Driving Me Backwards


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Saturday, September 25

On the couch at 10 a.m. today because 1) I had a molar yanked yesterday, pesky bastard was split and decayed and sore as hell, and extraction costs a whole lot less than that bridge-maybe-root-canal proposed by Dr. Blue, my regular dentist, and Dr. Wu, the root-canal specialist I had been referred to; and 2) It’s raining out, some tropic low system is snarled over the state bringing in lots of rain; 3) doctor’s orders – rest for at least the first 24 hours. Which is fine with me, because my mouth and really hurting and I’m feeling weary, so weary, ready to lapse off to sleep – this ole body could use the rest anyway, if just for a day.

Dr. Langdon was a wiry, older guy – ripped, in his own way, strong hands, you gotta have ‘em if you’re going to yank teeth. And  he did, though in my novocain-sotted right mouth all I felt was pressure and grinding, smelling burnt tooth as he sawed it in two and then wiggled out the halves. And then it was gone -– twenty minutes to do the deed and I was driving home beneath heavy skies surly with rain, mouth sagging and numb, biting down on a bloody pack of gauze, vacantly listening to one of the talk shows which now occupy all of the local NPR affiliate (much cheaper in these days of austerity), listening to more news of the failing world as fat raindrops fell in ostinato agreement.

Home, my wife was deep into sewing – she has 16 pairs of pillowcases done and wants somehow produce another 34 over the next few weeks so she’ll have something to sell for the craft festival. She was loving and sweet, getting me comfortable on the couch, talking now and then and she came out of the sewing room, old movie on Turner Classics or a Food Network cooking show on the tube, me finishing off Hiaasen’s Star Island and reading into the first issue of my renewed subscription to Scientific American.(My dad gave me my first subscription for a birthday present; I gave myself the gift the second time around, fascinated with the poetry of science, its imaginative possibilities founded on phenomena, repeating Picasso’s statement, ”I do not seek; I find.” Quantum  theories shifting like tides of thought, images emerging from deep space and the infinitely small – dark matters, string theories, neuro-wonders, oh my …)

— And napping in wounded wonder, listening to rain fall in rising and falling resisters with far notes of thunder approaching very slowly, like a Theme coming to visit. Although none of that big storm music got all the way to our house, by dark the lighting was brilliant, followed many seconds later by whale’s-bowel-deep thunder, the ebbing of that sound refilled by the steady fall of rain. In my harrows, that hallowed music, rocking me like the old earth mother into the deep sleep of beddy-bye.

So no wonder the night outside when I got up at 3:30 this morning was as thick as my stunned tongue was before bed, lingering where the novacain moved on (or passing from one element to the  other), leaving me with a dull bone-soreness in my jaw and a headache (which probably – I’m hoping – resulted from mouth pain which will go away in a few days.).  I’m taking – carefully – oxycodin or something like that for the pain (ex-drinkers have to be careful with that stuff), as well as 600mg of Advil four times a day (the doc said that the Advil will actually retard the process of pain-generation, do something to keep pain from forming).

A Scientific American article I read yesterday on the couch described how researchers are discover that acetominiphen (Tylenol) works as well on emotional pain – especially the pain of rejection — as physical pain.  The neurotransmitters for both are apparently housed in the same house of anguish:

One brain area in question resides about an inch behind your forehead. Called the anterior cingulate cortex, it serves as one of the brain’s control centers for that “why me?” feeling when you get picked last for the dodgeball game. It also happens to be the same circuitry that induces the emotional component of pain, that desperate feeling provoked by the throbbing of a toothache. Evolution may have piggybacked brain functions that regulate social interaction on top of a more primal pain system. The way we speak (“I’m crushed”) even hints at just such a connection.

Sure coulda used some of that Tylenol back when I was 8, having just been refused by pretty playground Kim the offer of a dandelion bouquet … If it’s true that untreated migraines cause greater sensitivity to pain, as untreated alcoholism becomes an even greater avoider of pain –- a killing, phobic avoidance – is it also true that my old war wounds fester without a dose of Tylenol, which perhaps may be more effective than Maxalt or clonazapem or Xanax or any of the other complex, pharmacological palliatives for head pain and its discontents? Sure would simplify things.

I’m planning to lay low today – for the most part – holding off on yardwork til tomorrow, when the pain hopefully will have subsided some (althoghthe tooth doc said the pain will cusp at three days) as well as assembling the booth that was loaned to us for a neighbor to see if it will work for the craft festival. In the meantime I can work on my wife’s website and other promotional materials (a new business card, a flyer to hand out at the craft festival.)

And watch some football games.

And nap.

And do this. These hands-—worn out from the rigors of the last post—are already itching to begin the next foray into the Great Oval Dark. The wiring for this runs  deep; when I woke this morning I was dreaming of writing the first graphs of the next post, accompanied by a certain drumming which turned out to be the pain in my mouth.

These paragraphs aren’t those ones, but the one sure prompted this other. Narrating its rounded course by so many ghosts assembled in the stands—of history and mystery and other ineffables who sound off only when I’m clocked out of productive activities.

Is writing a palliative like Tylenol, a form of EMDR by emptying old drains of accumulated fallen leaves?

Or it it an exquisite form of torture, the way some people love nasty sex because they were abused when they were young, or go to races because they can’t get enough of the sort of falling-off-the-edge-sound which lies in wait for them, springing off life’s bum pit road with a growl so loud as to cause maidens to swoon in terror?

Nah. It’s just writin’, the way wild sex is just fuckin’ with history and racin’ is just driving beyond the boundaries of everything that keeps you alive.

And what I descend now toward is just nappin’, pain’s balm in the manner of dyin’, just not so much so.

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Sunday, September 26

According to ESPN.com, Clint Bowyer was beet-red in the face when he met with media in the Dover media center on Friday: Hoppin’ mad. He pulled a quarter out of his pocket and held it up to demonstrate how far off in height his #33 Chevy had been found after his win a New Hampshire the previous week – less than a sixty thousandth of an inch. It was enough for NASCAR to dock he and Richard Childress racing 150 championship driver and owner’s points, fine crew chief Shane Wilson $150,000 and suspend Wilson from the next six races.

Then he produced a sheet of legal paper which had been scrawled with plausible alternative, extra-garage reasons for exceeding the tolerance. The miniscule jack in height could have happened when the #33 was towed off the track after running out of gas doing victory burnouts. The rear bumper could have been jostled just enough by drivers who’d come by to congratulate Bowyer on his win. Et cetera. The reasons were all plausible enough to bat the issue back to NASCAR. A hearing between RCR and NASCAR is scheduled for this Wednesday.

What’s pissing Bowyer off so it that it was such a big hit for so teensy a variance. Docked 150 championship and owner points, Boywer fell from second back to twelfth place, keeping the win but losing all of his Chase advancement. A real momentum killer, you know? Bowyer’s 25th-place finish at the Monster Mile today in Dover would seem to confirm that; nudged in one direction after being discovered in the midst of hanky-panky with an edge, the #33 spun out of the Chase.

Some of Bowyer’s rage is directed against the NASCAR machine, a controlling maniac money-grubbing machine to be sure. Paranoid about “the brand,” NASCAR’s elders secretly levied heavy fines on drivers who spoke in a manner “detrimental to the sport,” whatever that means. NASCAR’s mania for control extends too to all of the substance-abuse suspensions it has levied against minor players, the Jeremy Mayfields, as an example, I guess, to the major players who would be unprofitable, in NASCAR’s eyes, to punish in similar manner for the same offenses. A sixty-thousandth- of-an-inch variance as cause to throw a new (but still minor) Chase contender back to jail without bail is a little like throwing cautions toward the end of a race for debris no one can see, mostly so the fans get a green-white-checker demo derby: the stuff which makes NASCAR more than just or a sport. Or less than sport, period.

Even so, some drivers in the garage on Friday – notably Denny Hamlin — said the #33 team had been warned since the Richmond race to stay within tolerances; he and Jimmie Johnson’s team had also been warned. NASCAR’s concern was not fresh news. And it was strange to see Bowyer qualify so hot (he started second) and them drive the race so beyond his norm. But was the reason great car and driver and team, or one sixty thousdandths of an inch? Can something so eensy make so much of a difference, and take away all human factors in edge, like ability and balls?

But as scientists know, just a little extra does go a long way. Recent experiments show that an atomic clock set just a third of meter higher than another one will run faster. Elevation —- even a litte bit — counts. Likewise will an atomic clock in a moving vehicle -– a stock car, say –- will count time faster than a stationary one. Fast cars not only go fast, they change time as they speed.

Granted, scientists go on to say it would take a million  years for the higher-elevated or in-motion atomic clock to tick off one more second than its counterpart. But the lesson is important in racin’, where the the distance between checker and wrecker is usually measured by shorthairs —  of speed, luck, reflexes, gas consumption, engine gumption, or a million other variables which we don’t have the brains to see (yet).

Think if you will for a moment on the raw chanciness of our existence and madness breathes on your neck. Life was possible and flourished on this planet due to a set of variables which provided an infinitesimally small envelope in the scheme of things in which to grow, like proximity to the ruling star, size of planet allowing for a certain gravity, the right soup of elements in the atmosphere, the right moisture and heat and light and darkness, et cetera.

Current estimates say that there around ten sextillion and 1 septillion (that’s 10 to the 24th power)in the universe, with an approximate ten million billion planets in the universe orbiting around them. Now, the odds of the right conditions for life appearing on one of those planets is around one in a million; thus one estimate says there perhaps a billion planets capable of producing life.

Bacteria, most likely. Spores. But what about intelligent life, which means life plus billions of years of very chancy steps in evolution to get to a folks like us. You wouldn’t know it to watch the population explode in any given trailer in Zellwood, but there’s about a .01 chance that over four billion years that germ life will reproduce and mutate and evolve into the Hickey Clan of Bootie, NC.

So we’re now down to a million planets spread over 100 million to a billion galaxies capable of producing intelligent life.

Not very good odds. But life figured it out here. I mean, I’m the result of a single successful sperm cell out of the 115 million spermatozoa my dad shotgunned my mom’s way some 53 years ago. That’s Powerball odds and here I am, just like everyone else.

And the actual numbers keep improving out there as our equipment for seeing the universe get stronger. We see a lot more out there with Hubble than we could before. As intelligent life grows here, the possibility of it increases out there.

So maybe that teensy sixty-thousandths of an inch of chassis elevation on Boywer’s #33 Chevy did make a difference at the Sylvania 300 in New Hampshire on September 19. Maybe the obvious infinitesimals — a few extra ounces of gasoline, flawless pits, track position which kept him out of the balletic spins of a Kurt Busch who admitted later he was racing faster than he knew how to, and and what-the-hell, balls-to-the-walls attitude by Bowyer who had nothing to lose – were trumped by a quarter’s width of difference, played out over 300 miles to result, at race’s end, in .418 seconds of a lead over second-place finisher Denny Hamlin and a leap from 12th to second place – for a day.

And now a quarter’s width – surely one of the finest shorthairs around – of illegit tinkering has become the springboard of Bowyer’s tumble back to the Chase cellar.

If so, then let’s talk about what a miracle it is that any of us live to squander our days on things like, say, racin’, the diciest enterprise in the universe, beating time in a fast car.

