September 16 is so close, I can practically smell the rice cooking. Barring an emergency surgical procedure or a dire family emergency, I will be sitting in front of my TV that evening, raptly watching the season premier of Survivor’s ninth season, Vanuatu: Islands of Fire. Just thinking about it makes my toenails curl.
I started writing about Survivor in February of this year and had a blast chronicling
my observations about the All-Star season on a fan site for the show. When I told people about my column, many were incredulous as to how I could come up with new things to write about the show every single week. At this point, I would assume one of two things was happening: A) they had never watched the show or B) they simply didn’t know me very well. While I have a day job and a gym membership and a life and everything, I am first and foremost a student of other people’s business.
I am such a gossip whore.
I blame it all on the environment in which I was raised. I come from a tiny farming community in southern Minnesota with a population in the quadruple digits. The town is big enough so that the phrase “everyone knows everyone” doesn’t apply universally. It’s more like “everyone knows just about everyone.” The main activities of the younger set are drinking, making babies, setting up the occasional crystal meth lab, and talking trash about other people who are doing the same things.
While life in my hometown tended to move relatively slowly, the gossip mill circulated at a whirlwind pace. My best example of the speed at which bad news traveled involves a minor fender bender I got into when I was seventeen. An itty-bitty old lady who could barely glimpse the hood ornament on her massive Cadillac ran a stop sign and smashed into the driver’s side door of my 1974 Dodge Dart. No one was injured in the accident, which conveniently occurred a block away from the police station.
I was more annoyed than shaken by the situation, since the damage rendered my car door permanently dented shut. The old woman was beside herself with embarrassment and pleaded with Officer Skjelset to omit her name from the sheriff’s report, which appeared in the town’s weekly newspaper.
“Mildred will never let me hear the end of it at bingo,” she sighed, pressing a wad of Kleenex to her mouth.
The officer eyed me and chuckled. “Well, it’s a good thing you didn’t hit Mildred’s car then. That would have been much worse.”
The woman blinked and looked around. “Mildred doesn’t drive.”
I was clearly a nonentity to this woman, unworthy of an apology or even basic acknowledgement. I could also see that since I was a minor and not the one at fault, my presence was no longer needed at the scene. I entered my car through the passenger’s side and drove home.
I recounted the story to my parents, who listened sympathetically. After assessing the damage, they told me that the total cost of repairs would be more than the entire car was worth, so I resigned myself to owning a three-door sedan.
I was pretty much over the incident by the time I arrived at the basketball game that evening to play in the pep band. Vicki Dietrich, my academic archrival and an all-around brown-nosing show-off, ran up to me as I took a seat in the bleachers with my best friend.
She pointed a pink glittered nail at me and burst out laughing. “You got into a car accident! I heard all about it. You rammed right into Jason’s grandma.”
I pursed my lips. “Well, I really appreciate your concern, Vicki, but fortunately, no one was hurt. And for your information, Jason’s grandma was the one who hit me.”
Vicki arched an overly plucked eyebrow. “Oh yeah? That’s not what Donna Hansen said and she saw it all and told my mom all about it while she was cutting her hair this afternoon.”
“Well, Vicki, you can believe whatever you want to believe, but I have to tell you that I think it’s pathetic that you have nothing better to do than laugh at my misfortune.” I totally hated her.
“Your misfortune? Huh, if you want to talk about misfortune, Missy F. told me that you got a B on the history quiz.” Vicki broke out into more shrill giggles.
I could see that this was hopeless. No matter what my reply, Vicki would have found some way to work in more information, be it true or false, that she had gathered about me. I hadn’t told anybody about my grade on the quiz, but I had a suspicion that Vicki was paying Missy F. in cases of Diet Mountain Dew to look over my shoulder and view my scores. Of course, I always glanced at Vicki’s tests at any available opportunity, but I never mentioned this knowledge to anyone. Instead, I kept a secret tally and was able to roughly calculate Vicki’s GPA and class rank. I was still ahead of her, so this fresh accusation didn’t matter.
In a way, I pitied Vicki Dietrich. She got teased mercilessly for her unfortunate initials, earning unimaginative and undeserved nicknames from foul-hearted boys like “Ol’ Syphilis Head” and “Icky Dicky Vicki.” Her father taught sophomore biology and for an entire year, she had to sit through his class, addressing him as Mr. Dietrich and praying that he wouldn’t tell any more stories about how she ate his insect collection when she was two. She lived in the shadow of her two older brothers, twin football studs who had been recruited to Duke and Northwestern the year before. Her dating history amounted to two weeks of “going with” Randy Schumacher, a theater geek two years younger than her whom the entire town suspected was gay. He dumped her, of course, and she cried while trying to play her clarinet solo during concert band practice on that fateful day.
The fact that I had the goods on Vicki was no accident. I’ll say it again-I’m a gossip whore. And unless your parents kept you chained up in their barn or you lay in a coma at the local hospital, gathering the goods on someone was practically unavoidable.
Even boys were not immune to getting caught up in the gossip circuit. The most traditional topics centered around which girls were willing to put out and strategic sessions about the best way to encourage such willingness.
The day after I had my first kiss, I entered my social studies class and John Walsh, a nasty boy with split ends in his mullet, announced, “Dude, Sarah and Trent totally made out last night.” I turned bright red and sat down at my desk, trying to reason out when and how this information had leaked, and so quickly, too. I had only told my best friend, who had sworn secrecy and was typically a woman of her word. Trent didn’t really have any friends and was very quiet and shy, definitely an unlikely candidate for locker room bravado.
I was thoroughly confused. Had spies peeked through the tiny windows of my parents’ basement? Had my mother seen us? Or was she just really smart like Frances McDormand’s character in the movie Almost Famous, who confronts her teenage daughter with, “You’ve been kissing. I can tell. And I know who it is” when she walks through the front door?
Such was the nature of my hometown’s grapevine, an unstoppable force that often worked in mysterious ways. I was certainly a contributor, a link in the chain, just like everyone else. Sometimes, when I was on one of my Seventeen magazine-inspired self-improvement kicks, I would try to keep silent while my friends dug up the dirt on someone, but these rumor fasts never lasted more than a day or two. One of our favorite gossip activities involved sitting down with the yearbook and going through, person by person, and either speculating or sharing insider details about everyone’s sexual experience or lack thereof.
This kind of overt airing of dirty laundry naturally led to some paranoia, both on the part of the gossipers, who feared exposure as the sources of slander, and those who were the subjects, since they could never be sure who knew what and how much they knew. In essence, this atmosphere bore a striking resemblance to the social interactions on Survivor.
Mark Burnett, the show’s producer, likes to boast that Survivor strips people down to the psychological core. The absence of material comforts and adequate food and water, as well as the desire to evade elimination, foster a gossip culture so complex that by the end, one can’t really be sure of what she actually said and what others accuse her of saying.
Although I gladly escaped my hometown long ago, I find Survivor oddly comforting, like going home for an hour each week. It brings me back to a life I no longer inhabit now that I am a dedicated urban dweller. And damned if Jeff Probst doesn’t bear an uncanny resemblance to my ninth grade gym teacher.