Train Wrecks

Train WrecksThe late, great Hunter S. Thompson, who was no stranger to the topic, used to say that, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”. I don’t know about you, but I think we live in an age where a lot of folks are in real danger of losing their amateur status. What makes this situation even more bizarre is our level of fascination with them. It’s kind of like a train wreck. We don’t want to look but we can’t look away. The more we wonder what’s wrong with them, the more we should probably be asking ourselves what’s wrong with us.

Take this Manti Te’o guy for example. In the interest of full disclosure, I must pause here to say that my dislike for Notre Dame knows no bounds. If they were playing the 1980 Russian Hockey Team I would still root against them. That being said, this guy’s situation has nothing to do with the fact that he plays for the Fighting Irish…although it does make it better. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock for the past month or so, I’ll bring you up to date. It’s really just a variation of the old boy meets fake girl, boy loses fake girl story that we’ve all heard about a million times. Big man on campus at a famous institution of higher learning meets the woman of his dreams on-line, in two years he never bothers to actually meet her in person, she tells him she has cancer, he dedicates a game to her, she dies, he finds out it was all made up.

Okay, that was strange but then it gets really weird. Turns out that the person behind the fake girl was actually a guy. He takes care of the on-line stuff and then enlists a girl to talk to our love struck linebacker—for over 500 hours. Sadly, the big lug says he was just plain duped, and he had no part in this elaborate charade that helped get him massive media coverage. Our reaction as a nation of train wreck watchers: we break into separate warring camps debating over social media, call in radio shows and on the printed page as to whether he was simply tricked by a yet another weirdo (they must run in packs) or he was in on it all along.

Naturally, poor Manti winds up facing two unpleasant alternatives. One, admit that you are the living embodiment of P.T. Barnum’s adage that there is a “sucker born every minute” or two, confess to being a cunning manipulator of the public’s hearts and minds who did it all in a maniacal attempt to gain more of our attention. Of course the story soon became so complex, and the debate so furious, that there could be only one logical arbiter—Katie Couric.

I think the thing that strikes me about our train wreck culture is that Manti probably didn’t get as much out of this as he should have. Sure his situation was unique but he really just took weird up a notch. Think about it, we devote whole shows to people whose lives give new meaning to the term dysfunctional. Would anybody want Snooki and the kids from Jersey Shore living next door? If your answer is yes you are either currently a member of a college fraternity or someone who doesn’t understand the meaning of the term “property value”. So, although most of us wouldn’t want J-WOWW throwing up on our front lawns, we will tune in with such a degree of frequency that the folks at MTV decide to do the same show only with another bunch of cretins who live in West Virginia—in this week’s episode the kids start a meth lab.

I realize that there probably is no real explanation to this “train wreck” fascination. It’s probably just something that’s been in us since our caveman days—“oh look, Org is being devoured by a Mastedon”—and it certainly shows no signs of subsiding. Maybe Thompson was just too limited in his analysis of the human condition. If he were alive today he’d probably sum up our obsession with those things that we should find repellent with a new maxim, “When the going gets weird, the weird ask for a better TV deal”.