Big Wheel(s) Turning


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In his essay “Circles,” Ralph Waldo Emerson provides the defining shape of this post:

The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose centre was everywhere, and its circumference nowhere. …  Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.

Ah circles — curved like the infamous liberal media bubble (which is, at least, filled with oxygen rather than farts which crow in the jagged voice balloons of Fox News helmetheads) but heftier, sloshy with milkier meanings weaned from liberally-mediated truth-bubbies …

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The truth(s), “Modern Family”-style, er, with a nod to co-star Sofia Vergara.

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To pun on St. Augustine, the nature of racin’ is a circle whose center (for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, at least) was everywhere at Chicago Speedway on July 10, when the No. 00 Toyota of David Reutimann beat the No. 99 Ford of Carl Edwards to the checkered flag for his first flat-out win in Sprint competition.

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Racing is a centrifuge of high-decibel mayhem. There is the oval of the track whose transit is like all racetracks in that it’s all about haul ass and turn left, yet is unique in its layout and handling (Chicago is somewhat likened to Atlanta and Michigan, though its specie of oval is unmatched elsewhere, with the a curved back straightaway that fools most drivers).

Each race location draws a radius of fans which grows wider the further the race is from its Southeastern heartland; fans came to Chicagoland from rural Illinois and from Iowa and Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. And yet, for such a generous geographical cup-size, attendance was anemic—67,000 was the official count (capacity is 75,000) but the stands were visible sparse.

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The Chicagoland circle is a web which contains bits of location and history peculiar to the area. (If you didn’t read all about that, see my previous post, “Ain’t no cure for my Chicagoland blues (thank God).” Chicago is a pretty big town; a whole lot fits in it city limits; a guy could get lost there, as I did, trying to find the center of what matters, or what matters most. That’s where all of the circles and centers come in, and the more you disturb, the more the overall squawkin’, like a chorus of drunken oysters.

Yet in another sense it’s just another round of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, a race tradition not as old as the hills but at least as old as the moonshine runners who once raced them. Then again, those race cars—heavy with steel, lumbering to reach speeds of 80 miles per hour—succeeded early versions of wheeled transit – train and coach and chariot—were in turn were succeeded by fast and faster cars, organized into what was called Grand National races and then Winston Cup races and now Sprint Cup races. The principle of the wheel is old as our recorded history, and races on toward a future which may leave wheels behind altogether, though something will continue to go round and round and round.

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For every race there’s a ritual of events which lead up to the actual race. Every race has pre-race entertainment, which at this race was provided, of course, by a band named Fuel. There are driver introductions which are made with great and raucous fanfare, so loud that the drivers all seem tiny iota in the process, waving bits which walk off a stage, shake the hands of a half dozen luminaries, climb into a car and are ferried across the grandstand stretch onto pit row where they jump out and walk to their car. In each race there is an invocation (delivered at Chicagoland by Glenn Spoolstra of Raceway Windy City Ministries); there is the singing of the national anthem (Jim Cornelison, who’s been singing the song before the start of Blackhawks games since 1995), accompanied by a flyover of Air Force jets at the song’s end; for this race four Talon 38’s of the 25th FTW Wing from Vance Air Force Base did the flyover.

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Lifelock.c0m 400 Grand Martial Duncan Keith, star of the 2010 champion Chicago Blackhawks.

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Then an appointed Grand Marshall gives the order to start the engines; Chicago Blackhawks star Ducan Keith, who led the Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup championship since 1961, was given the honor. An ensuing thunder and roar then gives the fans their first aural sample of the Sprint Cup cars at full song, raising the excitement and expectation; the cars slowly roll off of pit row and begin circling the track, parading around several times before the pace car pulls off and the pack approaches the start-finish line where the official waved the green flag and the pack took off, accelerating up to full speed in chorus of howls which sings that we aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto, were are now in the Emerald City of Speed.

