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Just for the record
By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
In the 1920s publicity seekers and fortune hunters indulged in a sideshow sort of fad called flagpole-sitting. It was pioneered by a reputed sailor named Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly. Vying to set records and gain fame, and most of all to make money, these hardy, if slightly unhinged individuals (of both genders), made news and diverted the attention of the jazz age public. They did so by seeing who could spend the most uninterrupted time living atop high poles. Eventually, the record stretched into months and then, believe it or not, more than a year. Google it for yourself, and you will see.
The Great Depression largely brought an end to those particular stunts, but others took their place. Foremost among them were dance marathons, another kind of endurance contest promising monetary rewards and a measure of notoriety for the couple who could outlast all others on the dance floor.
Today the world around us is rife with different types of self-imposed challenges that seem intended to measure the meaning of our days. On milestone birthdays some people skydive. Others set themselves goals such as hiking the Appalachian Trail or climbing to the top of the highest nearby mountain. It’s also common for people to make so-called “bucket lists,” cataloging exotic goals they want to achieve before it’s too late.
Social media pages often chart the progress of some of these endeavors. No-one seems to sit on flag staffs anymore, and pie-eating contests aren’t taken too seriously, but enduro bicycle treks to Telluride or running a marathon backwards probably would be, and hot dog eating contests have attained the dubious status of being termed a “sport” in some venues.
Let’s play the devil’s advocate for a moment, though. Other than idle curiosity, why should we care if somebody decides to swim to Block Island wearing an overcoat?
Admittedly, efforts to set “world records” or make it into the Guinness Book are hard to ignore, but, with the possible exception of fund-raisers for a good cause, after a while doesn’t it all begin to feel like exhibitionism and self-promotion?
Ascending the highest peak for a thousand miles around certainly is a personal accomplishment, but, unless you are the first one to do it, does it need to be a public one? After all, what does it prove to the rest of us if somebody ascends past the tree line to the pinnacle and takes a selfie? What is there to do up there in the small space at the summit but to turn around and climb back down?
It’s the same for such quests as trying to hold your breath under water longer than anyone else. After meeting the world record holder, a Navy diver with a chest like an ancient oak tree and finding that he was quite humble but justifiably proud of his achievement, the futility of attempting to successfully challenge his mark was immediately apparent. That’s no reason to give up trying, but it might be one for keeping a low profile about it.
Besides, there are also in-dwelling heights to conquer. For instance one friend has been trying to learn how to speak Italian with at least a modicum of fluency for quite a few years now. For another friend it’s German.
A different acquaintance often carries an algebra book with him and works at mastering ever more difficult equations (a cerebral exercise that might make brutish Extreme Challenge events in deep mud almost seem attractive).
Perhaps at the root of my antipathy to high profile feats of endurance lies a powerful skepticism. There’s an old song that says “Anything you can do I can do better; I can do anything better than you.” Alas, it appears, that that attitude is the driving force behind the challenges many people take up.
Most of us have a personal kind of radar that sets off subtle alarms when we sense ulterior motives in the behavior of others. So if someone recounts their latest victory in a half-naked half-marathon through the bramble patches in a way that comes across as more than a little self-congratulatory, a light goes on and it flashes the word bragging.
Personal quests are more credible when they are about personal bests. Self-congratulatory smack downs undertaken in the guise of extreme singular feats or breast-beating accomplishments just don’t cut it.
Now – back to building that flagpole perch with a bathroom.