In This Episode: It’s really fun to find patterns in weird news stories: Randy gives a couple of “paired” examples. But really: people have to turn to weeds and rocks as “heroes”?! Certainly “celebrities” and national leaders aren’t worthy of being looked up to these days. Yet another entry in the No Longer Weird file, and a fun Easter Egg at the end.
- If you’re looking for some real everyday heroes, check out HeroicStories, which Randy started way back in 1999. Randy announced in This is True that it was coming, and by the time it launched a month later on May 1, it had 8,200 subscribers in 62 countries — and grew from there. But when Randy spun it off to a new publisher, it faltered when the new publisher became ill, and later died. It’s back, though, under a new publisher.
- HeroicStories is still running under the original manifesto Randy wrote Way Back When.
- The HeroicStories book collections are available here.
- Kit remembered correctly: it was Vail that had a “panty tree” on the ski slopes. The Vail Daily tells the story. KMGH Denver reported on Vail’s in Spring 2010 with a photo that shows it indeed had bras, too. But the tree was chopped down for 2010’s season to make room for a new chairlift. Vail’s wasn’t the first, though: Wikipedia notes that was at Aspen, from “at least the 1980s, perhaps as early as the 1950s.”
- No Longer Weird: firefighters who set fires so they have something to do, or sometimes to give other firefighters some excitement. (Example from Utah)
- Have a peaceful Christmas. (The story of why Randy uses that particular wish is in his blog).
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Randy: Welcome to Uncommon Sense, the Podcast companion to the ThisIsTrue.com newsletter with the mission to promote more thinking in the world. I’m Randy Cassingham.
Kit: And I’m his partner in crime, Kit Cassingham.
Randy: This week’s newsletter — that would be issue 1277 — has two examples of something I like about the weird news business: patterns. Certain stories are sort-of themes, like sure: there are a lot of bank robbers that are so dumb, even Barney Fife could catch them. That’s not quite what I mean. So let me give you an example from this week’s newsletter, even though all of these stories won’t be in the free edition of the newsletter. It’s the first four stories in the Premium edition, and what intrigues me is the similarities in stories that happen very near each other in time, even though they’re not necessarily near each other in location.
Kit: Oh that sounds like fun. I call those the 1-2 stories.
Randy: Exactly, and now and then there’s a 3 and a 4! This week, there was two pairs of such stories. The first story is about “Cone Weed” — that’s the name that residents of Huntersville, North Carolina, gave a hearty weed growing alongside a road near a fire station. It just never got mowed down and kept growing all summer, but then someone put a traffic cone over it, and it popped through the hole in the top and kept on growing. It’s a story of persistence in the face of adversity, I get that, because that’s when it really took off, and got dubbed Cone Weed.
Kit: Well wait a minute. What do you mean it took off?
Randy: It got both Facebook and Twitter accounts, probably created and posted to by someone with too much time on their hands, like maybe a bored firefighter.
Randy: Anyway, this weed got a major following online, so it hit local media, and then those stories got picked up by national media. Because …people loved a weed — one of billions that we mostly think are a pain, not a candidate for celebrity status. And someone even wrote a song about Cone Weed, and a local graphic designer made a Cone Weed T-shirt, and was selling those with the proceeds going to a charity.
Kit: Well that’s cool: that’s helping redirect the focus on something real, something that matters.
Randy: Exactly. But it gets better: with the holidays, and the thing about 4 feet tall, someone decorated the now well-known Cone Weed with tinsel and ornaments like a Christmas tree — which made it catch the eye of state Department of Transportation road crews, who mowed it down, scattering the decorations!
Kit: Oh, no no no!
Randy: Well, the uproar! The fire department tweeted, “Unfortunately, within the last 45 minutes, someone removed the #ConeWeed. Residents reported seeing a road crew in a yellow truck remove the cone and all the decorations. We did not see it happen and no one stopped by the fire station to tell us they were removing it.” See? It’s so important, the fire department thought the road department should come over and notify them that they were going to mow a weed on the side of the road.
Kit: Oh goodness.
Randy: So now NC-DOT had to get online and tweet an apology! Here it is: “Crews removed #ConeWeed since it was so close to the road. They didn’t mean to be a Grinch and disrupt a positive community effort. We’re taking Cone Weed to @Huntersville_FD this afternoon for safe keeping. We hope Cone Weed continues to spread holiday cheer.”
Kit: That sounds like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree!
Randy: And that’s exactly where my tagline went; that he would heartily approve. So yeah, it’s weird and fun that someone turned a weed into a positive for the community: it persisted even though it was closed off from the sun, popping through a traffic cone and living on. I mean, it’s ridiculous to make a weed a celebrity, but the locals leveraged that fame to help raise money for a charity. Fantastic! As a story for This is True it stands by itself as both an example of “weird news” and applying thought to turn something getting attention into a real positive for the community, and that’s why I had it in my queue to write for this week’s issue.
