As I watch the world go by — a passing parade that includes a lot of otherwise rational Americans, I wonder why some people do the outlandish things they do. Swallow squirming jungle bugs on reality-TV shows. Sing or dance badly on stage until someone drags them off. Jump off a bridge to within a meter of a canyon floor, saved from splattering death only by the tensile strength of an elastic cord.
And then there are the wacky, wild, warped, perhaps wonderful folks — a lot of them from right here in America — who try to make a mark by setting a world record in the strangest of ways. Balancing a ginormous number of peas on a spoon. Or skipping rope, blindfolded, for hours on end. That sort of thing.
There has to be just one universally recognized arbiter of record-setting zaniness, of course. Otherwise, I could sharpen 273 pencils in a minute — left-handed — and declare it a world record, completely unaware that some lefty in Sri Lanka had just sharpened 275 that quickly a week ago.
The judging of such achievements has fallen to the Guinness organization, which was once an offshoot of the British brewing company but now belongs to a Canadian firm that also owns and runs the Ripley’s Believe it or Not “odditoriums.” These mini-museums house kooky artifacts such as a seven-legged sheep and a portrait of the singer Beyonce made entirely of candy.
A serious and studious bunch.
Guinness still publishes the best-selling Guinness Book of World Records, which some say holds its own world record as the book most frequently stolen from libraries. Since a book can be only so fat and heavy, just a few of the thousands of records that Guinness recognizes make the book. It keeps the rest in a database but promotes them every time a new one comes along or an old one is broken.
Once upon a time, you had to go to some sort of sporting venue to set a world record. Or you could just be remarkable, such as the world’s oldest or shortest or heaviest human, or the person with the biggest nose.
But nowadays, you can set world records right in your back yard, on the street where you live, or down the block at a bar without breaking a sweat. Lots of people do, in preposterous ways.
Not just Americans, for sure. In the past year alone, Ukrainians set the standard for the largest mosaic made of donuts. Japanese produced the longest skewer of meat. South Koreans fired the world’s largest earthenware pot — after six tries in which their big pots broke.
At the Toronto Marathon in Canada last year, Mark Wilding broke the world record for the fastest time by someone dressed as a bottle. Imagine! Someone had already thought to establish the mark for this. Wilding’s time was 3 hours, 53 minutes, 26 seconds, in case this moves you to gather up cloth and start sewing.
Then there’s the Chinese who set the world record for the longest anamorphic painting, at 60½ meters (almost 200 feet). You know, one of those eerily three-dimensional creations that looks like what it depicts: an open manhole in the street, a busy market bazaar, or what you’d swear is a real train bearing down on you out of a tunnel on a wall.
But Americans take a back seat to no one when it comes to competition, so we dive headlong into the pursuit of weird records.
Just this spring, 450 women in Panama City, Florida, smashed the world standard — held by some lovely Australians — for the longest parade of bikini-clad bathing beauties. “This is the most exciting day of my life!” beach-marcher Karly Quinn told a TV reporter afterward. “Tears were coming out of my eyes, I’m so proud of the United States.”
Patriotism is sometimes scantily clad.
On February 28th, Lillian Hartley and Allen Marks of Indio, California, set a world record as the oldest couple to wed, when one combines their ages of 95 and 98 at the altar.
“I don’t like to flatter myself or anything, but I really feel it’s an inspiration to people, and to young people, to realize they can get old and be in love,” Lillian told the Desert Sun newspaper.
In an entry called “How to Break a Guinness World Record,” the Web site WikiHow lists nine steps:
1. Think of something you’re good at (like wearing a bikini and walking along a beach?).
2. Check the world record, if there is one.
3. Ask yourself, “Can I beat this?”
4. Train for the big day.
5. If you think you’re ready, register your idea with Guinness. More than 50,000 people a year contact the company to ask about setting a record.
6. If Guinness accepts the idea, it will send you a packet on how to proceed.
7. Make sure every preparation is complete. You can’t just show up, climb the town water tower, and cook a vat of gumbo, for instance.
8. Once the day comes, do your best.
9. (Quoting the tips:) “If you’ve done it, well go ahead and do that victory dance! Flaunt it!”
And if you’ve paid to have an official Guinness “adjudicator” on hand to verify the record on the spot, he or she will present you with a handsome certificate and up to 100 T-shirts, hats, hand towels, or recycled “eco-bags,” as mementos of the achievement.
Guinness says it recognizes records that it finds “provable, quantifiable, and breakable.” It won’t approve any involving perfect school attendance, the blowing up of buildings, or anything that could harm spectators or animals.
My countrymen have achieved all of the following Guinness World Records (exactly why is a question I’ll discuss shortly):
• Marry 23 times (and counting).
• Grow fingernails 3 meters, 10 cm [10 feet, 2 inches] long. That’s just on the record-holder’s LEFT hand. The ones on her right hand are a mere 2 meters, 92 cm [9 feet, 7 inches] long.