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Such rituals sate our need for circular foundations, the walled city or temple situated on that navel where the world began, where the gods gave birth, through their ritual fucking and gestation, the round wheel of this planet.  The center of this place is where mortal and immortal, man and his gods, track chicks and Wynona, all connect. A race is a reenactment of a Road of Trials, the spirit’s education in the mortal sphere defined by trial and error, the Ogre at the Gate and the Sword Bridge, the Bump and the Grind, the Hot Pass and the Spinout … And that Road starts and ends at the same place, navel and tomb, tomb become womb of the next life, the next cycle. The cycles move up and they move down in concentric spirals, blessed and damned, sacred and profane: You can read a race either way, as the Yellow Brick Road or the Highway to Hell, with fickle Wynona as the prize, a dame with luscious maternal breasts (rounds of heaven) and a cootchie that will cauterize your soul into a burnt lump of coal for daring to dive to full depth.

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Circular city of Firuzabad (originally Ardashir-Khwarrah (the “Glory of Ardeshir”), Sasanian dynasty in modern Iran, built ca. 250 AD.

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The Lifelock.com 400 was defined by 267 laps or transits, each a cycle of the one furious spiral which was race in its entirety. On each lap there was an unfolding tale, and stages of the race were defined by different leaders, each who seemed poised to go all the way in front. Jimmy Johnson led in the early stages of the race, ahead of the pack for 92 laps; on the 93d lap he was passed by Jamie McMurray who stayed in front til lap who led til lap 165 when Jeff Gordon took the lead; then he and David Reutimann began battling it out, with Reutimann taking the lead on lap 201, Gordon taking it back on lap 212 and Reutimann taking it back on lap 212. Toward the race’s end, the lead became fluid: Clint Bowyer charged ahead on lap 232, Carl Edwards took the lead on lap 233 and Juan Carlos Montoya held the lead on lap 235. But then the Double Zero of Reutimann charged forward on Lap 236 and kept the lead all the way through lap 267 when he won the race.

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Central to every race car’s performance, and frequently its outcome, are its wheels; four perfectly round tires spinning at speeds of up 170-mph, going into the grueling coefficients of the three turns in the Lifelock.com 400, ever rolling, ever wearing. Pit stops are defined most by how much time it takes to change out two or four tires; tire changers are under the greatest duress of the whole crew as they furiously remove one set of lug nuts, groove on a tire, race around the wheel pneumatically fastening a handful of lugnuts before moving on to the next tire. Mistakes can cause precious seconds which greatly affect track position and who is where on the final green-white-checker restart. Tires go flat or blow on the track and are the frequent cause of wrecks; a bad tire is the dealbreaker no one can anticipate (evidence the No. 48 on July 10), and four fresh tires instead of two can mean overtaking half the pack to grab the win.

Wheels spinning so fast that their augment and augur are smoking,dizzy and dangerous. They are the only point of greatest contact between a racer and a track and the thing they have the least control over (instead, most races driver and crew chief harangue endlessly to make a tight car loose or a loose car tight). Anyone who drives understands the precarious faith we have in our cars’ tires, wearing down as we rack up the commute’s long miles to work and home, wobbling at higher speeds or blowing out inconveniently.

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Tires are like the motion of our life, our mortality ever in contact with the day for better and ill, something we can maintain to some degree but having no control over road conditions, debris, the approach of careening cars. Each day we roll on, a bit more battered and worn for the effort, with few opportunities of changing out the equipment (four new tires cost over 600 bucks now), praying to stay out of the line of fire which every day catches someone in is crosshairs. Ever drive by a horrendous wreck in a slow, appalled, enrapt single file to catch the goriest details, vehicles crushed like paper balls, long stains of fuel and blood on the road: and feel the cool breath of death pass you by, so narrowly, once again?

Today, you go home. But the Reaper will make his call, someday, cutting loose your mortal coil …

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The mortal part of transformation is a flux, is never fixed. The faces of race winners change — Reutimann at Chicago, Harvick at Daytona, Johnson at Dover, Hamlin at Michigan – but the round continues on, every week a next winner, every year there is a single champion: One person stands at the center of adulation and, sporting as shit-eating grin and eyes somewhat dazed from the glare of media attention, smiles and waves and waves and waves.

