Setting a record for complaining about records

THIS happens to be the week Count Desmond is swallowing six 23-inch swords and Vernon (Komar) Craig is lying between two beds of nails (with heavy, heavy weights on top) and, for everybody's ultimate agony, John Parker is doing a replay on the jokes he told for 52 hours (yes, John, we have heard that one before) while sitting in a hot tub. These state-of-the-culture sideshows are being staged in the Empire State Building - where else? - to promote the 1989 ``Guinness Book of World Records.''

A few of us are going to run in the opposite direction, quite possibly setting a new record for speediest escape from the presence of world records.

It's not that we have anything against David Stein blowing a 50-foot-long soap bubble, and, on the whole, we would just as soon watch Mike Kettman spinning 11 basketballs simultaneously as sit through another presidential debate.

Intellectual snobbery plays no part - well, almost no part - in our opposition to world records. Among our coterie of dissidents is a man who once spent 10 evenings in a row watching two jugglers on Bubbling Well Road in Hong Kong swallow their flaming batons - he would like nothing better than to see Count Desmond open wide.

What he and the rest of our little group frown upon is the obsession with record-setting for the sake of record-setting. We find it sadly manic - this compulsion to be world champion at something, anything. It's as if the pursuit of excellence had gone out of control, like motorists zigzagging from lane to lane to be in the front row at a stoplight.

One thinks of all the fingers raised for television cameras to the chant: ``We're No. 1'' - does anyone really care at what?

Maybe No. 1 at pushing a baby carriage the farthest - 148 miles in 24 hours, from Pembroke Castle to Castle Caernarvon in Wales by a 14-member team called the Pembroke Round Table.

Maybe No. 1 at high kicking - some 10,000 leg thrusts into space by Keith Nesbitt.

What one competes at, it seems, is the world record in meaninglessness.

Consider a typical irony:

Theodore Roosevelt set a world record in handshaking at the White House on New Year's Day, 1907. But by shaking the hands of 8,513 people, the 26th President reduced this act of trust and camaraderie to a mechanical friction of skin against skin.

Can being No. 1 at something essentially frivolous give a stunt significance? This is the premise of a lot of world records, which bear the same relationship to true achievement that being a celebrity bears to a deserved reputation.

Even when being No. 1 - the record-holder! - involves a more-than-trivial category, the compulsion to win can spoil everything, resulting in disaster as well as mere silliness. Who does not feel for the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, making himself ``the world's fastest human'' ever so briefly until he was found to have used steroids in his overwhelming desire to be No. 1?

There is a sobering sermon here somewhere. And now that you mention it ... the world record for longest sermon belongs to the Rev. Clinton Locy of West Richland, Wash., who, 33 years ago, moralized for 48 hours and 18 minutes on a number - quite a number - of themes. Our little crowd of record-resisters likes to imagine that, at some point in his ramblings, he called down fire and brimstone upon those who, out of confusion or boredom, divide life simplistically into neat columns of winners and losers.

In fact, there are no details on the Locy sermon - as usual when statistics pass for information, all the interesting questions go unanswered. What, for instance, was Locy's final topic, addressed to the eight members of his congregation who remained to the end?

Is it too much for a record-resister to hope that our croaking but still-impassioned orator might have reached a climax by preaching on the words ``Many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first''?

A Wednesday and Friday column

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