Monday, July 28, 2008

The Stuff That Urban Legends Are Made Of

Paleoanthropology Division
Smithsonian Institute
207 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20078

Dear Sir:

Thank you for your latest submission to the Institute, labeled "211-D, layer seven, next to the clothesline post. Hominid skull." We have given this specimen a careful and detailed examination, and regret to inform you that we disagree with your theory that it represents "conclusive proof of the presence of Early Man in Charleston County two million years ago." Rather, it appears that what you have found is the head of a Barbie doll, of the variety one of our staff, who has small children, believes to be the "Malibu Barbie".

It is evident that you have given a great deal of thought to the analysis of this specimen, and you may be quite certain that those of us who are familiar with your prior work in the field were loathe to come to contradiction with your findings. However, we do feel that there are a number of physical attributes of the specimen which might have tipped you off to it's modern origin:

1. The material is molded plastic. Ancient hominid remains are typically fossilized bone.
2. The cranial capacity of the specimen is approximately 9 cubic centimeters, well below the threshold of even the earliest identified proto-hominids.
3. The dentition pattern evident on the "skull" is more consistent with the common domesticated dog than it is with the "ravenous man-eating Pliocene clams" you speculate roamed the wetlands during that time. This latter finding is certainly one of the most intriguing hypotheses you have submitted in your history with this institution, but the evidence seems to weigh rather heavily against it.

Without going into too much detail, let us say that:
A. The specimen looks like the head of a Barbie doll that a dog has chewed on.
B. Clams don't have teeth.

It is with feelings tinged with melancholy that we must deny your request to have the specimen carbon dated. This is partially due to the heavy load our lab must bear in it's normal operation, and partly due to carbon dating's notorious inaccuracy in fossils of recent geologic record. To the best of our knowledge, no Barbie dolls were produced prior to 1956 AD, and carbon dating is likely to produce wildly inaccurate results.

Sadly, we must also deny your request that we approach the National Science Foundation's Phylogeny Department with the concept of assigning your specimen the scientific name "Australopithecus spiff-arino." Speaking personally, I, for one, fought tenaciously for the acceptance of your proposed taxonomy, but was ultimately voted down because the species name you selected was hyphenated, and didn't really sound like it might be Latin.
However, we gladly accept your generous donation of this fascinating specimen to the museum. While it is undoubtedly not a hominid fossil, it is, nonetheless, yet another riveting example of the great body of work you seem to accumulate here so effortlessly. You should know that our Director has reserved a special shelf in his own office for the display of the specimens you have previously submitted to the Institution, and the entire staff speculates daily on what you will happen upon next in your digs at the site you have discovered in your back yard. We eagerly anticipate your trip to our nation's capital that you proposed in your last letter, and several of us are pressing the Director to pay for it.

We are particularly interested in hearing you expand on your theories surrounding the "trans-positating fillifitation of ferrous ions in a structural matrix" that makes the excellent juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex femur you recently discovered take on the deceptive appearance of a rusty 9-mm Sears Craftsman automotive crescent wrench.

Yours in Science,
Harvey Rowe

Curator, Antiquities

The above letter is, by far, the most endearing, droll and entertaining of all Urban Legends. It was written in 1994 by Harvey Rowe - who has no connection whatsoever with the Smithsonian. He sent it to several friends, just for fun, who sent it to several friends, etc. And 14 years later the Smithsonian is still getting calls from gullible American's asking to speak with Harvey Rowe. Check it out: I am forever indebted to my friend, Kathy H. for cluing me into the existence of this letter. Not because she believed it, but be cause she believed I would get a good laugh out of it. I still do 7 years later.

We've all gotten e-mails from well intentioned acquaintances filled with weird facts, catastrophic food ingredients, conspiracy theories with a panicked request to forward it IMMEDIATELY to 2,106 of your closest friends to avoid calamities, major disasters, world crisis beyond imagining or save an individual who is dying of cancer, leukemia, curiosity or any of a dozen other terrible illnesses.

