder in 1979. Several inferior movie sequels followed in its wake (including a 3-D version), and 15 April 2005 saw the debut of a remake, this one starring Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George.

Scary films are a dime a dozen, but what initially drew the public’s interest to the original version of The Amityville Horror was the claim Get out! that it was based on real events. The producers of the 2005 remake were also intrigued by the Amityville case not so much due to the horror film’s scary details, but because the tale was allegedly true. (Several DOZEN websites would have set them straight: do a Google search for “Amityville Horror and hoax” and see what I mean.)

Co-star Melissa George was attracted to the role because, she said, “If you’re going to do a scary movie, you might as well do The Amityville Horror, a true story, a famous book, a well-known moment in American history.” A famous book, yes. A moment in American history, perhaps. But a true story? Not.

The story behind the story began on 13 November 1974, when six members of an Amityville, New York, family were killed. The parents, Ronald and Louise DeFeo, were shot in bed while they slept, along with their two sons and two daughters. The sole remaining family member, Ronald Jr. (“Butch”), was arrested for the crime, convicted, and sentenced to prison. With the family dead (and Butch in no position to inherit the place), the house went up for sale. The horrific nature of the massacre unnerved the otherwise quiet Long Island neighborhood, though no supernatural activity was associated with the house at 112 Ocean Avenue.

The following year, a new family, the Lutzes, moved into the house. George and Kathy Lutz, along with their three children, said that shortly after they moved in, their six-bedroom abode became a Hell house. It seemed that perhaps the demons that drove Butch to slaughter his family were not in his head but in the house. An unseen force ripped doors from hinges and slammed cabinets closed, noxious green slime oozed from the ceilings, a biblical-scale swarm of insects attacked the family, and a demonic face with glowing red eyes peered into their house at night, leaving cloven-hoofed footprints in the morning snow. A priest called upon to bless the house was driven back with painful blisters on his hands, famously told by a demonic voice to “Get out!” And so on.

Joe Nickell, author of Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings (and who personally visited Amityville and interviewed later owners of the notorious house), also found numerous holes in the Amityville story. A few examples of these discrepancies:

* The Lutzes could not have found the demonic hoofprint in the snow when they said they did, because weather records showed there had been no snowfall to leave prints in.

* Though the book details extensive damage to the home’s doors and hardware, the original locks, doorknobs, and hinges were actually untouched.

* The book and film show police being called to the house, but, Nickell writes, “During the 28-day ‘siege’ that drove [the Lutz family] from the house, they never once called the police.”

Over and over, both big claims and small details were refuted by eyewitnesses, investigations, and forensic evidence. Still, the Lutzes stuck to their story, reaping tens of thousands of dollars from the book and film rights.

The truth behind The Amityville Horror was finally revealed when Butch DeFeo’s lawyer, William Weber, admitted that he, along with the Lutzes, “created this horror story over many bottles of wine.” The house was never really haunted; the horrific experiences they had claimed were simply made up. Jay Anson further embellished the tale for his book, and by the time the film’s screenwriters had adapted it, any grains of truth that might have been there were long gone. While the Lutzes profited handsomely from their story, Weber had planned to use the haunting to gain a new trial for his client. George Lutz reportedly still claims that the events are mostly true, but has offered no evidence to back up his claim.

Liar, liar, pants on fire. Your nose is as long as a telephone wire.

Student mistakes examples of “unsolvable math problems” for homework assignment and solves them.–TRUE

This legend is used as the setup of the plot in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting. As well, one of the early scenes in the 1999 film Rushmore shows the main character daydreaming about solving the impossible question and winning approbation from all.

This legend combines one of the ultimate academic wish-fulfillment fantasies — a student not only proves himself the smartest one in his class, but also bests his professor and every other scholar in his field of study — with a “positive thinking” motif which turns up in other urban legends: when people are free to pursue goals unfettered by presumed limitations on what they can accomplish, they just may manage some extraordinary feats through the combined application of native talent and hard work. And this particular version is all the more interesting for being completely true!

One “Solve Me!” Day in 1939, George Bernard Dantzig, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, arrived late for a graduate-level statistics class and found two problems written on the board. Not knowing they were examples of “unsolvable” statistics problems, he mistook them for part of a homework assignment, jotted them down, and solved them. (The equations Dantzig tackled are perhaps more accurately described not as unsolvable problems, but as unproved statistical theorems for which he worked out proofs.) Six weeks later, Dantzig’s statistic professor notified him that he had prepared one of his two “homework” proofs for publication, and Dantzig was given co-author credit on another paper several years later when another mathematician independently worked out the same solution to the second problem.