• Have 47 cosmetic surgeries.
• Immerse one’s body in ice — on a New York City street corner, no less — for 1 hour, 12 minutes straight.
• Sit in a bathtub with 87 rattlesnakes. Pooh! I was just ready to try that one.
In 2008, Guinness Book of World Records editor Craig Glenday told the Freakonomics Web site that what motivates those who try to set or break records “is different. Some do it for their own private, spiritual enlightenment; others do it to chase their 15 minutes (or megabytes) of fame; others just like seeing their name in a book. Almost every record holder will say they’re not doing what they do to beat the other guy — it’s all about beating themselves. It’s a very personal crusade . . . about not wanting to sit through life as a casual observer but to grab at every opportunity to try something new or push themselves to new limits.”
My colleague Chris Cruise, who wrote about Guinness quests for VOA’s Learning English unit, noted that the company considers a world record as “a way to understand your position in the world, a way to measure how you fit in. It believes knowing ‘the biggest, the smallest, the fastest, the most and the least’ helps us understand a world ‘overloaded with information.’”
Really? Seems to me that bizarre world-record attempts add to that overload. I keep wondering what really motivates someone to, say, create history’s longest strand of spaghetti.
Yes, it might be kind of fun for a group of pals to try to break a nonsense record on a lark. And I can see why Luigi’s Pizzeria would consider it a publicity bonanza to gather a bunch of people and bake a giant pie with a world-record number of toppings.
But why, oh why, would somebody such as Larry Olmsted strain to break two world records: for playing the card game “poker” 72 straight hours, and for playing full rounds of golf in both Australia and California — 12,000 km (7,500 miles) apart — in a single day.
Simple, Olmsted told Cruise: “Everyone wants to be famous. And, in a sense, while I don’t think you really become famous, from the record-setter’s perception, it’s a way to be immortalized.”
Immortalized! Famous forever. Balance on a 995-meter-long wire over a canyon, or pull a bus with a rope attached to your earlobe, and you can take a seat among immortals?
Olmstead wrote a book about another Guinness World Record holder. A serial one. He’s Ashrita Furman, 56, a Queens, New York, health-food store manager and self-described “celibate vegetarian” who, years ago, abandoned the study of business at Columbia University to seek a “deeper meaning in life.”
The search took him around the world, sometimes in the company of his Eastern-meditation instructor. Furman told me he once disdained sports as a frivolous “waste of time” but found himself training to the point that he was able to finish third in a 24-hour bicycle race.
“It was an epiphany,” he says, that athletics and other rigorous achievements can be “a spiritual experience” that “inspire people to oneness” with others, and with God. So he has been setting records, beginning with one for 27,000 jumping-jack exercise maneuvers in a row, in 1979.
27 thousand in a row.
He has since donned a sack, as one would at a picnic, and outrun a yak in Mongolia. “Sack beats yak!” the headline might have read.
He has skipped, as a child would, to a world record at the Taj Mahal, and “front rolled,” or somersaulted, almost 20 km (12+ miles) nonstop in Massachusetts, save for permitted breaks “to throw up.”
He got through it, he says, by chanting “I’m not the body, I’m the soul” when the pain grew too wracking.
Furman now holds 138 Guinness World Records, including the one for the most world records! Many were for new things he decided to do. Someone has to be first, right?
Among his less-strenuous feats: • tearing 24 T-shirts in half in one minute • eating 29 M&M candy bits in a minute — using chopsticks • running the fastest half-marathon with a milk bottle balanced on one’s head (2 hours, 33 minutes, 28 seconds) • successfully recording 14 hits in a game of table tennis, replacing the ball with an egg • slicing 27 apples in a row in midair with a samurai sword • balancing 223 cigar boxes at once on his chin • within one minute, picking up 9 golf balls with his feet and depositing them in a bucket five meters away.
He also holds the Guinness World Record for reaching the highest mountain peak (2,865 meters; 9,398 feet) on stilts. That’s the one he hopes to break next, in July, on Japan’s Mount Fuji (3,776 m; (12,389 feet).
Aren’t there sheer cliffs to scale? I asked him. “There are trails,” he replied. I didn’t remind him that Mount Fuji is an active volcano.
All this is for inner peace? I wondered. Maybe just a touch of fame and fortune?
Nah, he told me. “I live simply. I don’t even like publicity. Guinness wants me to do it.”
The world is way too serious, Furman says. “This spreads joy.”
Now I’m all fired up and ready to spread some joy.
I’ve told you about my collection of (to date) 1,952 beer bottles. What if I could break the existing world record for riding a unicycle over a row of them? I’d need to stay upright atop only 128 of them to do it. Not that I’ve ever ridden a unicycle.
Still, beer bottles belong somewhere in my epitaph, don’t you think?
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Ginormous. Very, very large. Way beyond enormous.
Preposterous. Absurd, senseless, ridiculous