Category Archives: economy

By the time we got to Phoenix


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One

Yes, that’s all I had of this post as I thought ahead after the AAA Texas 500 to What’s Next, the title of an old country-pop song from my late childhood, twisted by time and the moon’s taxes to fit the moment in the 2010 Sprint Cup season when it could all be over for Jimmie Johnson’s crack at fifth consecutive title.

Johnson’s now slipped into second place, some 30 points behind surging Denny Hamlin yet still ahead of also-surging Kevin Harvick: Still well in contention but fading, his car, his team, perhaps himself not as up to the task as his competitors.

Looks that way at least from this next vantage from which I write, dark and cold outside, summer over, winter coming, elections done, a harder, colder crew moving into the positions of power, in an age with is harder and colder, haunted by old songs on the radio.

By the time we get to Phoenix, it will all be almost over …

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Phoenix is the next-to-last stop on the long season’s ride to Homestead. It’s the last chance for Jimmie to break away and a slim chance at best, his love affair with Wynona, NASCAR’s Trailer-Park Goddess of Destiny, playing out, as it has all season, bittersweetly, a love affair that has lost its wings, grown, stale, lifeless, Her attention seeming to turn to the figures racing always now just ahead of him. I choose to imagine Jimmie Johnson as the lover who knows he’s been jilted but races on the durable wires of hopes which he knows no longer exist but cannot let go of.

By the time we get through Phoenix, it may be clearly over: But for now, we can enter the mood of a Glen Campbell hit and its time, in the knowledge that our own face, this moment, will show in the silver mirror of song, sailing in the cold night sky of what surely to come.

And I choose to include in that reverie American troops having a last night with a beloved before deploying, and in the cold mountain ranges of Afghanistan taking sniper fire, and dreaming in the dark wards of Walter Reed Hospital, limbless, sorely wounded in mind and heart of their long, lonely, and too-forgotten enterprise of killing and being killed in the name of a country they hardly recognize any more.

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Two

Frank Sinatra once called “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” “the greatest torch song of all time.” It is one of the most covered songs in history, with thousands of recorded versions by the likes of Ray Price, Dean Martin, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and an 18-minute version by Isaac Hayes which includes an elaborate backstory on the events of the song. A country song with a black soul could elaborate on: that’s clout.

Glen Campbell was playing guitar as a session musician in a recording of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” by Pat Boone when he became so enamored with it that he decided to record it himself, which he did following a tour with the Beach Boys. It turned out to be pure payola of Campbell, with “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” earning him two Grammies in 1967 and launching a solo career which would earn him his own hit TV show and role in the 1969 movie “True Grit.”

Webb was 21 when he wrote the song and living in Los Angeles, though he’d been raised in Elk City, Oklahoma. It’s one of three songs he wrote about a broken-hearted love affair he’d had with a woman named Sue (“MacArthur Park” and “The Worst That Could Happen” were the other two).

In this attempt to frame that painful love affair, a man describes his decision to leave his woman. He drives east, presumably from Los Angeles, imagining what she is experiencing and thinking as he arrives different cities in his long and lonely drive:

By the time I get to Phoenix she’ll be rising
She’ll find the note I left hangin’ on her door
She’ll laugh when she reads the part that says I’m leavin’
‘Cause I’ve left that girl so many times before

By the time I make Albuquerque she’ll be working
She’ll prob’ly stop at lunch and give me a call
But she’ll just hear that phone keep on ringin’
Off the wall that’s all

By the time I make Oklahoma she’ll be sleepin’
She’ll turn softly and call my name out loud
And she’ll cry just to think I’d really leave her
Tho’ time and time I try to tell her so
She just didn’t know I would really go.

A fan once told Webb that the geography of “By the Time I get to Phoenix” was impossible – the time it would take to get to Oklahoma from Albuquerque is too short to go from the woman at lunch to being asleep at night. Webb replied, “It’s a kind of fantasy about something I wish I would have done, and it sort of takes place in a twilight zone of reality.”

Something about the liminal space of that song –- an imagined journey with imagined affect on a woman who keeps doing one wrong – is like dope to the ears and heart of a torch song. Who doesn’t dream of punishing a harsh mistress with the ultimate payback of finally shoving off and letting go, much to her surprise and, hopefully, filling her with hopeless regrets she will never resolve.

A broken heart for a broken heart: paybacks are hell, but in reality they never work when it comes to love, because an unfaithful beloved won’t wait by the phone for the departed jilted one to call – she just doesn’t care.

“By The Time I Get To Phoenix” is pure opium for the wounded heart, traveling long lonely miles through the southwestern desert, it emptiness filled with thoughts of the Beloved who hasn’t yet awakened to the truth that she’s done a man wrong for the last time. Too late for a final reconciliation: he’s gone, disappearing over the eastern horizon.

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The Glen Campbell version of “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” hit the pop charts in 1967 when peace and love was in the air, still deep in the romance of Flower Power, the Summer of Love. (Among its companions on the chart was “To Sir With Love” by Lulu, “Happy Together” by The Turtles, “Windy” by The Association, “Ode To Billie Joe” by Bobby Gentry, “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees, “Light My Fire” by The Doors, “Groovin’” by the Young Rascals, “I Was Made to Love Her” by Stevie Wonder, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Frankie Valli and “Never My Love” by the Association.) The time is enthralled – perhaps bewitched – by the belief in the power of love, like a teen in love for the first time.

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Yet those weren’t truths in Vietnam in 1967, as the sorties of B-52 headed out to drop their tonnage of napalm and explosives over North Vietnam and as 16,000 troops set out in Operation Cedar Falls set out to clear Vietcong operations around Saigon, discovering a massive network of Vietcong tunnels they would call The Iron Triangle. American casualties doubled in from 1966 to 1967 (to around 11,000 killed).

Surely a song like “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” making it to camps in the middle of that jungle had the sort of ennui of “White Christmas,” a fantasy not of sweet returns that every soldier dreamt of but rather the homecoming every one feared, to a woman who had moved on his absence. That would be the ultimate irony, to survive the helicopter battles over Tay Ningh or strafing mortar fire on the ground near the Cambodia border, only to come home and find one’s bed occupied by an other, probably some hip anti-war protester with leather fringe and hairy balls. “By the Time I Got To Phoenix” delivered on that fear, and must have made those lonely boys think of what roads lead away from every bad homecoming.

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Three

Jimmie Johnson finished third behind Jeff Gordon and winner Ryan Newman at the spring race in Phoenix, and though he was not leading in the points, many were flush with his possibilities. Monte Dutton had written this just before the Bristol race (which Johnson won) with something close to effusive ebullience:

… He doesn’t win every race, just three out of five so far. At this rate, he will capture a mere 22 of this season’s 36 races. Richard Petty’s all-time record of 27 in a season (1967) will stand, even though in that magical year, Petty won only 56.3 percent of the races and this year Johnson’s hoisting trophies at a rate of 60 percent.

But, seriously, folks, Johnson can’t keep up this pace. One of these days, someone’s going to step out in the street at high noon with an itchy trigger finger. It’s the Curse of the Gunslinger, and so many want to dare the Fastest Gun in the West (as in Western Hemisphere) to draw.

So far, this year and for the four preceding it, the challengers haven’t even gotten to the quick-draw portion of the competition. Before they can even saunter out into Main Street, Johnson’s twirling his pearl-handled revolvers, shooting the gun right out of the challenger’s hands with the right hand and firing at the feet with the other.

The love affair with Johnson’s fifth consecutive championship season was on. If anyone characterized the jilted lover of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” it was at that time probably Jeff Gordon, a 4-time champion who was keeping pace towards the front of the points race but hadn’t won a race since Texas in 2008. He was souring on teammate Jimmie Johnson, the kid he’d taken under his wing at Hendrick Motorsports and then watched zoom off with Wynona into a limelight that must have been galling to a man who surely thought he’d never lose the buzz of that brilliant moonshine. By the time we got to Phoenix in April, Jimmie was on a roll and Jeff was in his shadow.

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But the road from Phoenix in April to Phoenix in November has turned difficult for Johnson as well – true, he won three of the next 26 races, but Denny Hamlin won eight and Kevin Harvick another three. The fabled gunslinger has definitely slowed on the draw, and his Chase mastery is showing tarnish (he’s only won 1 of the 8 Chase races so far, compared to 3 in the same period of 2009, 2 in 2008 and 3 in 2007).

Clearly, Johnson is struggling to hold on to Destiny’s garters. They may have already passed from his grasp. The sense of an age passing is ripe in the air as the haulers make their way now to Phoenix.

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Four

As a follow-up to Campbell’s success with “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” Webb wrote “Wichita Lineman” for the  country crooner from Billstown, Arkansas (Campbell was one of 12 children born to sharecropper parents). The idea for song came to Webb as he was driving along the Kansas-Oklahoma City border and saw a solitary lineman working on up on telephone pole in the middle of nowhere. It struck him as exceedingly sad, making him imagine the lineman as a long-wandered-on lover trying to hear the voice of his lover in the song of the wind working those cables of communication:

I am a lineman for the county
and I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload
I hear you singin’ in the wire
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

I know I need a small vacation
but it don’t look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south
won’t ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you
and I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

Webb recorded his demo of the song accompanying himself on and Hammond organ, and when Campbell went into the studio in 1968 to record the song, the takes seemed lacking to Campbell, missing the feel of Webb’s demo which had so excited him initially. He got that feel down when he added a Hammond organ to the instrumentation. And the chiming at the song’s fade at the end, meant to represent telephone signals the lineman hears in his head—calls he meant to make but didn’t too long ago—were produced by a massive church organ.

The song was another hit for Campbell, taking his album of the same name to #3 on the pop chart, and the song was two weeks in the #1 spot on the country singles chart and six weeks atop the adult contemporary chart. Glen Campbell’s career was assured. He would go on to release some 70 albums, with 27 of them reaching the Top 10 (12 went 4 went platinum and 2 double platinum), selling some 45 million units in all.

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“Wichita Lineman” has been described as the “the first existential cowboy song,” and there’s something undeniably gooey-eerie about it, haunting in a way that made the song seem timeless from the first spin, a song as old as the ache in the heart in every person to have loved and lost.

You can say that “Wichita Lineman” furthers the narrative of “By the Time I Get To Phoenix.” Here the lover who left love behind has settled into a long, lonely existence in Oklahoma, working as a county lineman. Working up there in the wind and cold in the middle of nowhere, he strains to hear the voice of his love up in those wires.

The chorus makes the entire song, layering three lines which pack an infinity of power:

And I need you more than want you, Campbell begins, soft and pained in the plaint of every sorely-wounded lover who can’t stand the exquisite torture of love any more but is powerless to change;

And I want you for all time – Bang, gotcha: no matter how far you flee, the dream of love is just ahead, waiting for you in the next town to remind you how much there is to lost. The wallop of this line comes from its pairing with the first, a doubling which takes you in two directions at once, transversing the entire wilderness of the heart in 14 words;

And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line – This completes the trio of lines with an eerie, lonely, permanent image, the fact of the first two lines characterized by a lineman lost up there in the wind and the cold with the wires of memory pulsing with lost messages from the Beloved who has been forever lost.

The Wichita Lineman is a mythic figure like the Wandering Cowboy or the Ancient Mariner, forever out there in the space between memory and heartbreak, unable to form the words overflowing in his heart, searching for  the lines of communication he will never be able to open himself.

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“Wichita Lineman” is also one of those quintessential fin-de-siecle moments which somehow captured the death of the 60’s, a passing of the Flower Age of just two years previous into the nightmarish realities of death in Vietnam (a Vietcong assault on US bases around Vietnam in February 1969 killed 1,400 American soldiers), the shootings at Kent State, murder during a Rolling Stones performance at Altamonte, mass clubbings by Chicago police outside the Democratic Convention the year before, folk song growing hoarse and loud in the electrified howl of acid rock, the looming nightmare of Charles Manson singing “Helter Skelter” as he carved up the body of pregnant Sharon Tate, the assassination of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, the breakup of The Beatles.

The Summer of Love was over.

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There is a palpable ennui in the culture of 1969, a feeling that the passing of the 1960s was like summer into winter, an intensely bittersweet mood of slow but sure dying. “Wichita Lineman” had many companions in this tenor,  especially in a slough of wry, wistful and bloodily grown-up cowboy movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sunset Kid, The Wild Bunch, Midnight Cowboy,  and True Grit, all of which ended with death -– Glen  Campbell himself taking the fatal bullet in that last movie. A grand, sad, dayglo-to-sepia fadeout to a wild age.

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Paul Newman and Robert Redford go out with guns blazing south of the Sixties in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)

The same fadeout permeated all of Hollywood. The Sand Dollars was the first American movie where the hero – Steve McQueen – died.  Love Story – heroine dies. The animated short Bambi Meets Godzilla – innocence dies. Easy Rider – the quest of the youth culture dies.

A dying which is like the last whisper of a Beloved who turns around once to smile sadly before walking forever out that door in our hearts …

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“Wichita Lineman” has a vibe which persists to this day, soaked in a sweet oblivion that borders on something on the verge of winter, entering longer darker days as the last warm ray fades from earth.

But I’m also sure that “Wichita Lineman” and all those other songs of the late ‘60s are especially poignant to me because it was the eve of my own coming of age–a very bittersweet time, with my parents separating, my father moving downtown Chicago while the rest of the family relocated to a much smaller, rented house in Wilmette before taking a dive to Florida.

Factor in as well that it was also the season of my first hopeless love. Lauren was an 8th grader like me who was (unlike me) impossibly beautiful. For a short while she deigned to smile at me, probably only because she had wounds greater than mine. (She’d smile at any guy to forget that jagged wreck of a man she called Father with cold hostility).

Lauren smiled at me briefly and then turned away, leaving me to curse my ugly fat face in the mirror, beg my God to deliver her to me (He was silent). I’d lay on my lonely bed listening to “Wichita Lineman” on WLS, wondering if those wires carried news of Lauren, too. But it was only the winter wind beating against my frozen window.

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The frozen Chicago River laps against the Marina Towers; my father moved into a 48th-floor apartment on one of the towers after he moved out of our house in Evanston.

The cowboy reaches were not found in cold Chicago, but other cowboy experiences – loneliness, hard realities, wandering, alcoholism, death—were becoming familiar, were painting the age sepia, like the color fade at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

My personal favorite movie that year–give me a break, I was 12 — was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. (James Bond is a cowboy of sorts I supposed, with a tuxedo for chaps and machine-gun Astin-Martin convertible for a horse.) It was a movie fraught with losses: Uber-Bond Sean Connery gone; Bond’s polymorphose perverse mojo is lost when he marries Tracy (queen “Avenger” Diana Rigg); and then she gets killed in the end.

The song “We Have All the Time in the World” was composed for the movie by John Barry (the theme song to OHMSS is eerily similar to that of Midnight Cowboy, which Barry also composed. Weird twins, eh?) with lyrics by Hal David (who wrote many songs with Burt Bacharach, including the theme song to Butch Cassidy, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”

Armstrong’s voice seems sure in his own way – a majestic, old- jazz quaver – as he sings the tune:

We have all, the time, in the world
Time enough or life
To unfold
All the precious things
Love has in store

We have all, the love, in the world
If that’s all we have
You will find
We need nothing more …

But Armstrong was actually sick during the recording, too ill to play the trumpet part (which sounded more like Herb Albert), and would die himself of heart failure a couple of years later.

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Tracy (Diana Rigg) was married — o so briefly — to the Georges Lazenby Bond, who himself wasn’t around long.

The fin-de-siecle irony of the song is drawn out as wide and tall as the Swiss Alps where the movie was filmed when, in the final scene, Bond holds Tracy in his car at the side of a mountain road, his bride dead from a bullet in the forehead shot by his arch-rival Blofeld, a few miles down the road from the church where they had just wed.

“We have all the time in the world,” Bond whispers to the only woman he would marry in the series, looking out at those impassible Alps, nuzzling her cheek with his as John Barry’s elegiac orchestral reprise swells to infinity.

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At the time he spoke those words, Georges Lazenby didn’t know they also applied to his tenure as Bond, as he was replaced by Connery in the next installment, Diamonds are Forever.

I have the soundtrack album and still listen to it from time to time, remembering so sharply that profound, bittersweet time. It’s said that you never forget the music of your puberty, and mine is split between those AM/FM heart-wrenchers of the late 1960s and early 70’s (moving from Glen Campbell to James Taylor and Carole King – all of whom still performing the songs of that age), James Bond movie soundtracks (I collected all of them), and the later erotic-demonic eruption of hard rock bands like Grand Funk Railroad, Santana, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

One age answers the previous, and my birth, psychologically and emotionally, into adolescence was right at that hinge between the death of the Summer of Love and the Season of the Witch, from hopeless ennui to opiate thrall, still trying to find out whether there’s anyone at the far end of those Witchita lines.

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Five

By the time we come to the next-to-the-last Sprint Cup race of the 2010 season in Phoenix, the air of immanent finality which surrounds this year’s NASACR storylines lends to this race something of the country torch song written 40 years ago.

The jilted lover of “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” comes to that town first in his imagined narrative; for us, it’s nearly the last stop on the road, but we’re still trying to imagine what Wynona’s up to. I suspect Jimmie Johnson already knows what we aren’t sure off yet — that he’s being left in the dust to other championship ambitions. A 9th-place finish at Texas last Sunday put him between Hamlin and Harvick, cut loose and beginning to drift away from destiny.

Oh, it’s not over yet –- Phoenix is one of Jimmie’s tracks –- but something tells us that the fatal shot was fired a race ago into Johnson who, if you may, mythically reenacted Campbell’s “True Grit” character who gets shot before the movie’s end, leaving it up to the unlikely pair of Harvick/Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) and Hamlin/Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) to finish off the quest.

A fade at Phoenix this time — failing to rise to the now-desperate, last-chance occasion – would place Johnson back among the ranks of 2010’s also-rans, Chase faders like Jeff Gordon (who was wrecked, and then fought, Jeff Burton lsat week), Kyle Busch (given the boot from Destiny last week after giving NASCAR the finger) and the other boys, Kenseth and Kurt Bush and Biffle and Edwards and Stewart and Bowyer. Hamstrung by a slow pit crew, the blue No. 48 (blue as those hard-blowing Texas skies) can only think about what might have been as he watches the No. 11 and 29 battle it out for what was once the Queen of Trailer Heaven’s Portion but is now big, big, money.

I imagine Jeff Gordon as the mythic Wichita Lineman, soon dismounting from his crow’s nest up in the power lines along the border of racing oblivion, relinquishing the Lineman’s gear to Jimmie Johnson, the next passed-over champion . . .

Still too early to tell, but the wind seems to be blowing that way …

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Six

Something in the bigger news of the day is closely akin to the late 1960s, the sense that an age is coming to an end. Perhaps that is why the Coen Brothers are releasing a remake of “True Grit” for release on Christmas Day, featuring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn and newcomer Hailee Seinfeld playing Mattie, the girl who hires Cogburn to find the murderer of her father. Matt Damon is in Cambbell’s former role as La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger who has ulterior motives in hunting down the killer of Mattie’s father.  Josh Brolin will play the killer Tom Chaney, who was played originally by Jeff Corey (who would later play one of the backwoods killers in Deliverance.)

Oh, the threads of irony and fate which give current events an eerily familiar feel are many. The True Grit remake is reported to be a shoe-in for Oscar competition, repeating the original’s success in the Academy Awards. Jeff Bridges, playing the drunken lawman Rooster Cogburn, picks up a piece of the alcoholic country singer he played in Crazy Heart. True Grit is the first film he’s made with Coen Brothers since playing the Dude in The Big Lebowski, a character I brought forth early this season as a metaphor for NASCAR’s 2010 season. The narrator of that film, played by Sam Elliott, is a cowboy known only as “The Stranger,” is a Wichita Lineman-type who comes to check on things back at home in Los Angeles. (Love is not present, but there’s lots of bowling.) One of the Coen Brothers early successes was the comedy Raising Arizona (1987), with Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, a movie rich with the Arizona scenery which will surround this weekend’s race in Phoenix. Love was very much present in that film—it is perhaps Cage’s sweetest performance, ripe with an innocence he stripped himself of when he later became a Major Action Star.

And then the Coen Brothers lost their love, opting  instead to follow the Lineman around the United States to scene after scene of desolate Americana with O Brother, Where Art Thou (Depression-era bluegrass Odyssey), Fargo (wasting the locals in frozen Minnesota) and No Country for Old Men (hardcore Texas border noir). That movie was based on the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy, a writer who is about the most forsaken in all of contemporary literature, whose language is as primal as the desert and blood-soaked as an Arizona sunset, and whose heart is about as forsaken as Russell Pearce, the Mesa Republican who sponsored the nation’s toughest immigration law, albeit in divergent ways. Pearce becomes the next president of the Arizona senate and means to use his iron-clad Republican majority to side-step the state’s crucial financial problems to get a new law on the books challenging automatic U.S. citizenship to children of illegal immigrants.

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Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage in the Coen Brothers’ “Raising Arizona” (1987): A dream before the nightmares.

All this tucks into the closing refrain of “Wichita Lineman” as the composer / artist / wandering wounded lover fades out by repeating those indelible words,

And I want you more than need you
And I need you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman
Is still on the line …

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Seven

Arizona is no country for old men, even though hard-frozen retirees from the Rust Belt savor its dry, hot weather. Except for the weather, Arizona offers is no escape for dotage; their golden days are just as intruded upon there by what’s upsetting the rest of the country these days – high unemployment, housing market in lead-bottomed doldrums, the economy in arrears, foreign wars dragging on, etc.

What makes Arizona a specially barbed taunt against age -– both old and young — is the unique and special hardness of Arizona’s heart against illegal immigrants.

I can’t be too critical. I don’t live close to a border so soaked in blood on the far side. The mayhem of Mexican drug cartels is approaching the tenor of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridean, perhaps the bloodiest novel about the West ever written.

More than 450,000 illegal immigrants are in the state of Arizona, a fivefold increase since 1990. That’s a very fast change in demographics. And where things change fast, fear holds fast.

One bellweather event was the killing of 58-year old Robert Krentz and his dog in March 2010 on his ranch, some 13 miles from the border. Police failed to name a suspect, but they traced footprints headed south toward the border, leading to speculation that an illegal had committed the murder.

Fear surely played a part in the evolution of Arizona Senate Bill 1070 – The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act – which was introduced by Republican State Senator Russell Pearce and signed into law by Arizona governor Jan Brewer on April 23 of this year, just two weeks after the spring race in Phoenix.

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Arizona State Senator Russell, sponsor of the state’s tough new immigration law, and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer who signed the act into law last April.

The Arizona law adds to federal law which requires illegal aliens to carry registration documents by making it a state misdemeanor crime for an alien to be in Arizona without carrying the required documents. It also bars state or local officials or agencies from restricting enforcement of federal immigration laws, and cracks down on those sheltering, hiring and transporting illegal aliens.

Since its passage, Arizona has suffered a firestorm of controversy both internally, from the U.S. government (Obama is fighting the law) and from further out (a number of nations have joined the U.S. in a suit to reverse the Arizona law, claiming it is excessively punitive.)

You can read fear in the Arizona’s immigration law, but as it usually turns out, greed may have played the quieter, larger role in its passage. NPR reported in late October that the bill was largely written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) task force, a membership organization of state legislatures as well as corporations and associations which include Reynolds American Inc. (the tobacco company), ExxonMobil, the American Rifle Association – and the billion-dollar Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the country. Pearce, who is a member of that organization, attended a gathering of ALEC last December in Washington where the immigration bill was proposed. NPR examined Corrections Corporation of America reports and found that their executives believed that immigration detention was their next big market.

In the story, Pearce, of course, said the bill was his idea. He says it’s not about prisons, but what’s best for the country.

“Enough is enough,” Pearce said in his office, sitting under a banner reading “Let Freedom Reign.” “People need to focus on the cost of not enforcing our laws and securing our border. It is the Trojan horse destroying our country and a republic cannot survive as a lawless nation.”

Fear and greed are the perfect elixir of Republican majorities, and so it’s not surprising that the midterm elections increased the Republican majority in Arizona. Pearce is now State Senate President and aims to enact a further measure of the bill, denying U.S. citizenship to the children of illegal aliens in the state.

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Many now fear that the Arizona economy -– especially the housing market -– will take a hard hit from the Hispanic relocation out of the state in reaction to the law. And although the state legislature faces a pile of work dealing with the ailing state economy, Pearce’s agenda is wholly set on cementing a wall of prohibitive anti-immigration legislation. You know, for the good of all American-Arizonans.

But what to do with all those bodies piling up in the Arizona desert? Over the past year, 252 corpses have been found there, the remains of migrants who died trying to cross into the U.S. illegally. Authorities speculate that increased scrutiny at the customary crossing-points are forcing smugglers and illegal immigrants to take their chances on isolated trails through the deserts and mountains of southern Arizona, where they must sometimes walk for three or four days before reaching a road.

“As we gain more control, the smugglers are taking people out to even more remote areas,” said Omar Candelaria, the special operations supervisor for the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector. “They have further to walk and they are less prepared for the journey, and they don’t make it.

This was especially true last summer when a heat wave seared the Arizona desert to a crackly crunch. In July alone, 60 withered bodies were found.

Some of these dead have been in the desert a long while – as long as several years. This makes the task of identifying the remains a tougher job. Some 700 bodies going back to 2000 remain unidentified. The Pima County Medical Examiner’s office is ground zero for these dead; when the building’s 200 spaces for corpses became fully occupied, a refrigerated truck had to be rented to store another two dozen of the dead.

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Bodies retrieved from the Arizona desert stack up in the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office.

A lonely place to rot, wouldn’t you say? Especially when you consider that a lt of those dead were people fleeing the violence of their home country, hoping for some form of economic asylum in ours.

Fat chance. Though many border businesses love cheap labor, the will of zealots empowered by greed and fear is strong at this juncture in history, this passing of one age into another.