It’s easy to know in depth all that formed the last circle—for hindsight is 20/20 — but the next circle is inscruitable. You never know what’s coming at you round the bend. You cannot read the race’s outcome on any given lap; on any given race, a leader can falter the way Jimmie Johnson did when he spun on the lap 137 backstretch due to a right front tire problem; getting it fixed put him 2 laps down and out of the competition. Points leader Kevin Harvick, who had won the Coke Zero 400 the week before, had engine troubles throughout had to go into the garage for a new fuel pump. He finished 34th, 16 laps down.

The race’s most dramatic event came on Lap 180 when Bill Elliott cut a tire and went into the wall on Turn 4, starting sliding slowly down the track and then stopped. Robby Gordon’s wheels locked as he tried to drive through the wreck (drivers aim for sliding wrecks, figuring it won’t be there by the time they go by), and T-boned Elliott’s car with a bang. Both drivers walked away from the wreck.

Every race is fateful as the wheel of fortune spins this way and then that. David Reutimann’s only other Sprint Cup win was in the 2009 Coca Cola 600 in Charlotte: he had stayed out when the rest of the pack pitted under caution, then was given the race when rain forced its cancellation. Reutimann was supremely lucky in getting his first win, but no one contends his mastery at Chicagoland on July 10. Reutimann was firmly at the wheel of that victory, or most so, since he was lucky he didn’t  have to contend with a green-white-checker finish (or up to three of them) with the likes of Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon right on his tail.

Spin the wheel for Reutimann as he whips round and round in his victory burnout: July 10 2010 was his night, a rare win for all but the usual suspects, and a much, much-needed win for Michael Waltrip racing.

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Yay for the Double-0h: The circles prevail …

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Players of the 2010 NASCAR season: Kevin Havick, Jimmy Johnson, David Reutimann, the Gulf oil spill.

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The Chicagoland race is one of 36 races which defines the Sprint Cup season and, as the 19th race of the season, falls at its midpoint. The season is circle composed of all those races in a circuit of American cities which is repeated twice, or roughly so, since not all towns are repeated–Chicago is one of them. Each season has a flavor composed of the races which comprise it, in the year of larger events which surround a mere sport in one country. This year every track has suffered the effects of the recession with falling attendance (the spring Bristol race failed to sell out for the first time in over sixty straight events). Bad weather has followed the circuit. The Gulf Oil spill, now in its eleventh week, spreads a pall over the country’s car culture, rendering it somewhat moot or ironic. Seasons can spiral out of control for a driver, the way Kyle Busch tanked in the Chase in 2008 and Denny Hamlin’s challenge to Jimmie Johnson in 2009 was done in by engine problems in several races resulting in DNFs.

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Ya never know: Jiimmy Johnson’s spin at the Lifelock.com 400 can start a spiral that takes him  out of the Chase.

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The race to the Chase is building to a climax – six more races to go – after that point, two thirds of the pack will become irrelevant, though they will race on. The wheel of fate spins faster and more dubiously for those who hover close to the No. 12 spot –Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer are within a 100 points of each other round that fateful number 12. They must command their steering wheels with the dual compulsion to get the best finishing track position they can achieve – which is one strategy – while also going for wins with give bonus points critical to position in the Chase.

The noose tightens, the boon lowers. Points matter. Wins matter, since once the Chase starts the leaders will be those with the most wins / bonus points. The heat is on. Next stop Indianopolis after a weekend’s break, first race of the final stretch to the Chase. The racin’ whirligig is beginning to smoke in its roar, dangerously close to its edge.

Just the way we like it.

