For hours, the fear was the boy would be found smashed to jelly somewhere, so my first emotion upon learning 6-year-old Falcon Heene was actually safe in his family's Fort Collins, Colo., attic, was relief.
When authorities said two days later the whole story of a boy trapped in a balloon floating away was an elaborate hoax perpetrated by a family hoping to land a reality TV show, I suppose my second emotion was the anger anyone feels at having their chain yanked.
Hard on the heels of relief and anger, though, there comes a certain soul fatigue at the realization we live in an era where some people are so besotted with the need to make themselves famous that something like the alleged Heene hoax no longer surprises in the least.
"Everybody is a star." So wrote the philosopher Sly Stone in 1969. In so saying, he intended no declaration more radical than that each of us is special in her or his own way.
Forty years later, when it sometimes seems as if every third person has a publicist and it is harder to get off camera than on, what Stone said has come to feel frighteningly literal - and prescient.
Stardom has undergone a perverse democratization. Where once it was the prize awarded a lucky few who earned it through rigorous honing of natural vocal ability, comedic timing, dramatic talent, terpsichorean prowess, it is now regarded as something anyone can have.
Journalism, curiously enough, has undergone a similar process. In a development that must grate any reporter still paying off his J-School loans, it has increasingly become the province of so-called "citizen journalists" and "iReporters."
Likewise, natural talent and the honing thereof are increasingly disconnected from stardom. These days, all it takes is the willingness to be rude, crude, lewd - or nude, on camera. All it takes is proximity to scandal, a bizarre video posted on YouTube, a willingness to live some caricature of one's real life for public consumption. All it takes is a complete lack of personal borders, self-awareness or ability to be embarrassed.
Heck, Levi Johnston has a modeling gig and a TV commercial and all he did was knock up his girlfriend. Paris Hilton has a marketing empire and all she did was have sex on tape. Kim Kardashian has a TV show and a product line, and all she does is exist.
If authorities are correct, then, the heinous Heenes are simply avatars of the new zeitgeist. Indeed, it might be argued that in an era where everybody is a star, the only true weirdo is the person content to live his life quietly beyond the reach of cameras.
Seen in that light, one can hardly blame the Heenes if they did what authorities say, if Richard and his wife Mayumi - both actors - concocted the balloon stunt as a means of making themselves famous. They once appeared on ABC's "reality" show, "Wife Swap," and Richard has been described by at least one associate as obsessed with bizarre ideas designed to bring the family fame.
The balloon stunt might have done the trick, except, of course, that Falcon spilled the beans during an interview on CNN, saying to his father, "You guys said that, um, we did this for the show." Now, ironically, the Heenes have all the fame they can handle, along with, at this writing, an expectation they will be indicted on felony charges.
Meantime, the rest of us are left to contemplate that zeitgeist they exemplify, an era wherein many of us look at a lack of personal borders, self-awareness and ability to be embarrassed and call it stardom. An era that makes us all unwilling voyeurs to the emptiness of others' lives. Used to be, people had more regard for themselves than to sell their dignity for our attention.
I guess that balloon is not the only thing floating away.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpittsmiamiherald.com.
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