Arizonans themselves are wildly divided on the issue of immigration. Check out the comments section at the end of a recent Arizona Republic article about Sen. Russell Pearce denial of influence by the private prison lobby, calling the NPR article “a lie.” The arguments for and against the immigration bill are as divided as day and night in the Arizona desert – hot as hell, colder as shit — and are about as dry of solutions as that killing field at any time.

For example, in one exchange “Snaptie” commented,

Funny when you have a Racist organization like NPR with George Soros funded open borders socialistic beliefs society. They have absolutely no minorities as on air personalities. It’s proven the have not one conservative on the air either. Yep i believe them [Sarcasm]

To which “Noonetou” replied,

No, this is called reporting. I know that you are not used to that since you watch Faux News which does no reporting at all. It is not so much that the main stream media is liberal, it is more along the lines that the Right has fallen so far off the cliff that anything that the main stream media reports will seem liberal to you. Want proof? Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater would called liberals in today political climate and would not be welcome in the GOP. By the way Barry and Reagan were, at the time, considered very conservative when they were in office. So what does that say about how far the right the Right has gone? In all honesty I wish the REAL Republican party would come back to life, not this shame that we now call T-baggers and Conservatives!

And on it goes, for hundreds of comments. People in Arizona are obviously raw about the issue, perhaps more so because there’s no middle ground stand on any more.

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Daniel Moynihan once said that while everyone is entitled to their own set of opinions, no one is entitled to their own set of facts. As the journalistic center dissolves and the Internet gets loaded with sites playing fast and loose with the truth, the rancor of the divide grow increasingly fetid because no one knows how to properly call things much less what to know.

A caterwauling mess. I’m sure we aren’t standing in the middle of that squawk in Florida. Oh, wait a minute – Governor-Elect Rick Scott is a big supporter of the Arizona immigration law. Guess there’s no escaping a firestorm, not in Phoenix or Albuquerque or Oklahoma or Florida: Because what you run from inevitably becomes what you run smack into.

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Eight

If I were the Wichita Lineman –- and these days, who doesn’t feel somehow a bit like him? -– I would climb up there and put an ear to the whine of cables in full song.  Swinging in the high cold wilderness of winter, I would ask:

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– I want to know how things are going for the family and friends of Lance Corporal Randy R. Braggs of Sierra Vista, Arizona, who was killed last Saturday during combat operations in Helmand Province in Afghanistan –- about the same time Brad Keselowski was celebrating his Nationwide Series championship after the Texas race). Braggs, 21, is the thirteenth member of his battalion to be killed since October 8. Deployed in late September, Braggs had hardly gotten Over There when he began his travels back toward Phoenix in a flag-draped coffin. Braggs joins fellow Arizonans Army Sergeant Aaron B. Cruttendon of Mesa (age 25) and Marine Lance Corporal Matthew J. Broehm of Flagstaff (age 22) among the month’s dead in Afghanistan:

How does it feel to come home too soon yet forever late, son of Arizona? And will you call the ground you’re to be buried in a place you’d call home?

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Lance Corporal Randy Bragg (right), age 21, who was killed in action in Afghanistan on Nov. 6, 2010.

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– I would ask for the sound of Lauren’s voice, that girl in eighth grade who was the first person I fell for so hard and woundedly and impossibly. She arrived and left almost in the same gesture, standing at a door which she said but a few words from – a hi, a bye – with a smile whose welcome faded faster than the 1960s when they were done. I would ask to  see her face once again, peeled free of composite imagge of all the other women who lingered too short a while in my embrace and moved on, or were left behind as I kept searching for the one face which cannot exist without killing the quest, the desire, the never-fulfilled, at-long-last kiss:

Say hello once again, Love, just once, that once become  forever …

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– I’d would ask to hear  my kid brother’s voice once again,  Timm who died of a heart attack two and a half years ago after an early-evening jog in Salem, Oregon. It was spring and beautiful that night, according to his girlfriend, surprisingly warm and sunny. Not a cloud in the sky. But my brother had been a wanderer for years, leaving behind his family to soothe old wounds with new ones. He was getting better -– some fundamental forgiveness had happened in his heart -– but he still kept like the wind at his back, a smart, lonely guy who took gorgeous pictures of Oregon and cruised dating sites while planning an eventual wedding with his girlfriend and wrote endless resumes stored on this laptop which I inherited from him after his death. He was just like me in physique and in so many interests, even though he was eight years younger and three thousand miles away. I was just beginning to get to know my kid brother when I lost him, and I listen for his voice at night:

Do still you roam the Oregon coast, looking for the last westwarding boat? Or are you near here, standing out in the garden in this depth of night where final pieces of the previous day fall, like silt, from the black sky? Speak … and know you are loved ….

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– I would ask where my stepdaughter is, separated from her now for 15 years after my divorce to my first wife. She was 18 by then and ready enough for the world, but things, I hear, did not go so well for her as she turned to coke and Ecstasy and alternated between good and bad men, having two children which my ex, I hear, is desperately trying to get custody of while her daughter dances in topless bars and hangs with men with lots of drugs. I had never thought to repeat the terrible wounding of my parents’ separation but I did, and in spades, doubling it by losing all contact with my step-daughter, a girl I had cared for as a father since she was nine:

Do you still hear the voice of the sea we once body-surfed in together at Melbourne Beach as I still do, deep in the reaches of your pillow as you sleep, or has the blasting rap and techno as you slither up and down fate’s cold stripper pole all but eliminated that soft uteral sound of love?

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– I would try to dial up on long-distance PFC Glenn Dick Kerns, killed in the battle of Dak To in Vietnam 43 years ago today, November 11, 2010. Kerns was 19 years old and had shipped over the previous August; like Lance Corporal Randy Braggs who died in combat a few days ago, he wasn’t long in the theatre before going home the hard way. His son Staff Sergeant Derick Ray Hunt—who never had a chance to meet his father–survived his tour of Iraq and learned some of his father from Andy Eiland, who served with Kerns and survived the battle of Dak To. Kerns was posthumuously awarded a Purple Heart Medal for his combat related wounds and buried in the cemetery of Deep Branch Baptist Church in his hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina. Not much trace of Glenn Kerns today – you can find his plot in the cemetery at Deep Branch, and his name is engraved on the smooth black marble walls of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, where many have gathered today to stroll and remember:

Letters carved in brass and marble – a name – one grainy picture – so many years silent now: Yet is that you with your ear bent to the radio in the ghostly ruins of Dak To, humming along to “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” imagining an eastward heave far different from the one you made after the gunfire and grenades?

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– I would try to hear that low sexual sigh of the woman I left my wife for a decade ago when I was drinking so bad, during that bad winter of ’00 after George Bush became President and my life became a mad horse in a hurricane. I think of those cold nights we knocked back all those beers together, talking all kinds of shit, making every sort of promise I had no intention of fulfilling, abandoning myself to the booze, the desire, he fury of going at it every which way no matter the cost. Then I think of waking in the hungover gloom of that low-rent apartment and laying there wondering what my wife was doing at that moment in our much-emptier house in the small town we once called home far to the north. Not long after I left that woman, quit the booze and slowly found my way home, made my amends to my wife who made room for me once again in our bed. I never spoke again to that frail, so fuckable, so wrong, damaged woman, herself a mother at age 14 and then losing that son when he was murdered in prison at age 18:

How does the music go late at night in whatever trailer and man you’re now with? Do you remember, or is that too much of a poison to withstand, like the death of your son, like all the jobs you botched and lost, like all the other men’s money you’ve spent satisfying their desire? Do you sigh?

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– I would listen for strangely homeless sound inside this very house I now write in, mostly sweet yet never free of bitter … How is that people who know each other most find what’s truly alien about the Other lies in the mere inches which separates every body,  an unbreachable chasm in the tenderest goodnight kiss just before the lights go out, as if there was no true coming home beyond a certain homecoming of accepting one’s impermeable condition.  All else is imagined and impossible gravy, isn’t it my love, our years together molding our lives’ trunks together like two trees wrapped around each other, become one living entity with two sets of sap rising and falling across a distance measured in inches and yet is infinitely far, as far as the sea, as high as the moon?

Can you hear me singing as you sleep, love? Does my voice reach you like the gentlest touch at first light, or is it only more cold starlight, present yet alien, akin or identical to this lonely walk we call a life?

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– And finally I think of Jimmie Johnson on his way now to Phoenix, with all those championships racked up in a place inside that is somehow paling fast, their grains slipping through the hourglass like so much wind in the wires, this next race demanding everything and more from him, his team and crew chief, just when none of whom quite seem up to the task as much as the No. 11 and 29 teams.  So much else presses in now than when he began to tear up the tracks – marriage, fatherhood, charities, the indulged life of the multi-millionaire, fame’s steady spotlight which nearly shadows the rest of the field. All of that makes Her seem distant, and he knows that the moon is a harsh mistress, and will not tolerate such falterings of devotion, will not tolerate much of anything except Victory and Championship, things which have faded from his eyes:

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Are you still gunning, Jimmie, still in the quest? Are you game enough to go hellbent for a change? Are you willing to give everything of your much larger, richer, wider, happier life to Her in that clinch? Or have you heard the cold wind this dark night, and seen the moon through the window of passage- trailer or car or jet -– the moon with its ghostly semaphor and metaphor of separation, itself wrenched from the sea billions of years ago, the first lonely Wichita Lineman, sailing high over the earth, hauling tides and hearts in its silver wake? Do you see the moon, Jimmie, and know?

Are you singing along right now, not to “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” or “The Wichita Lineman” but that third, perhaps most indelible Jimmie Webb song of all, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” –- the hardest song of all to sing for anyone who has heard Her voice on the wires for so long ….

See her how she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon’s a harsh mistress
The moon can be so cold

Once the sun did shine
Lord, it felt so fine
The moon a phantom rose
Through the mountains and the pines
And then the darkness fell
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
It’s so hard to love her well

I fell out of her eyes
I fell out of her heart
I fell down on my face
Yes, I did, and I — I tripped and I missed my star
God, I fell and I fell alone, I fell alone
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
And the sky is made of stone

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What’s it gonna be, Jimmie? Pedal to the metal this one defining time? Or will you at juncture simply drive on, out of the raceway and onto the long road to obscurity, Phoenix to Albuquerque to Oklahoma, driving all night till you come to that stretch of power lines on the freezing, wind-heaved border to winter.

How much colder it is outside your Chevy, Jimmie, standing there in the place where the winds of winter blow forever? Will you call up to the dark figure working above, the one with a big yellow “24” painted on the back of his orange parka: and call him down —  shift change – and when Gordon climbs down, will you know the look in his face because you wear it now, too, knowing at this end of your career that

The moon’s a harsh mistress
She’s hard to call your own.

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What REALLY scares me about Talladega


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St. Oran’s Day, 2010

“Talladega is scary enough for me without Halloween.” – Elliott Sadler

“The primary and most beautiful of Nature’s qualities is motion, which agitates her at all times, but this motion is simply a perpetual consequence of crimes, she conserves it by means of crimes only.”  – Marquis de Sade

“… Let me just quote the late great Colonel Sanders, he said, ‘I’m too drunk to taste this chicken’ —  Will Ferrell as Ricky Bobby in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”

Dover may have the Monster Mile – and a Hulk-like statue representing its resident bugaboo, towering over all who enter the track and, in itsy-bitsy-scale, given to the race’s winner with a scale model of the winner’s caw in its paw – but Talladega is the Beast Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken, especially at night — a Hell-house where speed, hubris, mayhem and bloodthirsty fans combine to make it the scariest track in all of NASCAR.

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And, of course, the fall race is usually scheduled around Halloween (this year it falls right on the spookiest holiday of the year), so weirdness is given a full-mooned magnitude.

That this race — the wildest, most dangerous and unpredictable race on the circuit — also happens to be the most crucial of the Chase races, falling at the time when the few true competitors separate from the rest of the Chase pack–it’s enough to make the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick shake in their boots, who are separated by a mere 67 Chase points.

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There is no way to out-drive Talladega; you just go fast and draft, stay out of the way somehow of the Big One always about to happen and then scoot ahead at the last minute, coming out of Turn 4 of the very last lap.

The three leading Chase drivers all have middling records there, but that’s as good as anyone gets in the whirling blades of Talladega-style fate. Kevin Harvick’s average finish at Talladega is 15.5 (he’s won there once in 19 starts, in this year’s spring race); Denny Hamlin’s is 16 (no wins in 9 starts, 2 DNFs); and Jimmie Johnson has a 17.8 average finish in 17 starts, with one win and 7 DNF’s including four crashes.

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Brian Vickers won the 2006 fall race at Talladega by spinning Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson on the final lap.

Perhaps the most masterfully controlled driver of them all, it’s not surprising that Jimmie Johnson hates Talladega. Talent aside, his mojo is small, too, at this track; Wynona is elsewhere, probably hungover in the skankiest camper of the down-and-dirtiest infield partier in the universe.

Talladega is a track with a curse, whispered with variations, the way all ghost stories grow like black vines in the minds of a culture, One story has it that after local Talladega Creeks were slaughtered by warriors of the larger Creek nation in retaliation for their collaborating with the forces of Andrew Jackson, a Talladega shaman cast a curse on Dry Valley as the survivors left.

But legends of curse would not arise had not the track’s history been an oval petri dish for spooky culture, weirded as it has been by corporate skullduggery, freak accidents, Bigger Ones than anywhere else on the circuit and a trick-or-treater’s lusty thirst for all-out, hell-raisin’ partying.

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For the full-mooned lowdown, see my post from earlier this year, Big Bill France and NASCAR’s Temple of Doom. Suffice to say here that Hallow-Dega promises to be true to form – predictable only in mayhem, naughtiness and redline blood alcohol content.

But there is more to Talledega’s story than its story, if you get my drift-—and have the patience to follow my riffs …

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An old Irish saying goes, “Say this three times, with your eyes shut / And you will see / What you will see.”

It helps to see some things with eyes shut. The universe, as the space scientist now come to know, is mostly dark matter and dark energy, stuff which can’t be seen or known but by how it affects the visible universe. They now postulate that an entire universe may be operating inside our own; inside our own bodies the dark elements pass, tiding with news we can’t know, but is. If you have read this far in the post, about a billion of these loosly-arranged particles have streamed through, a billion ghosts emerging from their dark forest to come and go through you, talking of dark Michaelangelo …

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So assume, if you will, that there is an underside to Talladega which has shaped its history, the way dark matter gave our galaxies their spiral whorls. We get to that Other World darkly, through dark portals in the mind, the heart …

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“Hallow-Dega,” as it has come to be known, refers more to nightside spookiness than racin’ – it’s booze-fuelled, costmed revelry casting a strange hangover on the race proceedings of the next day. A pall of excess which casts long blue shadows from the cars, even at high noon.

It’s all in good fun, right? A chance to get loose and wild, forget about the big bad world, the economy, the frantic, manic, ugly polticiking that has consumed the country, and indulge in hard liquor, loud racin’ and bad women. Sweet home Alabama, indeed.

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Yet Hallow-Dega’s vibe cannot help but take on a darker tenor from just how much bad world there is out there. Like the nipple of a greater exposed hooter, the haunting of Talladega is fed by the collective scream-fest of its participants. And there’s a lot to get spooked about. The following itinerary is just a few things which have somehow been thrown into that oval witch’s cauldron –- the bat’s ear and eye of newt foraged from the dark forest of events which convinces me that the Hallowe’en tradition of the dead loosed on earth for a night has, like so many other things, gone 24-7-365.

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There is an old Irish fairy tale about a king’s storyteller who woke one day without a new story to tell the king. It had never happened before, and he was appalled. What was he going to sing to the king that night?

Puzzling over his predicament, the storyteller walks over hill and through dale until he comes across a beggarman lying on the ground who challenges him to three rounds of dice, the first two which he wins (the beggarman has a secret bag of gold tied to his belt, and gives it up freely after losing), but on the third toss the storyteller loses, and the beggar demands his wife.

To game back his wife, the storyteller plays with his own life at stake – and loses again. His soul belongs to the beggarman now, and he is transformed by that Otherworldly figure him into a hare, tormenting him with various butt-biting pursuits dogs and the like.

He then makes the storyteller invisible and goes calling on King Red O’Donnell, dressed in his beggar rags and conniving all of O’Donnell’s silver from him through a variety of tricks.

At night’s end (which is really the end of day in our world), the beggarman returns the storyteller to his old stature (along with his wife and all of his belongings) and says simply, “Now you have a story to tell the king.” And walks off into mist, whistling merrily.

So, having already supped full well with Talladega’s known horrors, I offer a parallel universe of dark tales from our world which fans and drivers and owners and officials all bring, in varied mixtures of dread and denial, with them to that mad track, begging this question: who—or what’s– truly cooking at Hallow-Dega?

Bone appetit

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The Beast of the Gulf

Out in the Gulf of Mexico, things on the surface are calm, glittery with full moonlight, rocking gently and uteral while shrimp trawlers file out of their late-late-late-night ports, back in business again. Whatever desperately expensive measures taken by British Petroleum to contain and quell the spill of 4 million barrels of oil from the ass end of its exploded Deepwater Horizon well, none of them equaled the quiet (OK, biological) heroics of a heretofore-unknown microbe, devouring most of the oil floating on the surface.

The broken well eventually was capped and coastal damage was relatively slight – spookily so. Still, everyone knows that most of that spilled oil is just floating around in the middle leagues of the Gulf, between surface and abyss. And no one knows what that immense drifting black plume will do in the coming decades.

And whatever that damage to the environment might finally tally up to, the fear — the emotional and psychological damage — may even be greater. A recent poll conducted by Auburn University shows that some 71 percent of Alabamans believe that permanent damage has been done to their Gulf, with 61 percent saying that their own household had been negatively afflicted by the consequences of the spill. Thirty-two percent said they would pack up and leave the area if they could.

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If they could. But movement isn’t an option for so many recession-racked Americans, their mortgages underwater, unemployment forcing them into smaller and meaner circumstances. British Petroleum did a bang-up PR job of getting the heat off of them, but millions along the Gulf Coast know the beast is still out there, a giant black manta fanning its miles-wide wings of oil, waiting, waiting, for its shadow to do the damage, upon sea-life, shores and psyches alike—not tomorrow, or the next, but over the cumulative toll of years.

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A ghost compound in the mountains of Afghanistan

Last week, NPR reported on a foray of troops of Alpha Company of the 3-327 Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, onto the Ghaki mountain pass in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan, in search of Taliban insurgents. Alpha Company had recently been part of the massive search for Linda Norgrove, the Scottish aid worker who had been kidnapped by Taliban insurgents and killed by an American grenade during the rescue operation.

As soon as their Chinook helicopter landed and the hatch opened, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired directly in, killing an Afghan interpreter and wounding four others. The Chinook was disabled. With just one wheel on the ground and half of the wounded helicopter hanging over a 7,000-foot cliff, troops jumped to the ground. Some of them set up guard while waiting for relief to come in, while other fanned out in search of hostiles, warned that “friendlies” were in the area as well. What does it do to the mind of a soldier when any man could be both?

Along their patrol, Alpha Company came across an abandoned base, a bunkered outpost where they found spent carbine shells—signs of a recent battle – as well as fleece jackets and sleeping bags, stuff normally not left behind. They also found vehicles clustered together and burnt and a bunker that had been bombed. Funny thing is, it wasn’t bombed from without; the mystery occupants had destroyed it themselves. Fleeing Taliban? Nope. The soldiers credited it to “OGA’s” – members of the Other Government Agency, meaning the CIA. CIA ops apparently had been defending the pass (the CIA had declined comment on the story), waiting for Afghan milita to replace them; but the Afghans had never arrived and they got the hell out of there before any official American presence was called in.

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A mystery base in a mystery war, with mysterious opponents with murky allegiances, in a war with no apparent end or design, against an opponent more steely in its resolve than found anywhere in the world. A haunted place that drains American will like blood.

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A case of the pot calling the kettle, er, biased: Bill O’Reilly of FOX News and Juan Williams, former NPR journalist now Fair And Balanced, FOX-style.

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Deals with the Devil

NPR, as you know, has been in the crosshairs of the aggrieved and mobilized right over the firing of long-time correspondent Juan Williams, also now an employ of FOX News, for some offhand comments he made about Muslims on “The O’Reilly Factor.”

The comments seem innocuous enough — O’Reilly had been looking for support for his own remarks made on a recent episode of ABC’s The View in which he directly blamed Muslims for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. (Co-hosts Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg walked off the set in the middle of his appearance.) Williams then responded: “Look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Williams – a journalist I’ve admired over the years, whose news analysis seemed sound until he started working for FOX – was fired for what NPR CEO Vivian Schiller says were remarks ”inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a News Analyst with NPR.” She added that Williams had been warned in the past to keep his opinions out of his journalism, something which he was given free reign to do at “fair and balanced FOX,” which has set the low bar for selling opinion as news.

Williams was aggrieved, saying in a piece on FOX News,

They have used an honest statement of feeling as the basis for a charge of bigotry to create a basis for firing me. Well, now that I no longer work for NPR let me give you my opinion. This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff (I was the only black male on the air). This is evidence of one-party rule and one-sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought.

Williams is calling for the cutoff of taxpayer funding for NPR, considered one of them most sound journalistic enterprises in all media, and he’s joined by a chorus of aggrieved Republicans and FOX wonks (Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee are both) accusing NPR of bigotry and liberal bias.

Williams has signed on a $2 million contract with FOX—jackpot for a journalist, most of whom work for low pay under the constant shadow of having their jobs eliminated to bolster corporate profits.  And he’s free now to say whatever he wants to, because FOX doesn’t have journalistic standards, and has a culture where outrageousness is encouraged.  (As when commentator Liz Trotta remarked in May 2008 that somewhat  ought to “knock off” Osama Bin Laden – and Barack Obama.)

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Williams is free to slug away, Liz Trotta-style, with a network who’s much like NASCAR in its “have at it, boys” opinion-as-news style.

Williams carries with him to FOX journalist cred—-albeit a quickly-fraying one—-which the network will use, in blackface, to pander its hardcore parody of news in the service of GOP PR.

(News Corp., which owns FOX News, donated $1.25 million last year to the Republican Governors Association, a PAC created to defeat Democratic candidates, as well as $1 million to the U.S. Chamber, a $75 million fund which is paying for a sizable chunk of attack ads against Democrats in races across the country. News Corp. didn’t admit to the donations until after it was reported elsewhere in the press. CEO Rupert Murdoch has said that the donations were made because it is “in the interest of the country and of all the shareholders … that there be a fair amount of change in Washington.” Emphasis on those big-business stockholders …)

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Rupert Murdoch is all for pro-business politics in Washington.

Enjoy your new freedom of expression, Williams. And thanks for your new career handicapping the Fourth Estate’s function of keeping government honest and open. And for assuring our next generation that anything you say can be taken for truth in a media where anything goes. Now go and enjoy that big fat paycheck while your peers wonder what the fuck they’re going to do when their 99 weeks of government federal unemployment assistance is exhausted.

You know what a FOX teabagger is? One of the talking heads on that channel who licks the marbles of Rupert Murdoch as he sodomizes America for his shareholders.

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A Truth, Drowned in Dope

I turn to NPR—one of the last bastions of decent journalism–for the next story.

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Tiffany and David Hartley.

The lure was a partially drowned church. Tiffany and David Hartley were on vacation, jet-skiing together on Falcon Lake in Zapata, Texas. The church was on Mexican side of the lake; American tourists had often headed over there to take pictures and fish for bass.

It somewhere near that water-mortared church that David Hartley was shot in the head. His wife Tiffany called 911 and said she couldn’t get the body on to her jet-ski and then, with more shots being fired at her, she fled for her life.

Investigators believe that Hartley was killed by halcones – lookouts for drug runners. In a further gruesome twist, the Mexican investigator in the case was killed and decapitated, his head sent to authorities inside a suitcase.

The search for Hartley’s body was soon after called off by Mexican authorities. Tiffany Hartley wants her husband’s body back before returning to their native Colorado, but there’s not much American authorities can do.

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Members of the Los Zetas gang, purported to have a growing presence along the Texas-Mexico border.

“This is a weird case,” a U.S. homeland security official said. The cartels know that killing Americans is bad for business.” Best guess so far is that the halcones were young, trigger-happy recruits who might have wanted the jet skis.

On Oct. 6, Tiffany Hartley and family members were escorted by Texas Parks and Wildlife to the spot on Falcon Lake where David Hartley disappeared, there to lay a wreath on the water.

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David Hartley’s body is probably floating down there in the nave of that drowned church, a fresh soul recruited in the brutal supply of dope (pot, coke and meth) to American addicts. (Ironically, David Hartley was an oil field worker – a tradesman in the traffic of cheap energy, that other American addiction.)

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For Alabamans, the bulk of their illegal drugs comes from Colombian, Mexican, and Caribbean Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs, and those organizations maintain extensive distribution networks within the state. (Motorcycle gangs deal in meth as well, but on a much more limited basis.)

Methamphetamine has become the drug of choice in many impoverished rural areas – in Alabama, the unemployment rate is around 20 percent in those places—and its credited with the rise in thefts, violent assaults, and burglaries in those areas. But heck – street dope dealers can make about $5,000 a week, as long as they can last before getting killed or busted. It’s not so much a choice between safe or dicey as between nothing or everything.

On Oct. 19, a routine traffic stop on Interstate 20 near Leeds–a town about 20 miles away from Talladega–led to the confiscation of some 90 kilograms of cocaine worth about 5.4 million. The driver of the truck, 35-year-old Juan Rios of McAllen, TX, is being held without bond in the Jefferson County jail. (McAllen is about 80 miles east of Falcon Lake along US-83.)

Seargant Dewayne McCarver, commander of the Huntsville-Madison County (AL) Strategic Counterdrug Team, is working hard against the rising tide of drugs in his area. “I wholeheartedly believe the vast majority of all crime revolves around the drug culture,” he said. “It’s amazing what a crackhead will do for one rock. If we get the drugs off the street at any level, it saves lives to some extent.” The Talladega County Drug and Violent Crime Task Force carried out warrants at 243 meth labs in the first three quarters of this year alone.