And then …the magic happened: TRUE contributor Alexander Cohen pitched me a story he found last week, about a rock. Just one of those landscape boulders, about 18-24 inches around, placed in a traffic median in the parking lot at a shopping center. Even though it was surrounded by a brightly painted curb, three cars managed to hit it in pretty short order: two got hung up on it, wheels off the ground, and a third actually flipped over onto its side. I have the pictures on the Show Page.
Kit: Wait a minute. People are driving so fast through the parking lot that when they hit a rock it flips them?!
Randy: At least one of them did, yeah.
Kit: Oh my!
Randy: Even though Alexander didn’t know about the first story I was writing for this week, he wrote his in such a way that it went perfectly with the Cone Weed story: Alexander saw that people were identifying with the thing: he called it a “Pet Rock” that needs to be “saved,” and quoted people saying things like “Poor misunderstood rock,” and the rock “has become a part of us.” And sure enough, someone at the shopping center didn’t say “It’s a traffic hazard, we should get rid of it,” but rather, “Since it’s become so valued to the community, we’re trying to negotiate having it moved to a different area of the parking lot, where it is safe from vehicles and doesn’t have to resort to rage flipping them,” which is a great line.
Kit: Oh, he’s going with the spirit of the community!
Randy: Yeah, he “got it” — he got what was attracting people, or at least enjoyed the levity of it all. The thing about this story is, it’s not based in the United States: it happened in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Still in North America, sure — but I’ll bet listeners know of similar stories in other countries. Aussies? Europeans? Brits? Tell us about weird heroes you know about in the comments on the Show Page.
But I do have to wonder: why? Are we so disappointed in so-called “real” celebrities and our leaders? It’s not hard to understand that: we’re clearly getting tired of people we’re supposed to look up to falling like dominoes to sex harassment scandals. Not just movie producers and Matt Lauer from NBC’s Today Show, but PBS and NPR hosts like Charlie Rose and Garrison Keillor. Not to mention how we really hate our politicians these days, who not only are also caught up in the sex harassments, but have used taxpayer money to pay off their victims! We can’t afford to feed the starving in the “greatest country on Earth” but we can throw hundreds of thousands of dollars at the women you abused? Gee, thanks guys, for thinking with the wrong head.
Randy: Anyway, this week they — those politicians — pushed through a so-called “tax reform” bill that in polls, the majority of Americans say will hurt people like themselves, and benefit rich people like — and this is part of the feedback, not necessarily my opinion — benefit rich people like Donald Trump, who promised to sign it the moment it hits his desk. So the leaders in our lives are letting us down, we have to find hope in weeds and rocks. Those are examples the new heroes of American society?!
Kit: Well, maybe it’s not such a new idea.
Kit: I remember a tree in, I think, Vail, that collected bras. I don’t know how women get their bras off while they’re on the ski slopes, but it was being ornamented with bras or panties or something.
Randy: I think I remember that. I think it was panties, yeah.
Kit: And there was a tree in Boulder, but it collected Christmas ornaments. But somebody took offense at that because …because people take offense.
Randy: Yeah, at just about anything.
Kit: And that was long before I knew you, so it’s been happening for awhile.
Randy: See? I knew there would be people out there — and you’re not that far away from me! — that would have other examples. So yeah: let us know on the Show Page. This is fascinating.
Kit: Well I’m sure you’ll get lots of feedback and input on this.
Randy: Yes but, at the same time, a publication I started years ago, HeroicStories, which tells the stories of actual — and human — heroes, is having a hard time finding an audience; I know it’s not going to a lot of people. The new publisher is keeping it going because he loves to get such “good news” stories out there, even though there’s absolutely no income from doing it. That’s at HeroicStories.org.
Kit: I know I enjoyed my time as an editor of HeroicStories, way back in the old days when we first got together, back when I considered it your “mid-life crisis project.”
Randy: Well, it was sort of my answer to the craziness of This is True, that you know there’s really very cool people, not just obliviots in the world, and in fact I think most people are pretty cool. And we ran some amazing stories: I published two “best of” books collecting the stories — but I still have about half of them in storage, and I’ll link to them on the Show Page so if you want to buy one. But you can also subscribe to the stories like what’s in the books and get them emailed to you — again, HeroicStories.org, and subscriptions are free.
Kit: I love getting my HeroicStories newsletters, or emails, whatever Leo calls them. And I love that Leo has gotten it going again after the publisher who bought it from you died.
