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Do Not Feed the Spectators

October 22, 2003

One parental benefit of taking children to the zoo, besides sticky fingers, ice-cream-stained clothing and the fragrance of animal manure, is seeing those little faces expand with wonder at the beauty of wild creatures up close in transparent confinement. Lions are lionly. Giraffes are tall. And monkeys are like a birthday party of preschoolers at the roller rink. Another zoo visit benefit is the up-close opportunity to witness humans witnessing animals. Most intriguing are the faces, sounds and antics of adult humans performing before monkeys.

Such spectacles came to mind the other day with the major news that David Blaine, the illusionist from Brooklyn (isn't that redundant?), had ended his self-imposed starvation and imprisonment in a plexiglass box suspended near the Thames in London. Like most non-Britons, we had been distracted from this happening by such superficial events as violence in Iraq, the California recall and North Korea's nuclear weapons publicity stunt. So we had suppressed any abiding anxiety over how this young man with too much time on his hands would cope with public isolation. Would he make himself sick consuming only water? Would he perish, making live TV an oxymoron?

Never mind the why of self-imposed torture and dieting. Well, no, never mind nevermind. Why do this? Could it involve ego, an adult cry for lost childhood attention, a desperate P.T. Barnum fame quest, a bid to boost his fee in Las Vegas next time? Might it be tied somehow to the 600,000 pounds he's reportedly getting from someone for some reason? The stunt caused widespread conversation in Britain and drew an estimated 250,000 monkey-watchers in its 44 days. Some came to cheer. Others booed, blew air horns to prevent sleep and cooked hamburgers to torture the dieter. Men mooned and women lifted blouses to make dual statements of some kind. Some speculated the stunt was a holographic illusion and that the real Blaine was offstage somewhere, wherever tigers and the ace of diamonds go when they disappear during magic acts.

"I've learned more in that little box than I have in years," Blaine said when he emerged. This may be an inadvertent comment on his recent reading. It certainly taught the world a few things. One, bothersome wisps of sadism infect reality entertainments. Two, people will watch anything as long as it's on the telly. Third, if Britons are so intrigued by an unshaven man sitting in a box not eating, imagine how they'd react to a freeway police chase. In an obvious ratings bid, Prime Minister Tony Blair had heart palpitations and was rushed to a hospital, just as Blaine was. Now, these important messages.

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