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Meth will fuck you up fast. These crime mugs of the same meth addict were taken a year and a half apart.

The biggest challenge to the illegal drug trade, however, isn’t law enforcement. It’s the growing popularity of contraband pharmaceuticals, especially painkillers like oxycontin and dilaulid. And a lot of those pharms aren’t stolen from drugstores or bought on the street, but rather lifted from Mom’s medicine cabinet. Last year, fatal overdoses from painkillers overtook those from heroin abuse.

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The Daily Home, based in St. Clair and Talladega Counties, reports that prescription drugs have reached epidemic proportions in their school system. “Ninety percent of our problem with drugs is from prescription drugs,” says school superintendent Dr. Bobby Hathcock. There have been fatalities from teenagers taking several medications at once. St. Clair County District Attorney Richard Minor says they have prosecuted adults who keep their medicine cabinets unlocked under the charge of “chemical endangerment of a child.”

Pharmaceutical cartels aren’t much different from their dirtier brothers across the border who traffic in illicit drugs. They both are invested to the teeth in making sure that the means of fleeing reality are readily at hand.

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Reality – our truth – is the cathedral that’s been swamped by all the means of evading it. As long as fear truth, opiates will abound. And Lord how they abound, like sweet black floodwaters covering the heads of millions for whom letting go to abandonment is far easier than holding on to next to nothing.

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Razor Blades in the Eye Candy

The weekend’s box office king was Paranormal Activity 2, a $3 million, R-rated creep-fest, taking in some $41.5 million in theaters. The entire action is supposedly recorded on home video and surveillance-video footage of Otherworld menace in a hapless middle-class couple’s home.

Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood’s $50 million Oscar-seeking movie Hereafter –– a more highbrow take on the presence of death in life –- was a comparative yawner, ranking fourth in box-office take and raking in just $4 million in its opening weekend.

Well, as Sam Zell, the rogue owner of Tribune Corporation famously said, “Pulitzers don’t sell papers,” and studio execs know that lowbrow gets the biggest bang for the fewest bucks. That’s why few and fewer of Eastwood’s type of film is getting made in Hollywood, in favor of cheapo grossout flicks which have a short shelf-life in theaters but do big business in DVD sales (which are often unrated and, hence, even grosser) domestically and overseas.

To wit, Saw 3D, the seventh installment of the torture-til-ya-puke gorefest, releases soon on a franchise that has grossed $340 million dollars worldwide.

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Plural victims of a franchise’s singular device.

3D has given the movie theaters a needed shot in the arm, and while there have been some magnificent creations in the medium—-like James Cameron’s Avatar—-you’re more likely to see something like Saw put stuff that’s nobody’s business right in your face. (The premiere of Jackass 3D, by the way, was the box-office winner the previous week, offering more the next 90 minutes of maxiumum grossout in sleazy stunts.)

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The testicularly-abused crew of “Jackass 3D.”

The taste for “ultraviolence” —- as it was called by droogie Alex in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange –- is, it seems insatiable, a pit with no apparent bottom to it. Movies are just part of well-liquors offering shots of ultraviolence -– there are video games, the Internet, and home-grown splatter using digital cams of every description.

Oh, and did I mention porn? … There’s probably only one thing guys like to see than people getting mangled and killed, it’s women getting fucked. Probably horns of the same beast.

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Digital video technology is making horror and porn a socially networked enterprise, available to all.

And for top-lifting nubiles in the Talladega infield, we have only to consider sex tapes released by the likes of divas Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian to get a sense of where their permission-—and searingly low-bottom fame—-comes from.

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Paris and Kim show their celebrity-eyed fans what to do – and how.

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True Blood

There’s plenty of blood sport on TV these days. I wonder if the NFL has ratcheted up the on-the-field violence in response to the challenge from televised ultimate fighting bouts. In an especially vicious weekend a few weeks ago, players taking hits to the head by defenders’ helmets were knocked flat, suffering concussions. This came a day after a Rutgers college player was paralyzed by a helmet-first collision, and discussion has been rife all season about the long-term consequences of hits to the head. Now the NFL is stepping in, levying fines of up to $50,000 for what they are deeming illegal hits.

The increasing viciousness of defenders is as much a product of the culture as the sport, as they go at receivers trained fighting dogs. But the NFL has to tread carefully, because they could err the way of NASCAR by draining too much of the danger from the sport. It’s what the bread-and-butter fans pay for, that blood.

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But you can recognize the rock-and-a-hard-place juncture that the NFL stands at. Facing increasing criticism from the medical profession for the consequences of what they do best, they have to set limits. Yet those very limits will just drive fans on to bloodier venues.

In Alabama, heavy-hitting football is a manly tradition – the SEC is one of the most brutal in the country – and Alabamans have much to root for with the Auburn Tigers and the Crimson Tide of the University of Alabama, currently ranked first and seventh in the BCS rankings.

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The Iron Bowl.

The big big game for Alabamans is the Iron Bowl, the showdown between Auburn and Alabama on the day after Thanksgiving. Alabama has won the past two contests, with Auburn winning the previous six.

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Crimson Tide alumnus Mark Forester of Haleyville was planning to return for the game after finishing a stint in Afghanistan as a senior airman out of Pope Air Force Base. But on a mission in Uruzgan Province on Sept. 29 he was killed trying to rescue a stricken comrade (who also died) when his Special Forces unit came under fire.

More than 80 members of the 21st Special Tactics Squadron from Pope AFB attended Forester’s funeral in his hometown, and the streets of Haleyville were lined with locals who had turned out to honor their own. A friend said that Forster “firmly believed that his purpose and duty in life was to the United States. He felt like that was what God put him on the planet to do -— literally.  He was just a patriot to the core.”

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Forester had been deployed in Afghanistan two months ago. He was the fourth member of his unit to be killed in action over a two-week period.

405 Americans have been killed and more than 2,000 wounded in Afghanistan since the start of the year. The reality of that conflict has been kept carefully out of our sight until Wikileaks came along. Now in its ninth year, this war grinds on, slowly eating into the American psyche through a slowly spreading network of grief and fear.

For many young Americans, the military is the only work available to them. Whether they go out of patriotism or necessity, there is an increasing awareness among deploying soldiers that they may not be coming back – or coming back missing limbs or some part of their minds. Something tells me that dread of that reality represses itself by means of blood sport – a catharsis, but a problematic one, because you can’t purge the darkness just by pumping up its volume.

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Tea Party jackboot fascist has meaningful discussion with MoveOn.org protester.

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Politics as Satanic Mass

Whatever ultraviolence—-fancied and/or real–is being suckled from bad mama’s teat by young fans I can reluctantly pardon, given the behavior of their political elders. These guys are hammering and screwing everyone in sight in this most-vicious midterm election season ever.

OK, everyone’s pissed at Washington and the stagnating economy. It’s just that no one knows who to properly blame. But if you have failed to cover your ears and eyes whenever the networks cut to a commericial, you have been toxically  exposed to the sewering howl of attack ads.

You will emerge from their bloodbath dripping with the conviction that all polticians are scuzzbags, clowns, cronies, anti-Americans, Bible-stompers, mother-haters, gun-banners, baby-killers, animal-euthinizers, Constitutional hijackers and/or gavel-weilding socialists who would as soon let docs to kill your granddaddy as use the part of the Constitution about the separation of church and state for buttwipe.

Did I miss anything? Of course I did; the assault is endless and reaches its most fevered, bottomless pitch this final weekend before Election Day. The true house of horrors this season springs out every time they cut to a commercial.

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Surely separated at birth: Rick Scott and Freddy Kueger.

I don’t know which race ranks sets the standard of sliminess for our younger generation—-there are so damn many. Here in Florida, I’d have to go with the campaign of Republican Rick Scott for Governor of Florida. Scott was infamously forced out as CEO of Columbia Healthcare back in the late ‘90’s after it got hit with a $1.7 billion dollar fine for Medicare fraud; he later took the Fifth Amendment 75 times in a single deposition attempting to determine his role in the fraud. Flush with cash from his executive buyout package, Scott began numerous investment funds which grew his nest egg to $218 million – a fund which became an inexhaustible political war chest.

Scott spent $45 million of his own money to defeat Republican primary challenger Bill McCollum. Asked in August if there is any limit to the funds he would invest in the general election, Scott said “no”.

He’s effectively outspent Democratic rival Alex Sink with another $25 million in attack ads. He’s fought the obvious criticism from his opponent about his billion-dollar felon status with suggestions that Sink had a hand in a $6.7 million fine paid by the parent company of a bank she was CEO of for allowing an affiliated company to steer bank customers into high-risk securities — a practice Sink says she had no authority over.

In recent days, Scott has pulled ahead in the polls, and if the Republican turnout on Nov. 4 will be as sizeable as predicted, he will prove that any crook with enough dough can build image that doesn’t exist merely by destroying his opponent. It’s an old right-wing talk radio tactic: demonize your opponent’s virtues and then you don’t have but the vaguest stand of your own). Add $60 million from your fraud nest egg and bingo: Big money always wins.

Way to go, Rick Scott.

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To this observer, Alabama politics is about as hard-hitting as its football, with the corruptive lubrication of big money always in the works.

Indeed, Alabama’s mid-term election comes on the heels of a cash-for-votes bribery scandal involving 11 state legislators, lobbyists and businessmen attempting to legalize bingo gambling in the state. (One of the state legislators involved was Jim Preuitt of Talladga.)

Not to be outdone in dastardliness, the mid-term races in Alabama are showing what contemporary politics can lower itself to:

– In the Alabama Fifth Congressional race between Democrat Steve Raby and Republican Mo Brooks, the two seem like bizarre inversions of the other. Raby, the Democrat, is a lifetime member of the NRA, a deacon in his Baptist church, is pro-life and has farmed since high school. Brooks, his Republican opponent, is an attorney, well-educated, is a member of the Sierra Club and prefers tennis to hunting. And yet the two accuse the other of the stock-in-trade epithets of the season, the more conservative Raby glued to Nancy Pelosi’s agenda by Brooks, Brooks hung with the Tea Party mantle of “silliness” by Raby. None of it makes sense to me, but the epithets somehow stick.

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Bizarro World, Alabama Style: Democratic candidate Steve Raby is the gun-toting, right-to-life conservative farmer, and Republican Mo Brooks is a tennis-playing, Sierra-Club supporting attorney.

– Black voters in Alabama are receiving recorded phone calls saying that blacks risk “going back to the cotton fields of Jim Crow days” unless Democrats Ron Sparks and Jim Folsom are elected. The robocalls were placed by state Sen. Hank Sanders, a Selma Democrat who made the calls for the Alabama New South Coalition. Democrats likely need a strong turnout among black voters in Alabama to elect Sparks to the governor’s office and Folsom as lieutenant governor.

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Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right: Democratic incumbent Bobby Bright of Alabama is facing withering attacks from both Democrats and Republicans in his re-election bid.

– Some candidates are taking flak from both sides. The left-leaning Blue America PAC is spending some $50,000 to run attack ads against Rep. Bobby Bright, a Democrat congressman running for re-election in a very conservative district. Bright had distinguished himself as a right-leaning Democrat, distancing himself from the party’s agenda and saying he would not vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the house. He’s also under attack by the National Republican Congressional Committee and the conservative American Future Fund for being, well, a Democrat.

– Republican Robert Bentley holds a 20-point lead over his Democratic rival Ron Sparks in his bid for the governor’s mansion. That despite the gaming scandal under the former Republican governor’s watch; he’s even suggested that voters be allowed to have a say in the bingo issue. Sparks has said it’s not so simple, since gaming requires state regulation; and even though both Republican and Democratic legislators were caught up in the scandal, the ire of voters seems to be pointed against Democrats, and Sparks looks to be one of those victims.

Why? Because Alabama politics is rife with corruption, and that seems fine with Alabamans as long as there’s money in it for them. Indeed, in addition to the bribery scandal under the former Republican governor’s watch, many jobs were created. Five Alabama metro areas were among the top 10 American cities posting the most significant declines over the past year.

That has translated to a 9.1 percent unemployment rate for the state – good news, especially for Republican gubernatorial hopefuls – though rural areas lag far behind at around 20 percent. (Ironically, demand for cotton by Chinese mills is at an all-time high, raising cotton prices to levels not seen since 1870; however, draught in Alabaman has local farmers looking to just break even on this year’s crop.)

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Alabama cotton farmers can’t get a break for nuthin’.

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The Curse

Talladega Speedway, as most of you know, is said to be cursed, built on an Indian burial ground, or cursed by a departing Talladega shaman after the tribe was crushed by Creek enemies for collaboration with Andrew Jackson’s white soldiers.

Curses cuts several ways.Dale Earnhardt Jr. has done well racin’ at Talladega – he’s won it six times – but that seems to have cursed his latter career, as he has not won now since 2008. Jimmie Johnson has won only once at Talladega and crashed frequently, but he’s won four consecutive Sprint Cup championships. Fate is topsy-turvy at Talladega, an equivocation which is fair and foul at once.

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A Cleveland DJ by the name of Rover hired a witch doctor recently to put a curse on LeBron James, Miami Heat player recently deserted of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Something tells me that James will continue to play at a stellar level, while Cleveland will remain cursed by lousy sports teams.

Women who hate their monthly menstruation rituals – known, in most circles, as “the curse” – can opt now for medications which shorten or even eliminate menstruation. The meds are really for birth control, preventing ovulation. It’s another fix for a sexually obsessed culture, joining the ranks of breast augmentation and mood pills to keep our gals shining and young and ready to hook up at a whim’s notice. And yes, I’d want the same thing too if I had to endure the discomfort and embarassment of bloody thongs every month; the male correlative is certainly Viagra, a physic for droopy-dick-in-the-clinch syndrome. Perhaps our curse is not found in our on-again, off-again bodies but rather in our minds, which are cursed with the mania of perfection, hairless bodies with six-pack abs and enormous boobs, primed penises and clot-free vaginal gullies pistoning in endless abandon, babies and age be damned.

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Curse is the conviction that one is being preyed upon the by ill will of another – God or Devil, bad Mommy or really bad Daddy, bullies at school, a vengeful ex, even stepping on an invisible tripwire on a spree anonymous bum events, psychologically or spiritually accident-prone, invoking a comedy of tortured errors.

Our response to curse is to find cures; they are perhaps two faces of the same thing. Lord knows the physics and compulsive rituals meant to rid oneself of the freezing jail of the cursed life – psychotropics, pain meds, booze, sex addiction, gambling, extreme sports, binge-and-purging, shopping, blogging. Of course, cures eventually become the curse, snarling the cursed in a web of accursed cures, the obsessive repetition of the nightly blackout drunk, the manic rituals of endless hand-washing and gripping fear of stepping outside into the big bad world, the eternal pursuit of oblivion inside (or penetrated by) the next dick or pussy in the nightly parade.

For most who have fought their way through their cures – through therapy or recovery or whatever manner of travailing through the dark forest to morning – there is often a sense that the curse was a blessing in disguise, forcing movement through all the false remedies, come to a grown-up recognition that the world never centered enough around you to bother with curse, that your affliction was in a sickened mind to begin with, that cure meant in some way coming to love the curse. Ranier Maria Rilke, the great German poet of the early 20th century, famously refused analysis by Sigmund Freud, stating, “If you rid me of my devils, you will surely banish my angels as well.”

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The Marquis de Sade.

Perhaps Marquis de Sade, that badboy rogue of the 18th century, was right when he wrote, “In order to know virtue, we must first acquaint ourselves with vice … It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure.” Problem is, it’s just so damn easy to get lost in the forest of cure and stay there. For all the avenues of recovery that have become available to alcoholics, still about 95 percent of them die drunk. The cure is too damn sweet to let go of, or rather the fantasy of curse is too strong.

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The Talladega curse afflicts fans as well and drivers alike, if you buy the premise of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, where Bobby (loosely an incarnation of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) loses his track mojo in a wreck at Talladega and goes mad, unable to drive without becoming  convinced that his head is on fire. He spirals down from the heights of NASCAR fame, divorced by his wife (who only wanted to be married to a NASCAR champion), moving in with his mother and delivering pizzas on a bicycle. And then his absent father Reese (loosely Dale Earnhardt Sr.) re-enters his life, teaching him to translate his fear of driving into reckless abandon once again. That, and love of a woman – a waitress who surely plays the role of Wynona, NASCAR’s goddess of fate – gets Ricky Bobby behind the wheel again, racing at the Talladega 400. He wrecks on the final lap racing his arch-nemesis, running to the finish line (the way Carl Edwards did when his car wrecked on the last lap of the 2009 spring race at ‘Dega). He doesn’t win the race, but the champion chump is back in full glory and ignorance, having overcome the curse of his own fear.

Could this weekend’s Amp Energy 500 be such a test for Jimmie Johnson, flagging in the points, about to be passed by Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick, a restrictor-plate-race master who won the spring race at Talladega this year?

Many fans believe that Jimmie is too beloved by his NASCAR elders, a favored son given favored treatment. Last week at Martinsville, a drive-shaft cover for the No. 48 Chevrolet was confiscated during inspection, although officials merely asked the team to replace the part. Coming off the draconian points-dock and suspension and fines of Clint Bowyer’s No. 33 Chevy a few weeks ago for a seeming infinitesimal excess of chassis height discovered in a post-race inspection following his win at New Hampshire on Sept. 19, the free pass of the No. 48 made many fans believe his legend is engineered not so much by Hendrick Motorsports or Wynona but rather NASCAR Corp. To me it seems silly – NASCAR knows that Johnson’s seemingly permanent lock on the championship isn’t popular with fans, why wouldn’t they try to level the field away from him?

Maybe they simply trust Talladega to do that work.

This weekend’s Amp Energy 500 will feature the premiere of The Legend of Hallowdega, an Amp Energy-sponsored short film directed by Terry Gilliam (a founding member of Monty Python and the creator of films like The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys). David Arquette and Justin Kirk star in the 15-minute film which purports to delve into the spookier lore of Talladega, like the story that Talladega was built on an Indian burial ground and Bobby Isaac had actually pulled out of one race because he’d heard a voice tell him to boogity off the track.

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The movie will be played in mobile theaters around Talladega this weekend, and a 2-minute version of it will be televised during ESPN’s race telecast. (The full version will be available for viewing after the Oct. 31 race at http://www.legendofhallowdega.com)

Apparently the folks at Talladega Speedway are looking for some image cure. “The great folks at AMP Energy Juice have developed a new and innovative idea to research and debunk some of the myths surrounding HALLOW-DEGA,” said Talladega Superspeedway Chairman Grant Lynch. “We anxiously await the release of the film to see what Terry Gilliam and AMP Energy Juice have come up with.” The staged exorcism of Talladega’s curse by an Indian shaman back in 2009 must not have been successful, but then it may have been falling track attendance rather than trackside mayhem the track’s ruling elders were truly concerned about.

The folks at Amp Energy seem to have more personal, poisonal ambitions than that, given this final paragraph in an announcement of the movie in The Sporting News:

Amp Energy expanded its marketing budget for the Talladega race in order to develop the film. To measure the return on its investment, the brand will monitor paid media and earned media impressions.

Oh, right–it’s a commercial. Something tells me that humoring the fans with a commercial isn’t going to rectify ‘Dega’s resource issues.

Well, it’s a paycheck for Gilliam. He could sure use it: the once-successful director’s recent work has been cursed by all manner of project-ruining disasters. In 1999, while attempting to film The Man Who Killed Don Quioxte, the leading actor suffered a herniated disc on the first day of shooting, and then the set was severely damaged by a flood, causing the film to be cancelled at a $32 million loss. A decade later, he was filming The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus in New York City when lead actor Heath Ledger died. He himself was struck by a bus while filming and broke his back.

Fateful choice wouldn’t you say, to be the man chosen to direct a comic movie about the curse of Talladega?

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Well, a guy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. And a brand’s gotta keep the franchise hoppin’.

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It’s All About Speed

I doubt Amp Energy expects to get much actual mileage out of Dale Earnhardt, whose No. 88 Chevrolet they sponsor has been a middle-of-the-packer all season long. The Earnhardt Jr. franchise has lost a lot of its lustre, but Dale Jr. fans are die-hard believers, standing by their man through thick and thin. (Last week, Earnhardt led in Martinsville for an entire lap, and the stadium came alive with hooting, roaring applause.)

Speed and energy drinks seem to have a comfortable, if disastrous relationship. Kasey Kahne finishes driving the season with Team Red Bull after jumping ship at Richard Petty Motorsports. Energy drinks are liquid speed, anyway, legal speed which emulates amphetamines the way crushed Oxycontin rivals herion. Down enough Amp Energy drinks and you can drink all weekend, watch the races and survive the drive home. (Try your luck, boys. Last spring Alabama State Troopers arrested 127 for driving under the influence over the race weekend.)

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The new fun badboy drink on the market is Four Loko, a fruit-flavored malt beverage with an alcohol content of 12 percent (beer runs at about 6 percent) and laced with enough caffeine as a cup of coffee (156 milligrams), collapsing the beer-can / energy drink conundrum in one convenient container.

It’s potent stuff, and with its colorful packaging and flavors like watermelon, blue raspberry and lemon-lime, it’s especially popular with underaged drinkers. And it has very potent effects: last month, six students from Ramapo College in Mahway, NJ were taken to the hospital after drinking it. One of those admitted said he’d had three cans of Four Loko and several shots of tequila in just under an hour; he had a blood alcohol level of .40, which is almost fatal.

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Elroy McConnell (2d from left) with his three sons.

Last August, 51-year-old Elroy McConnnell of Orlando and his three grown sons were on vacation at Redington Beach in St. Petersburg, celebrating the birthday of the youngest son along with their wives and children. One night father and sons were returning from a movie when their Ford Fusion was broadsided by the Chevrolet Impala of twenty-year-old Demetrius Jordan, who had run a red light going more than 80 miles per hour. McConnell and his sons were killed on impact, but Jordan and his passenger survived. Jordan told police he had been mixing Four Loko with liquor and smoking pot. A can of Four Loko sat behind Jordan’s seat after the crash.

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Elroy McConnell’s Ford Fusion after Demetrius Jordan plowed into it running s red light at over 80 mph, high on dope and Four Loko.

The following Monday, four McConnell wives drove back to Orlando as widows.

Eighteen attorneys general are urging the Food and Drug Administration, which has never approved adding caffeine to alcohol, to determine whether the drinks are safe.

Of course, it’s not the fault of Phusion Projects, who manufactures Four Loko. Co-founder Chris Hunter says the company is being unfairly singled out and that they take steps to prevent its products from getting into minors’ hands.

“Alcohol misuse and abuse and under-age drinking are issues the industry faces and all of us would like to address,” he said. “The singling out or banning of one product or category is not going to solve that. Consumer education is what’s going to do it.”

Rigghhhhhtt. The same way that consumer education is effectively teaching college students about the bum effects of “smart” or “attention” prescription drugs like Adderoll or Ritalin. These drugs are like essays you can buy on the Web – shortcuts to peak performance, steroids for the brain.

They work, but they don’t, because they work too well. My younger brother died at age 44 a couple of years ago, his heart blown out by taking too much Ritalin. He had a legitimate reason – he’d suffered attention-deficit problems for years as the result of a near-fatal car accident when he was 18. Ritalin helped him focus at work, but it also helped with other things. He cut about 25 pounds of overweight in a year; it helped him go at life at twice the normal speed. He took way more of it than prescribed (in fact, no doctor was overseeing him), and it killed him pretty quick.

For those who are cursed with a jones for speed, the Talladega cure is like putting out fire with gasoline. Pour  in the nitro of booze and energy drinks and Four Loko and energy pills and well, it’s have at it and how, boys. That’s NASCAR’s mantra as it tries to survive on the cultural radar, one which began with Big Bill France dream of speed which caused Talladega to be built in the first place, steam-rolling over every bit of truth that stood in the way of sculpting a Galatea whose wings would become real enough, though in every cursed way you can imagine.

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All Hard Roads Lead to ‘Dega

So it is with all of these back- and under-stories at play that the crowds begin to make their way to the camping areas of Talladega, ready for another howlin’, hootin’, hooterin’ bash of fast cars, beer bongs, drugs by the fistful, costumes and wimmen.

Talladega will be one the nation’s party centrals this weekend, having been passed over by a vicious weather system which closed schools in town on Tuesdsay afternoon and delayed their opening on Wednesday morning. It will be cooler this weekend, more Halloweeeny; bared nipples will be perkier.

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Atten-shun!

Elsewhere the system served up hurricane-force winds, heavy rains, tornadoes and snow. Record low pressure was to blame, with millibars sunk to a level comparable to a Category 3 hurricane. Wind gusts of up to 81 miles per hour affected residents from Illinois to Tennessee. More than a dozen tornadoes were reported in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. At one point, at least 31 states were under a thunderstorm watch or warning.

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But I guess we can count ourselves lucky. In Indonesia, a 7.7 magnitude quake on Monday struck near the Mentawai Islands, causing a tsunami whose 10-foot surge moved 2,000 feet inland. Some 272 locals were killed and another 412 are missing as of this writing. And then yesterday, 600 miles up the coast of Indonesia on the island of Java, at least 30 people were feared dead after the eruption of Mt. Merapi, one of the area’s most volatile volcanoes.

Talk about living between a rock and a hard place.

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Volcanic ash covers everything in the village of Kinaherjo in Indonesia.

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Here in Central Florida, a high of 92 degrees is forecast, breaking all previous records. Hot, still, stricken, the remnants of the front aren’t expected our way for a couple more days. I guess we should count ourselves lucky, too.

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All week my wife and I have been watching 80’s and ‘90s-vintage horror flicks on AMC like the Friday the 13th and Halloween series. The stuff looks tame compared to the gore-fests now pandered on DVDs. Back in our innocence, perhaps, but I remember how spooked I was watching Nightmare on Elm Street and Aliens and Silence of the Lambs.

