Television personality, Art Linkletter, pictured on the right, cashed in on the incontrovertible fact that "people are funny."  If anything, that's an understatement. The human psyche remains, for my money, the primary wonder of the world.  While we understand layer upon layer of phenomena in the sphere of reality that is external to us, we have little insight into ourselves. Take, for example, the recent actions of many living on the Texas Gulf Coast.  A killer hurricane, named "Ike," was a few hours away from ravaging Galveston, Freeport, parts of Houston, and adjacent areas. Yet, in spite of many dark, solemnly-worded evacuation notices to the residents of these areas, approximately 140,000 people decided to weather the storm and to stay put.

This mysterious response to the storm was met by an equally puzzling reaction to it by those outside its perimeter.  As the cone of the hurricane narrowed, it became increasingly obvious that cities, such as Corpus Christi, would emerge unscathed except for relatively minor water surges. There was no rain, no wind, and little else extraordinary on Ike's west side. Notwithstanding this fact, shopping malls and other business establishments that were completely out of danger bolted their doors.  Gold's Gym in Corpus Christi, for example, posted a sign on its property as late as Friday, September 12, stating that the facility would close at 5:00 p.m. that day "due to weather conditions."  Weather conditions where?  Two hundred miles away?  Friday was a typically hot South Texas day, without a drop of rain; so why should this gym and others  close?  Give me a cotton-pickin' break!

As I attempted to counterpose these two enigmatic instances of human behavior, I asked myself, "What am I missing here? Why are people who are in serious jeopardy sitting on their duffs, while those who have no worry are closing down their businesses?"  The actions of each group demonstrated, on their face, a stark disregard of stubborn fact.

Allow me to venture a few observations, which is all they are. The first is that some people are not only funny, but are also just plain stupid. They qualify for what Wendy Northcutt, not without a trace of humor, calls "a Darwin Award."  According to Darwin's theory, the fittest representatives of a species survive in order to perpetuate and to strengthen their kind.  When those who are mentally deficient die, their demise leaves the species stronger than it would be otherwise.  Death caused by an act of gross stupidity, according to Northcutt, deserves the posthumous, but dubious, distinction of this Award.

Here is a sample from Northcutt's repertoire of Darwin Award winners: "A twenty-four year old supermarket shoplifter stuffed a pair of live lobsters in his pants and sprinted for the door, but he never had a chance.  The violated crustaceans brought the thief to his knees in front of startled cashiers when [the lobsters] fastened their powerful claws around his delicate parts.  Doctors were able to remove the animals with pliers.  They said the thief would fully recover – except for one small detail:  'It was a do-it-yourself vasectomy.'"  This man's daring supermarket exploits," declares Northcutt, "make him one of the few Darwin Award winners to live to tell the tale."

Consider the following "honorable mention" for the Award:  "At a party somewhere between Nashville and Bloomington, a young man was drinking and watching people set off fireworks. Suddenly a great idea occurred to him. He could improve upon this amateur fireworks display! He put down his drink and set to work.  When it comes to fireworks, [he figured], your brain can't be much safer than sheltered inside a football helmet. He found an old helmet, duct-taped a mortar-style firework to the top, put it on his head, and lit the fuse. . . A bright flash of light nearly blinded observers. When their eyes recovered, they saw him lying on the ground, unconscious and bleeding. Astoundingly, the 21-year-old survived this party stunt with only a mild concussion and burns."

There is no doubt that, among those who refused to flee Ike's wrath, there are some who qualify for this notoriously uncoveted Award. The fact raises many interesting questions regarding social policy.  Most  questions concern the kind of priority to assign the rescue of those who ignored the evacuation orders.  As one citizen angrily and audaciously phrased it:  "Why risk precious manpower and waste state treasure attempting to rescue a bunch of dolts?"  Or to put the point in the words of comedian Ron White, pictured on the left: "You can't fix stupid." If we accept this statement as the embodiment of a painful truth, then "why not," you may ask, "place the burden of responsibility squarely upon those who refused to heed the dictates of reason?"

It is an interesting suggestion, and one in which there may be  a kernel of truth somewhere, but the problem on which I am elaborating is far from being so simple. There were other reasons why people refused to flee this storm. One is that many have lost confidence in government and the media. Citizens believe that government is a leading purveyor of lies and that the media traffic in hysteria. Speaking of hysteria, did you see Geraldo Rivera broadcasting from Galveston?  When 120 mile an hour winds were not threatening to blow him into the surf, rain was ferociously beating against his face.  Why?  Is there any need for these tired histrionics?  While watching his hilarious coverage of Ike's landfall, I was secretly hoping that Geraldo would disappear forever in one of Al Capone's vaults or, better still, hang-glide back to New York, never to be seen on television again!  Thanks to him and his ilk, a sizeable group of Gulf Coast residents probably discounted much of what they heard about the storm?  Goodness knows, believing anything the government says has been a stretch for a while now too!  As one elderly gentleman recently commented to me about the Administration's reasons advanced for the 2008 spike in fuel prices, "All lies; just lies! Anything to hose the working man!"

But, now, that brings me back to Gold's Gym?  I suspect that most of its employees are compensated by the hour.  When the monthly membership fees are paid to Gold's, and the costs of its overhead are eliminated for a day, or even a few hours, in a given locale, let me ask you:  who profits from that?  One need not wonder about it too long or too hard.  The answer is a variation on the age-old theme of receiving payment for a service not rendered.  It is the way crooks make a profit.  If the management of Gold's and facilities like it wish to object to this characterization, then how about giving customers a credit on their October bills?  Hardee . . .har. . .har. . .har!  You can bet that it will be a cold day in Hades before that happens!

Sandwiched between dumbbells on one side and crooks on the other during a whirling storm, it is amazing that honest, thoughtful people survive at all.  Friedrich Nietzsche, a 19th century German philosopher, believed in evolution, but doubted that the best survive.  His is food for thought.  In the meantime, three cheers for citizens who look, listen, critically evaluate, and respond to crises honestly and with resilience of spirit!

September 15, 2008