The wildest and most exhilarating ride, too.

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Monday, September 27

— And deadliest, of all the easy, commissionable sins.

— Well, not for Sprint Cup drivers anymore, not since Dale Earnhardt Sr. crashed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Ever since, Sprint Cup cars have become safer and safer, engineered so that the most vicious of wrecks appear to be a cakewalk for their victims, blithely rising from strewn wreckage like Jesus from the dead -– Michael McDowell at Texas, Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman at Talladega, Brian Vickers this year at Pocono.

Their seeming invincibility, lent to them by so carefully a safe-crafted car, perhaps put the worry NASCAR’s PR crew, so that “we’re watching you” became, “let the boys have some fun” until it became clear that what NASCAR meant was, “we’re watching you have fun,” a chilling sort of statement from a ruling body. Sort of like knowing that Mommy’s looking on from a people as you’re enjoying a romp under the sheets with Darla. It’s fun but creepy, you know?

And as fantastical as the racing has become as a result, it distances with each miraculous wreck from the old raw truths of stock car racing which every average Joe with a street Mercury or Ford or Chevvy could understand – speed and wildness, hilarity at the edge of doom. NASCAR’s brands – Hamlin, Johnson, Harvick, Smoke, the Brothers Busch – race on inside an eternal envelope of safety, while we are left on the outside where speeds are slower for the most part but chances much dicier.

Chancinesss — with all its inherent thrill and danger and fatal enough consequences – still rules our streets. However, like Steven Colbert’s “truthiness”, it’s manufactured chance, not chancy the way there’s a one in 20 chance of solar superstorm in the next 20 years (wiping out our global communication grid, taking us offline for, say, years), or the one in two chance in the next 30 years of homo sapiens getting decimated by a killer pandemic. Chanciness is playing chicken when you know better, driving without a seatbelt and under the influence: dumb stuff which heightens the risk because, well, its sexy or you’re invulnerable or smart enough to create a clusterfuck of chaos though too stupid to know how to get out when things go south.

The chanciness of speed killed my nephew and my wife’s nephew, too, speed and a young man’s stupid sense of invulnerability, careening on a wet turnpike and a crowded interstate, all throwing variables into the mix which rose up to bite both in the ass when they overcorrected and spun out, one into a utility pole and the other into a tree, killing everyone on impact (my wife’s nephew was driving alone; my nephew had his girlfriend and best friend in car with him).

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Memorial benches for my nephew Nicholas and his girlfriend Jamie, both killed when Nick wrecked Jamie’s black SUV on the Florida Turnpike one rainy night in Feb. 2007.

I think of the near-misses I’ve had over the years, slurred in the bad old days by booze (so that the center line became a dancing chorus-line of yellow-hatted bosomites), in latter, dryer years due inattention or aggressiveness.  In 1981 I was t-boned by another car in an intersection on Sunday morning I had been drinking Bloody Marys with a cocktail waitress I occasionally followed home. The slo-mo reel of the wreck still plays in my head, time’s end lending the moment a frame-by-frame reel of the other car approaching in my peripheral vision, the smack and crunch on the passenger side door, the and whirl with my head flipping one way then the other from the impact, the smoke of rubber on the pavement, the sound  of crunching glass and the slow balletic swirl to a stop in the middle of the intersection, my senses coming to to the sound of my car’s radiator hissing and some Journey tune on the radio playing on, blithe to another destruction.

It wasn’t my fault, not specifically – the other car was running a red light – but I had blithely and somewhat blindly pulled out when my light went green, blind to the threat approaching fast from the right. Probably because I was drunk I was loose and avoided serious whiplash; but then I wouldn’t have been in that intersection with a finger crooked to Fate had I not been drinking that morning because I’d drunk so much the night before.

Death had its chance at me that morning, no doubt; a little more speed, a little less seatbelt and I could have been hair nose and eyeballs in a streak from that intersection to my grave. Score it me 1, fate zero: but the great Wheel kept spinning, every night I hit the road in search of some way of abandoning my skin.

Years later, long forsworn of booze, a guy cut me off once on the way to work, forcing me off the road; I was able to stop without rolling over. But sat there a moment, sick with adrenalin, my evolutionary turn on earth narrowly spared from ending by the rules of gravity which spared me from turning over. A little faster, a harder turn off the road, and it could have been different. By then I had enough to lose to hold off on going after the fucker, using my car as a four-wheeled sodomy-machine, paying back in kind no matter what the cost.

Last week I drifted off the turnkpike trying to retrieve a message on my new Droid. Rousd by the loud sound of my tires scraping on the roughed-up asphalt laid down to alert moronic drivers like me that Doom Is Approaching, I pitched that fucking smartphone at the seat next to me and turned my eyes back to the road where they belong, correcting back onto the road in time to watch a guy fly by me on the right giving me the finger.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that some 20 percent of crashes are caused by drivers distracted by texting, calling on cell phones, applying makeup, getting head, flipping channels on their radio or reading things like the newspaper or a map. Singleness of purpose – drive, fucker – is how you arrive alive these days. A no-brainer, perhaps, but if you’re addicted to your Blackberry, chanciness leads you by your confused nose to the sulphuric pussy-billows of hell.

In the times I experienced a near-miss with Death on the road, there was a clear feeling of its iron scythe-blade sweeping in a cold arc just beyond the hairs of my neck, a sense of casual permission to continue, not because I had any blessed fate to remit (none has revealed itself yet), but simply that I had been casually passed over for that particular rendezvous with death.

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Lord knows things go easily enough the wrong way without personally foolish contributions to Chanciness. — Not on the track, I mean, where mortality is no longer a real issue — but on those daily roads which takes us everywhere and back. Last week a 19-year-old Winter Park woman was sitting in the back seat of 2001 Hyundai with friends as they drove back from the funeral of a friend who had accidentally shot himself in the head. En route back from that farewell, their car was broadsided on the rear passenger door on the driver’s side by a pickup truck driven by a 54-year-old who may have been having a medical condition. The woman in that hot seat, a freshman at Florida Gulf Coast University studying criminal forensics, was killed.

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Also last week, a 2005 Dodge Caravan traveling northbound near Gainesville on I-75 had a surprise guest: the driver of a speeding Suzuki motorcycle, which stuck the back of the van so hard that the motorcycle driver was propelled into the back of the van, bulleting between a young couple who were sitting in bucket seats in back and ending up wedged horizontally in the van with his (badly damaged, chanciness-addicted) head next to the van’s driver.

“We were just cruising in the center lane when we heard a big ol’ bang — and he’s lying between us,” Sammy Cannon – one of the couple sitting in back — said.

The motorcyclist, 22-year-old Robert Kelly from Silver Springs, remains in critical condition at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida.

My bet is that the asshole will survive, in direct compensation, in the world’s topsy-turvy way, for the loss of the 19-year old woman who appeared to be headed for a significant contribution to our betterment.

With real chance – as opposed to chanciness, where you get everything you deserve — there is no justice. Take the guy who was street-racing against a pickup truck on SR-520 on the night of December 2007. He over-corrected during the heat and broadsided a 1994 Accura, killing two women. His vehicular homicide trial ended last week with a not-guilty verdict because prosecutors could not prove that he was actually racing and not simply speeding, even though a state trooper had testified that the damage to the Mustang was so great that it looked like “it was dropped from the sky.”

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A good defense lawyer cast enough doubt and the asshole received his “get out of jail card free” card.

Not surprisingly, the mother of victim Robin Hollar was outraged. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she yelled in the courtroom after hearing the verdict. “ He killed my son. He killed two people. What kind of justice is this?”

Sorry Sally; Chance doesn’t want justice, just consequences, more often for the innocent than the guilty.

And these days, you only have a chance of guilt if you’re caught; hit-and-run accidents are spiraling at a dizzy rate, with a wholesale flight of perps from their scenes of their crimes as they put it in gear and haul ass. Back in 2008, a drunk driver rear-ended our neighbors as they were driving back from Orlando Speedworld, upending their SUV into a ditch; he’d phoned a buddy who arrived just moments after the state troopers showed up. The guy was busted on a DUI and that’s all, though the couple endured some 70 doctor’s visits for whiplash and shoulder and head injuries, culminating in the discovery of esophageal cancer which killed the husband in eight months. No justice in that one, for sure; there wasn’t even a civil trial because the asshole was bankrupt and had no insurance. No pockets, no trial, on you go. State police say that there’s nothing they can do with multiple-DUI convicts except send them to prison, and only a manslaughter charge will accomplish that. Take away their license, but who’s to stop them from driving someone else’s car? A friend of mine buried his brother a couple years ago, dead of hepatitis at 43 and with some 12 DUI’s to his record.

And so the votives of chanciness simply drive away from their destructions. It’s become like the habit of turning without using turn-signals, only deadlier, devastating innocent families more often than returning coffins from Iraq and Afghanistan. Count up the tiny roadside crosses adorned with fake flowers on your daily commute and you’ll see where Chanciness is king, or Queen of the Dead: a fool’s errand become the dominating trope of the era.

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Evolution does not always move forward; crippling recessive genes propagate to stain the pool with everything from myopia to autism, left-handedness to red hair, neuropathy to psychopathy. (And there’s nothing more psychopathic than a left-handed redhead.) It used to be that such club-footed mutations quickly died out, picked off by predators as the weakest and most vulnerable elements of the pack. But now, with most of our natural predators hunted almost to extinction and with medicines which can keep even the most handicapped person alive to mate and thrive, it is possible, even likely, that we’re evolving in reverse. Evidence our current obese, prescription-pill-poppiing population, where young adults who should be clear of the nest are still living at home, dependent on their parents, addicted to the distracting silver sheets of noise produced by iPods and Xboxes and Droids, replacing this life with Second Life and Facebook, Twittering away the iota consciousness in lieu of thought, laying waste to the old realms of memory and imagination.

Dodoes are taking over everywhere, on the streets, on the airwaves, in Congress, making the sort of dodo decision which fate us to even more mindless solutions. Don’t like the speed limit? Speed. Don’t want to lose your license for abusing it so badly that you kill some faceless other on the road? Flee. Humanity’s enduring addiction to its worst has become hitched to the speeding wagon of technology, putting the downward spiral in our evolution. Far more preferable and consumable and fun is a Chancy romp at the mudhole in oversized pickup trucks with some overweight (and probably now pregnant) girl showing off her tramp stamps in a bursting halter-top than figuring out how to slow the warp-speed inflation of healthcare costs, if only so that it will be around tomorrow when that big-ass truck goes tits-up in the mud some next night.

Is your reality too frightening, too banal, too real? Then fugetaboutit and head for the races, where the collective squeal for Dale and Danica becomes a grosser specie of religion, basking in the fantasy of effortless and risk-free flight in lieu of failing to pay on a mortgage which is plodding in the underwater realms of the Great Recession. Oh what the hell -– global warming will probably cause the ocean to reclaim this neighborhood anyway faster than I can think of a way to get out of it besides bankruptcy.

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Tuesday, September 28

Like the eensy tolerance variation in Clint Bowyer’s #33 RCR Chevy, the string of circumstances which unscroll from one unlucky roll of the dice unwind forever. Just as one lucky move lifts the skirts of Wynona’s state fair of one-night-pleasures (for which a checkered flag is just the descending panty of), one false move can result in a series of careening missteps which dumps the lost prevaricator back into the abyss.