(Perhaps the scariest movie I can recall is seeing Phantasm in 1979, on a film projector in someone’s home – this was before video – while on LSD. The drugs probably made me more susceptible, but I remember being scared in four dimensions — all those doors to Hell opening up down endless halls.)

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The Tall Man — Hell’s El Dudo — plays ball with prospective lost souls in “Phantasm.”

Now, it all looks so pedestrian. Like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, I think I have supped full with enough horrors to leave me somewhat numb to scary movies – or maybe I just avoid them, needed no more such stimulus. Indeed, horror movies may be the wholesale property of the young, who haven’t suffered enough consequences to stay clear of imagined ones.

Now, I’m no advocate of those “realistic” haunted houses put on by fundamentalists to convince kids that they’re going to hell if they don’t convert IMMEDIATELY – c’mon, let the young have their fun. But I am haunted by the news, as you have seen in this post.

The thing that haunts me the most -– short of the growing fear that the economy’s going to fall apart to the point where my wife and I will find ourselves living out of a car -– is how the hidden war now in Afghanistan with its hidden house of horrors is seeping up, like swamp gass, from floorboards of our American psyche.

I’m really disturbed about the news (some of it from Wikileaks, but also by admission by military leaders) about how rampant drug abuse, crime and suicide is among soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, more than 100,000 soldiers are on prescribed anti-anxiety medication, and 40,000 are thought by the Army to be using illegal drugs. Since 2002, some 1,100 Armed Forces members have committed suicide, an average of one every 36 hours.

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Why is it that when these guys aren’t getting slaughtered by hostiles, they’re doing it to themselves? And what do these vets bring back stateside with them, along with their medals and prosthetic legs?

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Oh, there are so many hard roads to Talladega, each infected with enough mental pollutant to make any fan indecently crazy: slow death in the Gulf, a bad economy, violence everywhere you look, bum politics, a digital omniverse replacing real people, obsessional cures for a fearful world flooding in through every door and window, bad weather … all of those are bad roads, but I’m going to bet that the nightmare of what’s going on in Iraq and  Afghanistan hovers over young male fans en route to Talladega more than all of the others. Because it’s nearly invisible and yet everywhere at once. The Otherworld will be present at Hallow-Dega not in the revelry of its costumed participants so much as the dark universe of our common soul, belabored by hell of our common existence.

All of those roads of excess and hubris lead to Talladega, making that track and its events a bellweather of a breaking state of mind. It’s going to take a lot of partying and faux HallowDega boo-ing to dispel the gooseflesh of those nightmares.

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But I don’t know. Talladega fans—especially party-hearty young men—have grown up in such an extreme culture, nothing may penetrate their steel-girdered, eternally adolescent abandonments.

And Talladega may not be the place any more for so harrowed a folk. Restrictor plate-racin’ in the no-kill Car of Tomorrow may not provide enough of an extreme buzz to engage such scattered, thrill-seeking attentions, even at NASCAR’s wildest track. Maybe that’s why attendance at the spring Talladega race was down 15 percent from the previous year and 22 percent from the same race in 2008.

Could it be that NASCAR’s Temple of Doom has gone the way of “Friday The 13” and “Hallowe’en,” become a tame and lame and dated blood sport where there is so much more thrilling eye candy available almost everywhere you look?

I mean, when all else fails, there’s always the next tour of duty overseas, carousing with death and its dark horsemen of terror, fear, brutality and IEDs on some lonely Afghan mountaintop …

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Postscript: Hallowing the Harrowing, or, How I Came to Love the Curse

Today is St. Oran’s Day, a Catholic feast day still celebrated in the Hebrides. The story of Saint Oran is a real Hallowe’en story – or a myth which has endured as one of the best tales of the event. It also encloses an important message which, I think, gives me license to keep opening new doors and seeing things in new ways. For any writer, St. Oran would serve as patron saint of the next clean white page to fill.

The story of St. Oran goes like this:

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Oran may may have already been on the Isle of the Druids (Iona, off the coast of Scotland) when Columba and his 12 companions arrived in 563 A.D. to found a monestary. (Columba had been exiled from Ireland for copying a psalter in secret and then refusing to give up the copy when it was discovered. He’d gone to battle over that book, killing many of the king’s men with his loyal troops; as punishment he was excommunicated for a short time and then received the heavier penance of exile, told that he could not establish himself until the coast of Ireland had disappeared over the horizon. Iona was that place.)

At first, the abbey’s construction fares badly. Each day’s work is leveled overnight by some disturbed spirit. Columba sets up a watch to observe what happens at night, but each person set to the task is found dead the next day amid the fallen timbers.

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Columba decides to do the vigil himself and sits alone at the site in the howling cold dark. In the middle of the night, a being in the shape of a half-woman, half-fish comes to Columba from the booming waves. Columba asks the apparition what is repelling his efforts to build at Iona. The fish-woman tells him that his cutting of the sward has disturbed a great water being (the deity Manannan), and that the nightly destructions of his work would continue until one of his men offered themselves to be buried alive in a grave seven times as deep as a man’s length.

Lots are cast and Oran is chosen (other accounts say he volunteered) and he stepped down into the footers on October 28 and was covered with dirt. No wind rises up that night to spoil the work and the construction proceeds without incident.

After three days and nights Columba became curious to know how his friend had fared in the Otherworld, and to look upon his face one last time. So on All Hallow’s Eve (Oct. 31), the abbot orders his monks to clear away the dirt until Oran’s head has been exhumed. The monks do so. Columba leans down to look into Oran’s face when suddenly the eyes pop open, burning blue with sights of wonders no sane or dry or Church-bounded man has seen.

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Staring right at Columba, Oran declares, “There is no wonder in death, and hell is not as it is reported. In fact, the way you think it is is not the way it is at all!”

Horrified, the saint had Oran buried again at all haste, crying “Uir! Uir! air beul Odhrain” or “Earth, earth on Oran’s mouth!” (The saying “chaidh uir air suil Odhrain” or “Earth went over Oran’s eyes” is still widely heard in the Highlands and Hebrides as a reminder to unruly children to keep their mouths shut.

Despite the frightful encounter, Columba dedicated the monestary’s graveyard to Oran (Reilig Odhrain) and honored Oran’s sacrifice by saying, “No man may access the angels of Iona but through Oran.” The bones of many Scottish, Irish and Norwegian kings were sent to Oran’s graveyard; Duncan and Macbeth are interred in the St. Oran chapel at the center of the graveyard.

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The Saint Oran Chapel at Iona with the abbey’s graveyard just beyond.

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In Celtic, pre-Christian tradition, All-Hallows – Hallowe’en – is the Eve of their New Year, Nov. 1 being the New Year festival of Samhain. As a door between times, All Hallows is the night where the veil between this and the other world is thin, and all the dead are freed from their graves to walk the lanes of the living for a night. It is a night for treats or tricks, as encounters with residents of the Otherworld sometimes went well, others badly, depending less on the gumption of the spirit than the goodness of the mortal.

Most of this post has framed a tale of hauntings by real events, a sum of bummers and dirty deeds caused, mostly, by self-centered greed and lust and gluttony and fear. Contemporary culture is tormented by ghosts because we have built this modernity recklessly, our knowledge of the past covered over, the ancient foundations bulldozed to make room for high-rise condos and franchised shopping centers.

As Talladega is rumored to have been built on an Indian graveyard – incurring a curse which has always been evident in its trackside mayhem and infield bedevilment – so too have we built our contemporary life heedless of our past, a deed which invokes disturbed and angry deities (and fishy women).

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Wynona’s sea-sister.

Sacrifice is called for, but of what? My guess is a change of attitude, casting aside one way of fixed thinking for the vast and  ever-changing truths of a sea wilderness. Remember what St. Oran said, up from three days’ journey into the dark universe around and inside us all: The way you think it is is not the way at all.

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For all of us. Which means I have to take this post and bury it in the footers of a work, so that something living and fresh and renewed can begin again come first light. If the angels of Iona could not be accessed through except by the sacrifice of Iona, then it we’ve all got to get down and dirty with the past, maintain a living connection with tradition by letting mud cover our minds and allowing the dark truths to be free to flow from our mouths. Or nothing that lasts will be abandoned at last to the crashing wave and howling winds.

We’ve got to bury our cure if we would be free of our curse. No longer bound to it, we might come to love the dark truths hidden within.

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Note: for a related post about the military’s relationship with NASCAR, see “Over There.”

Gone With the Wind


Atlanta Motor Speedway’s – and America’s – Labor Day Pains

“If you divorce capital from labor, capital is hoarded, and labor starves” – Daniel Webster

We finally got some decent rain the other day, clouds in by noon and rains begun soon after and rolling through the afternoon, two or three decent long downpours with all the attendant thunder and wind, causing the bushes and trees to maenad-dance in an earthly equivalent to, well, a good roll in the hay after a long, dry hiatus. After sunset a nearly-full moon broke through the cloudbanks with its distant eye of approval, giving consent to lunacies of any every vein—in beds around suburbia where the unemployed screw and fugetaboutit, in gardens around Central Florida cooing and chirring with such wet receipt, in the darker side of that moon’s smile – three houses in Central Florida burnt by lightning strikes, a woman in Deland killed when a tree toppled onto the truck she was a passenger in, a gibbon on the loose at Miami’s Jungle Island causes a 3-year-old Bengal tiger to jump a 14-foot fence and stalk the monkey for a half hour before park officials were able to catch the hungry cat.

Scientists now say the moon has shrunk over the billion-year dreamtime—imperceptibly, only a couple hundred yards due to cooling in the orb’s core. Cold heart, shrunken head: Such is our moon-madness, too, our crimes of passion slowly grown dispassionate, coolly and cruelly picking off victims with calculation and Craigslist, stealing not your stereo but your identity, hooking up for oral and boob-fuck and anal sex mainly because none of those ejaculate zones produces more babies. Just say No, Not There—But try Here, and Here, and Here …

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The moon is shrinking, not so much because it’s getting smaller as that it’s fading away, slowly working itself free of the Earth’s gravitational pull at a rate of about an inch a year. (If you’re an average guy, that’s like taking six years to make that sated, detumescent slide out of your date.) When the moon first became itself all those billion years ago — either hauled up from the Pacific Ocean or the result of a planetary collision, or some measure of both–it completely filled the sky and had a monstrous effect on the tides, causing them to move hundreds of miles in and back every day. And as it was birthed from the ocean (as one theory goes), so still it labors to be free of us, taking with it, eventually, hopefully, our madness. But that ebb will be a long, long time in coming, and we’ll probably have killed off all life as we know it long before then in our one, long, earth-scouring work day, our same shit every different day.

As they say, weather is what happened yesterday, and climate is what results over a century. So it’s never good to tell the world’s fortune(s) from events in one season’s crystal ball. At the last race in Atlanta, back in March, the city was thawing out of the coldest weather in decades. Such cold may have influenced NASCAR in pulling the spring date in its schedule from Atlanta, leaving it with only one summer race next year.

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Kurt Busch didn’t mind the cold in Atlanta — he won the past two spring races.

Paying too close attention to the yesterday’s weather and not to the general climate means that we arrive at the Labor Day race at Atlanta where it’s too hot exactly where it was earlier too cold.

Well, credit NASCAR with the panicky reactions of another catastrophically-shrinking industry. All of its moves to lure fans back to the track the double-file, green-white-checker restarts, “have-at-it-boys” attitude toward trackside manners, tweaks in the schedule mining for fans in other pockets of America—all of these moves fall under the fading blue shadow of a obscurity.

NASCAR’s new motto – “Everything else is just a game” – tries to imply that what occurs on NASCAR tracks is a real and exciting danger other sports don’t possess. Ask an NFL running back if football is just a game when he takes one of those career-ending hits. Instead, the motto instead puts NASCAR falls in with the ranks of professional wrestling and roller derby, entertainments engineered to look like sport. The more that NASCAR shows it will change everything about its game to lure fans to the track, the more it confirms the latter impression.

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And like other catastrophically-shrinking industry–hell, like our catastrophically-shrinking economy–NASCAR defends its franchise with a vigor that borders on the insane. Brian France has become like Ahab aboard Moby or Mad Max taking on Wezzie in The Road Warrior: Something of a fight to the finish in those eyes.

The blog I edit for a company who once hoped it might produce a desperately-needed revenue stream got a cease-and-desist order this summer from NASCAR’s marketing lawyers for illegal use of the NASCAR eponymous logo—-unless we dropped all advertising from the site. Only NASCAR and its bedmates can make money on racing, it seems, or those it deems profitable for themselves to allow their existence.

That attitude extends to teams, who have been told they are business partners whose revenue stream is based on the graces of NASCAR. Drivers thus are expressions of brand, and the way they have been muzzled recently to be ever and wholly supportive of the sport -– under penalty of secret fines –- has turned them into “Stepford Drivers,” as Monte Dutton recently put called them. Poster boys.

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Stepford Wives and / or Drivers.

Is the sport really under siege, the way Atlanta was for months the Troy of the Civil War, a vast rampart to be sieged and then razed by Union soldiers under the direction of one Gen. William T. Sherman?

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Troops of General Sherman burn a train station in Atlanta after the fall of the city. Fulsome firebugging followed.

If so, then it can last only so long; the Union forces of changing times will choke off the franchise. But I daresay NASCAR is playing with the matches that will burn itself to the ground.

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Gone With the Wind was written by Atlantan Margaret Mitchell in 1936, and was soon made into a movie which premiered in Atlanta in 1939. The story is about how a way of life –- white existence in the antebellum South –- became “gone with the wind,” carried off by the civil war.

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It was written from the vantage of 75 years after that existence, following the occupation and then carpetbaggers giving way to a slow but sure rebuilding (Atlanta’s vast railroad system was intact), the state capital moving there and a home for Confederate soldiers maintained there until 1941, the city growing along a vein independent of agriculture, become a commercial capitol.

Like every major city, Atlanta inherited all the ethnic and racial tensions of the day (notably conflagrating in 1906 with the Atlanta Race Riot which killed 27 and injured more than 70).

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Scenes from the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot.

A new city arose from the ashes of the former, more potent and promising than the one that fell to General Sherman in his March to the Sea. Yet ennui in the segregated Depression South was strong for the old South as a fabled time in which a chivalric code of manners and gentility were practiced against the backdrop of civilized plantation life (“civilized,” of course, if you were white).

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The New South didn’t, or wouldn’t, or couldn’t forget the South of old, and pined for vestiges of it between the cracks of Reconstruction. Scarlett O’Hara is the woman who embodies the Old South’s survival in to the New – certainly Mitchell herself –- and Rhett Butler is the “hell of a good boy” who is a South complete unto himself, a rebel and rake who earns his living outside the pale of the law. Butler is the ur-moonshine-runner, and his smile could be seen in Joe Weatherley and Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson and Fonty Flock.

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Erroll Flynn/Rhett Butler and Fonty Flock.

Yet as goes–-or went—-Atlanta, so NASCAR. Atlanta’s railroad hub made the city perfect for commercial traffic, and many industries set up camp and corporate headquarters around the city: the Georgia-Southern Railroad, Bell Aircraft Industries during the Second World War, later Coca-Cola, Cable News Network, Delta Airlines, UPS, Home Depot and Newell Rubbermaid. The city has the fourth-largest concentration of Fortune 500 companies, has the world’s busiest airport, and now has the nation’s ninth-largest metropolitan area of some 5.5 million inhabitants.

Atlanta has no natural boundaries –- no bodies of water or mountains to limit its sprawl –- so suburban development around Atlanta has gone on unchecked for decades, creating what is now one of the worst suburban gridlocks in the nation. Atlanta’s success is its nightmare, too, for travelers through Hartsfield Airport—the world’s busiest was rated 10th out of the country’s 19 largest in airport satisfaction by J.D. Power in 2008.

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Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta.

In terms of corporate, metropolitan and lover-boy clout, size matters, but only to the Powers which wield it; and as Atlanta, so NASCAR suffers from the itchy reach of its libido, grown too big for its britches, a cumbersome and bullying presence in Psyche’s knickers and betwixt her knockers. A dick. Simply, too much of a good thing is a bad thing, and the historically poor turnout of fans at Atlanta Motor Speedway is a signal to NASCAR that there’s a point beyond which your ambition overreaches itself and you become something unfit for consumption –- in droves.

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Atlanta’s size matters — to Atlanta.

China’s learning something about what it means to become bad-boy big. Always the population champ (weighing in at some 1.3 billion citizens), it now has the world’s second largest economy, recently surpassing that of Japan. Yet miasmas are stuffed into the pockets of so fast a-rising colossus. Consider the 60-mile traffic jam in Beijing which began weeks ago and may, according to officials, last well into September. In the main part of the bottleneck, vehicles were inching along at about a third of mile a day. Though triggered by major road construction now underway, the carjam is also due to sizzling sales of new cars. Now the world’s largest market for car sales, Chinese bought some 13 million vehicles in 2009. Villagers along Highway 101 – where the worst congestion is found – are profiteering by selling overpriced food and water to the traffic-bound commuters.

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Traffic in Beijing of late. These folks left for work, oh, two or three weeks ago.

It’s just one of the headaches created by such sizzling growth; others include pollution (remember how industries around Beijing were shut down during the 2008 Summer Olympics so athletes could properly breathes?), poor energy, water and food resources, a rapidly aging population (due to the one-child-per-family law instituted several decade back to slow the country’s overpopulation) and the huge income discrepancy between urban and rural workers.

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Congestion on I-75 in Atlanta.

You can see shadows of all of this in Atlanta, a city grown too big for its britches, where the commute is among the worst in the country. “I wish they would make a ‘Grand Theft Auto: Atlanta’ so I could blow up the video game version of Interstate 75. It would be good therapy,” a commenter wrote on the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s online rant forum The Vent last November.

Of course, at least these people have jobs, albeit in corporations which are continually downsizing, forcing workers to take furloughs or pay cuts on the threat of elimination of their jobs. Nothing like a dreary commute to a job you don’t know will exist when you finally get there.

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The upcoming Atlanta race is on Labor Day weekend, and to celebrate (seduce more fans to a track with a bad rep), AMS is planning a four-day spectacle: Fans who purchase a $30 ticket to the Saturday Nationwide Series race, and a $39 ticket Sunday’s Emory Healthcare 500 Sprint Cup series race will get you free admission to a fan fest event and super late model race on Friday as well as one of those Bruton “Breakfast’s On Me” events on Monday. The number of fan-friendly hotels (charging no more than $120 a night without requiring a multi-night stay) has been increased to 35, campground space has been expanded, and the a brimming roster of entertainments has been planned, ranging from performances by Foreigner, Colt Ford and Drivin’ and Cryin’; the Freestyle MX.com tour; and a Big Green Egg cooking demonstration, woo woo. In sum, AMS is doing everything but bending over and cracking a smile to make a turnaround at the fall event.

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Drivin’ and Cryin’: Perfect name for a cry-in-your-beer Mark Martin or Jamie McMurray “outta gas, outta points”  fan band.

And who knows? It may work. It may make racin’ at AMS an uncharacteristic success for the track owner and for NASCAR.

The problem with races in Atlanta is that there is so much competition. What else are you going to do in Martinsville? Or in Bristol, which managed to almost sell out its 165,000 ampitheatre seats for its summer night race, an accomplishment which would be impressive at any track this year except that Bristol had a record 54 sellout Sprint Cup races in a row until this year’s spring race, which fell short by some 30,000 empty seats.

In Atlanta, the diversions are as plenty and diverse as devices in a teenager’s room. On Sept. 4, an Atlanta radio station is promoting Celebrate Freedom, all-day free concert in Jim R. Miller Park. Art in the Park, one of the largest juried art shows in the Southeast, will be in nearby Marietta from Sept. 4-6, and in Kingland there is the Annual Labor Day Weekend Catfish Festival, which will offer three days of southern-fried catfish, country music, a parade, arts and crafts booths, collectibles and antiques, a family-friendly amusement area, a classic car and tractor exhibit, 5K run, and an annual pancake breakfast and more. The University of Georgia kicks off its football season on Sept. 4 in Sanford Stadium some 50 miles outside of Atlanta in Athens against Louisiana-Lafayette, sure to be a crowd-pleasing ass-kicker for rabid Bulldog fans. And this Labor Day weekend Atlanta is hosting Dragon Con, the largest multi-media, popular culture convention focusing on science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, pop art, designer toys, literature, art, music, and film. On Sept. 4 they will try to break the Guiness World Record for largest gathering of superheroes (the current record of 1,246 was set in Australia).

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Roll over, Red Bull girls, the girls of Dragon Con put a whole new meaning on getting some strange.

Labor day diversions all, for sure, until you consider how many people will find it fortunate just to be working those diverse events. If anyone hasn’t noticed, our economy is stuck in doldrums which are undertowing toward a double-dip recession. Spending on durable goods – business investment in big-ticket items – rose only .3 percent in July, and if you subtract out a spike in aircraft orders, the actual number was a 3.8 percent drop in spending. Add to this the news that new-home sales fell some 27 percent in July — a 15-year low-—and indications look like its here we go again.

And there’s always a disconnect between the arid numerals of macroeconomics and the hard, micro-realities of what’s happening in the economy in your town or home. Consider that blazing hot day in mid-August when some 30,000 residents of East Point, a suburb of Atlanta, lined up to pick up applications for some 655 units of available government subsidized housing. Riot police were called out to control the crowd, and 62 people were injured in the chaos. Officials say the waiting list may be as long as ten years.

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A crowd of 30,000  hoping to get federal housing assistance swarms the Tri-Cities Plaza in East Point. Thousands of people were lined up at the shopping center, hoping to apply for a voucher from the East Point Housing Authority that would give them a discount on their rent.

Consider that 50 million—-that’s one in six–Americans now struggle with poverty, their ranks swollen from members of the middle class who have been impoverished due to unemployment and foreclosure. (Here in Orlando, three out of four mortgages are underwater, the second worst in the nation. If that number seems watery, consider that in Orlando only one house in four in Orlando has equity of more than one dollar.)

Consider that the top ten percent of the country’s population hog about 74 percent of the country’s wealth, the top one percent about 34 percent of the wealth—a figure equal to the total wealth of the remaining 90 percent of Americans.

Consider all that, and the sweat of my brow isn’t worth the dirt it falls on.

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There is a move afoot, started by philanthropist / billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, to induce billionaires to donate half their wealth to charity, believing that such contributions are really how to address problems in American life which the government alone can’t address (like the spiraling cost of prison and/or  health care), as well as providing an example to others to donate as part of our civic duty. So far, some 40 U.S. billionaires have signed on, including T. Boone Pickens, Michael Bloomberg and George Lucas. Presently there are more than 400 billionaires in the U.S.

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Charles and David Koch, very rich dudes with a very right-wing bent–not so much to help out those sufferin’ Tea Party activists, but to preserve their own vast wealth.

Not on the list of billionaire sharers: Rupert Murdoch, who owns FOX News; David and Charles Koch (whose combined wealth is exceeded only by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among Americans), leading contributors to right-wing causes like the Tea Party. Frank Rich wrote about these guys over the weekend in the New York Times:

… Koch-supported lobbyists, foundations and political operatives are at the center of climate-science denial — a cause that forestalls threats to Koch Industries’ vast fossil fuel business. While Koch foundations donate to cancer hospitals like Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York, Koch Industries has been lobbying to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from classifying another product important to its bottom line, formaldehyde, as a “known carcinogen” in humans (which it is).

Tea Partiers may share the Kochs’ detestation of taxes, big government and Obama. But there’s a difference between mainstream conservatism and a fringe agenda that tilts completely toward big business, whether on Wall Street or in the Gulf of Mexico, while dismantling fundamental government safety nets designed to protect the unemployed, public health, workplace safety and the subsistence of the elderly.

Yet inexorably the Koch agenda is morphing into the G.O.P. agenda, as articulated by current Republican members of Congress, including the putative next speaker of the House, John Boehner, and Tea Party Senate candidates like Rand Paul, Sharron Angle, and the new kid on the block, Alaska’s anti-Medicaid, anti-unemployment insurance Palin protégé, Joe Miller. Their program opposes a federal deficit, but has no objection to running up trillions in red ink in tax cuts to corporations and the superrich; apologizes to corporate malefactors like BP and derides money put in escrow for oil spill victims as a “slush fund”; opposes the extension of unemployment benefits; and calls for a freeze on federal regulations in an era when abuses in the oil, financial, mining, pharmaceutical and even egg industries (among others) have been outrageous.

Also not on the list: the France family of NASCAR, which has a net worth of $1.4 billion. Think they’ll sign on with the forty in one of the truly fan-friendliest acts possible? That chance is gone with the wind …

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So it’s more than a little galling that in this political season, the politicians who most fervently represent the interests of the wealthiest Americans – that top one percent – are running on a populist platform which uses wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage and immigration to defeat more moderate and seasoned Democrats and Republicans. (The sticking point on renewing the Bush tax cuts—the one which has Tea Party affiliates up in arms–has been the alleged affect of the rolled-back tax breaks on small business. But the bulk of small-business taxpayers do not pay the top rates which would be affected by renewing the Bush tax cuts. Leonard Burman of Syracuse University testified to the Senate Finance committee, “Less than 3 percent of tax returns with business income are in the top two tax brackets. So the vast majority would be protected from tax rate increases.”)

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Rick Scott won the Florida Republican primary on August 24.

Take, for example, Rick Scott (net worth, $210 million dollars) here in Florida, the outsider Tea-Party Republican who ran against Bill McCollum in the Republican Senate primary. Scott was CEO of Columbia Healthcare when it was discovered that the hospital giant had perpetrated a $450 million dollar Medicare fraud, the largest of its type in history, resulting in a $1.7 billion in fines, penalties and damages. (Among the fraudulent practices uncovered: billing Medicare and Medicaid for unnecessary lab tests, creating false diagnoses to claim a higher reimbursement and charging for marketing and advertising costs that were disguised as community education.) Scott was forced out by the board without facing criminal charges – he received a huge severance package and a 10-year consulting fee – and he used that ill-gotten nest egg to amass even greater wealth in venture capital endeavors, including part ownership, with George Bush, of the Texas Rangers. Scott spent some $40 million of his own wealth campaigning against the incumbent McCallum, using all of the typical language of being “an outsider” who could create jobs and prevent abortions and raising up the volume at the last minute on the proposed Ground Zero mosque.