Randy: Yeah, well, it did lose some momentum from that, but it really is a good publication.
Kit: No, it’s a GREAT publication. Wonderful stories; [a] variety of insights into the goodness of humanity.
Randy: Yeah, basically the same thing that This is True [is] about: the human condition. OK, here’s the second 1-2 story pair from this week’s This is True issue, and I’ll be a little briefer on these because this time, they’re not as, well, positive as the first two.
Kit: I’m positive of that!
Randy: The first was out of Northern California, where a vandal was targeting the same house again and again, and even set fire to a bag of poop on the front porch. Police caught a suspect who was apparently targeting a local defense attorney. The problem was, the house was owned not by the attorney, but by a different guy who happened to have the same name as the attorney, so the vandal-cum-arsonist was, yeah, a total obliviot. That one was written by Mike Straw this week, and it went really well with a second one that I wrote.
That was about, yes, a Florida Man who allegedly set fire to his teen girlfriend’s house, with her and her parents inside. Get this: this 19-year-old obliviot shows up on the scene, goes up a neighbor who ran out when they saw the fire to make sure the people got out safely, and he tells the neighbor, and I quote: “usually the one that does it comes back to see what all the excitement is about.”
Kit: Well he ought to know!
Randy: Yeahhh. Obviously the cops wanted to talk to him, and he looks pretty darned guilty: the girlfriend said he had sent her text messages saying he was going to burn down the house! So investigators confiscated his cell phone, and got a warrant to search it. They not only presumably found copies of those text messages, but they found he searched Google for things like “can you start charcoal with gasoline house on fire,” and “x outside the house to burn up house.”
Kit: Yikes! He set fire to the house with the family inside. He knowingly did this?
Randy: Apparently. But what made it kind of entertaining, once we know everyone was safe, is that he told the cops he couldn’t have started the fire because he was 25 miles away at his mother’s house. And he told them that he saw “a random black guy” light the fire and run. Yep, it’s the great American scapegoat: the random black guy. But the cops didn’t “round up the usual suspects.”
Kit: You know, he has pretty good eyesight to be able to see 25 miles’ distance anybody, much less a “random black guy.”
Randy: Right, so we’re not talking about a cunning criminal here. And by the way, a security camera also caught him at the scene at the time of the fire, which helps corroborate the testimony of the neighbor.
Kit: Darn those cameras. Well, maybe his lawyer should suggest that he throw himself on the mercy of the court?
Randy: Maybe a good idea: he’s charged with arson and three counts of attempted murder, so I think even if he goes for a plea-bargain, he’s looking at some hard time.
Kit: That’s for sure. And at 19 years old? He’s ruined his life forever.
Randy: Yeah. Welcome to adulthood, kid.
So let’s go for what’s No Longer Weird this week. But I’m going to stay with the theme: this week, it’s firefighters who set fires so they have something to do, or sometimes to give other firefighters some excitement. In this case, in Utah, it’s not only a fire chief that was arrested, but he really should have known better, because he’s also a former Utah Highway Patrol trooper.
Kit: Ooh, man! So he not only knows that arsonists are often caught, but presumably he also knows the penalties for that?
Randy: One would think. He’s only 37 years old, so I first wonder why he washed out as a trooper. He set a fire in the town of Maeser, it spread to a thousand acres, forced evacuations from homes, and caused nearly a million dollars in damage. And I’m not saying he “allegedly” did that, because he has already pleaded guilty. He said he started the fire “because he wanted to feel the excitement of it.” And that wasn’t the only fire: another he started burned 2,500 acres near Vernal, but that was on BLM land and didn’t threaten or damage homes — just land that we all own. He faces up to 15 years in prison.
Kit: That won’t be very exciting. He won’t get to start many fires. And besides: there’s more to the land than homes and the people. What about the little animals?
Randy: Indeed: he probably killed a bunch of animals. So I’ll leave listeners with a question: who, or what, do you look up to as a hero these days? Tell us in the comments section on the Show Page, at thisistrue.com/podcast23 — you do not have to register to comment. You do have to put in a real email address, but it doesn’t show to anyone but me. I’d love to hear about your heroes, even if they’re weeds or rocks.
Kit: Hopefully you don’t get any arsonists voted for as heroes.
Randy: Hopefully not. And do try out HeroicStories.org, will you? It still runs under the manifesto I wrote for it when I started it, and I’ll link to that on the Show Page too.
That’s it for this week. Kit and I wish you peace this Christmas. I’m Randy Cassingham…
Kit: And I’m Kit Cassingham. I’m going to wish you a Very Merry Christmas.
Randy …And we’ll talk at you later.
[Easter Egg — and Randy had no idea Kit was going to tell that story!]