In the financial world, the precariousness of these false moves are woefully evident. The stock market’s 2008 meltdown was so fast and astonishing in it’s effect on the economy, especially since no one could properly account for it. Worse, some $60 trillion dollars worth of credit default swaps (equivalent to the world’s current gross domestic product) are woven like kudzu now through the world’s banking system, and no one knows what another shock to the flaccid real-estate market will do to this barnacle economy.

Danger in an integrated economy is like sniper fire; a missed budget prediction by the Spanish government, the failure of Greece to hit a deficit-reduction target, a drop in Ireland’s economic output–any one of these missteps could pitch the global economy back into recession. Systems evolve toward complexity which too frequently now open the door to chaos.

The ease in which such chaos can be unleashed in the complex systems of modernity is astonishing. One false binary move can snowball into a major fuckup, as on Nov. 19, 2009 when a single circuit board inside a computer router in Salt Lake City burned out, causing a glitch which rolled through air traffic control computers nationwide: the entire grid went mute.

With complex systems, when shit just happens, shit storms result. On August 14, 2003, shortly after 2 P.M. EDT, a high-voltage power line in northern Ohio brushed against some overgrown trees and shut down—a fault, as it’s known in the power industry. The line had softened under the heat of the high current coursing through it. Normally, the problem would have tripped an alarm in the control room of First Energy Corporation, an Ohio-based utility company, but the alarm system failed. Over the next hour and a half, as system operators tried to understand what was happening, three other lines sagged into trees and switched off, forcing other power lines to shoulder an extra burden. Overtaxed, they cut out by 4:05 P.M., tripping a cascade of failures throughout southeastern Canada and eight northeastern states. All told, 50 million people lost power for up to two days in the biggest blackout in North American history. The event contributed to at least 11 deaths and cost an estimated $6 billion. Five years later, system complexity makes us just as vulernable to these sort of blackouts.

Anomalies are cometary events. On May 6, 2010, the Dow Jones industrial average suddenly dropped 1,000 points, only to mysteriously rise back to its former level by the end of the day. Had the system not corrected itself, the entire financial system would have melted down; but the best anyone can do is shrug their shoulders. We don’t know jack about the systems we are now utterly dependent upon.

So what about a false move in human affairs? Easy to see the evidence of it on the road every day, but what about political turns?  Philip Roth played out the scenario of a right-wing takeover of America in his novel The Plot Against America by having Franklin Delano Roosevelt is defeated in 1940 by matinee-hero, Jew-hating Charles Lindbergh. And so instead of the legacy of a New Deal Democrat (which included Social Security, bank insurance and Medicare), Roth imagined the precedent of a government of Nazi-sympathizing fascists which sets America on a far different course for the next 40 years.

Fantastical, perhaps, but when I imagine Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck as our next President such fictions become the stuff of a terrifying reality. Bad shit can happen on the strength of narrow-minded populism. George Walker Bush won the 2000 election on the strength of some 500 votes in Florida’s election, with the corrupt Republican machine in Florida’s legislature giving Busch the state and thus the American Presidency, bringing into power a radical and militaristic right-wing machine which got us quickly into the quagmire of war and deregulated enough industry to set up the financial meltdown of 2008 and the Gulf Oil Spill of 2010.

The political moment for change which Barack Obama brought to the White House was lost to a resolute and unbending Republican will to block every Democratic effort to address the country’s woes, demonizing every fix and now campaigning on a message of change which is pure Reaganesque nonsense –- sounds great, will burn every hopeful bridge to the future the present administration has erected.

The sense that we missed our chance grows in the clamor of the midterm elections, as the dirt of baseless accusation begins to fly. Demonize science, demonize truth long enough and bullshit sounds like a pretty good deal. Goebbels would surely be proud. Truthiness and Chanciness walking hand in hand, we goose-step our way backwards toward the abdication of American ideals in some fantasy of the past (and a lot more money for the few).

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Stupid minds think alike.

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And so life rolls on, albeit in the strange backwards motion of the times, autumn marching back to high summer and the viciousness of the the spring. On Monday temperatures in Los Angeles climbed to a record 113 degrees. Tropical Depression 13 has formed off Costa Rica and heads north into Florida, bringing up to five inches of rain over the next day or so. Wilmington, North Carolina had its second wettest day yesterday since 1850 with 10 inches of rain flooding streets. Flooding continued in Wisconsin, with levees along the Wisconsin River failing north Madison.

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Clint Bowyer continues his march to the rear of the Chase, smacking the wall of the Monster Mile on lap 152 of Sunday’s race and then dropping him a couple of laps down after serving penalties for both entering and exiting pit road too quickly after his car was repaired.

“We were fast; we had a good car,” said Mike Dillon. VP of competition for Richard Childress Racing and Bowyer’s spotter on Sunday. “We got in the wall early, and then I called out the wrong pit road speed coming into the pits. Speeding in, I told him 4,600 (rpms), and it was 3,600. We’re normally in the 4,000 range. I just made a boo-boo

A boo-boo; an oopsie; one of those mistakes which resulted in a 25th-place finish for the former Chase ace. Richard Childress Racing will have a chance to formally appeal the chassis tolerance penalty today, but most expect it to be a pro forma bow for Bowyer and Co. out of the Chase.

Other Chase drivers suffered boo-boos at Dover. Tony Stewart, who lost last week’s New Hampshire because he was a few fumes short on gas, opted for 2 tires on lap and the decision had him going backwards. By lap 137 he was two laps down after swerving a speeding penalty, perhaps the result of trying to make up for time lost, and ended up with a 21st-place finish. Kevin Harvick slipped further behind with a loose car for the final 100 laps, finishing 15th. Greg Biffle was caught on pit road when a caution came out and lost a lap as a result, finishing 19th. Matt Kenseth suffered a flat tire and significant left- front damage and finished 18rh. That makes four drivers now 100 points behind leader Denny Hamlin—definitely driving the Chase backwards. Recoverable? Perhaps, but time ain’t on their side.

But as it is possible to win the Sprint Cup without winning a race, so it is possible for the Chase field to quite well without a Cup in hand. The combined winnings of the twelve Sprint Cup drivers who are in the Chase is around $56 million dollars – about $4.7 million dollars a head. So far. Plenty of money in NASCAR for everyone to jiggle brass in pocket. You can lose big-time in a race, finishing at the back of the pack, and still win. You don’t even have to finish a race and still make money, as attested by start-and-parkers Michael McDowell (quit after 71 laps, finished 39th, won $66,800), Mike Bliss (60 laps, 40th place,  $66,625), Joe Nemechek (58 laps, 41st place, $66,420), J.J. Yeley (43 laps, 42d place, $66,290) and Dave Blaney (29 laps, 43d place, $66,630). All of those teams earned more than I’ll make in a year going pedal the metal nowhere fast just by going a while and giving up before suffering any damage or wear and tear on their cars, so they can collect a similar paycheck doing the same thing the next week.

Is there big money in driving backwards? Ask any TV network suit when the campaign attack ads start flowing in like black honey. Oh happy day.

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Wednesday, September 29

The pain in the socket of my recently departed molar should have quelled three days ago, but still I’m sick with it. I’ve been waking up around 1 a.m. for the past two days, molar grave throbbing in red fire, a migraine marauding this way then that in my skull. What the fuck. So I get up, take an Oxycodin and six hundred milligrams of Advil with apple juice and a piece of cheese and lay on the couch waiting for some relief, flipping channels on a muted TV. This morning I watched a replay of the Florida Gators drubbing of Kentucky from Saturday night. It’s great watching sports events backwards like this, already knowing that it was a blowout and then watching it occur. This kind of TV is comfort food for the sleepless, the world outside swooning in black sleep, the predicted tropical depression passing to the east, air a few notes cooler. I don’t fall back asleep but cocoon in empire football and mouth and head pain which is driving slowly away, in reverse, magnitudes descending, dwindling, ebbing to a nuisance throb. At 2:30 a.m. I decide what the fuck and get to work here, finishing this post.

I wonder sometimes if human life is evolving backwards now, ruined by our accomplishments, using opposable thumbs and mutated language gene which got us here to push us off the ledge of the next to fall backward in a slow downward spiral into the darkening abyss. Any time I think of the world’s nuclear arsenals under the control of people as smart as I am, I worry. When I think of how much trust we put in the Internet nowadays, a big stupid brain which is best at efficiently decimating industry after media industry in the name of the free – I worry.

A lot.

When I think a lot on these things too much, the world takes on that backward blur. Like progress has become the chauffeur of stygian-black muscle-car, roaring down the icy Highway to Hell fuelled by Chanciness—or rather, a few missed chances to make good on all of this.

All from the edge of a quarter which Wynona flipped and which landed on its side, offering this precipital, fate-in-the-balance post.

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Hmmm, reminds me a great Stephen Dobyns poem, which I’ll use to close this slopped-together, tooth-socket-pain-addled, digressive discourse on the curse of out own opportunitistic brains. Brains which always seem to think things through backwards and set us squarely in a worse place than where we were when we whistled blithely though Eden admiring Eve’s tits.

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Here’s to the crown of creation, ever slipping on banana peels and using a sixthy-thousands-of-an-inch advantage to get kicked hair nose and eyeballs down to the bottom of the hill.

Oh well.

MISSED CHANCES

Steven Dobyns

In the city of missed chances, the streetlights
always flicker, the second hand clothing shops
stay open all night and used furniture stores
employ famous greeters. This is where you
are sent after that moment of hesitation.
You were too slow to act, too afraid to jump,
too shy or uncertain to speak up. Do you recall
the moment? Your finger was raised, your mouth
open, and then, strangely, silence. Now you walk
past men and women wrapped in the memory
of the speeches they should have uttered—
Over my dead body. Sure, I’d be happy with
ten thousand. If you walk out, don’t come back—
past dogs practicing faster bites, cowboys
with faster draws, where even the cockroach
knows that next time he’ll jump to the left.
You were simply going to say, Don’t go, or words
to that effect—Don’t go, don’t leave, don’t walk
out of my life. Nothing fancy, nothing to stutter
about. Now you’re shouting it every ten seconds.

In the city of missed chances, it is always just past
sunset and the freeways are jammed with people
driving to homes they regret ever choosing,
where wives or helpmates have burned the dinner,
where the TV’s blown a fuse and even the dog,
tied to a post in the backyard, feels confused,
uncertain, and makes tentative barks at the moon.
How easy to say it—Don’t go, don’t leave, don’t
disappear. Now you’ve said it a million times.
You even stroll over to the Never-Too-Late
Tattoo Parlor and have it burned into the back
of your hand, right after the guy who had
Don’t shoot, Madge, printed big on his forehead.
Then you go town to the park, where you discover

a crowd of losers, your partners in hesitation,
standing nose to nose with the bronze statues
repeating the phrases engraved on their hearts—
Let me kiss you. Don’t hit me. I love you—
while the moon pretends to take it all in.
Let’s get this straight once and for all:
is that a face up there or is it a rabbit, and if
it’s a face, then why does it hold itself back,
why doesn’t it take control and say, Who made
this mess, who’s responsible? But this is no time
for rebellion, you must line up with the others,
then really start to holler, Don’t go, don’t go—

like a hammer sinking chains into concrete,
like doors slamming and locking one after another,
like a heart beats when it’s scared half to death.

