by Steve Mason

We make some of our greatest gains
when we see old things in new ways

The other day, I got an email from a reader who wanted to know what was with those people who put up good money to buy those silly fan magazines at the supermarket checkout counter? How much, she asked, does anybody really need to know about Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts?

When you get right down to it, magazines, books, newsletters, etc. are there to provide intellectual and/or emotional stimulation. Publications on one end of the spectrum, such as medical journals, provide information (remember to clean your scalpel between operations), while those on the other end, such as Romance paperbacks, give the reader a sensual thrill (he slipped his manhood into her trembling womanhood). But most come down somewhere between those two extremes.

Weekly newsmagazines and daily papers tell you what's happening, of course, but they also include enough gossip, op-ed pieces and ain't-it-awful stories to get your adrenaline going. When it comes to reading matter, there's something for everyone; a clear case of there being a lid for every pot. And, when you start to think about it, that's a very valuable insight. You can tell a whole lot about a person by what they read. In fact, psychological profiles have been drawn up based on nothing more than the list of magazines to which an individual subscribes. But that's a matter better suited to a book than this column, and all the reader really asked about, after all, was celebrity magazines.

There is such an enormous market for pictures of stars that this form of fascination has its own name within the industry - Stargazing. What's more, the desire to gaze at one's betters isn't confined just to humans. Laboratory monkeys have demonstrated a decided preference for looking at pictures of higher-ranking members of their group. Researchers at Duke University trained chimps to pay for something they really wanted. The currency they used wasn't dollars and cents, of course, but some favored item of food.

Being willing to give up a grape, for example, meant the animal was truly keen on what was for sale. And when, in turn, the animal was offered an opportunity it didn't especially like, it expected to receive a grape in payment for going along with the experiment. In short order it was found that monkeys would pay to look at pictures of their superiors (the primate equivalent of a Brad Pitt or a Julia Roberts), but expected to be paid when looking at photos of their inferiors.

So how does one account for stargazing in humans, chimps and perhaps even other high-end mammals? It's fairly simple really. You look at more successful members of your species because you hope to gain some clue; you hope to mimic their looks and behavior in an attempt to move up the ladder yourself. It shouldn't be surprising then that aping someone you admire, or monkey-see-monkey-do, have become part of the language.

And let's not assume that such behavior is strictly relegated to fans of actors and actresses. People will buy sports magazines to look at pictures of Roberto Clemente if they're at one end of the socio-economic scale, and Arnold Palmer if they're at the other. Football stars versus baseball stars are seen as being more or less attractive based on the fan's educational level. There are also magazines for upper-middle class people that are full of pictures of people who are even more upper-middle class standing around sipping drinks at swell parties and charitable events. And while it's mostly men who gaze at photos of athletes making winning moves, it's mostly women who stare at photos of models that are better looking and better dressed making absolutely no moves at all.

Attempting to follow in the footsteps of a hero is nothing new. It has deep evolutionary roots, and offers a path for those who would hope to move in the same direction. That the people in line at the checkout counter know they aren't likely to be tapped for a staring role in a new flick anytime soon makes no difference. You stargaze not to see how it is so much as to see how it might be.

Personally, I have far less of a problem with people spending their money on fan magazines than I do with those who buy, and presumably read, those truly scary papers. Their headlines herald things like a bowling shoe found on the moon; a dinosaur photographed in Yellowstone Park; the President meeting with a delegation from Venus; a coven of witches riding their brooms; JFK in a wheelchair on a Greek Island and the meteor that landed on the Strip in Las Vegas. Now here are truly stories with no redeeming social value.

Forget about Lolita. If you're hot to burn a book by way of saving Western Civilization from itself, start with just such magical news items. They are presented as fact and hardcore readers accept them as such. Honest! This is why, when people carry on about illiterate high school students, I say that depends entirely upon what they would read if they could. If Bush getting together with a gang of Venusians to exchange UFO technology is high on their list, I'd be content to simply let them look at the pictures.

Anyone seriously contemplating the alleged meteor (which appeared to be about the size of a washing machine), that was photographed in front the MGM Grand simply doesn't understand the laws of physics. Anything that big impacting the Earth at that many times the speed of sound would have left a smoking crater far bigger than the casino. In this case, the mass when factored with the velocity would have equaled a bang bigger than the whole Strip! But I can understand that the football coach who doubled as a science teacher might not have taught that factor or even been aware of it. Similarly, I can understand people who read the articles that promise to reveal secret ways of hitting the lottery. They are paying the price of not having paid attention during math class. But what can you say about those who see an image of Jesus in a taco as a proof-positive miracle? Dumb as dirt comes to mind. However, meteors and tacos are small potatoes when compared to tales of aliens - and I don't mean the guy cutting your grass.

Look At It This Way

People who are convinced there are entities from other planets or different dimensions or heavenly realms moving among us are exhibiting a break with reality, and newspapers that run stories about folks being examined aboard space ships are merely reinforcing such delusional thinking. Crazies don't usually need a whole lot of encouragement when going crazy, but showing pictures of the President conspiring with little green men in the Oval Office sure ain't gonna help. Remember the kid who jumped off the roof with an umbrella thinking he'd float down like Popeye? Just imagine that low caliber brain in an adult buying a high caliber weapon. Witches, Witches - We don't need no stinkin' Witches!

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