One City

The Balloon Boy story – a Colorado family released a UFO-like weather balloon and pretended their son was aboard to garner media attention – has gotten weirder and weirder since it’s inception as a relatively mundane Child In Crisis news cycle. I don’t like following these sensations because I’m not immune to getting sucked in to each new development – ultimately, they’re a waste of time – but this one brings together so many uniquely American cultural productions (the deep craving for fame, Reality TV, UFOs, 24-hour news media and shadow-government paranoia) that it is both repellent and wonderfully complete. 

At it’s root, though, I see a story about suffering.

From the New York Times

In another twist to the case, the gossip Web site Gawker paid a 25-year-old Denver man, Robert Thomas, to write about his experience working with Mr. Heene, whom Mr. Thomas described as a business associate.
In the account posted on Gawker, Mr. Thomas said he and Mr. Heene had drawn up a pitch for a reality television show centered on off-kilter science experiments. The two planned to pitch the idea to the producers of “Wife Swap,” Mr. Thomas said.
One proposed episode was based on the launching of a flying saucer to lure U.F.O.’s, according to a treatment written by Mr. Thomas and posted on Gawker.
“This will be the most significant U.F.O.-related news event to take place since the Roswell Crash of 1947, and the result will be a dramatic increase in local and national awareness about the Heene family, our reality series, as well as the U.F.O. phenomenon in general,” Mr. Thomas wrote in the treatment.

And it gets better/worse: 

Mr. Thomas described Mr. Heene as obsessed with fame and wild theories, among them that the upper echelon of the American government was actually a race of alien beings called shape-shifters.

Why does this belong on a mindfulness-themed blog? Because I look at the decision that started this whole mess, Richard Heene launching a balloon and then calling the police to say his son was aboard, and see suffering. Only a desperate person would pull such a stunt, and while I don’t condone what he did – it’s deeply irresponsible, wasteful, and selfish – I also don’t hear a lot of discussion about how notions of success and isolation and celebrity are at play. 
Heene is responsible for his actions, but he also seems to be an individual torn by the fantastic demands of a subculture of reality TV contestants who thrive on the attention their 15 minutes brings. From The Lede:

Richard Heene and his wife have been enmeshed for years in the subculture of reality television and self-promotional Web postings. They have appeared twice on ABC’s “Wife Swap,” and Mr. Heene has been floating a proposal for a televisions series about his family, which the cable channel TLC turned down months ago. He has posted YouTube videos claiming to show proof of life on Mars asking whether Hillary Rodham Clinton is a “reptilian.” Neighbors also said Mr. Heene was a storm chaser, who followed the path of tornadoes and other weather events and was interviewed about his escapades on local television.  

I can imagine how easily his life became a zero-sum game: Either reclaim some celebrity or fade in to utter non-existence, bogged down in the very real challenges of everyday life. 
The lesson I take from this is bleak: As a culture, we’re fascinated by people who are contorted and, ultimately, destroyed by fame. But it’s our very fascination that provides fuel for the next sensation, the motivation for the next Richard Heene. It’s a type of collective samsara that I don’t see ending any time soon.

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