(from Cemetary Nights, 1987)

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Chasing Homestead


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A few things for themselves,
Convolvulus and coral,
Buzzards and live-moss,
Tiestas from the keys,
A few things for themselves,
Florida, venereal soil,
Disclose to the lover. …

–  Wallace Stevens, “O Florida, Venereal Soil”

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1. A Chase in earnest

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There was something about Sunday’s Sylvania 300 race in New Hampshire that was different: a fresh vibe, a wilder undercurrent — a new kind of racin’. It was fevered, dangerous, all-out, caution-ridden, exciting. And fateful, the indiscretions of others and fuel spelled doom for some – leader Tony Stewart running out of gas on the white flag lap, Jimmie Johnson getting caught up several times in wrecks and got a loose rear tire as result and spluttered to a 25th-place finish, just behind Stewart—while triumphal for others, especially Clint Bower.

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Clint Bowyer wins in New Hampshire, gets of to a great start. (Until Thursday, when NASCAR announced that Bowyer had been docked 150 points due to “chassis violations.”

Forget the typically lousy attendance; it was one helluva race. We saw the boys in earnest, driving like they meant it, and none more than winner Clint Bowyer, who broke an 88-race win drought and had announced, prior to the race, that he was going to race exactly as a man in his near-hopeless position of twelfth place in the Chase –- all-out, with nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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The stands at New Hampshire were lighter than the contents of what’s between Linday Lohan’s ears.

Bowyer started second and led for 177 laps, daunted by a car which slipped on restarts and made its way back on pure testosterone. On the final lap, with leader Stewart suddenly out of gas, his own reserves close to empty and Denny Hamlin charging from second place, Bowyer put full petal to the metal coming out of the final turn and raced “like a thoroughbred” to the finish, beating Hamlin by .477 seconds.

It was a finish—-and a result–which redeemed so many bad storylines of the season, giving the sense that the Chase could really re-start racing dreams and return it to some pristine era, Florida before all the developers bought, clear-cut, built like hell and then sold it as high-priced paradise.

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2. Surf’s Up

Again I walk this small white shore
Amazed at all the blue. In love
My sins are legion: I never
Get it right. Dozing on the couch
On a wan drear Saturday, I
Rolled the tapes again, of years of
Nights fulcrummed by seconds where She
Smiled and bid me in. I never could
Keep her though, not the way I dreamed.
My words could never trance that smile
Back. I’m still at it in this my
Fifth decade, inside a marriage
And much in love. Still trying to

Sing loves’ hour back to that beach dawn
When eternal sands turned upside down.

“Love’s History” (2004)

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A race for the ages? It was for me. But maybe beauty—-and the beast–is always in the eye of the beholder. Mine had been freshly drenched earlier that Sunday in a view of Atlantic waters at full boil. Driven by some surging need to witness a local immensity, I had driven over to Cocoa Beach to watch the sun come up and spent a few hours immersed in the sight and sound of a surf ripped to frenzy by the passing of Hurricane Igor, some 900 miles to the east.

For years I’ve become an inland creature, 50 miles distant from the salt particulars of beach in the raw. Since my wife isn’t a beach person, I rarely making the trip any more. Settled life dries you that way. But I’d heard of the big surf and wanted to sink my senses in it, even if just for a morning. Hell, I didn’t even plan to swim, what with rip currents so menacing of late. And I couldn’t stay long — Lord knows I had plenty of work still to get done on that day, plus my 83-year-old mother who lives in South Orlando had fallen in a Whole Foods parking lot on Saturday and I wanted to check in on her.

So it was just a 3-hour stay-—sunup till around 10 a.m. But, as Blake said, one thought fills immensity, and so even a short savor of that wild oceanfront moment was enough to water me down past my soles.

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Swells were coming in around six feet at sunrise, big for Cocoa Beach, the sun harshly brilliant and hot for September, even with clouds about (it was raining further up the beach). As I walked the mile or so toward the pier, the sound of the surf overtook me, harsh and mashing. Sixty people had to be rescued out of the water by lifeguards on Saturday, and there was a general plea for people to stay out of the water. But conditions were too much of a tease for surfers. Dozens of ‘em were already in the drink, trying to get through tough shoreline breakers to make it out to the big ‘uns much further out.

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By the time I’d reached the pier the waves were much larger, eight to ten feet, smashing into the pier footers in fusillades of brilliant spray and sullen foam. I took lots of pictures, trying to capture that certain magnitude which has nothing to do my life and everything to do with the aesthetic by which I write, big night music expressed in smashing waves and hot sunlight and young bodies abloom in that element in away my aging body will never experience again.

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– Long gone was the day in May of 1980 when I first walked that very beach, fresh-arrived in Florida, my eyes full of expectation. I fully believed that Venus herself was going to emerge from one of those cerulean-bright waves breaking gently offshore; she’d shake her hair and come to me exactly as my long-wintered heart so needed to believe, her eyes full of blue invitation, her mouth opening with a smile.

That Bob Marley tune “Is This Love?” was playing in my head, my senses exhilarant to be soaking almost naked in that element, my foolish, 23-year-old brain fully expecting that if I would just come to the beach, love would come to me.

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No one arrived that day, and though there were brief personal carriers for Her seas-deep embrace, She has never shown herself, not in those ways. That Marley song had so faded in my head and aging heart that I could barely hear it as I walked Cocoa beach on Sunday, the faintest traces of an old happiness salted in the present roar of an indifferent, brutal tide.

– Long gone that morning I walked Cocoa Beach with my younger brother Timm, still in high school at the time, the two of us physically identical -– tall and lanky, mud-blonde hair, hazel-blue eyes—–and finding each other of very similar temperament. He was getting ready to bust out of Florida just as I was trying to bust in; neither of us reached our goal, though I’m still alive to say there still may be hope of finding the Florida I dream. I looked behind me as I walked to see trails of footsteps heading the other way, as we walked off that day so long ago, narrowing to a single row of steps after my brother died a few years ago.

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– Long gone was that morning in 1982 when I walked this beach with a gorgeous, full-bodied woman I’d screwed all night, she standing for a moment smiling at me with the ocean behind her and the rising sun giving her lavish, fucked-beyond-satiation body the fullest amplitude of early sexual love (gone just a few weeks later, taking her out on the heart’s ebbing, fickle tide, that tide which the young helplessly sate and remit, which the aging have learned to build sea-walls against, safer but infinitely dryer, too). Saw that woman in the surfer girl in the one-piece bathing suit, sitting and waxing her board, tying her blonde hair back in a ponytail, walking out into the brilliant mashing water like Venus heading back into her element, leaving all us boys behind to ogle and feel pierced by something that will never be ours, no matter how many women we go through in search of what that woman embodied as she disappeared paddling over a wave and diminished as she swam further and further out, perhaps forever.

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Gone. And by 10 a.m. I was done, feeling the burn, sated enough on big surf (though it would have been fun to vigil the entire day, watched the waves get bigger, catch a few lifeguard rescues, maybe see something big wash up on the beach, a body, a whale, an old chunk of the long-exploded Challenger, the jellyfish which were promised to come in, a selkie, a dead sea-turtle, a bounty of doubloons finally come ashore from the wreck of a Spanish galleon, sunk in a hurricane some 500 years ago–something).

But I’ve learned to tune back the sea’s siren voices, like a schizophrenic who manages a return learns to ignore all the barking in their head.  I packed up and headed back towards town, to call on my aging mother and then get home to finish weekend chores (vacuuming, cleaning the bathroom, changing the litter boxes, cooking dinner while my wife was over at her mother’s house cleaning, preparing the place for her mother’s return from a third hospital visit in the past month.

That surfer girl disappeared into the brilliance of the morning and the smash of distant waves: I’ve learned that’s Her business, as the sea is only peripherally mine, sucking on the Florida peninsula at the same time opening wide to its penetrating length, subsuming the land and pulling back over the eons. Where I sit and write as usual every morning was, at one time, many fathoms beneath the surface of the sea. There are relic reefs and beaches as far inland as the sand ridges just outside of this town.

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The ocean is as much here as over there: yet it is good to confirm its presence now and then with an infrequent vigil like Sunday’s. So here I sit in a $5 rented lounge chair taking pictures and dozing, not many yards from the pier which over the years has been a spiritual if not particularly religious monument to my misguided yet essential longings.

Why do I consider the beach such a spiritual home that I have only to imagine it to feel blessed by ocean nurtuer? Nigel Pennick writes in Celtic Spiritual Landscapes,

… the creation of sanctity is more than mere acknowledgment or reproduction of some specific perception of a place. It is a unique presentation of its inner qualities that does not act as an intermediate filter, interpretation or representation. Rather, nothing comes between: there is total transparency. Pilgrims can experience the influence of souls without interposing intellectual concepts; the sacred place serves an an accessible gateway to the divine. A truly empowered sacred place transcends space and time, preserving timeless existence. Empowerment is most effective when the essences of the subtle world are brought into tangible form, promoting the evolution of the hitherto unmanifested qualities of the anima loci. When people perform acts at a place that are in harmony with its inner qualities, then these qualities are enhanced and increased. These acts include the performance of ceremonies, the creation of pleasing and harmonious artifacts – anything that elicits in humans a comparable response.

A comparable response, yes … Thus I write about that day twenty five years lost to the past which I spent drinking in a bar on the Cocoa Beach pier, listening to Otis Redding sing “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” on the jukebox and pouring down Myers rum-and-pineapple-juice concoctions which billowed in my head in rhythm to the ocean billows which rocked the pier as they rose and fell all day, all of us –me, the booze and the ocean and my fantasy of love – with absolutely nothing to do but languish there waiting for Her to come to me until I ran out of time, money, or consciousness. Another day in the eternal round of the drunk, sotted as much upon the sound and shape of the sea as I was with the spirit in the bottle.

Who knew back then I was initiate of this?

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…So I’m just gonna sit on the dock of the bay
Watching the tide roll away
Ooo, I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

Look like nothing’s gonna change
Everything still remains the same
I can’t do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I’ll remain the same, yes

Sittin’ here resting my bones
And this loneliness won’t leave me alone
It’s two thousand miles I roamed
Just to make this dock my home

Now, I’m just gonna sit at the dock of the bay
Watching the tide roll away
Oooo-wee, sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

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And what has this to do with racin’? If you’ve followed this blog for any length (before giving up at its obscene, un-cyberspeacean-friendly length—long as Florida’s ding-dong, dipping far and deep into the sea), then you know that only marginal tie-ins to the sport are required. Like the fact that NASCAR’s season begins, hits its midpoint, and then finishes its 36-race course Florida, at tracks located in Old and New Florida. While NASCAR’s drivers may have had their roots in Appalachian moonshine-running, the sport itself began as beach racin’, tearing up a stretch of beach and then returning back along adjacent highway A-1-A, the road which drops off every beach-souled penitent at the sea.