The attack ads against McCallum in the days before the election which flooded every broadcast station were truly ghoulish, sliming his opponent with unfounded charges of collusion with insider badness – chartering a state plane for personal purposes (costing taxpayers $200,000), that his lobbying firm received $100,000 from abortion providers, and that he had close ties with recently-disgraced Florida GOP leader Jim Greer. Basically, everything an incumbent has to deal with became Scott fodder. Anyone who can claim outsider status wins against Washington these days (no wonder the Tea Party’s motto is “Reclaim America”): but what do we get? Here in Florida, we get a crook who’s buying a governorship on wealth he amassed due to his crimes, floating over the competition with the right amount of PR (more than anyone else could possibly afford) and sweet-talk to angry voters.

OK, you can see where my sympathies don’t lie. But it’s galling to me beyond all measure how many people are voting for those very folks whose interests -– and true agendas — are with those One Percenters who want to own everything, no matter how much lip service they pay to populism. The same old drama is playing out with the wealthy just getting wealthier and everyone else getting poorer.

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Ironically, it isn’t the middle class who are setting a record pace for defaulting on mortgages. The New York Times reported in July that the rich have stopped paying on mortgages at a rate which exceeds the general population – some one in seven on mortgages which exceed $1 million (compared to one in 12 for mortgages under $1 million). “The rich are different: they are more ruthless,” said Sam Khater, senior economist for CoreLogic which made public the data. According to the article, the delinquency rate on investment homes where the original mortgage was more than $1 million is now 23 percent. For cheaper investment homes—what you and I can afford–it is about 10 percent.

Along this vein, Atlanta’s most expensive home finally sold after almost two decades on the market. The Larry Dean house—known as “The Dean Dream”—was a 58-acre estate developed on pastureland next to the Chattahoochee River, bought and refurbished for some $25 million by Dean, an Atlanta software developer. On the grounds there’s an 18-hole golf course, wedding chapel and bandshell; the 32,000 square-foot house is larded with just about everything a fatass could covet.

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Dean Gardens, for a time known as The Dean Dream. Until love’s bubble burst like the housing market.

Intended for charity use by a foundation when the owner passed on, the Dean Dream fell apart in the early 90s when Mr. and Mrs. Dean separated and the house went on the market for around $40 million. Michael Jackson wanted to buy it in 1994 for his fiancée, Lisa Marie Presley, but when the media found out about the deal and broadcast it, Jackson refused to sign the contract.

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Three inside views of Dean Gardens.

(Larry Dean was lucky in business but, alas, unlucky in love. He has divorced a third time and is planning to look for wife No. 4 in Florida, where he plans to move. He’s also announced that he’s going to write a book on Internet dating, which he says has been a letdown. Everyone lies, especially about their age and weight.)

Sixteen years later, the Dean Dream finally sold for a measly $7.6 million to Atlanta entertainment mogul Tyler Perry (“Tyler Perry’s House of Pain” on TBS, box-office hits like “Meet the Browns” and, oddly, the Oscar-winning “Precious”). Apparently it was just for the location, since Perry plans to demolish the house and build a more environmentally-friendly one.

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Atlanta millionaire and entertainment mogul Tyler Perry with Madea, one of his onscreen alter egos.

Perry himself is a weird mix of Ten- and Ninety-Percenter, a black man whose roots are in poor New Orleans become a mega-millionaire playwright and producer of TV shows and movies which portray a reality of black life which is alternately funny and ugly.

Perry represents the success of some African-Americans in Atlanta, which was a center for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. Martin Luther King was pastor, as was his father, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Sweet Auburn district of Atlanta. After his assassination in 1968, King was buried on the grounds of the church, and now annual Martin Luther King Day events have their center in services there. Two of the most important civil rights organizations, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, have their national headquarters in Atlanta.

Despite some racial protests during the Civil Rights era, Atlanta’s political and business leaders labored to foster Atlanta’s image as “the city too busy to hate”. In 1961, Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. became one of the few Southern white mayors to support desegregation of his city’s public schools. African-American Atlantans demonstrated growing political influence with election of the first African-American mayor, Maynard Jackson, in 1973. They became a majority in the city during the late 20th century but suburbanization, rising prices, a booming economy and new migrants have decreased their percentage in the city from a high of 69 percent in 1980 to about 54 percent in 2004.

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Things have not continued well for blacks in the cities; Atlanta, once a leader in African-American progress–there are more black millionaires in Atlanta than anywhere else in the country–has become a primary example of new urban woe, especially in the Great Recession. It ranks third on the list of 101 cities with more than 50 percent of its population living below the poverty level. Its 48 percent child poverty rate is higher than Detroit’s. Black Atlanta families are three times more likely to be poor than white Atlanta families (in 2008, the median income for white Atlanta families is $86,156; for black Atlanta families it was $29,033). In metro Atlanta, per capita income has shrunk nearly five percent, twice the national average. Only 34 percent of black males in Atlanta graduate from high schools.

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Homeless in Atlanta. Not only is poverty high in the metro Atlanta area, it’s spreading fast through the suburbs as well. In 2008, 85 percent of Atlanta’s poor were spread throughout the 28-county area.

Poverty in the inner city is one thing. Urban unemployment is another. Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson in his 1999 book When Work Disappears connected the loss of jobs in the inner city in the 1970s to many of the ills which followed, “The consequences of high neighborhood joblessness,” he writes,

… are more devastating than those of high neighborhood poverty. A neighborhood in which people are poor but unemployed is different from a neighborhood in which many people are poor and jobless. Many of today’s problems in the inner-city ghetto neighborhoods – crime, family dissolution, welfare, low levels of social organization, and so on – are fundadamentally a consequence of the disappearance of work.

Don Peck extrapolates on Wilson’s findings in his magnificent March 2010 Atlantic Magazine article, “How a New Jobless Era will Transform America”:

In the mid-20th century, most urban black men were employed, many of them in manufacturing. But in the beginning of the 1970s, as factories moved out of the cities or closed altogether, male unemployment began rising sharply. Between 1973 and 1987, the percentage of black men in their 20s working in manufacturing fell from roughly 37.5 percent to 20 percent. As inner cities shed manufacturing jobs, men who lived there, particularly those with limited education, had a hard time making the switch to service jobs. Service jobs and office work of course require different interpersonal skills and different standards of self-presentation than those that blue-collar work demands, and movement from one sector to the other can be jarring. What’s more, Wilson’s research shows, downwardly mobile black men often resented the new work they could find, and displayed less flexibility on the job than, for instance, first-generation immigrant workers. As a result, employers began to prefer hiring women and immigrants, and a vicious cycle of resentment, discrimination, and joblessness set in.

It remains to be seen whether larger swaths of the country, as male joblessness persists, will eventually come to resemble the inner cities of the 1970s and ‘80s. In any case, one of the great catastrophes of the past decade, and in particular of this recession, is the slippage of today’s inner cities back toward the depths of those brutal years. Urban minorities tend to be among the first fired in a recession, and the last rehired in a recovery. Overall, black unemployment stood at 15.6 percent in November (2009); among Hispanics, the figure was 12.7 percent.

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Not that any of this means jack shit to most of you NASCAR fans, the whitest sport in the land. NASCAR diversity—almost an oxymoron—may extent to the appearance, rarely, of a white female driver like Danica Patrick (the cheesecake pix magazines helped), but it’s been decades since a black man–Wendell Scott–competed in a Sprint Cup-level race.

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Ah, diversity in NASCAR.

So if the plight of urban blacks isn’t important to the country (that became quite evident in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, five years ago this month), consider this: job losses to whites, especially white men, have made the nation more intolerant and angry.

Peck writes,

In many respects, the U.S. was more socially tolerant entering this recession than at any time of its history, and a variety of national polls on social conflict since then have shown mixed results. Signs of looming class warfare or racial conflagration are not much in evidence. But some seeds of discontent are slowly germinating. The town hall meetings last summer and fall ((in 2009)) were contentious, often uncivil, and at times given over to inchoate outrage. One National Journal poll in October showed that whites (especially white men) were feeling particularly anxious about their future and alienated by the government.

Of course we are. But I’m no fan of the extremist attempt to take America back to a re-written account of American history where the country was founded by fundamentalist preachers and anything good was exclusive of non-white and Democrats (or both). Fox News pro-GOP, now-populist Tea Party narrative of shoving modernity aside for something straight from Margaret Mitchell’s antebellum South is would be laughable if their seriousness weren’t so scary, since the storyline is one so many are adapting without a single question to its validity. FOX and the Tea Party trade on the knowledge that, as P.T. Barnum says, there is no bottom to the gullibility of the American people, and no one profits more from that than rich people who spout populist rhetoric.

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As Glenn Beck said on his nationally syndicated radio program on May 26,

We are on the right side of history! We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties and, dammit, we will reclaim the civil rights moment. We will take that movement — because we were the people who did it in the first place.

And so on August 28 Beck stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the center of his “Restoring Honor” event, supported by the likes of Sarah Palin and the National Rifle Association. His aim: to “reclaim the civil rights movement” from those ugly non-white males who erroneously believe they reside in this country, too – blacks, Hispanics, gays, tree-huggers, women, open-wheel racing fans, Democrats, the mainstream media, academics, fact-checkers, city slickers. Forty seven years to the day that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, Glenn Beck delivered a speech that turned King’s on its head and resembled a version of the socialism – not the kind demonized by FOX & Company—but rather National Socialism, articulated by a contemporary Goebbels who cynically knows that if you repeat a lie enough times it becomes truth.

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Beck and Co. on August 28.

Beck also took a cue from Christian fundamentalism (he proclaims to be of that faith) that a belief requires no truth other than what a person declares is the truth; that’s how Barack Obama’s native status became so questioned, no matter that his Hawaiian birth certificate is public record, or that he’s a Muslim, no matter how many times the President attends church.

The wildfire of Tea Party resentment sweeping this year’s midterm elections is similar to how the novel Gone With the Wind caught on and then became a movie.  The book sold a million copies (at the unheard-of price of three dollars) in six months and then won the Pulitzer Prize. The movie which came out three years later was made for about $3.5 million and premiered in Atlanta where, because of the state’s Jim Crow laws, the film’s black actors were barred  from attending. It was said to have been the biggest event in Atlanta in decades; the movie was a smashing success and it went on to rake in some $400 million at the box office ($1.5 billion in today’s parlance) and winning ten Academy Awards, the most awards to go to a film by that date.

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The burning of Atlanta was avenged at last with a history that reclaimed Tara for the South, conceived and savored when that region’s segregationalist policies were feeling the strain of change.

Gone With The Wind was deep-South, Depression-era snake oil, heady with romance and rakishness and an ennui for better, distant times, selectively penned and filmed for the pleasure of white audiences. (And we were so critical of those Jew-killing Krauts and merciless Japs, standing back fro the murderous fray as long as possible and then fighting our wars mostly from the air.)

Who should be surprised then that a vigorous Tea Party exists today, any more than the populist Huey Long would run a near-dictatorial Democratic machine in Louisiana, spouting an anti-rich, anti-corporation rhetoric which made him the beloved of the rural poor, throwing as many bones their way to consolidate his hold on power. There is much of Huey Long in Glenn Beck and other populist demogogues like Rush Limbaugh, albeit coming from the complete opposite of the political spectrum. Red or blue, all of ‘em rouse the rabble for personal ends which are held, like marionette strings, for the Powers.

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Huey and Dewey, I mean, Rush: Oppositites on the political spectrum meet in pure demogoguery.

In the 1994 movie Forrest Gump, the mentally-challenged yet divinely-gifted hero sits on a bench waiting for a bus to Savannah, Georgia, telling his story to whomever is sitting next to him. To one he says, “Mama always told me ‘stupid is as stupid does.’” Meaning, it isn’t what you’re born with but what you do with what you have that makes the difference.

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Somehow that mantra got reversed in the cauldron of the Great Depression: people are induced into incredibly stupid actions because they have become convinced that intelligence is a suspect thing, knowledge being mostly in the hands receipt of morally-suspect folks. Or so they’ve been told, from pew to couch where preacher and FOX commentator gives them the news straight from Truth’s mouth. And now stupid does as stupid is.

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And so the burning of Atlanta is now being taken back, timber by timber, erasing the true event from the history books by suggesting that blacks funded by Muslim extremists decided to burn their own city to defy their massuhs.

Well, two can play. Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone is an unauthorized remake of the original book, surviving litigation by being passed off as parody. In it, the heroine is not Scarlett O’Hara – portrayed as a pampered white girl -– but her half-sister, the mulatto Cynara, and picks up where the original leaves off, with Mitchell’s vision deconstructed through black eyes in spoken in Southern black vernacular. No one thought The Wind Done Gone was as good as Mitchell’s original, it does show how history can be turned on itself, like a dime.

As George Orwell wrote in his then-futuristic 1984, “he who controls the past, controls the future.”  The battle-line wasn’t the ballot-boxes on August 24 or the Lincoln Memorial on August 28–it was in September 1787 in Philadelphia when the Constitution was being re-written by Glenn Beck.

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Glenn Beck makes an appearance — in Scarlett O’Hara drag — at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. FOX said  he was there, so it must be true.

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Similarly, the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on this Sept. 4 depends on what actually occurred at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway on November 11, 1938 (20 years since the formal end of hostilities in First World War and about the time that Vivien Leigh was cast as Scarlett O’Hara for the filming of Gone With the Wind).

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A stock car race at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway.

That was when stock car racing was formally introduced to the Georgia region and the soul of NASCAR arrived in the form of moonshine-runners lured down from the Piedmont region of the South. Planned as a 150-mile “world championship stock car race,” and sanctioned by the International Stock Car Racing Association, the event drew many of the celebrities from the “big car” (open wheel) circuit (Lakewood was originally billed as “The Indianapolis of the South,” but Northern-style, “big-car” racing never quite caught on) – Chief “Ride the Storm” Joie Chitwood, Harley Taylor, Bert Hellmuller, and Daytona winner Bill France.

But the purse attracted those stock-car moonshine runners as well, notably Georgians Roy Hall and Lloyd Seay, who burnt the competition in the hugely-attended Nov. 11 race and established stock car racing as a regional working-class entertainment staple.

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Local boy Lloyd Seay after winning the first stock car race at Lakewood.

Echo, too, the first AMS race on July 30, 1960, on a superspeedway built for speed and won by the sport’s fastest, Fireball Roberts. Stock car racing was growing out of its Piedmont region roots, just as Atlanta was emerging as a city representative of the commercial power of the new South. But such growth in the sport was showing its pains.

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Fireball Roberts is determined to get him some sugar after winning the 1960 Dixie 500, the first NASCAR race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Track owners were making plenty of money, especially at the huge tracks built at Daytona and Atlanta and Charlotte, but drivers were still getting purses smaller than the replacement cots of their cars.

With speed came danger-always popular with fans—but back then without much safety, either on the track or for when drivers suffered the worst consequences of their sport. In the 1957 Darlington 500, Bobby Myers died after a head-on collision with the stalled car of Fonty Flock. There were no death benefits except for the contents of a passed-around tin pail.

So a year after winning the inaugural race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Roberts became the first president of the fledgling Federation of Professional Athletes, a union for racers which promised to address all of these concerns where NASCAR’s ruling body would not.

But Big Bill France was having none of that, and he launched a vigorous union-busting campaign. He argued that drivers should be considered independent contractors responsible for their own benefits. He wrote articles which appeared in papers where races were to be held saying was upholding the Constitution and the nation by fighting the union.

Within a year the union had been defeated, and two years later Fireball Roberts would be dead from a crash at Charlotte in the World 600. Joe Weatherly also died that year in a crash at Riverside. Attempts to revive the union at that time were crushed again by France, resulting in a lifetime ban of popular driver and organizer Curtis Turner.

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Fireball Roberts died in a fireball crash at the 1964 World 600. His death led to the development of a leak-proof, rubberized fuel tank (which wouldn’t explode) and fire-retardant suits, but NASCAR didn’t owe his family a dime for his death. Back then, you ate if you won, and Fireball had earned some $350,000, winning 33 of the 206 races he participated in at the Grand National level.

NASCAR’s omnipotence over its drivers today—keeping them muzzled, on penalty of fines, for saying anything detrimental to the sport-—has roots in the anti-labor practices of Big Bill France. What we have now is a league of “independent contractors” who get to hot-rod due to the good graces of NASCAR. For those men who want their chance to race in the big time, their mission is simple: suit up, shut up, and race like hell.

So now AMS has its one Labor Day weekend race in a sport whose ruling elders have vigorously opposed any union presence at race tracks and have made a good buck for it. Corporate sponsorships and ballooning ticket prices have enriched the big players (including drivers) beyond measure, but in this recession, the income gulf between fan and driver and sport make it impossible to identify with them the way they used to.

NASCAR’s hell-raising, good-ole-boy, Southern rebel moonshine-running roots–personified by Rhett Butler in “Gone With the Wind” (Mitchell apparently based the Butler character on her first husband, a moonshine runner)—is part of the history which NASCAR is desperate to write itself back into. The NASCAR Hall of Fame even has a replica of the sort of still Junior Johnson used to operate.

Maybe with the success of the Tea Party revolt against the taxations of modernity—-at least, the illusion of that success through landslide mid-term elections—-NASCAR too will be able to show the past tense works in the future. Or create enough of the illusion of that. Because it’s all for show, isn’t it? Racin’ is more than a sport, the way the Tea Party is more than about politics and race, and “Gone With The Wind” is more than a wistful paean to the Old South. It’s about believing whatever you damn well want to believe—that racecar drivers are ordinary folks like you and me even if they have net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars; that the Constitution was penned by God-fearing men who never meant to take the Christ out of Christmas; that Tara could be re-built over the ashes of Atlanta.

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One of the most bizarre disconnects between Glenn Beck’s high-minded (or grifter’s) attempt to usurp the civil rights movement for disenfranchised white people by organizing a rally at the same location and on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech is that King repeatedly spoke of the need for the country to acknowledge its “debt to the poor” and calling for an “economic bill of rights” that would “guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work.” In Beck’s taxonomy such statements are Marxist – pure Democratic drivel. The TEA Party – Taxed Enough Already – aims not to spread the wealth evenly, redressing the enormous imbalance between wealthy and poor, but rather allow more ambitious (white) individuals to join the ranks of the rich, reclaiming their proper place in God’s world.

Oh well – believe what you want to, because no one is going to be able to convince you otherwise, in this age of knowledge-proof truths.

(By the way, Beck says that the coincidence of dates was wholly accidental, but that doesn’t add up for a self-professed student of history. Or maybe it just means that the history of the civil rights movement as it actually happened isn’t on his radar.)

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Not that I’m down on the Labor Day race at AMS. Not at all. NASCAR is one of my guilty pleasures, wrong like a greasy sausage sandwich and a hoot for it. This blog is a thought bathed in those guilty pleasures, a whim, an indulgence, with license to thrill and swill, if only on paper. For all of its segregationist-era boneheadedness, Gone With the Wind is a guilty pleasure—a darn entertaining book and movie—and it manages to also carry a good message, that of the survival of sterling values through good times and bad. A primer for raising something good from the ashes. And for all of the suspect reasons I rant over above, Glenn Beck’s “I Have A Dream” Tea Party rally on August 28 had an upbeat message of hope for attendees, especially in these difficult times.

But I would prefer to reclaim America (the one in which I work and make my being in) from, rather than for, those entities. All of those entities – NASCAR, Gone With the Wind and Glenn Beck’s God-ridden taxonomy – have great difficulty with present truths: all would get rid of what we are in exchange for what we once were, in the childhood of our days. Shrinks call that regression, a flight from our present estate: sounds great, ain’t got shit to do with reality. Hope lies in things to come, not in a wish-fulfillment of things long lost. The longer we sit in the ashes of Atlanta crying over the ghosts of glory, the  harder and more complicated it becomes to get on with the work of building something better.

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The problem with the world’s truth is that it keeps changing. The moon is not only getting farther from the earth, it’s shrinking. Huge oil plumes from the Deepwater Horizon spill float about the deep reaches of the Gulf of Mexico, but scientists have discovered several previously-unknown microorganisms who are quickly devouring them. No one knows yet what an oil-enriched profusion of such bacteria will have on the Gulf ecology. A woman is last seen at a dinner in New York City and some of her belongings show up in Celebration near Disney World (that story is still evolving). A Harvard professor who had published a book about the evolutionary basis of morality was found to have committed many grievous errors in scientific conduct in documenting his research (ergo, morality may not be in our million-year dreamtime). The surge in Afghanistan is going well; it’s foundering, it’s failing. Jimmy Johnson and Denny Hamlin couldn’t beat in the early and middle stages of the season, now they can’t win. A leg is found in woods in Volusia County, and then more human remains were founds a few days later, a few miles from where the girlfriend of a sex offender disappeared about a week before the offender committed suicide.

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On August 28 –- nine days after the last combat battalion left Iraq, and three days before the official end of all U.S. combat presence in Iraq –- Sgt. Brandon E. Maggart of  died of wounds suffered from a rocket attack in Basra. The Kirksville, Missouri resident leaves behind his wife Teresa and their 3-year-old son Blake. He was completing his second tour of Iraq.

The world’s truth keeps changing, updating itself by the minute in our 24-7 online existence. It’s hard to stay current when the tide of change is so massive: it’s like trying to surf a tsunami. It’s changing so fast we may already be in Oz, or 1984, or the Matrix. We are horribly myopic when it comes to the big picture. Is the economy is recovering, or are we diving into a double-dip recession? Have newspapers—or rather, fourth-estate, civic-minded, fact-finding (rather than fact-trumpet of what you already know or want to hear) journalism already become extinct? Has global warming already overwhelmed us, with those floods Pakistan rising to lap the tops of the Hindu Kush and Pamirs mountain ranges? Has Jesus already taken His children home in a rapture whose brilliance was occluded by a sudden ripper of solar flare? (A Solar Max flare – the sun’s Big One – caused havoc on Earth in 1859 and 1921, wiping out telegraph wires around the world. The next one-forecast, it’s said, as early as 2012, could cause several trillion dollars of damage to the current technology infrastructure.)

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Solar Max, inside and out.

Well, the times, they keep a-changing. We can’t know the earthly truths—what will happen when I hit the road to drive off to my work day–and that’s a pisser. Even the Bible says no one knows the exact date of Endtime (which makes is puzzling to me that so many Biblical literalists work endlessly at exhuming the scriptures which point to this day as The Day, the Times).

Its especially galling because human truths—what in the heart–have remained virtually unchanged as far back as the misty times when we hunted wooly mammoth for dinner. That truth—our limited circle of human virtues and sins—holds forth in singularity while the polymorphose world perversely unscrolls before our eyes. Human truths are eternal, as impermeable as the God some say fashioned them. No wonder we shake our head at events and mutter, “go oy, oy, vat’s to come of things …”

There are visible human truths – like justice and charity, love and devotion – and there are shadowy ones, just as real and perhaps more motivating–love of mayhem, godlike ambition, racial hatred, coal-hot lust. Our invisible truths are the product of the hidden mind, unconscious attitudes which stay in the murk because we can’t admit them to ourselves (repression), and because in groups our primordial herd mentality has taken over. Something makes us do things we shouldn’t – possession by the Devil or the psychological shadow; the Other brain at work.

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The Other brain loves bias, ancient and politically incorrect attitudes with are impervious to truth. It loves inversion—my will, not Thine. It loves old-school attitudes which ruled simian treetop society—dominance and submission, a love of war and blood, insemination of every female that moved as a form of pissing on the borders, claiming right to all. The Other brain rules consumer choices which don’t make sense (like shopping at Wal-Mart, which is filled with goods which have destroyed all local competition), create the vicious divide in politics, exacerbate race relations and pit us onto the brink of war (spare the mamby-pamby diplomacy, roll out the bombs.)

Surely the Other brain was at work in ancient when Marsyas -– a mortal — was so sure he was the best flautist on earth and in the heavens that he challenged the god Apollo  to a contest. For his presumption he was bested AND flayed of his skin, hung like a red sheet for all to see. “Know thyself,” as it is written on the lintel of Apollo’s oracle at Delphi; but the troubling and less-publicized second half of that oracle goes thus: “And know you aren’t God.”

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Apollo flays Marsyas for flaunting his flute, (Jose de Ribera)

OK, we’re not God, and this isn’t God’s world, no matter how fundamentalists like Beck would like to legislate that, motivated as they are by high-mindedness (a return to Godly virtue) as well as Other-mindedness (churches filled with white people). The separation of church and state, of Augustine’s City of God and Rome, occurs not in the history books but in the distance between a person’s mind and h/her heart, between a rapidly-evolving consciousness and a stubbornly pre-modern, belief-ridden, wilderness heart. And like the moon, the distance is growing – that’s modernity – as our species evolves. This was God’s world some 3 million years ago, or it so seemed to our simian brains newly awakened to the presence of greatness (anything you couldn’t beat was divine); today this is humanity’s world, for better and worse, or we think it is. Cogito ergo sum: I  think, therefore I am, and I can damn well prove it to you, by the sweat of my brow and the prowess of my mind.

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In James Dickey’s Deliverance – a novel published 40 years ago in August — Four suburban white-collar Atlantans forego the usual rounds of golf for a weekend’s canoe trip in the hick reaches of the Georgia wilderness, snaking down the rapids of the fictional Cahulawasee River that winds through an river valley area about to be flooded by the upcoming construction of a dam. In those woods they encounter monsters – deep wilderness men nurse a vicious hatred of city folks (carpetbaggers, Revenuers, foreclosure stooges from the bank, uppity city folk) and mean to show it with humiliation and murder. A group-lynching without need of darkies.

