Media - Culture : Legend has it

It's a complicated world in which we're living, and you've got burning questions. Burning, searing questions that deserve soothing, aloe-vera-like answers. Maybe you're deeply concerned about the direction our nation is going. Maybe you're rapt by the everchanging, ever-static uproar in the Middle East. Maybe you think "Hezbollah" is the leaked character-name for a top-secret and malevolent Judi Dench role in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Whatever your persuasion or level of personal plugged-inness, there is one haunting uncertainty that has almost assuredly crossed your political radar, as it has that of thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans:

Seriously - is Christopher Walken running for president? The truth, as they say, is out there; you just have to know where to look. Some websites are intriguing enough to warrant the caveat that they "kill" time. With other sites, hapless "Time" is not so lucky. These viciously, multifariously engrossing reads tail poor, unwitting Time for days in advance, toying with it, meticulously learning its movements and sleep patterns, then spring forth, stealthy and unawares, kick Time squarely in the balls, jam C-4 up its nether-regions, and laugh maniacally as it blows sky-high, cascading brilliantly back to earth in tiny, blazing, gossamer flakes. Then, said websites defile Time's ashes. That's just how it goes. And, trust me, is that sort of site. will kill your free time dead'r'n polyester disco. Forget catching up on your reading. Forget the honeyed, mellifluous chirps of your TiVO. Forget hunkering down to chip away at the Great American Cinemax Teleplay. (How many distinct motivations can there be, after all, for the same three dudes to wife-swap yet again?) Sidle up to your keyboard, set your brain to "absorb voraciously," and get ready to truly learn.

Snopes (named for the recurring family of characters in Faulkner novels) is alternately known as "The Urban Legends Reference Pages," and functions as just that - a repository for the accumulated impractical knowledge of American society, concerning all things mythical, mysterious, and folkloric. A regular informationage Aesop-cum-Sherlock-Holmes, the site is run by like-minded couple Barbara and David P. Mikkelson (who also founded the San Fernando Valley Folklore Association), and has more or less become the unofficial online hub for confirming or refuting ... well, just about any long-standing account/potential whopper of which you've ever heard. (Regrettably, the Mikkelsons politely declined interview; they're flattered, but are currently far too hard at work, what with all the confirming/ debunking and maintaining the site, Barbara wrote in an email.) The site, which has been operating since 1995, features 43 categories' worth of assiduous dissections of questionable tales and assertions. Go ahead, pick something.

F'r'instance, everyone knows that daddy longlegs are the most poisonous spiders in the world, but can't bite humans because their mouths are too small, yeah? It's like the lost verse to Alanis Morissette's (decidedly un-ironic) pop ditty "Ironic," a bit of raised-eyebrow insider-science I've heard smugly tossed about since I was in eighth grade or so. According to Snopes, though (by way of the University of California, Riverside), not only are the funnel web spider and the brown recluse spider widely considered the nastiest arachnids, there's no evidence to suggest that the daddy is venomous in the least.

In the same thematic vicinity: The old story that handling a baby bird will cause its mother to disown it is, indeed, just an old story. Most of us have heard this one, I expect - the theory being that the scent of a human (hoo-ah!) frightens the mother, or throws off her ability to recognize her child. Snopes, though, says that birds generally have a limited sense of smell, and while, in rare cases, certain types of birds may abdicate upon noticing that an egg has been moved while they were away (taking such as a sign of danger), it has nothing to do with a "human scent," - the "fact" was likely invented to keep people from messing with baby birds.

Also, incidentally: Hair and fingernails don't continue to grow after you die (though your skin retracts, due to decomposition); toilets in Australia don't flush in the opposite direction from those on the other side of the world, or vice versa; and Fanta was not invented by Nazis. (In case you're wondering by now, each mythbusting or -supporting page in the site lists a bibliography, so skeptics can check the related detective work.)

Snopes also offers an extensive - and rather useful - list of email hoaxes and apocrypha, the likes of which are too numerous to mention here. Suffice it to say that, in most cases, (1) emails describing sick children for whose treatment the Red Cross or Make-a-Wish, etc., will donate certain amounts of money - commensurate with how many times same email is forwarded - are generally bogus, as are (2) "cancellation" or "suspension" emails from PayPal, eBay, CitiBank, and the like, asking you to log in and verify email and account information, as are (3) ANY purportedly earnest emails mentioning the phrases "lottery" or "multi-million-dollar foreign transaction" and/or written in broken, pleading English.

It's not just the debunking that makes the Snopes ride a worthwhile one, though. Some oddish bits of truth: In 1919, a wave of molasses flooded Boston, killing 21 people; Charlie Chaplin once lost a Charlie-Chaplin-lookalike contest; the aptly named Coca-Cola did indeed, from its inception in 1886 to about 1920, contain cocaine; a just-starting-out Sylvester Stallone starred in a porn film (1970's The Party at Kitty and Stud's, since re-issued as Italian Stallion); photos of a topless woman briefly appear in the 1977 Disney film The Rescuers; in 1974, Jack Nicholson found out the woman he thought was his sister was, in truth, his mother; a Nevada brothel in 2003 did indeed offer free sex as a "thank you" to U.S. soldiers returning home from Iraq; and Matterhorn Mountain at Disneyland does contain a secret basketball court.

Some of the most interesting bits are to be found in the site's "Lost Legends" section, which "reveals," among other claims, that the nursery rhyme "Sing a Song of Sixpence" was originally used by the pirate Blackbeard as a coded message to recruit crew members for raids; that Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to KFC not to sound more healthy, but to avoid a lawsuit from the state of Kentucky, which copyrighted its name in 1990; and that Mister Ed wasn't a horse, but a zebra whose stripes didn't show up due to primitive black-and-white cameras. You might have guessed at Snopes's game (especially from that last one): All the claims are false, and the page was devised as a clever comment on buying a line simply because it's fed by an authoritative source. The site may have done its job too well, though: The less-obvious "Sixpence" scam was picked up and reported as true not once, but twice - by a television show and board game sporting "urban legend" themes.

I must admit, it's a mite disappointing to see that Snopes fails to take a strong stance on the "Jamie Lee Curtis: Hermaphrodite?" and "James Dean's Killer Roadster" issues, while, on the other hand, I'm a tad deflated to see the "Three Men and a Baby Ghost" theory so plainly trumped. Ah, well.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite bits on the site, which concerns pioneering moon-man Neil Armstrong. I dare not qualify it; judge veracity for yourself. Legend has it that during the historic Apollo 11 moonwalk, after uttering, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," for the cameras and a few routine communiques to his colleagues, Armstrong pronounced the cryptic phrase, "Good luck, Mr. Gorsky" before re-entering the moon lander. For years afterward, Armstrong wouldn't reveal who Mr. Gorsky was or what the words meant. Guesses were ventured (a Russian-cosmonaut colleague, perhaps?), but Moon-Man gave 'em nothing. At long last, softened by incessant badgering and the passage of time, he finally spilled: As a child, young Neil had been playing baseball in his backyard with his brother, who walloped a ball that landed just in front of the bedroom window of the Armstrongs' neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Gorsky. As Neil knelt to retrieve the ball, he heard what sounded like the end of a heated argument, and a woman (presumably Mrs. Gorsky) shouting, "Oral sex? Oral sex, you want? You'll get oral sex when the kid next door walks on the moon!" Bingo. Legendary.

(Brief epilogue: Despite an impressive website ``, the Walken candidacy is bunk. Sigh. There go the weirdest, coolest four years ever.)


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