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Daytona International Speedway, built in the 1950’s, is a cathedral to the racin’ which Big Bill France believed was NASCAR’s–and Florida’s–future: an steel and asphalt metaphor for speed. Just down the road from Cape Canaveral, which was then readying to fly us into space, Daytona’s 2-1/2 mile round became an ungrounded hurl in that direction, dizzy in the bright Florida sunshine. A developer’s dream of the profitable infinite.

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By the 1960’s beach racin’ was had become Old Florida, a lost thing of its past, the way Old Florida is composed not of relics but disappearances. Gone was beach racin’, except in the eyes of oldtimers who remembered steel behemoths lumber up a strand wedged between fan-filed dunes and water’s immensity.

Both the old sand track and the new one of girders and steel are competing visions of Florida. Taken together, they make for a tart, sweet juice, like fresh-squeezed citrus. And so I make my visit into the swamp-swank Interior in which I make my home …

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2. Zellwood (Sequel to the Prequel)

Zellwood is the first and last town I pass through on my 25-mile commute to and from Orlando, a trip I’ve been making five times a week for 14 years. Population barely 2,000, Zellwood doesn’t have much to it-—a busy truck stop where semis have room to park the night, an auto parts store, two Mexican restaraunts, two bars (until a week ago),a half-dozen empty stores, a building supply company, grounds of an auction house where you’ll see fleets of old police cars or school buses or small trucks getting ready for the monthly sale. The posted speed is 45 mph but most commuters like myself whiz on through, pausing briefly at the only stoplight where Jones Avenue intersects.

(Trying to avoid a long snarl-up on 441 one afternoon, I turned left on Jones to find an alternate way home and, though it took me almost 45 minutes as the road revealed the vast agricultural underbelly of what’s left of rural Orange and Lake Counties– miles and miles of stunned-looking fields of sweet corn and tomatoes, idyllic and flat and endless beneath a scrolling tide of clouds.)

Though small—-the tiniest burg I pass through in my commute—-Zellwood as its distinctions. Annually the town hosts the Zellwood Corn Festivial, dishing up tons of the sweet corn local farms are famous for (although all but one has been bought up by the state in an attempt to clean up fertilizer-fouled Lake Apopka). Big Bertha, a 6-ton, 350 gallon cooker, can serve up 1,650 ears of steaming white sweetness in nine minutes. It’s country all the way, with 2d- and 3d tier acts like Jim Van Fleet and Johnny Bulford, Patrick Gibson and April Phillips playing all day. Last year The Bellamy Brothers headlined the Memorial Day Weekend event.

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Famous Zellwood alums include NASCAR legend Fireball Roberts (he purportedly earned his nickname Fireball while pitching for the Zellwood Mud Hens American Legion team back in the ‘40s, before his family moved to Daytona Beach—oddly making his legend his destiny, as he would die in a fireball at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1964), actor Pauly Shore and punk rocker Keith Baine.

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Glenn “Fireball” Roberts after wrecking a Modfied car at Seminole Speedway near Orlando, early 1950s.

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Mushroom compost: stanky yet fertile.

You know you’re driving through Zellwood when you catch that occasional odor that smells like marsh-rot and unwashed pussy at once—a thick, pungent pall which wafts, in part, from the Monterey Mushroom farm complex just off 441. The 30-year old complex, originally built by Ralston Purina, produces some 15 million pounds of grocery mushrooms every year, and maintains a compost pile which is the best natural fertilizer you can find in this area. (One year my wife and I loaded up a neighbor’s pickup truck with a quarter ton stuff for $15 and spread it over the freshly tilled soil of what would become the garden which replaced our front yard.)

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The Zellwood Mushroom Smell usually emerges after soaking rains and can waft as far as the outskirts of our town some five miles to the north. But in the past decade a stronger, darker odor has gotten mixed in, and no one’s sure where it’s coming from. There are serveral pet cemeteries in the area that burn about 20,000 animal carasses every week. A second landfill has been added nearby. Strange thing is, this Bad Zellwood Smell has no apparent cause or calendar – it’s just there on some days, forming overnight somewhere in the pitch of rural darkness, knocking on people’s trailer doors at 5 a.m. or insinuating itself in the dreams of locals who leave their windows open.

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Zellwood’s truck stop has its notoriety. US-441—-the Orange Blossom Trail of my daily commute–is still a favorite byway for trucks en route from Kissimmee through Orlando up through Apopka and Zellwood into Tavares and Leesburg and then joining US 301 for the northern hike to Ocala and Gainesville then up into Georgia. It was the old tourist artery into Florida before the interstates were built -– you can still find many relic motels still open along the way –- but now the old highway traveled mostly by commuters (in this neck) and truckers.

The truckstop in Zellwood is the only one of its kind for miles, busy day and night as truckers gas up, eat greasy food in the diner, snooze some in their parked semis, and sometimes, on those loneliest of nights, do business with the truckstop hookers who are sometimes in the vicinity. I’ve seen them walking solo as far as mile outside of town, eyeing the eyes of every passing driver, getting in or out of pickup trucks, wiping their mouths and rearranging clothes which try to make their sagging aging addict bodies resemble barely legal vintage. Not that it matters, ‘cause its pussy the drunken horny boys are paying for, pussy and its receipts, pussy which need no face, providing a futile stay in the night’s mercury-lamped abandonments which never stop the next damn day from getting underway.

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Maybe The Zellwood Smell is brewed to a reek by the sum of the previous night’s sins of the town. I haven’t seen the hookers in the past six months or so, either because Orange County cops are cracking down (doubtful, in this unincorporated area – that’s why everyone speeds through town) or because times are hard for independent truckers, with the price of diesel still high and the recession putting a hurt on everyone’s income, discretionary or not. Where the used to be at least a dozen 18-wheeled behemoths parked in the murky lot with the single streetlamp off from the truckstop diner, now I see only two or three when I drive by around 7 a.m.

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Times are changing.

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The other bit of local color is, or was, the roadhouse at the corner of Jones Avenue and 441, in one failed earlier incarnation called Cornhuskers, was shut down for some years, then reopened as Jalopy Joe’s, offering food and drink and karaoke and country music with a special welcome to the bikers en route to Lake County’s rural byways every weekend. Jalopy Joe’s definitely looked cleaner than its predecessors, though if I were a still a drinking man I would certainly have hesitated before attempting to cross its doors in search of a remedy for the soul’s profaner thirst. Something about the establishments over the years looked creepy and dangerous, as if the Zellwood Smell was brewed there every night in sordid country excess.

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Well, God must have dispatched a smiting angel, because the other morning I drove by and there were a dozen firetrucks around Jalopy Joe’s, which by then was mostly fuming rubble. Seems a fire had started in the kitchen area after everyone had left for the night in spontaneous combustion of grease and torched the joint.

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Interior of  Joe’s, after the fall.

I wonder how long the ruins will just sit there, they way failed enterprises do in this area, no one interested in developing the property again, perhaps a chain-link fence getting erected around the perimeter, like the cage at the zoo, while the charred remains slowly degrade and crumble with each next thunderstorm down the decades. As I said, there are a half-dozen or so shuttered businesses along the Zellwood corridor of US-441, some for as long as I have been driving through, others seeing an evolution of failed businesses—-first a convenience store, then a refrigeration supply depot, then a thrift store, then a locked-up nothing, like a mausoleum of bad business dreams.

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Perhaps the cache of smell and hell which mixes with the buttery sugar of sweet corn and the town’s time-resistant corn-pone setting inspired some local Hollywood wannabees  to film a horror movie in and around Zellwood about a year ago. Zellwood is about two young couples taking a relaxing trip in the country before moving on to different cities. Only something Goes Wrong, out there, as the four get drunk around the campfire and Secrets emerge—secrets and then ultraviolence. (“Nothing supernatural,” Orlando Setninel movie columinist wrote in his blog, “just ego and psychosis and violence.” (Local color.)

Shot for “well under $100,000,” bartender-turned-director Jason Venture using a Red Camera –- a video camera which produces high-end, celluloid-looking results. One of the producer’s parents let the crew use their property in Zellwood, and she also used her connections to get 2007 Playmate Sara Jean Underwood to appear in the film along with Patricia Rosales, a contestant in Miss Cuba International 2009 (Hacienda Heights).

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“Zellwood” girls Rosales and Underwood.

Moore wrote about the filming of one scene:

I watched as Underwood contorted herself into a brand-new yoga position to try and line one real leg up against a fake one that had a screwdriver jammed through it. The debate in this shot was whether the screwdriver should be yanked out “fast” or “slowly.” That depends, of course, on whether it was flathead (wider) or Philips Head, doesn’t it?

“People really cringe when they see something happen to the Achilles tendon. I wanted to take it further,” jokes Venture. “I just want to torture the audience, just a little.”

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So far, only a trailer for the movie has been released  (a link to the trailer is at the end of this post) and who knows if it will see theatrical release. Not that the film won’t make money – direct-to-DVD releases have grossed more than $3 billion in the past few years. No doubt with its Playmate factor, “Zellwood” will be a hit with horror aficionados, the most popular DVD market, with unrated versions free to indulge in the greatest excesses.

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The Playmate factor of Sarah Jean Underwood …

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…plus Zellwood’s raunchy rural night … Should be enough to make “Zellwood” — The Movie — a hit on DVD players in  dark living rooms around the country.

Remember, The Blair Witch Project was filmed by two University of Central Florida students on a shoestring (principal photography cost $25,000) and grossed nearly $250 million worldwide.

Movie or no, Zellwood earns a special place in my Florida heart, tiny, poor, rural, dangerous, and ripe–plenty of cracker color. A fallen innocence, which I guess is better than a risen decadence.

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3. Snookie Duz Da Wiz

Zellwood fades against the bigger, richer, urban, silly and sterile lunacies of the other, more visible Florida, the one which infects the sleep of freezing folk everywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line and turns the state into a beckoining Finger, crooking all to come, old folks in need of warmer digs, tourists in need of blowing their wad on infantile excesses, and crooks and grifters of every stripe and spleen, developers and meth-labbers, grifters and politicians, plundering the state from the Keys to the Panhandle.

This Florida is most keenly imagined and best captured in the novels of Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen.

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I’m just finishing Star Island, his latest, and it’s a hoot—soaked in the dimwit megawattage of the culture of celebrity excess, South Florida style. Monied beyond any mortal usefulness, we’re talking about those rare denizens of the stratosphere who are fawned endlessly and mindlessly over by fans who as much fantasize about living the dream themselves as taking immense pleasure in watching their stars tumble to earth in cometary sniper fire.

The gilded center of Star Island’s moronic inferno is an Orlando girl named Cheryl Bunterman who is transformed into the mega million-selling pop star Cherry Pye with pitch-control machinery in the studio and a marketing machine bigger than Microsoft’s.

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Around ditzy, dangerously addicted Cherry are her blood-sucking relatives, a stalking paparazzi with the instincts of a barracuda, a towering Raiford alum named Chemo hired on for no-nonsense bodyguard duty (one arm ripped off by barracuda during a hit job, he has it fitted with a battery-powered weed whacker which he uses to trim the noses and ass-lard of the guilty), a body double who double-crosses her employers when they decide she’s better off dead and an avenging eco-militant who dropped out of the Governor’s office years ago to haunt the mangrove swamps along Florida’s southwest coast, taking his revenge against criminal developers in harrowlingly unique ways (one gets fitted with a sea-urchin jockstrap; another finds the man taking a dump in his washing machine). Star Island is a cobalt-blue pool of guilty pleasures, brimming with Florida at its tragi-comic best.