George Dantzig (himself the son of a mathematician) received a Bachelor’s degree from University of Maryland in 1936 and a Master’s from the University of Michigan in 1937 before completing his Doctorate (interrupted by World War II) at UC Berkeley in 1946. He later worked for the Air Force, took a position with the RAND Corporation as a research mathematician in 1952, became professor of operations research at Berkeley in 1960, and joined the faculty of Stanford University in 1966, where he taught and published as a professor of operations research until the 1990s. In 1975, Dr. Dantzig was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Gerald Ford. George Dantzig passed away at his Stanford home at age 90 on 13 May 2005.

The clanging of rock on metal leads a work crew to discover a decades-old wrecked car — with four skeletons inside — a few hundred feet off the road.–TRUE

An episode of TV’s Law and Order (“Ramparts,” original air date 13 January 1999) opens with a van containing the skeleton of a decades-old murder victim being dredged from the Hudson River. Could this be based on a true story? Yes.

Many true instances of long-dead bodies discovered in wrecked automobiles have been reported over the years, the most notable being the case of Susie Roberts from Gainesville, Georgia. Roberts and a friend disappeared on their way home from a dance in the nearby town of Dawsonvile one day in 1958. Although the friend’s body turned up a year later, Roberts’ body remained undiscovered until workers building a bridge found and pulled the car containing her remains from the bottom of Lake Lanier thirty-two years later.

The most similar real-life version of “car filled with skeletons discovered by happenstance” would probably be the case of Kimberly Marie Barnes and her four friends, who disappeared from Palm Beach in a van one summer evening in 1979. Their fate remained unknown until a mud-filled van was spotted in Palm Beach County canal by a fisherman eighteen years later; the automobile was dragged out and came within seconds of being shredded for scrap when a Miami salvage yard manager noticed a shin bone fall from the van. Investigators later found a total of five skulls inside.

John Wayne died with 40 pounds of impacted fecal matter in his colon–FALSE

Recent informercial for The Seven Day Miracle Cleanse repeats the legend that John Wayne died with “a colon weighing 40 pounds” and that Elvis Presley also had a colon weighing 45 pounds. The also claim that about a dozen celebrities use their system (or one like it) “to lose weight”. This is not true. (A particularly severe case of fecal impaction cited involved a mere half pound of blocked-up poo. The company speading this rumor has a web address:

Everyone on the planet is separated by six degrees from everyone else.–FALSE

One of the most famous claims is that anyone can reach anyone else through a chain of acquaintances no more than six people long. This idea, known as “six degrees of separation”, is a measure of our social networks.

The phrase was coined by an American academic, Stanley Milgram, after experiments in which he asked people to pass a letter only to others they knew by name. The aim was to get it, eventually, to a named person they did not know living in another city.

The average number of times it was passed on, he said, was six. Hence, the six degrees of separation.

It is a seductive idea.

Films have been made about it, there are parlour games based on it and mathematics has begun to propose theories for why it should be true [actually, mathematicians have begun to study the patterns of links that make different distributions, nothing more and nothing less. Any connection to the “six degrees” phenomenon is just commentary on more general studies of the phenomena of social networks]. But is it?

Judith Kleinfeld, a professor psychology at Alaska Fairbanks University, went back to Milgram’s original research notes and found something surprising. It turned out, she told us, that 95% of the letters sent out had failed to reach the target. Not only did they fail to get there in six steps, they failed to get there at all.

Milgram was a giant figure in his world of research, but here was evidence that the claim he was famously associated with was not supported by his experiments. [deletia] “The pleasing idea that we live in a ‘small world’ where people are connected by ‘six degrees of separation’ may be the academic equivalent of an urban myth,” she says.

Now Professor Kleinfeld argues that what is more important is not the number of links, but the quality. Even if you were able to say you could get to the Queen in three steps, it would tell you little about how well you are really connected with her.

We like the idea of six degrees of separation, she says, because it makes the world feel more intimate. But there are barriers – like race and class – she argues, that can sometimes make separation real and deep.

Of course, just because a letter fails to reach its target does not mean that it could not have done it in six steps by some other route. But that is a reasonable hope, not a fact.

The belief that it has been proved that we live in a world of six degrees of separation does not seem to be true.

Note also that the scope of the original study was entirely within the U.S. (from Wichita to Cambridge.) So even if it were true, it wouldn’t apply to “everyone on earth,” it wouldn’t have anything to do with the queen, and we wouldn’t live in a “world of six degrees of separation.”

A study (may have been mentioned in National Geographic) was done by a woman who wanted to test the 6 degrees thing by tracing her connection to a random tribesman in Nepal. It took her nine steps, and the study concluded, like Milgram’s original wording, that six degrees is the average number of steps, not the maximum.