And so “Dueling Banjos” becomes a fight to the finish between Old (or Deep) South and New (or Suburban). Faced with such extraordinary danger, the boys from Atlanta become, in Dickey’s words, “countermonsters”: men who will do anything to survive, showing that there are times the Other brain’s brass-knuckle shadow comes in very handy.

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In the final tally, three of the four Atlantans survive but neither of their wilderness tormentors do. The dead are weighted down with rocks and sunk in the river, in the knowledge that the coming flood will keep the dead—and the crimes of men–forever hidden. The three return to their suburban lives (eluding the suspicions of local authorities). In the novel, the narrator Ed (played in the John Boorman movie by John Voight)–the one who transformed the most from suburban commuter into wilderness mad man—ends up buying a cabin on another dammed lake. He finds that his connection with the drowned river in that lake makes his suburban life tolerable, though he dreams of the dead surfacing some day, a wet white hands pointing an inescapable finger of guilt his way. Ed thrives on that fear, as men of the wilderness do, where men of the suburbs build bigger houses with securer doors against the threat that comes knocking in the night. He has found his deliverance, albeit of a savage god’s–the Other mind’s–grace.

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God has been leaving us behind since Eve first offered her apples to Adam; or rather, we have been leaving God behind, kicked out of paradise by our own lust for more. Their son Cain distanced us further from our sweet spot when he murdered his brother Abel, jealous that God had accepted Abel’s sacrifice of the firstborn of his flock while refusing his own offering of a portion of his land’s produce. God curses Cain with the mark of sin—a tattoo, if you will—which forever identifies Cain with his crime. God also banishes Cain from the good life, saying he (and, by extension, the rest of us) must wander the earth and live by the sweat of our brow.

Thus the workday was born, too long and too wearying and ever insufficient of pay for our labors, billowing our  Visa card bills. Thus the sense of fruitlessness and dislocation, working dead-end jobs, banned to perpetual underemployment or joblessness. Thus the saying, “same shit, different day” was born.

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Blame Cain too for our envy of other folks’s good fortune. Blame our Other brain for our schadenfreude over Cain’s plight, our delight in watching the spectacle of another’s misfortune, glutting our shadowy desire for watching others go down in the daily Coliseum.

An old timer I know once said, “If you’re wondering what happened to you God, ask yourself, ‘Who moved’’? We did. We moved on, toiling a thousand centuries, innovating tools which made us that less dependent upon the graces of God. Eventually the virgin sacrifices stopped, then the casting of wheat on the wave. The last Sibyl was freed when Delphi was closed by the Christian Emperor Theodosis in 390 AD. We kept on keepin’ on, and the distance from Eden grew.

God continues to fade from the heavens; it was so in the twelfth century when, out of spiritual desperation, thousands of cathedrals were built across Europe in an attempt to anchor back down the presence of Heaven. The moon is getting farther away from us, and stars are being pulled from the night sky by dark matter, or matters. Such are our facts, and not all the megachurches preaching salvation over social justice, not all Texas school boards re-writing biblical Creation into textbooks, and not all the Glenn Becks of the world – and there are plenty – can bring back our deep animal’s prelapsairan state, delivering us back to Edenic harmony, where heaven on earth was possible because consciousness had not yet evolved to make the distinction.

History – and God’s grace, if you believe in such a thing -– is what happened. Atlanta was burned and the Cahulawassee River was flooded and the spring race at Atlanta Motor Speedway was canceled. But that doesn’t keep us from trying re-write history in the form we prefer it, so that all wrongs be overwritten with mama-nerp goodness. The danger inherent in re-writing history is that hidden bones are unrestful. Our sleep stirs with the troubled ghosts of the Civil War and the Holocaust and the blast-victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So go back there, Glenn Reb, hell-raising the South from its ashes: But keep a wary eye for the hand of Judgment to surface from the smooth, dark waters, lit so faintly by a fading, shrinking moon. What is gone with the wind is a bone in the mind.

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Today Hurricane Earl passes 350 miles east of Florida’s Atlantic coast, but the sucker is so big the satellite photos of the moment give the impression that the bastard is about to saw the Florida peninsula right off. It’s headed elsewhere—possibly to graze on the protruding bosom of North Carolina’s Outer Banks (drama for tomorrow night, aftermath, perhaps for the final race of the regular season at Richmond). And though Earl is far off the Florida coast, it’s still whipping up the surf with waves that will top out today around 12 feet. Cowabunga! Local surfers just don’t get to see that sort of action, and they’re all waiting for the riptides to subside (a surfer drowned last weekend in one) before paddling out. Here, it’s still and somewhat cooler at 4:19 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 2, fronds of the palm tree in the front yard trembling a bit in a breeze from afar.

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Surf was up on Thursday, Sept. 2, thanks to passing Earl.

It’s strange to have such magnitude pass by with so small a flutter. I’d love to be on the beach right now listening to the roar of whipped-up surf. It’s said that Saint Columba, sixth-century AD abbott of Iona (off the coast of Scotland), would spend the final third of every night in the sands down by the wild night tide, singing the Three Fifties (the Psalms) in his clear, loud voice, almost above the roar of the surf. But we don’t know whether he was fighting off demons or welcoming in kind the greatness of the sea, we’ll never know. Me, the latter stands on the shoulders of the former, or vice versa. Would my poems stand up to such great foment?

LABIAL

She’s whispering to me with her
Mouth pursed in a sideways lilt,
Breaking, like waves, into a smile.
Hey you lover, she murmurs from a
Surflike larynx, come fuck me NOW.
The seduction is pure floating sigh,
A susurration of warm curved waves,
Labials no sailor can resist or survive.
See: Even now I’m heaving hooves,
Hard to plunge ceruleans. She’s
Calling me down to her blue bed
In that sidewinding strange voice,
Conched by God on my ear’s shore:

Urging this pen to kiss her mouth
And poutier labials further south.

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Well, for whatever reasons that wind done gone: poetry has moved on for more fertile mouths, I get. What remains is this reconstructing South, hollowed if not quite hallowed enough for the storms which ravened through my mind, making of inexpressibles these villages of contemporary sense. I keep on keepin’ on, even though I doubt anyone bothers to read the entire whale from tooth to tail.

But I’m like a dog misnamed Stay or a lover who can’t live with or without it or a drunk who knows that its death to drink: I do this thing without invoking all the ghosts of the Other. See: I open my mouth and a bone pops out, or a fin, or spiraling foment named Earl.

Another work day, soon to head off to earn not enough for this piddly homestead my wife and I so love. A migraine is back full force (this summer’s migraine season has been salty and savage), Category 4 – bad enough to bitch but not enough to send me back to bed. Like Sisyphus, I struggle uphill with an boulder, not in front of me but landed on my head. Oh well. My wife has other ills to scotch her day – stress fracture in her foot and a bad cold. Head or gut? She get both.

And all the Sprint Cup drivers are in Atlanta now, readying for their qualifying runs, their cars festooned, for Sunday’s race, with new paint schemes submitted by fans. (Jeff Gordon’s was “designed” by his 3-year old daughter Ella and the scheme is called “My Papa’s Car.” Awww.) Most look like re-hashed flags, thought Tony Stewart’s “Back To School” #14 Stewart-Hass Office Depot Chevrolet does look like a lode of office supplies stolen from work.

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Let me formally enter this belated and obvious (though that’s open to debate) caveat: I’m one of you. I’m a homo sapiens of the Caucasian, male gender. I grew up on the same planet, in many of the same decades as you. Your biases are obvious to me, but I’m fairly oblivious to my own. My Other brain prefers me blinkered that way. I hate GOP TV—I mean, FOX News—seeing its as grandfathered by a rich guy who wants to get richer and staffed by a bunch of duplicitous populists who seem to have studied more with Goebbels than at the Columbia School of Journalism. Though I’m registered Independent, I almost always vote for Democrats. I don’t’ see their failings very well, so focused I am on the wrongs of their opponents.

I indulge in my darker nature like those suburban Atlantans who drive far into the wilderness for a little wild strange. Sometimes I fantasize in gruesome detail of killing off all the talking heads at Fox, in payment for my dislike of them. I respect women (hate, hate, hate seeing films where they are preyed upon or abused) but I sure fantasize about their bodies, darkly convinced that their boobs are staring at me from beneath all that daily clothing, not vice versa. I hate people who are like me too much, like assholes who go on and on and on in conversation or posts when that’s exactly what I do. I think the road is mine when I commute to work and I think my blinkered perspective is the only correct one. I try not to think how my insufficient and failing middle-class income and standard of living exceeds ninety percent of the world’s if not this country’s. Cain lives on in my seething, small-minded, envious, lustful Other brain, much as I try to conceal its rude boners. I sit next to a pretty woman, shift my weight and fart escapes, much to my chagrin. And my Other brain is tittering away, whispering Fool in my ear. I blame the chair I’m sitting in, the company who made my day’s sandwich, my lousy life and job and naggingly real wife for the lot I’ve been dealt, Cain’s lot, dealt by God against the surly rebel within.

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Cain raise some, uh, Cain against his bro Abel.

All of that happens in my head, somewhere between my conscious and Other brains. Rarely does any of come out except sideways – slips of the tongue, boneheaded moves on the road, hardons at inappropriate times. Only when I used to drink too much and wandered too far into the wilderness of blackout did my actual monster come out in full force, Jekyll standing at the bar become Hyde on the dance floor of the bottle club at 4 a.m., gnashing my teeth beneath the swirling disco ball. Or enacting things I can’t remember in the next apartment in the next anonymous apartment building in the necropolis of dead-of-night Orlando. It’s one reason why I don’t drink any more. (I also have learned to love sobriety, but that’s another tale …)

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The Other Man has an Other brain and he’s happy to come out (especially when you pour down enough booze.

Point being: I’m one of you. You get to do it your way, I do get to do it mine. My politics. My South. My country. My cyberspace. My sexuality. And it’s my racetrack, my way of writing about racin’. What difference between me and Big Bill France, who had an embroidered pillow in his office that said, “I did it my way”? Between any of us? Our self-important differences are simply what we have most in common, striated and inflected in various ways, the way that peckers have the same function yet vary greatly in size, or that breasts all sprout to milk our infancies yet range, AA to FFF, through the entire pantry of cups.

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It’s all good.

It’s my Atlanta Motor Speedway. I’ve worked hard to find my way there, through a wilderness of events and thought about those events. I emerge on that track brighter and darker – harrowed, if you will, as always, by the woods I have walked through. Ready to rock, to watch the boys roll. Second to last race before the Chase! Hotlanta Speedway will be charged up like a sailor on shore leave, all that expectation and desperation like too much testosterone in the marbles, making things almost drippy-dizzy with something only speed and sound, lots and lots of both, can surfeit. Let’s go racin’!

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James Dickey, damn good poet and not a bad git-picker.

Postscript: Though most people know James Dickey for his first novel Deliverance, he was actually a poet and a damn good one. Born in Atlanta, he played football in college, fought in World War II and the Korean War as a pilot, and between wars got degrees in English and Philosophy from Vanderbilt. He taught for a while, and, short of bucks, had a 6-year advertising career, writing ad copy for Coca Cola and Frito Lays. After his work day, he’d try writing poetry. “I was selling my soul to the devil all day,” he said, “and trying to buy it back at night.” He began publishing books in the ‘60s, winning the National Book Award for The Buckdancer’s Choice. Deliverance came out in 1970 and got rave reviews. Dickey’s prominence—or, let’s say, the part of his visibililty he could cash in with the ladies—grew outsized when John Boorman made Deliverance into a box-office hit. Dickey kept writing poems for the next 25 years, though his best work was in the early years, as it is with most poets, as the outer life – careering, womanizing, drinking (“I like it like Patton liked war,” Dickey once said). A dick in real life, perhaps because his creative candles had extinguished – by the bad living, by the dogs of time, by God.

But at one time he was a damn good poet. “Cherrylog Road” is one of his most anthologized. It describes the archetypal scene of every pure racin’ enthusiast – not at that track, but in the back seat of an abandoned car in the deep countryside, off the main road in a junkyard, that boneyard of every fast dream. I include it here as evidence that good work does get done in spite of ourselves, celebrating our jones for everything that goes fast and faster, more and more. Collaboration between working and Other brain is possible – and fruitful – as you shall see. Enjoy …

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Cherrylog Road

by James L. Dickey

Off Highway 106
At Cherrylog Road I entered
The ’34 Ford without wheels,
Smothered in kudzu,
With a seat pulled out to run
Corn whiskey down from the hills,

And then from the other side
Crept into an Essex
With a rumble seat of red leather
And then out again, aboard
A blue Chevrolet, releasing
The rust from its other color,

Reared up on three building blocks.
None had the same body heat;
I changed with them inward, toward
The weedy heart of the junkyard,
For I knew that Doris Holbrook
Would escape from her father at noon

And would come from the farm
To seek parts owned by the sun
Among the abandoned chassis,
Sitting in each in turn
As I did, leaning forward
As in a wild stock-car race

In the parking lot of the dead.
Time after time, I climbed in
And out the other side, like
An envoy or movie star
Met at the station by crickets.
A radiator cap raised its head,

Become a real toad or a kingsnake
As I neared the hub of the yard,
Passing through many states,
Many lives, to reach
Some grandmother’s long Pierce-Arrow
Sending platters of blindness forth

From its nickel hubcaps
And spilling its tender upholstery
On sleepy roaches,
The glass panel in between
Lady and colored driver
Not all the way broken out,

The back-seat phone
Still on its hook.
I got in as though to exclaim,
“Let us go to the orphan asylum,
John; I have some old toys
For children who say their prayers.”

I popped with sweat as I thought
I heard Doris Holbrook scrape
Like a mouse in the southern-state sun
That was eating the paint in blisters
From a hundred car tops and hoods.
She was tapping like code,

Loosening the screws,
Carrying off headlights,
Sparkplugs, bumpers,
Cracked mirrors and gear-knobs,
Getting ready, already,
To go back with something to show

Other than her lips’ new trembling
I would hold to me soon, soon,
Where I sat in the ripped back seat
Talking over the interphone,
Praying for Doris Holbrook
To come from her father’s farm

And to get back there
With no trace of me on her face
To be seen by her red-haired father
Who would change, in the squalling barn,
Her back’s pale skin with a strop,
Then lay for me

In a bootlegger’s roasting car
With a string-triggered I2-gauge shotgun
To blast the breath from the air.
Not cut by the jagged windshields,
Through the acres of wrecks she came
With a wrench in her hand,

Through dust where the blacksnake dies
Of boredom, and the beetle knows
The compost has no more life.
Someone outside would have seen
The oldest car’s door inexplicably
Close from within:

I held her and held her and held her,
Convoyed at terrific speed
By the stalled, dreaming traffic around us,
So the blacksnake, stiff
With inaction, curved back
Into life, and hunted the mouse

With deadly overexcitement,
The beetles reclaimed their field
As we clung, glued together,
With the hooks of the seat springs
Working through to catch us red-handed
Amidst the gray breathless batting

That burst from the seat at our backs.
We left by separate doors
Into the changed, other bodies
Of cars, she down Cherrylog Road
And I to my motorcycle
Parked like the soul of the junkyard

Restored, a bicycle fleshed
With power, and tore off
Up Highway 106, continually
Drunk on the wind in my mouth,
Wringing the handlebar for speed,
Wild to be wreckage forever.

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Gimme Shelter From This Freezin’ Swelter



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Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit.

— T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

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Yes, begin here–at this witching hour of of 4 a.m.,  Florida’s deep dark dangerously hot summer breathing in the garden like the slurred speech of a highway hooker working the truck stop in Zellwood. The heaviness of this relentless summer breathes, even at this hour, with The Breath of Set, that pestilent, pustulent south wind in Egypt during the 72 hottest days of the years, expelled by the ass-eared Egyptian Sun god who is earnest to devour Horus, son of Isis. Everything swoons and swears beneath that hot breath, befuddled, spirit-besmirched, given to extreme measures from our brains and loins and blistered conscience.

It’s especially hot this year in Florida–unbelievably so. In a summer which usual tempers its daily ferocities of heat with storms, for three weeks now we’ve seen record high temps followed by late-afternoon storms which have been selective at best and almost entirely impotent of rainfall. In the past three weeks, we’ve seen probably half an inch of rain delivered by daily massed storms in the garden.

Today a heat advisory is in effect for the area; residents are advised to stay in air conditioning between the heat-advisory hours of 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., drink plenty of fluids, avoid the sun and check up on elderly or sick relatives and neighbors. Air conditioners are giving up the ghost in ghastly slow exhalations as the units burn out; a transformer exploded in Cocoa Village, where the mercury cleared 100 yesterday; a bus carrying school-age children on I-95 from Ft. Lauderdale to a track meet in Virginia burst into flames near Rockledge. Last night over in St. Pete, a 51-year-old Orlando man on a beach vacation with his three grown sons and their families was returning from a movie with his sons when their Ford Fusion was broadsided by the speeding Chevy Impala of 20-year old man who had been drinking and smoking pot—savoring a wild summer’s night. The father and three sons were killed on impact while the young man survived and is in hospital care facing four felony DUI manslaughter charges.

Summer indeed burns the flesh away, revealing a moon-sized emptiness where the soul was once found …

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As of the writing of this paragraph (inserted as I try to finesse this post into its own sort of Watkins Glen, a road course through the times with all the correct (if not quite pleasant turns), BP’s engineers are pumping mud into the busted Macando Well, 100 days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and some 5 million barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. If all goes well (which would be a change, considering), the mud pack will stopper the entire well, allowing the relief well being dug nearby to fully divert the uprising pressure of oil from the Macando field some 28,000 feet under the surface of the Gulf. BP spokesmen are upbeat and so is the government, which announced today that only 26 percent of the leaked oil is still in the water or onshore, the rest having quickly broken down to the elements (if anyone noticed, it’s hot, too, in the Gulf), been collected, burned, skimmed, evaporated, or broken down chemically by dispersants.

All good news as we approach the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s visit to the same Gulf coast. Five years later there signs of economic recovery–a lot of rebuilding, casino business in Biloxi returned, New Orleans half-rebuilt-—but the economy remained knocked back to 1980 levels until Deepwater Horizon came along to punch things back still further.

So shout the good news, vested interest, while Gulf shores shimmer in unnatural heat (110 degrees in some areas of coastal Mississippi yesterday), the breeze carrying whiffs of Katrina’s dead and that sinus-clearing scent of oil wafting in from everywhere.

All is well? For whom? For which entities? They do not include the view from this chair this morning …

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A strange, strange lock on time, this heat wave, addling and merciless. And it’s everywhere you look. In Kansas City, the home-plate umpire in a Royals-Orioles baseball game had to leave in the sixth inning of a July 30 game suffering from heat exhaustion. A storm brewed up in that heat dumped hailstones the size of grapefruit in South Dakota (one was established as the largest hailstone on record, measuring – hours after it was collected, so it had shrunk some by then – some 8 inches across and weighing over two pounds). In New York City, the New York Times reports, “the summer showdown between individual fortitude and sticky heat saw the merciless elements win out again and again. Flower beds were forsaken, relationships were neglected, home offices were abandoned.” Wildfires rage outside of Los Angeles where high temperatures, dry air and blustery winds have spread the fires over 30 thousand  acres. Kansas burns as usual with massive numbers of cattle dying and the elderly in Kansas City beginning to succumb. The Vans tour in Kansas City had dozens of concert-goers getting treatment for heat fatigue and the Kansas City Chiefs training in near 100-degree heat. (Still, the Weather Channel lists the Chiefs as having only the ninth-hottest training camp, preceded by locations like Nashville- Titans, Tampa–Buccaneers, Metarie LA–Saints) and, topping the swelter list, Houston–Texans.) Fun stuff, eh boys? …

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But heat is not news to any of you; maybe the intensity of it, its duration, the lengths of insanity it may inspire: Yet for all the sizzle and torment of this heat—or, perhaps, because of it–the real story I mean to divine using this overheated dowsing rod of a mind is about something creeping up from the opposite end of the thermometer. I’m talking about a strange shadow which does not trail from the sun but veils it, a shadow so thin and strange it’s hard to accept that it’s there. A shadow is now being cast by something more malevolent than the unzippered sun at full-tilt-rock-n-roll itself:

I’m talking about the ice age we entered into oh, some months ago—or maybe years ago, only now crossing the threshold of daily awareness; an age where glacial facts tower a high as the sun and continue to creep into our own back yards. The big freeze is everywhere though the signs of it are hard to see, masked not only by this malevolent summer heat but more deviously by its own complications which bind and double and doppleganger the eye.

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For example: Recent revelations of the lengths NASCAR will go to protect its “brand” – muzzling drivers whose comments are deemed “detrimental to the sport” – is typical for corporations who’ll do anything to keep their profits plush. (E.g., British Petroleum and state and federal government officials who are desperate to hide all that oil.) NASCAR is sandbagging here, filling the speedways with “people dressed as empty seats,“ as Monte Dutton recently put it.

Try as they might, there’s nothing NASCAR can do about the retraction in the economy and its affect on its vulnerable, blue- and middle-class fan base. When Bristol fails to sell out and the Brickyard sees half-full attendance, there’s no hiding that the NASCAR franchise is contracting. Just like things everywhere else, but NASCAR only sees the world in terms of NASCAR, so it acts like it’s dealing with extraordinary circumstances.

Line forms at the back, pal. It’s a bit amusing to watch Brian France do what all corporate CEOs do when facing a tough market challenge – he takes it out on the employees (include the drivers here), terrified of chasing any more customers (fans) out the door. NASCAR can do the corporate game and cut itself to the bone (anyone else notice how many kids they work for them?), but it will never see again the obscene profits once made by the family-owned business. It’s gone, or going the way of fast-depleted oil fields. Now the question is how to prop up what’s left using tactics natural to a culture of dominance.

And if NASCAR’s season is passing with dream-like slowness, maybe it’s because NASCAR is wrecking in a self-induced catastrophe of proving just how willing it is to sell its soul to keep the big bucks rolling in, absolutely blithe to fans who simply just can’t afford the inflated expense of attending races any more. Believe me, stupid, it’s the economy. Put on the blackface and shuffle all you want, Big Racin’: No one’s even watching the show, not with that looming cold shadow creeping into everyone’s back yard …

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As the horror of the Deepwater Horizon spill began to wash onto Gulf shores, residents dependent on tourism and fishing and working Gulf oil rigs got the creeping sense that a way of life was fast disappearing in the muck of oil. One homeowner in Grand Isle, Louisiana erected a mock graveyard in front of their home, giving a litany of RIPs to the all the things beloved of Gulf Coast life which were being lost.

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Photo by Carbon Free Girl (Leilani Munter), perhaps the only ‘green” racer on the circuit. Thanks for permission to use the shot. To see other photos from Leilani’s recent Gulf trip, click here.

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Such a gaggle of crosses, I think, is being slowly assembled in the shadows of the American landscape, each cross bearing a part of middle-class life being lost to the spreading economic freeze of the Torrid Summer of 2010. (I will nominate my list later in this post.)

To call the times a “freeze” is to invoke the potency of metaphor, because the image I want to explore here is the weird cold presence which is covering the continent of everyday life. It ingresses slowly, so slowly that the progression is visible only in hindsight, when you try to imagine how things were a month or year or decade ago.

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Hints of this freeze—like spreading cracks in pond-ice—reveal themselves in the downward ley-lines of the macroeconomics. Despite proclamations that the U.S. economy is leaving its recession, economic growth slowed to 2.4 percent in the second quarter, indicated that consumer spending continues to ice. People are saving more – 6.2 percent of disposable income – which means they’re much more cautious about spending. Within the Fed, fears of Japanese-style deflation are beginning to spread. Deflation brought on by anemic growth is a sort of net which drags the economy down. With the federal funds rate at between 0 and .25 percent, there isn’t much lower that interest rates can go. In a deflated economy, money is worth more because businesses and people are less likely to spend it. Business aren’t adding to their payrolls, and people aren’t spending money because they don’t have jobs or fear the rising tide of unemployment will catch up with them, too. The result is stagnation – or stagflation –and a leaden, slow, incentive-proof recession.  Japan, which has one of the most robust economies in the world, has been stuck in a deflation-induced recession for two decades now.

On the microeconomic side-—the stuff about you and me, here and now—-the view is simpler and examples of this freeze more tangible. People don’t have much more available credit to buy anything. The home-equity ATM has tanked on crashing home values, and credit cards are maxed with fewer new ones being offered. Like many employers, my company hasn’t given wage increases in three years; at least we haven’t seen furloughs or layoffs yet, but everyone hears the clocks ticking.

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A friend observed that back in the late 90’s all you saw on the roads of Orlando were new cars and SUV’s; now the roads are filled with clunkers. No one’s buying new vehicles, and one of the largest blights to fill the commercial landscape are empty lots once occupied by car dealerships. Who would have imagined such a thing? That’s the question which repeats again and again these days. The question mark of the unaskable is the vapor rising from ground surprisingly iced over, where you thought you stood on pavement so baked it was burning your soles through your shoes:

– Who would have thought that Wall Street greed could nearly bankrupt Main Street?

– Who would have thought ten years ago that so many solid industries would hover on the verge of extinction, while others would be obscenely profitable, mainly because they threw their workforces into unemployment and the government paid off their bills with taxpayer money?

– Who would have thought that so many middle-class neighborhoods would become ghost towns?

– Who would think that so many local and state and even the national government would tide so far into red ink that there may be no recovery, not without wading so far into the red that our collective infrastructure, our roads and schools and Social Security and Medicare, would simply, eventually go tits up, Greece-style, causing a default no one can bail us out from?

– Who would imagine that a new nation of the dispossessed and passed-over are now afoot, silently filling the wastelands of modern life—-trailer parks, overfilled homes of relatives, homeless shelters, freeway overpasses?