Hiaasen has said about Florida,

The Sunshine State is a paradise of scandals teeming with drifters, deadbeats, and misfits drawn here by some dark primordial calling like demented trout. And you’d be surprised how many of them decide to run for public office.

His Florida—-or, I should say, the Florida which has grown like kudzu over the old–is all about the paradise which can only be purchased, built over the a pristine beauty with the same savagery exhibited by Dutch settlers of the island of Mauritius in the 17th century, who hunted the native “useless” Dodo into extinction. He is comic moralist, where every good joke band-aids a broken heart.

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Columnist and author Carl Hiaasen.

South Florida has become so over-developed that folks are relocating from there into our little town. One of our occasional next-door neighbors lives in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea and says that she thinks of our town as somewhere in south Georgia—-that different from the monied suburban miamas of her primary residence.

But you don’t have to go as far as South Florida to find top-dollar Edens for the 350,000 millionaires who live in Florida. Gated communities are everywhere. There are more than 2,000 miles of developed ocean coastline. There are more than 7,000 lakes for cozy lakefront properties.

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Tiger’s den.

In Orlando, Tiger Woods (net worth $600 million) made his little community of Isleworth in Orlando (where fellow sports stars Shaquille O’Neal, Mark O’Meara, Ken Griffey and Vince Carter also own multi-million dollar houses) uncomfortably infamous last November when he crashed his Cadillac Escalade at the end of his driveway. Two days previous, news had leaked of his affair with a New York nightclub manager, and something obviously was up that night. Tiger suffered minor lacerations to the face, but it was never confirmed whether the injury was from the accident or from a bitch-slapping from enraged wife Elin.

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Tiger’s woodies showed a thirst for women which drove him way beyond the boundaries of real love.

The media frenzy which followed grew to fantastical proportions, with news emerging of dozens of illicit encounters between the world’s best, richest and most famous golfer and women ranging from porn stars to a Perkins waitress working a store just outside Isleworth in Windemere. Tiger quit golf for a while, entered treatment for sexual addiction, lost a load of sponsors and eventually was divorced by Elin, who got a reported $100 million settlement and returned to her native Sweden. When he’s not nursing his wounds in Isleworth, Woods retires to his $20 million, 155-foot-yacht Privacy, berthed in South Florida.

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The most visible Privacy you can buy.

But new money is more comfortable with notoriety than old – we aren’t talking old world Boston here. Property values around Woods’ house will probably increase in the wake of the infamous celebrity of Tiger’s woodies.

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Star Island.

On Hiaasen’s Star Island, celebrity does more to inflate the value of a house than beach footage:

The estate had been on the market for three years, despite the listing agent’s dogged efforts. On Star Island the principal selling point for property was the celebrity of its previous owners, so realtors were skilled at name-dropping. Every house that came up for sale was presented as the former residence of Capone, Sly, Shaq, Cher, Johnny, Rosie, Julio, Diddy or Madonna. Occasionally an inexperienced agent would toss in Mickey Rourke or the Bee Gees. Prospective buyers seldom checked the veracity of these glamorous claims because they preferred not to deflate a good story.

The house where the novel has its climax is not on the market for $17 million dollars because it has “six bedrooms, two pools, a dock, (and) a cheese cellar” but because it has a wet bar upon which Cindy Crawford might or might not have simulated a pole dance.”

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South Beach is Ground Zero for South Florida’s specie of money gone bad in the tropics. Originally started as a coconut farm in 1870 by Charles and Henry Lum, Charles built a house on what he called “South Beach” in 1886. In 1912, a developer (of course) purchased 400 acres of the land to build small houses. In 1926 a hurricane leveled the area, giving way to (of course) a boom later in the decade of rich-folks-housing. The area’s famous Art Deco style came in the ‘30s. After Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, the Army Air Corps took over the beach. For decades afterward, South Beach was a retirement community, with the elderly living in on fixed incomes in the ocean-front hotels and apartment buildings. By the 1970s the area was going to seed, with cocaine cowboys moving into dilapidated buildings to conduct their trade.

“Until the 1980s, Miami Beach was a peculiar mix of criminals, Cubans, and little old ladies,” Natalie O’Neil of the Miami New Times wrote in 2009. “Then the beautiful people moved in.” In the late 1980s, a renaissance began in South Beach, with an influx of fashion industry professionals moving into the area. Today, South Beach is a day-and-night entertainment destination, with hundreds of nightclubs, boutiques and hotels. It’s popular with both American and international tourists. The European influence can be seen in South Beach’s acceptance of the monokini for topless sunbathing.

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For a bite of the Beach’s rum-mango-sea-hootchie savor, here’s a recent post from Lesley Ambravanel’s blog “Scene in the Tropics” at The Miami Herald:

The other night, The Real Housewives of New York City’s Jill Zarin showed up at Caffe Abbracci in Coral Gables with an entourage of 10. The night before, actual (albeit ubiquitous, almost played out) celebrity with real talent LeBron James was there, quietly, with no entourage, no pomp, no circumstance, just having dinner almost like a normal person would. Hear that, Jill?

Then came E! reality show enigma Kendra Wilkinson, in town with a friend and assistant (because no reality show specimen is legit without an assistant to take care of important biz like texting and arranging where and when to pick up free crap). Wilkinson, who is 25 years old and has a ghost written memoir out already–eat it,  Justin Bieber, was reportedly “sent” down here by her baller hubby Hank Baskett so she could “unwind” before the rigorous filming of the new season of her PBS after school special E! show.

And unwind she did, first at LIV Sunday night, where those who cared enough to recognize her amidst a sea of LIV’s usual crowd of nuclear scientists and brain surgeons told us she was “raging.” On Monday, Wilkinson had dinner at STK and then partied at Mokai with—wait for it—the equally stellar Kevin Federline and beleaguered music producer Scott Storch. Snooki? Forget about it. She’s too A-list to join the mix. Even the Kardashians have packed up and left, trading Miami for NYC.  Ah, Miami. The reality show cesspool formerly known as Heaven’s Waiting Room has now become D-List heaven. Or hell, depending on how you look at it. As for us? We consider it celebrity Ambien. Thanks to Kathy Griffin, the D-List is the new A-List. As for some of these folks, well, they belong on the Zzzzzzzz-List.

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South Beach has gotten plenty of tantalizing exposure in the media, beginning with weekly tapings of the “The Jackie Gleason Show” in the ‘60’s, “Miami Vice” (with a nod to “Scarface”) in the ‘80s, the short-lived 1993 TV drama “South Beach,” the 2006 prime-time soap “South Beach” which ran for 44 episodes, and current reality-show hauntings by the Kardashian sisters and the wayward crew of Jersey Shore. South Beach is the omphalos of high-livin’, fuck-poverty abandonment, Florida’s Oz, a place constructed of sapphire waters and emeralds as big as kiwis swinging between grapefruit-sized silicone breasts tanning freestyle beneath the ever-warm South Florida sun.

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Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas played the mood-mannequins of “Miami Vice,” a show which back in the 80’s always put a big thirst in me on Friday nights.

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Al Pacino as Scarface, soaking up the spoils of cocaine addiction.

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Kourtney and Khloe Kardashian kavort, Miami-style.

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The “Jersey Shore” mob — Paul Del Vecchio aka ‘DJ Pauly D’, Michael Sorrentino aka The Situation, Nicole Polizzi, aka Snooki and Sammi Giancola, aka Sweatheart — pay homage to South Beach by kickin’ it Jersey-style, aka Class My Freakin’ Ass.

Which brings us to Homestead-Miami Speedway, last stop on NASCAR’s season (also for the IndyCar Series), the track where champions are crowned. It was built in 1995 after Hurricane Andrew scoured the area clean with its Cat-5 winds. (Why do people rebuild over areas of certain future devastation? Lighting may not strike twice in the same spot, but hurricanes certainly can.) The track was built with the area’s art-deco style in mind and it is a beaut, no doubt.

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But it wasn’t a great track for racing, not originally. Several subsequent reconfigurations, including transforming mostly-flat turns into variably steep-banked ones, have made it more exciting, and there have been several exciting last-lap finishes, notably the 2005 battle between Greg Biffle and Mark Martin.

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Greg Biffle edged out Mark Martin in the final race at Homestead, losing the championship to Tony Stewart by a mere 35 points.

(We have neighbors who built their house in an empty lot behind ours about ten years ago who survived Andrew. They were living in Homestead and decided to wait out the storm in their house -– bad move. 225-mph winds sheared off their roof like a hooker’s thong by a drunken sailor on shore leave, leaving the man and his wife clinging to each other in the tub in the bathroom, shouting for God’s mercy. Then he spent three days on his porch with a shotgun, fending off looters till Authority finally moved in. Our town is 50 miles inland – safe enough, he says.)

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Hurricane Andrew and his discontents in Homestead, FL, 18 years back of this currently-becalmed, -bewitched hurricane season.

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But racin’ isn’t happy with Homestead. The IRL has already announced that they’re moving their final race of the season to Vegas due to poor attendance at Homestead, and NASCAR is considering moving their last race to Vegas, too. Bruton Smith once said, “If you’re going to do a championship, you’ve got to do it at the proper place ((like his Kentucky Speedway, which hasn’t a Sprint Cup race yet)) and I don’t think North Cuba is the proper place.” Attendance at football and baseball games (pro and college) in Miami is dreary, and Homestead is an uncomfortable fit for the imaginations of die-hard, true-South NASCAR fans. (Imagine the ‘Dega infield mixing it up with Snookie and The Situation on the blazing white sands of Ka-Ching Beach.)

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Attendance at IRL races at Homestead has been awful.

One idea is to give Homestead the race after the Daytona 500, so that the season begins with two Florida races, but it might be even harder to sell out the Homestead track under those conditions. A lot of RVs aren’t going to drive so close to the froufrou neons of South Beach out of principle.

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Not that Vegas would be a kind fit for that crowd, either. I go with Bruton Smith and Kentucky Speedway as the proper venue for the Sprint Cup finale. Bobby and Donnie Allison left their native Miami in search of better racin’ up north in the Deep South, becoming the Alabama Gang; Denny Hamlin, my fear-and-loathing pick to beat the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick and win the Sprint Cup this year, moved from Brandon, FL (near Tampa) to outside Richmond to find a proper name in racing.

But moving Homestead to Kentucky is probably too old-school NASCAR  to ever satisfy the billionaire France family. Their eyes are fixed on Oz, as does every party-whipped, celebrity-dazed, fame-gazin’ worshipper to bare their breasts to the South Beach dream, the Florida nightmare we can’t, or won’t wake from.

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4. On the road to Old Florida

Between Zellwood and South Florida is a whole lot of flat nothin’, hundreds of miles of saw palmetto and scrub forest, Lake Okochobbee and the Florida Everglades, all of its linked by trucker- and tourist-infested highways. That’s also where you would have found the Highwaymen, that cadre of African-American painters who sold their idyllic landscapes of Old Florida out of the trunks of their cars along South Florida highways. During the 1940’s and ‘50s, there were a few black men who decided to work their way out of the orange groves by teaching themselves to paint what became known “the Indian River Style,” mostly portraits of pristine Florida: lakes and seashores and rivers in early blue or late pink light, cypresses with ant moss hanging down toward serene waters, a strand of palm trees on a small island in a river, birds in formation floating on the air, marshes no white tourist would dare seek out, moons rising on lonely Florida nights.

