It’s warm today here in Florida, a couple-day’s spate between fronts. Tonight thunderstorms roll in, flashing and booming in darkness, carrying in their line the danger, always, of tornadoes at this time of year. After the front rolls through, tomorrow it will clear and turn cold and windy, with a high of 64 and evening temps headed into the 40s. A frigid day Saturday’s trio of events at Daytona, oh boy. I plan to go with plenty of layers of warmth, remembering how chilled I got last year up in DePalma Tower watching the conclusion of the Bud Shootout. It was a full-mooned night – beautiful – but temps in the 40s gave me a case of shakes so bad after it was over that I didn’t warm up fully until the next day.
But that’s really the good news. Up north, conditions are much worse, with a major nor-easter predicted to slam into the mid-Atlantic, causing heavy snow for high-populated areas of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania. It’s just another rough bit of weather from the current reign of El Nino in the Pacific, said to be in its strongest and most influential position in a decade. El Nino is the product of an oscillation, every three to seven years, of air pressure and water temperatures in the western Pacific Ocean; when the air pressure is low and water is warm, El Nino (“the little boy”) results; when the opposite occurs, we get El Nina (“the little girl”).
Well, the Little Boy has been back with a vengeance this year, firing his arrows of crap like a Cupid with attitude. Last month, California was awash in rain, blizzards have tormented the Midwest and East coasts, and with the jet stream pushed further south, the Gulf region has been heavy with storms. (One that strolled over Central Florida a month or so ago dumped five inches into our garden rain gauge in two hours.)
Global warming may be behind the intensification of El Nino systems over the past 50 years, but many debate that as warming conditions intensify in the lower regions of the ocean, the Little Fucker’s punch may abate. (Things to look forward to: calm skies over flooded Florida.) But as they say, climate is what happens over a century; weather is for today.
El Nino and the Dude, aka El Duderino.
And for now, El Nino “abides,” a phrase lifted from the lips of the Dude, the lead character from The Big Lebowski. Starring Jeff Bridges and filmed by the Coen Brothers in 1998 (oddly or perhaps presciently, during the last big El Nino season), the movie is about an LA slacker and bowling enthusiast named the Dude—aka Jeffrey Lebowski–who is mistaken for a millionaire also named Lebowski whose wife has run up an indecent tab with a porn movie producer who expects repayment. One night two thugs break into the Dude’s apartment and urinate on his rug to coerce him into paying a debt he knows nothing about. While attempting to gain recompense for the ruined rug from his wealthy counterpart, he accepts a one-time job with high pay-off. He enlists the help of his bowling buddy, Walter, a gun-toting Jewish-convert with anger issues. Deception leads to more trouble, and it soon seems that everyone from porn empire tycoons to nihilists want something from The Dude.
Somehow through it all, the Dude is threatened but never really in danger, perhaps due to his pot-addled/tai-chi/bowling affinities which allow events to stream off his habitually So-Cal surfer demeanor like Pacific waters off a waxed board. “The Dude abides,” says D. at the end, and all comes out well.
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Quite well, for the film has moved from cult-classic status into the academic boobosphere, spawning a new industry in useless graduate English schools. Last year the University of Indiana published The Year’s Work in Big Lebowski Studies with such papers as “The Once and Future Dude: The Big Lebowski as Medieval Grail-Quest,” “Metonymic Hats and Metaphoric Tumbleweeds: Noir Literary Aesthetics in Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski”, “Dudespeak: On How to Bowl Like a Porn Star,” “On the White Russian” (the Dude’s beverage of choice), and “The Big Lebowski and Paul de Man: Historicizing Irony and Ironizing Historicism.” Writing literary criticism without having to read a primary text, now, that’s so of the moment. What better way to clog the arteries of our economy than with this debt-saturated graduates with MA’s and PHd’s in Lebowski Studies.
The Dude has many handles, but he definitely not “Lebowski,” as he tells the other Lebowski. “Let me explain something to you. Um, I am not ‘Mr. Lebowski.’ You’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.”