– And who would have thought that a single lousy corporate-goon-run oil rig – just one of 4,000 out there in the Gulf of Mexico – could dump 5 million barrels of oil into our subconscious, into a place no dispersant can reach?

Unthinkable, yet true: That’s what it means to look up into today’s sky and see, inside the sun’s own glaring, 100-degree blister of heat, the glacial face of a looming disaster.

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British Petroleum recently announced they would not pay mental health claims by Gulf residents who have seen their livelihood and homes drenched in the stench of oil. Like all perps, BP is “moving on,” not “dwelling on the past” where all of their sins move about in ghostly plumes at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, down there where no one can see the toxic results of their criminal errors. (Remember, this is the company which already carries two felony convictions for putting profit over safety while clawing its way to the oil.)

Now the well is capped (though by no means safely sealed) and the visible traces of oil is disappearing in many places (though not all). It does look like bacteria will gobble up the oil in the Gulf at a fast clip, much faster than anyone expected, but no one knows how that sort of oxygen depletion will affect the deep ecologies, nor how those will billow upward into the rest of the ecostystem. We aren’t a species that’s good about taking the long view–for paying attention that long–but if we don’t keep our eyes trained on the Gulf, we won’t have anyone to blame when the effects of all those toxins play out in cancers and fish kills and other sorts of blight. And it’s not like scientists have a controlled environment to assess the damage, not with new storms brewing in the tropics and BP having such a vested interested in getting the heat off its a back as soon as possible.

The really sad part is that not any of this is new. Aaron Vines, campaign director of the The Gulf Restoration Network, says the Gulf has been “the nation’s sacrifice zone … for 50-plus years.” There are 4,000 offshore drilling rigs in the Gulf and thousands of miles of pipeline–a leaky infrastructure which has dumped more oil, collectively over the years, than Deepwater Horizon’s total spill. Fertilizer runoff and waste dumped into the Mississippi River has contributed to a dead zone the size of Lake Ontario just off the coast of Louisiana. The old, old abuses of American expansion continue to play out into our present and will be around for our children’s future. This thing of darkness is our own, but no one wants to own up to that, so instead the whole thing is shuffled to the background as it always has, continuing the slow kill of a complex ecosystem which also happens to be both breadbasket and livelihood for so many of us.

The media’s forgetfulness—leaving behind news which has a long tail for the instant hits—creates a bizarre sense of dislocation for ones who get left behind, like feeling the bite of glacial suffering in the middle of the hottest summer. A bit from a story posted on NOLA (the online site of the New Orleans Times-Picayune) on July 29:

Charter captain Mike Frenette has been wondering whether the news media are living in a parallel universe. The Internet and mainstream media this week are filled with reports that the BP oil disaster is over, that the Gulf is now devoid of the slicks and sheen, and the marshes are no longer being bathed in crude.

That’s not what he and his crew saw at the mouth of the Mississippi River and along the river’s delta this week.

“There was more oil at South Pass Tuesday than I’ve seen since this whole thing started; it was really discouraging,” Frenette said. “I don’t know where everyone else is looking, but if they think there’s no more oil out there, they should take a ride with me.

“I wish this thing was over so I could get back to fishing. But that’s just not the case. We’re a long way from finished with the oil.”

Scientists and oil spill experts agree with Frenette. They say the Gulf might look cleaner on the surface right now, but there is probably hundreds of millions of gallons of BP’s oil in tiny, hard-to-see droplets below the surface. And slicks like the one Frenette saw this week will still be floating to the surface for weeks and months to come.

For months a fleet of research vessels has been tracking clouds of diffused oil particles floating 3,300 to 4,300 feet below the surface, said Steve Murawski, NOAA’s chief scientist for fisheries. The microscopic droplets were formed when the dispersant Corexit was pumped into the geyser of oil and methane that for 84 days rocketed into the Gulf from the failed wellhead 5,000 feet below the surface.

“These are tiny droplets, between 20 and 60 microns, and with the concentrations we’re seeing (4 to 5 parts per million) when you put this in a beaker it looks like clear sea water,” Murawski said. “You can’t see it, but there’s definitely components (of the oil) in the water.”

It’s there, going about a dirty business just far enough out of sight to be out of our minds. For now. but like the long-term effects of recession, the long-term malaise of poisoned Gulf Waters is occurring almost invisibly, and if we don’t pay attention to them, the glacier will be upon us. The new ice age is the 90’s bubble, burst: Frostbit souls lose their feeling apparatus in chunks, falling off like dead toes.

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A lot of wealthy people live in Florida. The first real settlement of the state by white people was the building of winter homes and resorts along the waterways of the state, accessed by steamboat. Then came the railroads and other areas of the state developed. Our town was founded in the late 19th-century with resorts along Lake Dora.

Folks who worked in the resorts and provided the support infrastructure built their more modest houses around these resorts. Our house was built in 1923 by a widow who lived upstairs and rented out the lower half to snowbirds. By Florida standards, our is an old house and is located in an old neighborhood. A solid, middle-class neighborhood where nothing changed for decades. We bought in 1996, paying a third less for the house than anything comparable in Orlando. That meant a longer commute for me, but it was a small sacrifice (until gas prices soared).

Then came the housing boom, which was mercurial in Central Florida. At one point a few years ago, Zillo, the online home valuation site, had listed our house well around $230 thousand—almost two and half times what we paid for the place in 1996. It wasn’t hard to get a home equity line of credit, allowing us to paint the house, renovate the downstairs bath, purchase some advanced sewing equipment for my wife’s bedding business and re-model our front living room. Typical stuff in middle-class life.

Amid the dense fog of speculative whimsy we saw immense developments go up around Central Florida with houses priced in the $300 to $600 thousand dollar range. My wife and I wondered were all these rich people were, who could afford such colossal mortgages. There just isn’t that big of a professional class in these parts, and the really wealthy are settled into established gated communities.

Then came the bust which ushered in our Great Recession. The impossible happened, at least in the eyes of the bubble-minded who saw only limitless expansion (PT Barnum knew never to underestimate the gullibility of the American populace for snake oil): housing prices began to plummet.

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It turned out that most of these developments were founded on sub-prime mortgage deals that got people into houses they could never otherwise afford, paying only the interest and believing that the climb in housing prices would make it a cinch to turn their houses in a couple of years for huge profits. That enormous industry was stopped in its tracks. Houses went up for sale and into foreclosure. Large tracts that had been cleared and gotten roads and lots marked off sat stagnant through the seasons as the weed cover grew back over. Within a few years, the lost development of Central Florida will become like Mayan cities buried under canopies of forest.

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I have a friend whose parents convinced him to buy the house he was renting in Orlando. He got a subprime deal with Countrywide Finance—remember those rogues? He now has a $240 thousand mortgage on a house which is worth in the $130s now. His mortgage payments now exceed his monthly earnings, and he hasn’t made a payment in eight or so months to Bank of America, (who bought Countrywide’s mortgage franchise after the lender went bankrupt)—partial payments, which is all he can afford to make, aren’t accepted. He has three options: re-negotiate the mortgagee, though even a 30 percent reduction in his payments would keep him over his head in debt for years; 2) get the bank to agree on a short sale and take a big loss on the house; or 3) walk away and let the bank deal with it, declaring bankruptcy and living without credit for five years or so. His best deal is the last one. That’s why so many people are doing the same things these days.

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Zillo now lists our house in the $140s, and our house the second-highest valued house on a block where five houses has seen major renovations. We’re underwater in our mortgage and going nowhere, but treading water is the gold standard of 2010: survival is success. Unthinkable a few years ago, the norm today.

Our block is emptying out. Four houses are rentals. Two have been on the market for over a year. Absentee owners don’t’ come often. We have to call code enforcement several times a summer for houses whose yards go untended.

If I lose my job—which, a few years ago when newspapering was a career—we won’t be able to afford to stay. But we can’t afford to leave either, not with the housing market tanking. Better to figure out a way to hold on here and see if the market will ever turn—get two or three jobs, whatever. Whatever is the new fortune.

Extreme fantasies which would have caused alarm about clinical depression become operating parts of the mind and day. Talking with a friend last week, the both of us in our early 50’s, we bemoaned a dried-up job market with no apparent room for guys our age trying to rebuild on their careers. My friend said he found himself tying up details—getting work done on his condo, putting his affairs in order. It didn’t occur to him that it sounded like someone who was getting ready to put a gun in his mouth until I said so. He smiled and said, well, that beats taking up drinking again. I don’t think he’s suicidal, but there is that quiet sort of desperation everywhere in the air as options run out.

Of course, what will be will be and we will have to go however and wherever necessity dictates. Suicide aside (or other forms of mental breakdown including substance or prescription drug abuse and other nocturnal abandonments), the next step down, in these parts, is out to the mobile home parks. There are some 800,000 mobile homes in 5,600 mobile home parks, lodging and recreational vehicle parks, and recreational camps in Florida, more than any other state in the country. If you need a house on the cheap in Florida, go mobile. Mobile home parks are less visible but they’re everywhere. Drive on the state highways and entire towns, the ones between here and nowhere, are comprised of mobile homes.

There are some nice, well-maintained mobile parks around the state; we’d head there first, if we could. A nice double-wide, hopefully with enough air conditioning to fend off the effects of living in an overheated tin can. But mobile homes are terribly vulnerable to the wilder elements which come this way, hurricanes in the summer and fall and tornadoes in the early spring. When the big tornadoes ripped through this area in ’98, we awoke close to midnight to an amazing swelter of lightning-flashes in our darkened bedroom, a dizzying strafe of strobes which belied the malevolence of the storm. We were passed over – but 20 miles to the east in Sanford, the tornado struck down in a mobile home park, lifting this then that manufactured home like a bored Angel of Death plucking at petals of a flower, intoning “this one kills a family, this one spared, this one spared too; Next block, kill a fireman as he wakens flying through the air, skip that mobile home, pull a baby from a screaming mother in the next one and leave him in a tree while mother spirals up to heaven.”  Regulations have been passed since then to make sure that mobile homes at least have an anchor to their foundations, but on the whole they’re still death-traps to an F3 tornado or Category 4 hurricane. (Hurricane Andrew sawed across South Florida in 1990 at Category 5, its 200+-mph winds ripping apart the housing tracts in this lower-income suburb of Miami and leaving little behind. It’s since been re-developed, partially owing to the scarcity of available land in Miami-Dade County.)

Pride of ownership is part of what makes thinking about a move into a trailer home so difficult: We love our home, our old established neighborhood, our garden, the sanctuary we provide for cats, the elbow room of two bathrooms (such a gift for a relationship), space for all my books and my wife’s sewing gear, a guest room for visitors (though we rarely have them), screened-in porch in back and an upper deck on the second floor off the main bedroom – accessed through a French door): It isn’t luxury—we can barely afford to keep it maintained, to pay the power bill and pay for repairs to the aging A/C unit (and we can’t afford to paint the house though it’s a year overdue, or roof the garage, so leaky that I’ve covered it with blue tarp)—but it’s home, with room enough for one our parents if they become ailing enough, with enough space for two full lives to exist with some room between them, enough to make it feel right-sized. It’s losing all that that I fear with a chill that grows slowly and steadily as I look at my dwindling income potential and lack of anything else sufficient enough in the employment landscape.

So scary that I don’t like to think about it, or won’t until we’re absolutely forced to.

Still, I think of those trailers in this heat, some of them like biscuits in an oven, melting the brains and hearts and loins and resolve of those who live in them. With no resources to spend on going to the mall or just getting away. My peers are there, or are heading that way, as they lose their jobs and then exhaust their savings, their credit, their retirement trying to get by.

And then I drive to work on US-441—the Orange Blossom Trail—passing trailer parks where piles of possessions are dumped by the side of the road, obviously an evicted life, big mattress, chest of drawers, stained couches, boxes of stuff with rifled clothes in disarray, a tie looping out of one box like an expired tongue, a saggy red brassiere hanging from a dilapidated standing lap once used for readiing and writing things like this at hours once like this: And know that the falling is endless once there’s nothing left to hold on to.

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A rigorous new analysis for the Rockefeller Foundation shows that Americans are more economically insecure now than they have been in 25 years, and the trend lines suggest that things will only get worse. The reason: high unemployment and skyrocketing medical costs. The study devised an economic security index which measured the number of Americans experiencing at least a 25 percent decrease in household earnings in one year without the means to make up for that loss with income (major medical expenses were counted as a loss of income). In 1985, when unemployment was around 7 percent, the number of American families who could be classified as economically insecure using this index as around 12 percent. In 2002, while the country was emerging from a mild recession, unemployment was at nearly six percent but the percentage of families classified by the index as economically insecure had jumped to seventeen percent. And though the data for 2009 is not yet complete, the study predicts that more than 20 percent of American families experienced a 25 percent loss in household income.

How hard is such a blow? The study suggest that it takes about eight years for income to return to its previous level.

And the average income loss for those falling into this category was not 25 percent, but 41—a precipitous drop indeed.

Only the extremely well-to-do – our top 5 percent of the population which has more than 40 percent of the country’s wealth – were unaffected by the trend. Everyone else–from the moderately well-to-do to the ranges of middle class (upper, middle, lower) down to the poor—were in the bull’s eye of this economic insecurity index.

The BP in this story are corporations who shed millions of jobs when the recession hit, allowing them to see corporate profits of $572 billion in the first quarter of 2010. And in the same period, wage and salary payments fell $122 billion. The bulk of the savings came from layoffs, but many other workers were told that they could keep their jobs only if they worked reduced hours, took unpaid furloughs or received no wage increases. As Bob Herbert writes,

In short, the corporations are making out like bandits. Now they’re sitting on mountains of cash and they still are not interested in hiring to any significant degree, or strengthening workers’ paychecks.

Corporations are flush with cash – Bloomberg BusinessWeek recently reported that cash at non-financial corporations stood at $1.84 trillion, 27 percent higher than 2007 (before the recession hit). As a percentage of assets, there is more cash in corporate till than has been seen in 50 years.

Yet they refuse to re-hire worker or institute pay increases. How can there be any real economic recovery until those greedy sumbitches act like citizens and share the wealth with their workforce?

And what tells me that when greed like this gets into the corporate vein, it spreads like ice through the entire system?

Oh yeah: Morgan Stanley.

Bank of America.

NASCAR.

British Petroleum.

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Icy similitudes. The long-term affects of the Great Recession we’ve been in since 2008 are creepily akin to the long-term affects of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Some things are obvious: 12 percent unemployment nationwide, 5 million barrels of oil spewed into the gulf. Both facts have been with us long enough so that they’re not enough news for the daily blast on the 24-hour news cycle. They’re there, but who cares? Both events are big news, maybe the biggest stories of the year, but we forget, media attention turned elsewhere to sterner stuff, like, oh, Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, or just who Bachelorette Ali Fedotowsky would deign, on the prelapsarian sands of Bora Bora, to love for the rest of her TV life. Fluff trumps truth every time where there’s money to be made from eyeballs glued on TV sets.

And the longer the recession and the Gulf spill are out there, the more things they affect.

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Story in the New York Times the other day about a woman who was joining the ranks of “the 99-ers,” people whose extended unemployment benefits were now running out. Given as much rope as the government can afford, the economy has given them no more, and now they face homelessness. The woman in the story had lost her job a director of client services for New York City hi-tech company in March 2008. She was forced to quit graduate school and relocated to Tennessee where housing was cheaper, living on meager unemployment benefits which paid for rent and power and food and gas. Thousands of resumes and a two fruitless interviews later, the woman’s last unemployment check came and went in March of this year—she was among the first of the now 1.4 million Americans who have also exhausted their 99-week government unemployment insurance benefits), the rent went unpaid for several months and then she packed up what belongings she could in her car and drove out of town. A relative wired her $200 so she could stay in a motel for a few weeks. Her cellphone rings constantly with a collection agency after her for late car payments. She used to make $56,000 a year and vacationed in Mexico and the Gulf Coast.

If things continue to fall apart for her, where will she go, along with the other million-and-a-half Americans who are no longer eligible for unemployment benefits?

Out. Away. Out of sight somewhere, though it sure is getting hard to hide them. Like those giant plumes of oil wandering the bottom of the Gulf, the shadows of American dispossession are afoot, casting a web of ice crystals over a lens which only sees high summer.

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Documents recently released by a congressional subcommittee say that BP, with the approval of the Coast Guard, used an excessive amount of chemical dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico to break up oil after the April 20 rig explosion that resulted in a massive outpouring of crude into the waters. Some 1.8 million gallons of Corexit have been dumped into the Gulf so far.

An EPA had restricted the use of chemicals, however, Rep. Edward J. Markey, chairman of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee said the Coast Guard granted BP exemptions for their use.

“BP carpet bombed the ocean with these chemicals, and the Coast Guard allowed them to do it,” said Markey. “After we discovered how toxic these chemicals really are, they had no business being spread across the Gulf in this manner.”

Now—-of course well after the fact–scientists are finding that oil and Corexit are mixing to become a toxic additive to the foodchain.

Signs of an oil-and-dispersant mix are being found under the shells of tiny blue crab larvae in the Gulf of Mexico, the first clear indication that the unprecedented use of dispersants in the BP oil spill has broken up the oil into toxic droplets so tiny that they can easily enter the foodchain.

Marine biologists started finding orange blobs under the translucent shells of crab larvae in May, and have continued to find them “in almost all” of the larvae they collect, all the way from Grand Isle, Louisiana, to Pensacola, Fla. — more than 300 miles of coastline — said Harriet Perry, a biologist with the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

And now, a team of researchers from Tulane University using infrared spectrometry to determine the chemical makeup of the blobs has detected the signature for Corexit, the dispersant BP used so widely in the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Well, duh.

Louisiana wildlife regulators on July 30 reopened state-controlled waters east of the Mississippi to harvesting of shrimp and “fin fish” such as redfish, mullet and trout. Smell tests on dozens of specimens from the area revealed barely traceable amounts of toxins, the federal Food and Drug Administration said.

The government has devised a “smell test” for checking to see if fish caught on the coast of the Gulf are free enough of oil contamination to eat, but there is no such test for the presence of Corexit or the weird compound now forming between the problem and the solution. Corexit kill incubating sea life, experts say, though its long-term effects are unknown. In humans, long-term exposure can cause central nervous system problems or damage blood, kidneys or livers, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

One commercial fisherman who grew up fishing the marshes of St. Bernard put it this way: “If I put fish in a barrel of water and poured oil and Dove detergent over that, and mixed it up, would you eat that fish. I wouldn’t feed it to you or my family. I’m afraid someone’s going to get sick.”

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It’s not that Florida isn’t getting any rain. Our house hasn’t seen a drop in three weeks, but when I drive into Orlando to work – like today – signs of heavy rainfall are everywhere. I can’t help feeling resentful of such blessings which do not also fall on my house. I can’t help feeling resentful of folks who drive new cars or who live in million-dollar subdivisions. I can’t help but seethe to watch celebs in their bubble of wealth and fame and good looks float about the frozen landscape of my present, smiling with an effervescence that makes my blood boil. I don’t feel much sympathy for down-on-their-luck drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. when I know he still will clear $30 million dollars while I will fret how to pay next month’s mortgage. The sense of bum fortune living next to good times is bitter and grinding, like glacial ice slowly devouring a continent. No rain for us again last night, but in town big puddles; no new opportunities flowing my way but Linday Lohan will live forever with that platinum smile and Hollywood carapace of floating gold.

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It will take the creation of ten million new jobs to get the unemployment rate back to pre-Great Recession levels. In the current environment—with corporations so greedy to maximize their profits on the backs of their workplace—that isn’t likely to happen for a long, long time. Young workers are especially hard hit. If past experience proves true again (one study examined graduates of college between 1979 and 1989, and the ones who emerged in the teeth of the ’81-82 recession made 25 percent less than graduates who stepped into boom times), the generation of students now emerging into the job market may step onto their career ladders so low that they see a lifetime of diminished opportunities.

Such icing of opportunity has another lifetime effect on one’s health. Physical health tends to deteriorate during unemployment, due to fewer financial resources and a higher stress level. And when poor health is prevalent among the young, it tends to remain for a lifetime–and then cut it short.

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Things I will miss should the waters of this strange flood of ice finally cover our own front door:

– Mornings in this chair, writing while the late night sleeps.

– Our cats looking out onto the garden through an opened window.

– Waking my wife in our bed every morning by gently stroking the soles of her feet.

– Working in the garden.

– Walking back up the driveway after finishing all the yardwork, admiring our house and yard beneath the wide blue summer sky.

– Sitting at the round iron table on the back screened porch eating Sunday brunch of waffles, bacon, scrambled eggs and fruit with my wife, watching birds flit about the spot where two of our cats are buried.

– Drinking cold Gatorade from the bottle out of the fridge.

– Eating watermelon chunks on the couch watching a race.

– All of my books and piles of writings overfilling shelves in the room where my wife has all of her sewing equipment.

– Napping on Saturday afternoon on the bed in the guest room with Belle our calico curled up against me.

– Sitting outside on the front stoop with Mamacita, our stray black cat, watching the early early morning or last of day as she eats her two daily meals.

– Watching “So You Think You Can Dance” on TV with my wife as we relax in the living room with the last of the summer’s day draining from the windows.

– Watching my wife exercise to a DVD in the living room or bent over her sewing.

– Cooking Cuban food in the kitchen with piano jazz on the stereo, rain falling from the eaves.

– Coming in from a long, long day outside on the second day of one of our many yard sales we held to help pay the bills, everything finally stashed back away in the garage, signs pulled down from around the neighborhood, boombox which played jazz from the 30’s and 40’s all weekend shelved, electrical cords stowed away, everything DONE, time to shower, eat a salad with the exhausted wife, then head upstairs to say night night holding my wife’s hand as we ride the bridge of the ship of a house we have voyaged in these past 14 years, for worse and then better, til we can afford to live there no more.

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I’ve not lost these things yet – and hell, lack of mortality can change these things just as quickly as collapsed liquidity – but the freeze is close enough to my heart’s front door (my mind) to have me painting crosses with these epitaphs, these farewells to a middle class life I can’t see us sustaining much more, if things keep going their seemingly inexonorable way.

I’m reminded of a story from last year of flooding of the Red River near Fargo. Each day the river crested higher; each day frantic town-dwellers worked together, filling sandbags and laying them in along the disappearing banks. One exhausted townsperson was interviewed on National Public Radio, and he said something to the effect that all they could do was fill and place enough sandbags – just enough – for that day: and hope that tomorrow they would be able to do the same next just enough.

Implied in his words was the rising shadow of the cold Red River, which may or may not prove surmountable. It was—for that season, and Fargo was saved—but 100-year floods in Cedar Rapids (in which my father lost his Depression-era boyhood home) and Nashville show that isn’t always the case. And don’t forget the floating bodies in drowned New Orleans after Katrina blew through and busted the levees.

I saw a friend yesterday who had moved to Nashville a few years ago to be near his grandkids. He said he’d  lost everything in big flood there. Everything. A proud man, he hated accepting clothing and food. It proved a tide higher than his own, prized sobriety;  he drank after 15 years. He drank because there was no hope, or because too much of his God on the wrong side of the flood-tide of life, taking away more than he could rebuild.

Who could blame him? “There but for the grace of God”  is the prayer of gratitude for those who escape the worst of circumstances which, for those drunks who really shouldn’t drink any more, provides too much reason to drink. Likewise, survivor mode tells me that there is never a good enough reason to fully despair of losing middle-class life. There is perhaps more spiritual growth in losing than can be found in all the oil-barrels of success which enrich so undeserving a player like BP. (Inverse law of life on this earth, the least deserving — pro basketball players, celebrities, toxic CEOs–make all the money.)

Whatever comes, the task is one of acceptance that in all things, good and bad, there is sufficient shelter from the heat and the freezing shadow now being cast by the sun. That there are enough sandbags – label them “grace” and “acceptance,” “humility” and “serenity” – to turn any calamity or boredom or icy similitude into a day’s crest, where on balance what counts holds fast against all the freezing waters on Earth.

But still, I sure would hate to lose all this. To watch all this die. To have to leave with nothing ahead down the road and so much simple paradise disappearing behind.

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Another hot one today. Another day on the job, furiously trying to sandbag against further losses. It’s 5 a.m. and time to get started heading that way: get my morning ablutions done and spend a few minutes back in bed with my wife, stroking her soles and telling her everything’s going to be OK. Glad that the last spluttering candle which burned out last night was not in our house but in one not far from here, over in a middle-class subdivision in Oviedo, where family and friends and neighbors held a vigil in the fading light of yesterday for the father and three grown sons killed by a drunk driver in St. Pete last Saturday night. Members of the family said they were grieving but not vengeful against the 20-year-old boy-man  who thought to drink with impunity and get behind the wheel of a fast car. “It means that understanding that life and God has meaning for everyone, and that you can’t live your life with hate in your heart because that puts you on hold,” one relative said at memorial service. “That allows the event to take over your life from this point forward.” How else can you go on?

Elsewhere around this failing suburb of a town, newly homeless, formerly middle-class folk who ended up on the wrong end of unemployment and foreclosure—their ranks grow every day–are getting up too, in motels and homes of parents or cousins or friends, or stirring in the back seat of their car or coming to realizing they’re in a shelter with the other souls passed over by fortune. They’re gathering their wits and determination to do better today, praying on their knees for some deliverance, a lucky break. Maybe some will coming the way they hope; maybe that deliverance has already arrived in the sum of their losses, freeing them to experience life in a wholly new context. (What an order.) If just depends how much gumption you have to keep filling the sandbags even after the water has covered your house.

There but for the grace of God go I, I whisper, still in this house, with this family intact in the way we intended 14 years ago when my wife and I vowed to love each other forever, through good times and bad. Violet, our Siamese, is curled it a chair across from me, without a clue of how much danger she’s in, even though she’s had nothing but safe harbor all her life. Those pelicans and Ripley’s sea turtles don’t know what they’re gobbling as they wend the poisoned waters of the Gulf, clean on the topside, filled with edible death below.