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Sometimes – whether through fate or choice or mere celestial accident – a driver’s vehicle leaps the track to begin a different circuit. It’s still racin’, but open-wheel cars are nothing like “stock” cars, as Danica Patrick has learned this year. Danica managed a 28th finish in the Nationwide Series race on July 9 – her personal best – but finessing anything better is a challenge very few drivers have managed in their IROC-NASCAR transition, Juan Montoya being the notable exception. It’s still racin’, but we might as well be faring in two different elements, like on land and sea. Different track configuration, car, handling, strategy. There are even differences between roughly similar circuits — Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races share many drivers — but mastery of both is exceedingly rare.

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Danica Patrick makes as so-so transition from open-wheel to stock car racing; ex-NFL linebacker Warren Sapp proved he was no twinkle-toes on “Dancing With The Stars”

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Sadly, it may be that we are all one-note wonders, with talent enough to do one thing really (or approximately well). Watch an NFL linebacker on “Dancing With the Stars” or basketball player on the level of Michael Jordan attempt pro baseball, and it becomes obvious: stick to your day job, pal, the universe really only has one use for you.

In“Experience” Emerson puts an exclamation point on that “only one use”:

There is an optical illusion about every person we meet. In truth, they are all creatures of given temperament, which will appear in a given character, whose boundaries they will never pass: but we look at them, they seem alive, and we presume there is impulse in them. In the moment it seems impulse; in the year, in the lifetime, it turns out to be a certain uniform tune which the revolving barrel of the music-box must play.

Are our racin’ heroes then doomed to go round and round a racetrack, never finding anything of greater substance than in the mysterium of that roar? And will I ever be able to write much different about the same damn whirl?

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There’s gotta be something in this circle game which includes the addict and/or compulsive who is doomed to endlessly repeat his or her destructive motions – motions which they learned long ago from past damage, as if the next round down into darkness ritually repeats an unconscious myth, desperately trying to give birth in all the wrong ways.

There’s a traditional drinking song titled “Fathom the Bowl,” a round which, for obvious reasons, was popular in dark, smoky taverns in the depths of the night. Round and down we go to the bottom of the bottle, for reasons which are all to clear, if not shining or noble in any way at all:

Come all you bold heroes, give an ear to my song
And well sing in the praise of good brandy and rum
There’s a clear crystal fountain near England shall roll
Give me the punch ladle, I’ll fathom the bowl.

From France we do get brandy, from Jamaica comes rum
Sweet oranges and apples from Portugal come
But stout and strong cider are England’s control
Give me the punch ladle, I’ll fathom the bowl.

My wife she do disturb me when I’m laid at my ease
She does as she likes and she says as she please
My wife, she’s a devil, she’s black as the coal
Give me the punch ladle, I’ll fathom the bowl.

My father he do lie in the depths of the sea
With no stone at his head but what matters for he
There’s a clear crystal fountain, near England shall roll
Give me the punch ladle, I’ll fathom the bowl.

I’ll fathom the bowl, I’ll fathom the bowl,
Give me the punch ladle, I’ll fathom the bowl.

Keen the pun on the punch ladle as the coracle which rides to the deepest leagues of a rum-dum brandy-dandy drunken good time.  Each stanza is a round chorused with a toast that means to empty the bowl. Domestic circles are damaged – the wife is a “devil,” father is drowned at sea – so why not drink, and drink with impunity?

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Indeed. Hi ho, and around and down we go, till the bottom is fathomed; though it never is, unless you mean THE bottom.  Nine out of ten alcoholics would rather drink themselves to death; the alternative of recovery – that spiral path back up and out of darkness – is intolerable, because drinking isn’t really the problem but the intolerable feelings of sobriety. The dry linear life too much for you, with its procession of hurts and wearies and smarts? Bartender, you have something to fix this unbearable tightness of being? Well, try a few rounds of this.

Drivers often spend their whole race in a car that’s either too fast or too loose. When it’s tight, it understeers; the front wheels lose traction before the back wheels, making it difficult to steer sharp and smooth through the turns. On the other hand, when a car is loose it oversteers; the rear tires have trouble sticking in the corners, causing the car to fishtail as the rear end swings outward going through turns. The condition is corrected in the pits when  crew members make trackbar adjustments to add or reduce spring pressure on the tires.