A man has been living at a Paris airport since 1988.–TRUE

The 2004 Tom Hanks film The Terminal is loosely based upon the experiences of Merhan Karimi Nasseri.

Nasseri’s story is remarkable for its pathos and complexity. It begins in Iran in 1977, when Nasseri, fresh from studying in England, was expelled for protesting against the shah. His expulsion left him without a passport.

Nasseri came to Europe. He bounced from capital to capital, applying for refugee status and being refused, again and again, for nearly four years. In 1981, his request for political asylum from Iran was finally granted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Belgium.

That decision gave him refugee credentials, which in turn allowed him to seek citizenship in a European country. The son of an Iranian and a Briton, Nasseri decided in 1986 on England with the hope of finding relatives there.

He got as far as Paris, where in 1988 his briefcase containing his refugee documents was stolen in a train station.

Nasseri boarded a plane for London anyway. But when officials at Heathrow Airport found he had no passport, they sent him back to Charles de Gaulle. At first, the French police arrested him for illegal entry. But as Nasseri had no documents, there was no country of origin to which he could be deported.

So he took up residence in Terminal One. From its circular confines, he and his attorney, the Paris-based human rights lawyer Christian Bourget, battled to define his status and send him to London. In 1992, a French court finally ruled that Nasseri had entered the airport legally as a refugee and could not be expelled from it.

But the court could not force the French government to allow him out of the airport onto French soil. In fact, Bourget said, French authorities refused to give Nasseri either a refugee or transit visa. “It was pure bureaucracy,” said the lawyer. French immigration authorities have no comment on the case.

On 17 September 1999, an international travel card and a French residency permit were put into Nasseri’s hands. With them, he’s now free to leave the airport, either to take up residency in France or to fly to another country that will allow him entry. He refuses to sign them, however, because they list his nationality as Iranian, and he wants it listed as British. He remains at Charles de Gaulle airport, using the excuse that he’s determined to stick to this point rather than face life outside the terminal. Nasseri, who has since adopted the name “Sir, Alfred Merhan” (that’s not a typo — Nasseri took both the title and its misplaced comma from a mistake in a letter from British immigration), is still living in the airport. He does not lack for money, as Dreamworks paid him a rumored $250,000 for the film rights to his story.

A man soared three miles above Los Angeles in an “aircraft” consisting of an aluminum lawn chair tethered to helium weather balloons.–TRUE

In 1997, a story about a lawnchair balloonist named Larry Walters began to circulate all over the Internet as a tale about another putative winner of the “Darwin Award” for stupidity above and beyond the call of duty. The story was essentially true, although Larry had actually made his flight fifteen years earlier, and many of the details presented in the 1997 version were made-up or greatly embellished.

The incredible flight of Larry Walters, a 33-year-old Vietnam veteran and North Hollywood truck driver with no pilot or balloon training, took place on 2 July 1982. Larry filled 45 weather balloons with helium and tethered them in four tiers to an aluminum lawn chair he purchased at Sears for $110, loading his makeshift aircraft (dubbed the “Inspiration I”) with a large bottle of soda, milk jugs full of water for ballast, a pellet gun, a portable CB radio, an altimeter, and a camera.

And how about that totally ridiculous story of Larry, the guy who attached 42 helium balloons to an aluminum lawn chair in his girlfriend’s backyard and, armed with a six-pack and a pellet pistol, soared to 16,000 feet over Los Angeles? The story claimed he stayed aloft for an hour and a half and was spotted, in flight, by the pilots of at least two airliners. Legend had it that Larry executed a controlled descent by shooting out selected helium balloons with his air pistol. But only after his feet started to get cold.

Outlandish as it sounds, there was a guy–a Los Angeles truck driver named Larry Walters–who, on July 2, 1982 actually did all of the above – and lived to talk about it on the David Letterman Show. He almost didn’t make it. Some of his balloons got snarled in power lines and caused a blackout in an L.A. residential neighbourhood. Larry could have been, quite literally, toast, but his chair cleared the lines and he and his lawn chair came in for a three-point landing.

Officers from the Federal Aviation Agency were waiting for him. They’d never had to deal with a flying lawn chair before, but they improvised brilliantly. Walters was charged with ‘reckless operation of an aircraft’, ‘failure to stay in communication with the tower’ and (my favourite) ‘flying a civil aircraft for which there is not currently in effect an airworthiness certificate’. They dinged him 1,500 bucks for his little adventure.

Ever wonder how urban legends get created? Here’s one way: Marshall students win Library Friends ‘urban legends’ writing contest. Never trust anything you read in “Dear Abby” or hear from Paul Harvey, two well-known vectors for urban legends. That e-mail you got that swears some outlandish story is “absolutely true”? It’s probably not.

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