The thing that amazes me is people believe these things without question. I think some thrive on them. They live in Cyberville and have lost touch with reality. Other than watching soap operas and serving Hamburger Helper there's nothing going on in their real lives.
When you get your copy of the life or death request you see 94 names listed along with yours. Most of the other e-mail names read like a sleaze dating ad: HotMama, Whosyodaddy, Bestinbed, Fuzzytiger, Handsomdude243. Do you like your name sitting there big as life in between Pinkpanties and Sexybob? I don't. I get creeped out. After I delete the e-mail I usually take a shower. Or gargle. Or wash my hands at least.

I check out requests that seem plausable, probable, vaguely or partially true at my favorite Urban Legends site, Snopes is the sanity check of the cyber-nation They will tell you if it's true, partially true or not even close. You'll usually find your latest warning among the 25 hottest legends.

I get a certain amount of satisfaction by copying the url debunking the urban legend in question and replying to my best and dearest concerned friend, leopardskinzdoll. I'm always so very sorry to burst his/her little catastrophic bubble with truth and logic, but hey. They just made me take an extra shower.

The usual result: They decide I'm no fun anymore and delete me from their e-mail list.



Poetikat said...

Funny, funny post, Cynthia!

The findings of this gentlemen recalled a true incident wherein my friend's dog, Zachary was running around the backyard with something in HIS mouth. When they finally managed to get hold of him, they discovered it was none other than the skull of their long-dead and buried guinea-pig, Dudley. I wonder what the fellow in this urban myth would have made of that? There must be sequels to this exchange - it's just too good not to have extended it to further "discoveries".

As for the dross that turns up in our mailboxes, I am frustrated by them not so much because they cause me concern, but because they thwart my efforts to send legitimate things by e-mail to people who are quite willing to get all caught up and paranoid in them. Just the other day, I sent a real Hallmark card on the occasion of a sad anniversary, only to be informed by the recipient that they had deleted it because it was "too close" to another e-mail warning "don't open anything with the words "Hallmark".
Today, I myself have this e-mail in my own inbox and have rapidly hit "delete".


Sandy said... party pooper you!!! Funny post today.

Nana Trish is Living the Dream said...

This is absolutely a Hoot! Girl, I know exactly what you mean about these scary emails. I have one particular friend that I don't hear from anymore unless it's to tell me something scary about needles in gas pumps,needles in movie seats or the latest food that I shouldn't eat. I agree that some of these folks live in a very small world. Bless their hearts. That letter about the Barbie was funny. OK, my b-day is 9/20 so you know we are only 9 days apart. I'm older though :)

MuseSwings said...

I have a few folks that continue to send me those e-mails. If they read the blog it might stop for sure.
I still think Im older than you!

steviewren said...

Right on. Preach it! My mailbox is clogged with this junk right now. I seriously have considered these people candidates for a sociology study. They rank up there with people to set up roadside shrines to lost loved ones. I sympathize with their loss, but the side of the road is not a place to grieve. That is what we used to think the cemetery was for.

Stepping off of my soapbox now.....

Poetikat said...

Just curious about what folks were saying on this topic...
Thank heavens I'm not the only one who thinks it is weird and creepy that people put up all these shrines on the road. There's one on Hwy 400, en route to Muskoka, Ontario where I've even seen a cat carrier! Does this mean a cat was in a car that was in an accident (and got killed)? I shake my head!


MuseSwings said...

PoetiKat: I haven't seen one of those - for an animal - perhaps it was run over on that spot, but the cat carrier? If it were the custom for all animals Florida would be littered with armadillo memorials.

You're right, Stevie. The roadside is not the place. Years ago in the Kentucky mountains the state would place markers saying "6 Died Here" or "5 Died Here" those were just grim reminders to drive carefully. I think the current markers and the need to gather and grieve may be an offshoot of that.

LL said...

Ha Ha! Where to begin with this much fun....

The Smithsonian letter...haven't seen it before and since it's been around so long, I now have to re-think all past concepts of my own is it that no one ever forwarded this to me? tee hee!

As for the warnings, I do what you do...check out snopes and then inform the emailer that its a hoax. But please, don't knock hamburger helper, surely its one of the must-haves on Vogue's list of "living well"? no? perhaps I'm mistaken.....