A well-adjusted car is, well, tempered: like a piano whose 88 sets of strings have to be tuned a manner that the entire instrument is on level with a single tone, so a race car’s handling requires temperance – neither too tight or too loose. Endlessly crews tweak those springs on each pit round until the car finds the groove down the middle.

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The trick, then, is to dip in the bowl without drowning in it … If a racecar can’t be so tempered, it ain’t gonna win any races; if a body can’t temper spirits (and the balancing agent here is spirit, or spirituality), then its down to join daddy we go.

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Jimmie Johnson —  perhaps the most even-tempered Sprint Cup driver, who  drives perhaps the most well-tempered car, usually, in a race, for the fifth season in a row — with wife Chandra, who recently gave birth to Jimmie’s little girl.

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In the way that a dream of a race promoter which gives birth to a track is round – build it, they will come, you will make money, invest in more, and more will come — so the womb which gives birth to each of us individually is a circle. Chandra Johnson, wife of Jimmie, delivered the pair’s first child — a girl —  on July 7. Fatherhood establishes a new round for a driver, as JJ discovered commuting back and forth from Chicago to Charlotte in the days preceding the July 10 race. Though few admit it, the added role alters the circuit of thoughts in a drivers’ head as they gun it into the fray. (Early NASCAR drivers, when their fate hung much higher in a race’s balance, frequently taped pictures of wives and children inside their cars.) Drivers also expecting children soon from their mates include Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Gordon.

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Left, aminiotic sac; right the moon is believed by many scientists to have been born from the Pacific Ocean (at least, there’s a moon-sized basin at the bottom of the Pacific).

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The domestic circle holds us all our lives in an embryonic sac which we are never quite birthed from, for better and ill. The same womb which gave birth to Kurt Busch also delivered Kyle; serial wombs gave birth to Dale and Kerry Earnhardt; generational wombs delved Lee Petty, father of Richard, father of Kyle. Father and sons are bound by a circle of influence which pairs so many racing phenoms with fathers driven to see their children race; yet that circle has in its background a motherly acquiescence, combining the devotion and fretfulness of mothers to sons, wives to husbands, that great saline oval which holds men in thrall hovering over a track’s rounding mayhems, praying God spare sons and lovers from the worst consequences of the night. Who doesn’t have a nephew or son or young gun buddy who’s permanently 19 or 23 in the grave, having raced too closely along the precarious edge which careens down into the tomb?

The saline solution inside Chandra Johnson’s womb is exactly the same as that of the sea, as is the salt composition of Jimmie Johnson’s young daughter. Great oceans – Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Artic and Southern—cover four-fifths of the Earth’s surface; our consciousness has borders with the unknowable similar to shores ever at war with the sea, and our psyches have depths comparable to the abysms. We ferry the ocean our minds and bodies, and of those round depths we know, like ourselves, so little.

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The circle of a day repeats every 24 hours; a week repeats every seven days; a month every 28 to 31 days; a year ever 12 months; a decade every ten years; a century every 100 years; a millennium every 1,000 years. Some cultures believe that time is cyclical, that we repeat the eons on some grand clock. The Mayan calendar comes to an end in 2012—at least one of the eons. The vibe of Mayan finality hangs in our culture, even though most cultural archeologists believe that the Mayan calendar’s end was simply the grace note of the next age’s spiral birth.

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According to the Mayan calendar – were time is etched in wheeled stone – history rolls to a stop in 2012. One history, at least … but who’s to say tomb of one ain’t womb of another?

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When a transit such as the Mayan calendar prepares to come full circle, there is a sense of latency. The dying year is an old man and the next year a baby. In Celtic culture, the eve of the New Year (Oct. 31) is when time is thin and all the dead revisit the living. A spooky, revenant time, or no-time, with all manner of reversals and trickery. Maybe that’s why Jimmie Johsnon has won four championships in a row – stopping NASCAR time– and why everything seems to be falling apart in NASCAR all at once. (Of course, things seem to be falling apart everywhere – how many earthquakes this years? other natural – and man-made – disasters? how fast does the clock seem to run, at the same time hovering in the sort of slo-mo which precedes a car wreck?)