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More than 200,000 of these paintings in all were created and sold which usually sold for between $15 and $25. Considered local velvet art –- disposable decorations for trailers and ranch-style white housing -– many of the paintings found their way into dumpsters over the years, or donated to Goodwill along with dead grandpa’s ties. Then in the 2000’s, such folk art was deemed by collectors as valuable remnant of Old Florida and prices for these paintings soared into the thousands and began being sold from the priciest South Beach galleries.

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Surely these paintings offer return passage home from LaLaLand –- back from bought-and-sold-and-now-bankrupt Florida to something pristine and probably lost forever except here, except inside this teeming swamp of a brain. When the waters rise and cover all this – South Florida, heh heh heh, will go first, since the head and foreskin of Florida is only about five feet above sea level – when the waters rise and cover all this, the condos and the freeways, the megaburbs and endless retail big-box parks, the Cocoa Beach pier and this little house I call paradise in this little town – when the waters rise and cover all this, then we may get the last Highwaymen painting, of nothing but the sea and moonlight and a few lonely gulls sweeping over nothing.

There’s hope for us, after all.

…Donna, donna, dark,
Stooping in indigo gown
And cloudy constellations,
Conceal yourself or disclose
Fewest things to the lover —
A hand that bears a thick-leaved fruit,
A pungent bloom against your shade.

— Wallace Stevens, “O Florida, Venereal Soil”

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Postscript

One morning about a week ago in Zellwood, two deputy cruisers were chasing a car when it veered dangerously close to some kids who were waiting for a school bus. The deputies pulled back and the car went on to crash into a light pole. A 48-year-old, one-legged man named George Bush climbed out of the car and hopped into the woods, somehow managing to elude capture. As of this writing, he’s still out there in the woods, a renegade with a proper name for both his primal habitat and half of something (the ex-President had half a brain, this George half his bipedal hardware.)

Maybe George Bush is now hovering in the back shadows of the Zellwood truck stop, praying for a hooker to wander back that way to pee. Or maybe he’s lurking about in the blackened ruins of Jalopy Joe’s, rummaging for some food among the blasted tins. The other George Bush is remembered for the monied bedmates he became the ultimate bitch of; this George Bush’s allure is his uncapturable wildness, a human extremity not unlike that of a mad shaman out in the wilderness that can’t be developed.

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Something about raw Florida turns South Beach’s more visible frivolities into comic jeremiads, as if there was something in the Everglades which refuses to allow the monied and flawless booboisie from doing much more than partying for a night, a winter, then passing on, part of its millennial sediment. The $17 million dollar mansions of Star Island are no match for hurricanes like Andrew, nor have they enough neon wattage to compare with real flamingoes at last light, pink on pink effusions which that surfer girl at Cocoa Beach is the purest vestal of. (But only a vestal, a Cup-bearer, there to remind, not remit, to assay, not sate.

Old Florida passes at a peril which is insurance companies cannot estimate. They cannot jack their premiums high enough to pay back the loss of soul which happens when a 30-story condo is built on the ruins of an old mom-and-pop beach motel. There is no proper compensation for the loss of relic Florida to the asphalt deluge covering the state, perhaps because traces of it can still be found, like tiny veins of gold in an exhausted mine. Until those last bits are gone, we can’t help but remember. And memory is a terrorist in the forsaken state.

In Celtic Sacred Landscapes, Nigel Pennick retells a medieval Arthurian story which perfectly nails both the malaise and physic for Florida:

At certain stopping places, holy wells and hills called puis, there lived maidens who would refresh tired travellers with food and rink. One had only to go there and ask, and it would be brought out in a golden bowl. But then a king called Amagons abused the privilege. He raped one of the maidens and stole her bowl. At once, everything changed. Every stopping-place became deserted and the bounty ceased. But that was not all, for the whole land went to waste: nothing would brow or thrive and the bonds of human society were dissolved.

King Arthur’s knights took upon themselves the task to rediscover the vanished puis and to restore the land. They prayed to God to re-establish them and thereby revive the country, but it was useless. The land remained waste; nothing would grow or thrive. As its roots the destruction was spiritual, and the only way that the puis could be re-established was by rediscovering the Holy Grail, which, if brought to the right place, would through its divine power revivify the puis and hence restore the land and people to their former flourishing condition. (p.179)

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Today is the fall equinox –- a day of equal light and darkness. There’s also a full moon out tonight -– the Harvest or Corn Moon, the first time in 19 years the two events have coincided. Not since 1991 has Autumn begun on so brilliant and milky-blue a night. If there’s a Grail for Florida, surely it resides in that pale cup which rises from one sea and sets in another, pouring the full lucence of the ocean’s silvery womb-water over all, turning suburbia back into the wilderness, truck stop and beach and big box retailer and highways all transformed into eyes and smile, nipples and curved ass of the naked girl with a ruby hyacinth tucked behind her ear, waving to the longboats crammed with the armored Europeans who first approached, proclaiming this place Florida – land of flowers.

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Full moon and streetlight, taken from my front yard, 6:30 a.m. Thursday, September 23–the Autumn equinox.

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The Sprint Cup is waiting for the boys in Homestead, there on a simple altar (a stone sea turtle, or perhaps beach racer half buried in the sand),there in a vault of coquina shells with a single window through which moonlight and the sound of crashing surf eternally pours. They spiral their way south to it, roaring at full throttle on an oval quest through Dover and Texas and Fontana. That Cup is a grail of something which is only profanely equitable to the bragging rights of the biggest purse — championship of that register these days is a passing, forgettable thing, like Kim Kardashian sunning at South Beach long enough the paparazzi to get a good shot of her ass as she walks out into the ironed-flats waters of the sea.

There is a greater Cup inside that Cup, a redeeming, healing vessel which was cast in the womb of Mer, mother of all which hovers overhead tonight with the planet Jupiter as its Champion. The full moon of equinox tells us that all is needed is for a Champion –- just one – to take that Cup from Homestead and remit it to the sea, placing it on the sands where that surfer girl forever disappeared from and leave it there, its gold dull in moonlight, gleaming with something other than money’s profane, opiate thrill. That’s where Old Florida takes over, humming to itself in the moonlit, crashing waves, the sea’s tide slowly rising, eventually lapping at the cold gold of the Cup, rising slowly up its height until a Hand reaches from the water to take that Cup back to the place its needed most.

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So that I may begin again tomorrow, on the next post, the next quest, nourished by moonlight over wild Florida, home again as I make my way to Homestead.

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FULL MOON AT COCOA BEACH

Surf loud in the air as
we climbed out of my car,
hurling sea mist toward
a full moon now
breaking from clouds.

The pier was closing
early that night,
swarmed by high waves
from a hurricane’s
pass 300 miles
out to sea.

We leaned on a rail
halfway down the pier
and watched the
water night.

The horizon a wash of
foam and darkness.
Shards of moon
scattering like silver fish
in the glassy curl
of a wave before tumbling
into foam and thunder
and rocking the pier.

You leaned to watch
a wave pass under,
your dress fanning
wild in the breeze.
The wave I felt
curved that satin and
the mystery beneath
into moon and sea.

Later we walked on
the beach, found
a place to sit
and talked a long while,
telling our stories
as warming strangers do
who find the distance
between them narrowing
to less than tissue.

It was after midnight
and all the clouds
has flown north.

The beach, the sea,
the moon opened
wide to us, taking
us all the way out
on a silver stream.

It was a gift
that rose unhurried
from the depths of
some heart which must have
always known these things,

recalled from old loves
or the salt soundings of the womb
or perhaps the full store
of ineffable moments

a man and a woman
have ever stumbled on together,
a silver strand of DNA
pulsing and receiving
this tide.

Having forgotten joy
for so long on a road
of deaths small and large,
getting so lost amid
hurry and complication
and complacence,

that night slapped
me back to life.
Warmed by something
I can never name,
we opened our arms
to one embrace
and then walked away.

I sing now of that night
unlike any other again,
broken and grateful
and eternally surprised.

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Link to Zellwood trailer:  http://vimeo.com/14864068)

The Twelve


The field of the Chase:  (Back row from L-R) Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon;  (Front row L-R) Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer.

NASCAR’s Chase class was finalized following Saturday’s Air Guard 400 at Richmond. Their names were pretty much a foregone conclusion headed into the race; the only spot in mathematical question—the 12th seed—was sealed by Clint Bowyer’s sixth-place finish. But the all-important lead position heading into the Chase–determined by greatest number of wins for the season—was decided when Richmond hometown boy Denny Hamlin beat teammate Kyle Busch to the checkers by .537 seconds.

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NASCAR’s New Year’s Eve was the Richmond race, with one kind of time (the regular season) passing while another (the Chase) became the new reality.

Forget the 219-point lead Kevin Harvick had over second-place Jeff Gordon in the regular-season points standings. He now shares third place with Kyle Busch in the starting Chase grid, thirty points—or three wins—behind Hamlin.

Jimmie Johnson, who had been languishing in eighth place in the regular-season points standings, 338 points out of the lead, leaps into the No. 2 position to start the race, on the merit of his five wins. Five winless drivers -– Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer-—take up the back of the pack, all 60 points out of the lead.

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Not sure why every driver each receives a 5,000-point base going into the Chase—gravy? A sense of gravitas to their Olympian status?

Now Sprint two races will happen simultaneously every week of the next ten, with those in the Chase racing alongside those who didn’t make it: in the first race, the Twelve Elect battling against each other for Chase position; in the second race the whole field going at it, including those 30 preterit drivers who didn’t make the cut but still duking it out for purse-money, bragging rights, even a chance to alter the fate of the Chase, as when Sam Hornish wrecked Jimmie Johnson on the third lap of the Chase Texas race last year.

So begins the Chase.

Here come  the Twelve.

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The number 12 is freighted with significance. A day is composed of two half-cycles of 12 hours each, and there are 12 months to the year. 12 constellations form the Zodiac, which some believe rule their starry fates. There were 12 Olympian gods, 12 Tribes of Israel and 12 Disciples of Christ. 12 stones comprise the altar of Elijah. Jesus broke 12 different breads at the Last Supper.

Hercules completed 12 great labors in Hell. There are 12 days in the old Christmas festival of Yuletide. 12 Immans  are the legitimate successors of Muhammad and there are 12 names for the Hindu sun god Surya. Twelve seats are ccupied by King Arthur’s knights at the Round Table (the 13th, known as the Perilous Siege, sits empty, symbolic of both the betrayal of Jesus by Judas and the perfect knight who is destined to find the Holy Grail, which was brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea and his 12 knights.

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King Arthur’s Round Table.

Twelve is a good number for business, that is, by selling things by the dozen. It’s a familiar count, perhaps the most primitive one. Things are cheaper by the dozen; a baker’s dozen (also called a long dozen) is 12 donuts plus benefits. If something is going cheap, it’s a dime a dozen; 12 dozens is a hefty gross.