I’m not sure El Duderino is a palliative for El Nino, but it is a pleasant enough distraction. An attitude for rough times which are oddly similar, with the movie set in 1991 during the first Gulf War and ours entrenched in wars which are the direct descendents of that moment. 1991was also the time of the last recession, the newspaper I was working out having its first reduction in force, firing some 100 or so employees on one day. It was an event like 9/11, permanently erasing the former sense of security we all felt that, if we did our jobs, we’d be assured of one in the years to come. I left that newspaper in 1998, when The Big Lebowksi came out and when the last big El Nino system did its worst storm damage to Florida. Late Sunday night, Feb. 21, a vicious front which cut across this region of Florida with F3 tornadoes that passed right over our house and killed some 20 people in Sanford, twenty miles to the east of here, then skipped on to Daytona where it killed 13 and injured 36. Today that newspaper is a shell of the workforce-reduced one of 1991—it has lost millions of dollars as the classified adversting market disappeared into cyberspace, and its parent company Tribune teeters on a bankruptcy which threatens my Tribune pension, money I can’t get at for at least another three years.
The tornado system of Feb. 22, 1998, whose upper arm jumped over our house near midnight and then rained hell on Sanford just to the east.
With El Nino back, will there be tornadoes tonight, or will El Duderino abide? Jeff Bridges, who starred as The Dude, abides: he’s the shoe-in candidate for Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Bad Blake, the alcoholic, washed-up country singer in Crazy Heart. And he said in a recent NPR interview that he begins another collaboration with the Coen Brothers this year in filming a re-make of the 1969 classic True Grit, starring, if you can believe it, in the John Wayne role of Rooster Cogburn. (There are no current plans, he said, for a Big Lebowski sequel.)
In that age of El Nino, El Duderino was a palliative for bad shit. Does his spirit still abide in his spiritual children (we know he conceived toward the end of the film), fans of the film and his attitude, fanning, like billows of pot-smoke, across the land, white Russian in one hand and a bowling ball in the other.
Liken the soul of racin’ to El Duderino, a laid-back country boy with a devotion to moonshine and Daisey Dukes and fast cars: and El Nino becomes the sea-change of woes to afflict NASCAR and the sport, enduring times that have seen slumping attendance and TV ratings and economic woes that have handcuffed teams and manufacturers.
Like a weather system on the loose, NASCAR is hoping a little more wildness will attract fans. “Have at it, boys,” was the way NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton put it during a Concord, N.C., press conference on Feb. 4. “The outcome remains to be seen, but it’s back in their hands and anything can happen,” Pemberton said.
With the bump-draft restrictions off the table, the Shootout will provide a glimpse at what the remainder of Speed Weeks will look like. “We’ve (drivers) heard the comments from NASCAR,” John Andretti said. “They’ve told us to, ‘loosen up your ties, but don’t forget you still have a tie on and we can still grab it and tighten it if we have to.’ It’s sort of like, the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, now under review: drivers are being given permission to let er rip, but if they show too much of their ass on track, the pants are coming back up.
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The storm front raced across Florida on Friday afternoon, causing TV forecasters to go into end-of-the-world mode but producing little of the most-feared results. Imagine a fast-moving wave sweeping across the skies of Central Florida, with the most menace at its forward edge. When it first slammed into the state, high winds knocked over one of the tents of the Florida State Fair in Hillsborough County, injuring seven. Within a couple of hours it had hurried off into the Atlantic on the other coast. In Melbourne, high winds tore off the roof of a boat house and tossed it 150 yards away. “It lifted up and started twirling,” said one witness. But it didn’t quite make it to Oz, and by 5 p.m. the threat was mostly over. Daytona 500 practice on Friday was called off in the middle of the first round due to rain, but at the end a pretty rainbow hovered over the track. Now it just blows—all of that cold high pressure hurrying into the void left by the fleeing low front (winds are caused by the movement of air between high and low pressure zones).
And as predicted, the heavy El Nino shit was reserved for the Northeast, dumping more than two feet of snow on Washington DC in what has been called “Snowmageddon” or, if you’re into the whole Iraq thing, the Mother of all Blizzards. Such conditions makes strange bedfellows, as when former Democratic Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, whose car had gotten stuck in the snow, was rescued by the Washington affiliate of Fox News. (Well, the photographer got out of the van to help out; the “talent”—read reporter—stayed inside to stay warm). The country’s business in Washington came to a standstill, along with everything and everyone else, but then, no one whose been observing Capital Hill for the past, oh, decade, could tell any difference.
It was business as usual — same paralysis, different reason– in Washington when a weekend blizzard shut down the Capital.
Surely all the NASCAR teams who had made the trip down to Daytona earlier in the week were relieved at their timing. Indeed, folks at the Speedway were offered a strange bit of visual grace as the storm front raced into the Atlantic: a huge rainbow, like a big grin on El Duderiono’s slacker face. Perhaps all indeed will be well this weekend.
Pole qualifying. Danica in the ARCA race. The Bud Shootout: far freakin’ out, man.