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If Johnson wins a fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship this year, has time stood still?

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Christians believe that time is earthly; in heaven and hell there is not time, or it is eternal. The circle comes to an end in infinity and eternity. The End Time is predicted in the Bible, but it is made clear that no one can know the precise hour of Rapture: we have lived always with the certainty that things have never been worse, thus becoming convinced that in our time will come the End. But every circle defines a greater limit to exceed to, and so we progress and digress, never greater and worse.

Similarly, how can things so dire on one transit – recession and depression, ecological disasters, Tea Partiers poised to occupy Congress – yet so silly on another track, with Lindsay sending cryptic little “Fuck You” messages inscribed on her fingernail to the judge in her trial, or “exclusive” photos of BP’s Tony (“I Want My Life Back” watching a World Cup game in a bar with a woman not his wife.

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Celebrity trumps attitude every time. Almost.

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Perhaps this is the meaning of the 00 of Reutimann – symbol of infinity – finishing right ahead of the 99 of Edwards – NASCAR’s final number: The extremes of wildly dissimilar tracks are headed for a smash-up on the horizon of our lives. It’s Dorothy of real days in her unpainted clapboard hardtack house landing square in the middle of Oz, squashing Kim Kardashian, Wicked Witch of the East, just as she was showing off her evil booty curves to the paraparazzi as she was out clubbing.

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Kim’s wicked bedonkedonk and the house from Kansas that spiraled down and went bonk–leaving only a pair of ruby red Manolos.

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In writing, it is said that one is never finished with a creation; we only leave it at a final draft, essentially giving up on it to move on to something else. We play the circle game only so well, tiring of the round and round transit which leaves us off always at the same starting place. (Multiple divorcees should understand this well.) Eventually the luckless, winless driver retires from the sport, or is cut from a team. I wonder how much longer we’ll see the likes of Casey Mears or Scott Speed in Cup competition.

Other drivers hang in long past their prime – Bill Elliott, Michael Waltrip and even Mark Martin come to mind. They never give up, even though they slip further in the standings: something indomitable rules them: the oval track is so grooved in their hearts and minds that there is no leaving it. I think of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s exit in the 2001 Daytona 500 – getting out of the competition the only valid way for a driver who would never let up on the gas, getting out before NASCAR’s corporate transformation, before 9/11 and Iraq and the Great Recession and the Gulf Oil Spill. I mean, how many times can you go round in glory? Ugliest to me are rock stars from the 60s and 70s still trying to make a buck on the circuit from past glory. Rock and roll is not an old person’s game.

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Doth youth spring eternal in rockers Ringo Starr and Keith Richards? Not.

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So many times I’ve been tempted to give up on these Ovalscreams, which seem so often like a fruitless round headed down the deep leagues of a post. Yet there is always a new Theme, a new slant, a next room of the dream to pursue where only words dare to go. So I keep on keepin’ on, for this season at least. The storyline for this week is that Double Zero and No. 99 finished 1-2 at the Lifelock.com 400 on July 10, 2010, the beginning and end to all NASCAR numerals. Two circles side by side can read nurture and yee-hah, if you’re a breast man; the watchful gaze of a race fan, watching cars go round; snake-eyes, if you’re lost in the compulsion to roll the dice; infinity, if you’re of a mythic bent of mind.

Follow Reuitimann’s paired circles any way you wish: but follow them out beyond the limits of where you previously sought and sampled the Edge before creeping back to safety.

Or so saith Emerson, who ends this post where he began in “Circles”

There are no fixtures to men, if we appeal to consciousness. Every man supposes himself not to be fully understood; and if there is any truth in him, if he rests at last on the divine soul, I see not how it can be otherwise. The last chamber, the last closet, he must feel, was never opened; there is always a residuum unknown, unanalyzable. That is, every man believes that he has a greater possibility.

Another race, at least. Another post.

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