And NASCAR’s worried that my track-emptying distraction is due to all the whining in the press about bad times.

Nor is NASCAR happy with fans like me, standing on the shores of a frozen Gulf, crying over all that spilled milk.

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I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

— T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (finis)

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Hey, NASCAR: Put the Blame on Mame


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The Aarons 499 race last Sunday at Talladega has generated quite a squabble over exactly what happened there.

“You know, folks, we’ve just witnessed one of the best Talladega races I have ever seen – and possibly even one of the best races ever,” FOX announcer Darryl Waltrip exulted the other day in his Fox Sports column. Maybe he ought to know, having won 84 races as a driver and 3 championships in the premier league. Or maybe he was caught up in something else, partnering with the  needs of the enterprise (a fantasy which empties pockets faster than a whore in a red dress)  more than the rougher reality of the moment.

Waltrip singled out the peculiar and singular style of racing at Talladega on Sunday he called a form of dancing:

The Talladega Tango was one of the reasons Sunday’s race was fascinating to watch. Guys go all the way to the back of the field only to come all the way back to the front. I saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. do it a dozen times, and he wasn’t the only one capable of that.

I talked to Kevin Harvick, and he said his plan worked out perfectly. They took four tires when they needed to, they took fuel when they needed it and he put himself in position to win the race. He’d practiced going from the back to the front all day long to see how long it would take and see what he could do once he got there. A number of guys did that. Dale Jr. did it the most, and his dad used to do the same to set up for the end of the race.

Tango, yes, but with whom? Monte Dutton of NASCAR This Week took a contrarian view in his post, “Talladega best ever? Nahhhhhh.”

I think this particular race, won by Kevin Harvick in spectacular fashion, was great. I think it may go down as a classic. But the greatest race ever? Not a chance.

NASCAR needs this to be the greatest race ever … because it’s the most recent one. NASCAR often sets aside history when it serves its purposes, and it’s purposes at present involve ending a malaise. What better way to boost sagging attendance and flat television ratings than to declare that the most recent race was … the greatest stock car race ever run … or the greatest auto race ever run … or the greatest sporting event ever held … or the single greatest accomplishment in human history.

It’s easy to see Waltrip as a cheerleader for this effort. He has a vested interest. TV ratings for NASCAR races continue to fall in tandem with race attendance, like two cars drafting out of the entire sphere known as NASCAR.

If anything, what Waltrip exalted was perhaps the very thing that’s killing interest in anything but the end of races. Here’s Monte again from the same post:

The greatest aspect of the Aaron’s 499 was its ending, and nowadays that seems to be the greatest aspect of every single race. The up side is that NASCAR’s cockamamie rules makes such an ending almost unavoidable. The down side is that the best drivers in the country can’t seem to run a lap without crashing at the end.

It strikes me as the sort of end-game strategy which daily newspapers are employing, shrinking their papers while raising subscription rates: the corporate media bosses are betting that there’s a buck to be made on the dying fall of the industry.

NASCAR, perhaps unwittingly (though I doubt that) has set up an irresistable dance which will eventually rob itself of the last vestiges of what once made it great.

Pretty strange move. But then, these days are strange, and the logic which moves events is two-faced and dangerous.

Like a whore in a red dress who’s working not for money or sex but the satisfaction of taking desire down by its greed.

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Does this look like commuting to you? Consider that racing at ‘Dega is now safer than driving to work.

Whatever Waltrip saw from his announcer’s booth (lavishly endowed by NASCAR), Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 reminded me, for the most part, of commuting to work. Not that I drive 190 miles per hour amid a pack of cars festooned with ads for everything from Little Debbies to Miller Beer, but there was something, well, almost as everyday and quotidian about the ‘Dega race action on Sunday which I could identify with, which wasn’t what I was expecting—or wanting—at all.

Many of you will probably disagree the race was dull. What, 88 official lead changes (counted each time the pack crossed the start/finish line, whereas the number of actual lead changes was in the hundreds), a couple of Biggish Ones, a finish to beat the devil (with Harvick charging hard enough to win by a nose) and that was Dull? C’mon.

But I’m sorry, it was. For some reason I wasn’t anything as excited watching the Aaron’s 499 on TV as I was for the races at Bristol or Texas, nail-biters where it took a lot of racing to overcome a leader and a lot of strategy and balls to hold on to a lead. At ‘Dega on Sunday, the only lead change that counted among the 84 was the final one in the closing seconds of the race.

It’s possible that I’d overblown my expectations. Late the previous week I had –at ridiculous length—described Talladega as “NASCAR’s Temple of Doom” that the nothing could live up to the hyperbole. Its like how doing The Deed is nothing like imagining it, though nothing either satisfies except The Deed, as if thirst is endless but satiety is just one tall cold glass of water.

Maybe it was all those lead changes that made the proceedings as ho-hum as my drive to and from work, a flux too formless and malleable to resemble the hard-fought dominance we usually see at a race. Probably more so than any other race I’ve seen, I could identify with the track proceedings. Been there done that – on my commute. Sometimes I’m ahead of that guy in the black Beemer who looks like he could use a severe makeover with that hair – looks like a FOX news helmethead –other times I drive up to a light and there he is ahead of me. Or that semi I passed long ago edges up next to me. Physics, not horsepower (OK, there are a few witless idiots who speed through traffic like the rest of us were going 25 mph) determines such ebbs and flows of traffic.

At the Aaron’s 499 I saw no real defining edge to the racing. The FOX announcers (especially Waltrip) had to work hard at coming up with angles and strategies to stifle the yawn over the race down to the final ten laps or so. For some reason, more than any race this year, it was at Talladega – Talladega! – that there was little reason to watch the first nine tenths of the race. I see that sort of action every day driving to work.

Observers of the evolution of human animation in movies say there’s a theshhold, a proximity to looking like the real thing where 95 percent likeness seems real but 98 percent is horribly false.  Maybe there’s a threshold to TV coverage where it looks so close to racing that it doesn’t look like racing at all. (I’m thinking here of FOX’s “pump up the volume” sequence after a restart, where the set trembles at the roar of passing cars so much that it for some reason pushes us away; when it gets that close it seems wholly alien.)

Or maybe it’s because you know there is no real danger in the racing, that no matter how catastrophic the wreck, the driver will get out and sheepishly wave to the crowd and walk unlimpingly to the infield care ambulance. My commute is far more dangerous than ‘Dega now.

Everyone says that ‘Dega is always decided coming out of the last turn of the 2.66 mile tri-oval, and last Sunday, perhaps was typical for The Monster. It wasn’t until the third green-white finish and then it got down to the four or so guys running on fumes who ended up near the front on the final restart that my attention perked up at last. And even then, Harvick’s late move that got him around McMurray to give the win by a nose seemed as predictable as things get at Talladega, the two restrictor plate masters duking it out for the final quarter lap.

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Ho hum. Jimmie Johnson wrecked at the end but he kept atop the points standings, blunting any feeling that this race made any difference at all, that any of the season’s races before the chase do anything but maintain points position. The fall ‘Dega race, as part of the Chase series, will matter, but for four years running the 48 team’s mastery of their car and the track seems unapproachable.

None of the extras thrown by NASCAR into the mix to make this fan-fun seemed to make any difference. The bump-drafting seemed ordinary, the wrecks were predictable enough occasional lapses in the tight weave, the long green flag runs: It looked like the same drive to work I’ve been doing for the past 15 years.

It wasn’t sexy or exciting in any of the guilty-pleasure ways I had so imagined of Talladega.

Just another day at the office at the track where nothing is predictable, most so the droll predictability of the day’s premier race.

Weird.

As soon as Harvick won I gave my wife the remote (she was ironing clothes) and told her to watch whatever she wanted.

I was done with racing. Perhaps forever.

Till next weekend, at least.

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Florida Hospital in Orlando; Salem Hospital, Salem, OR.

Of course, I didn’t know when I wrote that last passage (early Monday) that something was amiss in the big oval inside my own ribcage. Something going wrong inside made outside things, perhaps, seem minor, quotidian. I couldn’t get my heart engaged in the race because it was occupied with other, more disturbing things.

Later on Monday I checked myself into the emergency room of Florida Hospital with chest pains, a racing pulse, pressure in my head and ringing ears. I felt bad, bad. They took me immediately in back, took blood and  chest x rays, gave me a couple of nitro pills and a shot morphine to quell the knot in my chest.

It was weird, following my younger brother’s footsteps, who died of a heart attack when he 44 two years ago almost to the day. I went through all the rooms he did except for the angioplasty lab where they failed to resurrect his anterior descending artery and he died.

Timm never emerged from Salem Hospital. Not alive, anyway.

I drove out of Florida Hospital parking garage on Tuesday afternoon, April 27. The day was clear and unbelievably beautiful. The sky almost a cobalt blue, the trees in sunlight as if they were on fire.

My brother died of a heart attack. Apparently I suffered something between a reaction to steroids I was taking for a bad back or one of those mably-pambly anxiety attacks whose symptoms wear the mask of the Big One.

For a while, though, I thought I was going to leave the race on my 52d lap. I still might – I’ve got a few more months until I hit 53 – but it didn’t happen the other night.

But there were other folks on the ward who said Good Night, Gracie. An old guy in the room next to mine cried out several times in the night. He was hustled out and didn’t return to his room.

I went through the motions. Nurses came in and out of my room taking blood and EKGs, but I didn’t see any electroshock paddles. (My brother had them applied 14 times to no avail.)  I didn’t see any bright white light, unless you count the aura of my migraine, which was piercing yet deep in the flood of my blood washing, in unaffected, perfect rhythm, in and out of my heart.

My wife drove down from Leesburg from her job. By the time she’d gotten there, the docs had figured I was OK but wanted to keep me overnight for observation. She had a terrible headache. I told her to go home, I’d be fine. She waited to talk with a nurse and get certain confirmations. Satisfied, she allowed herself to be shooed off by me. “Go home and feed that cats, take two PM Tylenols, go to bed,” I said. “I’ll call you in the morning.”

When she kissed me goodbye I saw such a face of concern and weariness and love: The face of a marriage which has endured much, with this as just one of the passing terrors. She left and I was alone, the way I wanted to be. Nothing she could do and there wasn’t anything dire enough for her to stay. I felt back she came down at all.

I felt like a fraud. A heart-attack impostor. I guess I’m glad I went in, that heart trouble was ruled out from the mix. Something else is going on, but it isn’t Big One stuff.

My brother was on Lap 44. Pretty early in the race.

Tim Russert didn’t emerge from his hospital—dead on his life’s 58th lap. David Poole, one of NASCAR’s greatest reporters, didn’t get a pass through the cardiac unit last year, his life’s race ending on its 50th lap.

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Tim Russert and David Poole.

I got the lucky dog. And I felt guilty. Those who survive the dead always do.

I guess it wasn’t my given Sunday.

If I was a racer, it would have been Wynona, NASCAR’s goddess of luck, who gave me the pass.

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But I’m not sure who let me through. Not yet. That’s why I’m writing this.

Nor will I know for how much longer I’ll get the pass.

Not ever.

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Racing in an oval is a form of circulation: Cars launch from the start line and head for an extremity on the other side of the track – anywhere from a half mile to a mile and a half away – and then round back toward a line which on the return is the finish line, or what in 500 miles will be the finish line.  Then off again they go, ever turning left, ever rounding back to home.

Every racecar’s a platelet carrying a form of oxygen to those extremities, helping the dark parts breathe, if you will, assisted by lungs which haul in air from the outside – that would be us, the fans in the stands and all the eyeballs glued on the TV set as the cars go round and round.

It happens fast. The fastest a NASCAR racecar ever went on a lap on Talladega’s 2.33-mile course is 45 seconds – that’s 212 mph. (Bill Elliott, 1987.)

But the average human heart is faster, beating about 60 to 80 times a minute on average in a resting state and upwards to 165 to 180 beats a minute when going flat-out.

Kevin Harvick averaged about 150 mph in winning the Aaron’s 499. He was going a hell of a lot faster than that when he passed Jamie McMurray for the win, a bunch of prior wrecks and three green-white cautions at the end, there was a lot of slowing down. Still, an average 150 mph is pretty fast.

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If you average out a heartbeat between on-the-couch-watching-the-race and balls-to-the-walls-at-the-gym fast, 120 beats per minute might be an equivalent. That’s about 63,000 beats a year.

Or 3.271 billion beats in a 52-year lifetime.

Who can hear you scream in such a universe of heartbeats?

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Ten laps from the finish, this pileup ended the day for Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth.

If all goes well, all the cars go out and round and back for a certain distance – in Sprint Cup competition, around 500 miles—with one of those cars arriving at the starting point/finish line before the rest. That would be the winner, upon whom all the glory and confetti and foaming sprays of champagne or Mountain Dew are lavished, while team members howl with glee and the team owner listens to cash registers fly open and one of this year’s three Miss Sprint Cup appointees stands there suited toes to nose in black and yellow – Sprint Cup colors – and smiles and smiles and smiles in a way that always makes me think of a porn queen receiving a basting of the money shot on her face.  It’s of no matter who wins; usually he’s there because of someone else’s bad luck. Wynona has no moral compunctions about changing her partners from week to week.

Of course, not every car usually finishes. Engines, like hearts, fail. There are wrecks, just like there are wrecks on the daily commute or on the drunk roads late at night. It’s somebody’s fault, moving high or low; but the cars are going so fast its not really anyone’s fault, just a fateful warp in the weave which deigns this car to go there into that car and then kaboom and screech and aw shit. The survivors wipe their brows and go whew. It is always best to be out in front, not only because winners are always in front, but also front-runners are usually out of the way of the mayhem.

But on any given Sunday (or rain-rescheduled Monday), anyone can get caught up in a wreck, or have a tire or a gasket blow and find themselves coming to a stop as all the other cars roar happily by.

The end comes way too early for someone on any given Sunday. Since no one really gets hurt anymore in Sprint Cup car crashes, the unwitting victim looks pretty normal when he’s being interviewed a short time after the wreck. Some combination of sheepish and pissed and glum. The wreck-ee usually mentions how someone else got into them and then quickly move on to saying how good the car was, what a great team worked to put out such a great car, mention the sponsor support and then say something about how it’s a sad shame that it had to end early for their car. And then they walk off, back into the garage, off camera, into irrelevance for that day at least.

But when that oval course inside us gives out, we don’t look so good. Dead is not very handsome. My brother looked normal enough at the viewing—a sheet was over his chest, since organs had already been harvested—but his skin was cold and his blue eyes were fused shut. And he could offer no explanation to us about what had happened. I had to glean all of that from the EMT and hospital reports.

Knowing all that made my lap through Florida Hospital last Monday night very, very strange. I knew the narrative already.

I was doing the same tango.

Or watching it.

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I was exhausted on Sunday, having worked like a fool in the garden on Saturday afternoon, putting in some 30 pentas and blue daze and climbing roses. My wife’s idea, really. I was planning to lay on the couch and watch the Aaron’s 312. But it was rained out and I knew she wasn’t going to be able to get those damn plants in, so, despite being on steroids and surely in need of rest, I went out into the upper-80s’ heat and did the hero thang. I got all those fucking plants into the ground despite having to hack through a pesky root system of something – trees in the parkway, I guess – and then pouring out some 15 bags of cypress mulch.

A doctor explained to me around 1 a.m. on Tuesday – the bad cop doctor, the one who tells the morons what fucking idiots they are – that steroids mask pain, so no doubt I way way overdid it, invoking the start of the symptoms when I went back to work on Monday. A normal, stressful day in the failing newspaper industry – and by midmorning, my heartrate was taking off, my chest was tightening up like a wad of paper, I was getting a bit nauseated, my ears were ringing, I was getting a headache.

Maybe I was succumbing to terror of the usual daily spin down the toilet – me at an irrelevant age with my industry tanking and no other lucrative options out there. Enough days of working under such condition, who wouldn’t start to freak? Maybe I thought of my brother’s fatal heart attack a couple of years before and started to panic. Could be. Or, as another doctor suggested, maybe something else is starting. It wasn’t my heart, but something is wrong, and it’s stayed so since. A high-wire sort of anxiety, as if one false move and it’s into the wall for me.

I didn’t know shit on Monday, though, just that I felt bad. Real bad. I waited it out a couple of hours to see if the symptoms would subside. When they didn’t, I finally  called my primary care doctor’s nurse and after explaining how I felt she said, stop whatever you’re doing and go NOW to the ER.

Blame her, fer Crissakes.

But the doctor was blaming me, pure and simple, for blatant stupidity.

A stupid move.

But then, my life’s as crowded with responsibilities as the Talladega pack, so it doesn’t take much of a wrong move to set things in wrong motion.

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There isn’t anything to do in a cardiac observation unit. You just lay there and wait for someone to draw blood or take an EKG, for another doctor to come in and ask all the same questions. You eat food that tastes like soft cardboard. I waited hours and hours for migraine medication to arrive, so I lay there with an anvil in my head and a question mark over my chest.

Maybe that question mark was more than the diagnosis the docs were all angling toward. Maybe it was the ghost of my old birthmark. See, I was born with a red heart-shaped birthmark over my heart. And the heart was transfixed by an arrow. No shit. Only the thing was upside down, and it disappeared when I was three years old or so.

The birthmark isn’t that uncommon, though its placement over my heart is. Kings of the Merovingian dynasty – you know, the guys who were entrusted with hiding the Holy Grail and whose blood flowed, supposedly, from Mary Magdalene, who, if you believe Dan Brown’s tale, was secreted away from Palestine into Europe after the crucifixion of Christ.

In every heart there’s a grail, a cup of wonder, the most magical thing in the world. It was hidden there by the gods because they figured no one would think to look there for it.

I’m not sure who fired that arrow, yet. The answer may die on my lips.

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The only thing you can do in a COV (cardiac observation unit) is lay there. You sleep a while, worry, listen to the sounds of other, more precarious dramas going on in the room next to you, drift off to sleep some more, and watch TV. Lots of TV. I watched “The Office” on TBS, “Dancing with the Stars,” (wild tangos between a pro and lead-footed luminary), some awful sitcom I can’t recall and a terrible drama I can’t recall. (Why is so much TV, so many channels of it, all so bad?)

Then I slept, my sleep disturbed by that fucking migraine headache and by numerous times by nurses checking on me and doctors lecturing me and people dying in the night.

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My brother died at 2:50 a.m. on the morning of April 18, 2008.

At 2:50 a.m. on the morning of April 27, 2010, I lay in a cardiac observation unit bed and started in my sleep, waking with the grip of a migraine tight at my temples and my heart quiet. I farted and went back to sleep, thinking of my wife alone in bed up in our house in our small town, praying she was sleeping well.

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The next morning around 8 a.m. I was told I would be released that day – my heart, in Their accumulated wisdom, was fine. I should have felt relieved, but actually it just made me feel foolish.

It took almost all of day to get discharged. Meanwhile I made calls on my cell, reassuring my wife, making some arrangements at work, calling a few friends to give them the news. I didn’t tell either of my parents where I was. They’d already lost one son to an ER ward like this, and as it turned out I didn’t have his problem. They’re both in their 80s, fer crissakes; why give them a coronary with news of my false one?

During that long wait I watched Gilda on Turner Classics. It’s basically a vehicle for Rita Hayworth to shake out her hair and show off her smile and her gams and wear outfits that glittered like a constellation of eerily-burning stars. Every WWII vet knows Rita like the inside of his own locker, like the fuselage of the B-52 he went down with. She was a good-luck fuck, a promise to make it home.

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In Gilda, though, that promise wasn’t so sure. Hayworth plays a falling angel all too well. One of her big song-and-dance numbers – where she begins a striptease that leaves jaws agape some sixty-five years later – is a song called “Put the Blame on Me, Mame”:

When they had the earthquake
-in San Francisco-back in 1906
They said that old mother nature-
was up to her old tricks.
That’s the story that went around,
but here’s the real lowdown-
Put the blame on Mame boys,
put the blame on Mame

One night she started to – shim and shake-
that brought on the `Frisco quake
So you can, Put the blame on Mame boys,
put the blame on Mame.

They once had a shootin’ –
up in the Klondike when they got Dan McGrew
Folks were puttin’ the blame on –
the lady known as Lew
that’s the story that went around,
but here’s the real lowdown-

Put the blame on Mame boys,
put the blame on Mame
Mame did a dance called the Hichy-koo,
that’s the thing that slew McGrew
So you can, Put the blame on Mame boys …

So it wasn’t an earthquake that brought down ‘Frisco – nor an angry Mother Nature – but someone worse, a hotcha dancer named Mame. Gilda glommed onto that song like random sperm onto a flung brassiere with heavy white cups.

By extension, it wasn’t Krauts or Japs that got so many Americans killed. It was Rita Hayworth.

Though I love my wife and our cats and our house and garden and minor, middle-aged existence, watching Hayworth sing that song I wanted to kiss her, too, and make the exit from my life with a bang (or rather, banging her). Who wouldn’t? Why does Death have such a strangely attractive face, the older you get?

I invited Gilda to come lay in bed with me there while I waited to be released from the hospital with my fraudulent heart condition. But she just waved goodbye and let the final credits roll. I was going home—to my real home, the one on this side of the life.

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I also watched CNN a while, hearing a number of Goldman Sachs executives testify before a very testy Senate panel. Not that I really like Congress all that much, but there are worse monsters in the world, and Goldman Sachs is one of them. (Hospitals are like Congress, in my opinion, filled with well-meaning people who can’t do much of a damn thing for you, even though it costs the world.)

Last month, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a lawsuit charging the bank with fraud for creating and selling mortgage-backed securities that were intended to fail.

The brouhaha is over what are called synthetic collateralized debt obligations, complex financial instruments which many say played a big role in making the financial crisis worse by providing more securities to bet against. Basically, the financiers at Goldman Sachs created a way for them to sell off bad mortgages and then make money when the market collapsed. They bet against their own customers and laughed all the way to the bank. (In the first quarter of 2010, the company’s net profit soared 91 percent — $3.46 billion dollars.

In the first quarter of 2010, there were 930 thousand foreclosures, up 16 percent from the same quarter of last year.

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In testimony before a Senate subcommittee on April 27, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein said it was not a conflict of interest for his firm to sell mortgage-backed securities without telling investors that his firm was betting against those securities. The government isn’t buying it, and now the Justice Department is reviewing the SEC’s allegations of fraud against the investment firm.

Betting against the house and raking in the dough of death: it’s like the newspaper industry.

If you follow the odd, odd logic of this post, it isn’t Goldman Sachs that sank our economy, but a gauzy strange broad by the name of SEDO (for synthetic collaterailed debt obligation) who seduced us into the latest distortion of the American Dream and then ditched us while we hold the fuse in our hands.

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Also in the news was the bad news leaking out of the Gulf of Mexico, or rather, from an oil drilling rig 50 miles off the Louisiana coast that had exploded and burned out of control on April 20, leaving 11 workers missing and presumed dead. The rig sank two days later and all what originally was thought to be 1,000 barrels of oil a day began leaking. A few days later, Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for exploration and production for British Petrolium, who had leased the oil rig, stated that a two new leaks had been found in the riser and that the spill was more like 5,000 barrels a day.

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Though many measures have been taken to soak up the spill, very little of it has been contained.

The slick is predicted to make landfall on Louisiana coast tonight.

Looking at footage of the slick reminded me of a busted heart pouring out its last. I thought of Gilda’s sleazy black dress and gloves when she was singing “Put the Blame on Me, Mame.”

Easy to blame British Petroleum. They’re one of the worst companies to help America to energy independence. A 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City, Texas refinery that killed 15 people and resulted in a record $21 million dollar fine from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for safety violations that were allegedly the result of company budget cuts. And in 2006, a BP pipeline leak went undetected for five days, pumping 267,000 gallons of oil into Prudhoe Bay of Alaska, reportedly caused by “failing equipment” that environmental advocates earlier had warned was in need of repair.

In a press release on the BP corporate website, Group Chief Executive Tony Hayward said, “We are doing absolutely everything in our power to eliminate the source of the leak and contain the environmental impact of the spill. We are determined to fight this spill on all fronts, in the deep waters of the Gulf, in the shallow waters and, should it be necessary, on the shore.”

Hayward made BP’s effort sound like the cardiac care ward at Florida Hospital, both concerns going to every length to put a stop to something which originated, much earlier, with a dance—in the former case, our country’s dance with cheap energy, and in the latter, my dance with a life’s sweltering curves, edible potable smokeable and fuckable turns which compose the speeding oval of my life.

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And for all that British Petroleum and Florida Hospital can do to staunch the bleeding, Mame keeps dancing because we want her to, we need her dance of death because its just so damn cute and inviting and magnifying what would otherwise be like dancing alone drunk on the floor after everyone’s gone home.

And—to tie this thing back to where I started –it isn’t NASCAR but Wynona, corporate racing’s gilded goddess of Luck, who’s overseeing the demise of the sport that green-white-checker dress, augmenting the end while killing the race. Bigger finishes necessarily diminish the ends of getting there. Now there really isn’t any reason to tune in until the end.

And in the end, Gilda kissed her man and I got a free pass. I got to drive up to my small town north of Orlando and park my car next to my house and come inside to my  beautiful wife and cats and sigh and say, I’m home.

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Which brings me back to the nagging question: Who let me go? Who is my Mame, my Gilda, my Wynona?

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Not Gilda, nor Wynona, for me. But who? Or what?

Was it the moon, so full and heavy and silvered that night over Florida Hospital?

Was it my own heart, whose purposes and desires are so foreign to my brain, my knowledge? My head tells me life sucks; but my heart is still in love with all of this.

This time, my heart eased off on the gas. I finished the lap without incident, while Kevin Harvick claimed Talladega and Goldman Sachs executives faced their firing squad and an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico kept emptying blood from the world’s deep heart.

I got off this time.  I made it back home, eventually, from my Monday commute.

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But Mame is still dancing. And there are some great races coming up the next three weekends.

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