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Hollywood brought us 12 Angry Men and The Dirty Dozen, 12 Monkeys and Ocean’s 12.

Hugh Hefner brings us 12 Playboy fresh centerfolds every year.

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Our measurement system (resolutely averse to decimals) begins with the inch and stretches to a foot or 12 inches. Three feet is a yard and people are buried six feet under, also the depth of one fathom. Twelve feet is a short choir. While it’s said that no knight is long enough, most gals agree that one whose Johnson stretches for 12 inches is plenty to joust with. If you want to make up for an erring Johnson, try a dozen roses.

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Priapus, Roman god of Frank Fertility, was lord and guardian of gardens. Shown here trying to make amends for overdoing things.

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The Chase originally had ten drivers, but since 2007 it has numbered 12. For some reason, though, although all 12 drivers of the Chase are invited to NASCAR’s awards ceremony in Las Vegas, only ten are honored.

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2009 Chase honorees in Vegas.

The number 10 has an uneasy relationship with the number 12. The world twelve comes from Germanic compound twa-lif, meaning that two is left after you take away the base 10.  There are 10 commandments of Moses, but Jesus added two (to love the Lord with all one’s heart, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self). In 2009, U.S. Customs and Border Protection initiated their Ten Plus Two rule, requiring two pieces of information about cargo be added to the standard 10 data elements shippers are required to report. Something about a ten needs a two, even if ten disagrees.

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There is the sense that the traditions of ten and two had a shotgun wedding with the number 12, Apollonian decimals hitched to lusty moon-goddess integers.  Kenny Chesney tried to make sense of it in his song “Ten With A Two,” but the booze kept him from seeing how the two numbers add up:

Last night I came in at 2 with a 10
But at 10 I woke up with a 2
I’ve got 20/20 vision when I ain’t drinking
But lord when I do I lose
I ain’t never gone to bed with an uglier woman
But I sure woke up with a few
Last night I came in at 2 with a 10
But at 10 I woke up with a 2.

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Or maybe there isn’t any making sense of Twelve, not in a decimal world. But the number persists, perhaps in our resistance to decimal clarities. So we cling to inches rather than millimeters, pour gallons of gas into our cars rather than litres, use letters to measure bra cup sizes (imagine a D-cup in the French decimal of 100 millimeters), and use natural referents for distance (a sheppey is defined as the closest distance at which sheep remain picturesque, which is about 7/8 of a mile)

Something about The Twelve has clout over The Ten. It’s old yet bold, even golden. Angelic, at least.

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Our beginning and end is fraught with the number 12. It was believed that 12 days passed in the battle between Chaos and Cosmos in the formation of our universe. The ancient Mayan calendar’s comes to an end in 2012.

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Mayan calendar, where time’s reckoning–on one side at least—in the year 2012. Maybe there’s more time on the other side of the stone. Or inside.

Not surprisingly, the Eve of the finalization of the Chase Field of Twelve -– I mean, last Saturday, the day of the Richmond race –- was strange.  Think of fierce, brilliant shadows at play inside killing heat. Think of time out of joint. Think of the deal that was sealed at Richmond International Raceway. And wonder what time we have now entered.

When I went out to work in the yard on Saturday morning, it felt surprisingly, infernally hot, even at 9 a.m. A sweaty, skin-burning heat. I couldn’t believe it. Maybe it was all the steroids that had been dripping through my vein for the past three days in attempt to knock out the migraine that had been clawing at the back of my head almost continually since last June. I felt good –- no fucking headache –- but I sure was sweating hard.

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After piddling with some minor landscaping details (like cutting back the jasmine vines which had overgrown on the garage and chimney, I started to mow. On the second row the mower coughed and died. What the? I’d just had the sucker serviced in the spring; it was like some hand reached up from the soil, grabbed the whirling mower blade and stopped the thing in its tracks.

I wheezed in the heat, swearing. Up the street a neighbor was conducting an auction of crap, one of about six she conducts through the year. Maybe someone had sent a curse my way to shut me up.

Whatever. I packed the mower in the car, showered and made a grocery list, figuring to drop the mower off for service and then pick some things up on the way home.

Umatilla is a small town a ways to the north of us, the last lonely town before US-19 disappears into the Ocala National Forest. I go to the mower shop there because it’s one of the only ones around that service Honda mowers (my wife’s father had given us his around 15 years ago when he started paying a lawn service).

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Around that shop there must have been thirty high school girls in bikinis, fervently washing cars for something at Umatilla High–cheerleading squad, glee club, teacher’s salaries (Lake County is strapped), who knows. I tried not to leer as I muscled the mower out of my car and into the shop, but c’mon. They were enthusiastically lathering about five cars, bending into their work wearing their shorts and bikini tops. On the road, twos or threes of them waved signage at traffic up and down the road, hollering at cars and holding the signs over their bikinis. A veritable harvest of jailbait adding something to the brilliance of the day which was even brighter, albeit forbidden, maybe because it was.

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Back home, after having lunch with my wife (one weary and unhappy camper with all the work and worry and family illness on her plate), I settled in for a couple football games—Saturday afternoon being my only downtime during the week.

Flipping around stations on the remote, I was surprised to find almost no coverage of the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Unless you have a spouse who died in the attacks, or are one of the 50, 000 emergency providers suffering from the toxic dust and fallout from the towers’ destruction (some were embedded with human flesh that hurled from the exploding jets), the events of that day, like the cities they occurred in, are a long, long ways away.

The circus everyone had been expecting–the Terry Jones Qu’ran Burning Bonfire Event in Gainesville –had been called off. About 300 people joined the Students for a Democratic Society for a demonstration outside the small church. (The only coverage I saw on it was in the online edition of the Gainesville Sun.) A few media outlets hung around outside Dove World Ministry Church, suspecting that some shenanigans might get pulled off anyway, but there was strong media resolve not to give Terry Jones & Co. much airtime. A woman got busted for trespassing on the land behind the church, and four men in a pickup were detained after guns were found in their car (for which they had permits). After all that hysteria, nada.

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Gainesville is a liberal college town, so it isn’t surprising that the community showed up on 9/15 to advocate values other than what were proposed for the cancelled World Dove Outreach Qu’ran Book Burning. No media except the local paper picked up the event.

Too bad news of the cancellation took a while to get out to the less-wired world. Too long: an Afghan man who was shot to death during one of two violent protests on Friday outside NATO reconstruction bases in Kabul. Twelve persons were wounded, one of them critically, in addition to the killing. Those guys just don’t like their holy book dissed. Too bad intolerance always feeds intolerance; its the bad guys who always benefit from radical acts, whether it’s terrorists on a jihadist vacation or American right-wingers jack-booting their way to the polls to vote for Tea Party extremists who proclaim holy war against everything they can’t tolerate. (Sigh.)

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Over at the Swamp in Gainesville, the Florida Gators were beating the South Florida Bulls. Temps soared into the 90s soon after the noon kickoff; the announcers said they had never been at a football game so hot. About 400 people were eventually treated for heat-related illnesses; but in the Swamp, home Gatorade and Gator Bait, heat is a holy thing. Gator fans like it hot.

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Here in Central Florida, the sun beat down on the us like a dude rancher trying to stomp the dickens out of a scorpion he’d just flushed from his tent. September is that way, with light ebbing from the ends of the day yet remaining blisteringly bellicose in the day’s middle; but this was steal-your –breath heat. Even though our a/c was cranked up on full, it couldn’t get things down to 78 inside until after the sun went down.

Maybe the weirdness was enhanced by the massive migraine which returned that afternoon, one day after finishing three days of massive infusions intended to banish the  migraine which has illed me since June. That night I slept as if some cold phantom had laid on me, breathing lead fumes through my nostrils. I woke with my head still thudding away and the evil sense that I was still a long, long way from coming out of these ill woods.

A strange day, too, for NASCAR, as Saturday was the final race of the regular season and the Eve of the Chase. A border-time, like the eve of the New Year, time settling in its hinges, creating an in-between-ness when the order of things is neither here nor there, is turned upside down.

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Take Hallowe’en, the eve of the Celtic New Year. On that night it is said that the veil between our world and the otherworld is thinnest; graves open and the dead walk alongshide the living on the dark lanes of night, or worse, just behind, whispering sweet eternal nothings in one’s ear.

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Or Saturnalia, Roman festival dedicated to Saturnus, god of seed and growing. Saturnalia was celebrated over the six last days of the year leading up to the New Year (December 25 in the Julian calendar). It was a time of feasting and merry disorder. Restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Slaves were allowed to wear their masters’ clothing and were waited on at mealtime by their owners. So declares the god in Lucian’s Saturnalia:

During my week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.

Saturnalia is similar to the pagan festival of Yuletide which was transformed, in the Christian era, into Twelfth Night or the Twelve Days of Christmastide, running from Christmas Day to Epiphany on January 5.  During the Middle Ages it was a time of continuous feasting and drinking and carousing, with the Fool taking the place of the King, wearing clothes upside down (or cross-gender) and the staging of elaborate masques and plays. (The ultimate Yuletide party is Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.)

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The Yultide King of Fools, where servant becomes master and everything else goes merrily topsy-turvy, zany in the name of a brief respite from reality. These festivals of inversion are like ripping a ripe one in mixed company — the animal body getting comeuppance against an over-civilized brain.

In all of these celebrations there duplicity is celebrated: farewell to the old god with his scythe and grey cloak, welcome to the new year babe mewling at his feet: chaos given a chance to return to a too-ordered society, bleeding off the gamy humors of repression with an indecent corker; remembrance, perhaps, of more pristine animal times when the god of the body was more in charge.

And always a shuffling out the door of one tattered Twelve – last year’s elders, Olympians, Arthurian Court – while bursting through another door the next exuberant young-buck Twelve bounces in – months, Playmates, Chase class. Always the two, old and young, facing off against each other, the one snarling at whippersnappers and the other sniffing and old farts, eternally dissing each other as one generation replaces the last only to find that it is standing on the shoulders of an immensity it can never equal.

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The Chase itself is a new invention, its Twelve not so long ago Ten, and before that more reliant on points mastery over an entire season, none of this green-white-checker restart with ten races to go, making moot the first 26 races.

Next year there will be a new next Chase, I’ve heard, something the stony Elders of NASCAR try to whip up to generate more noise, more flesh, more excitement for it’s ever-distracted younger fan base. One rumor has the Chase newly constructed thus: The top 16 in points after 26 regular-season races qualify for the Chase. After the fifth race, points will reset and the top eight will stay in the Chase. After the seventh Chase race, only the top four stay alive and the points reset again. After race No. 9, only the top two will remain in the Chase, with points reset again. All drivers will continue to run every race as they do now, but only two will be Cup-eligible going into the season finale.

Apparently NASCAR chairman Brian France wants to create a more enhanced “winner-take-all” atmosphere, so that that as the final races approach there is a true feeling of a battle of the champions, two drivers duking it out for rights to Wynona’s black velvet bed in her Airstream at the bottom of the wave.

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So the Dirty Dozen may have a short tenure in NASCAR’s history books, replace next year by more of a March Madness Chase format, with a Sweet Sixteen at the outset halving into The Eight and then the Final Four, whittled yet again into The Final Final Two.

Could be exciting. But more dicking around with what used to be a simple formula -– haul ass and turn left -– could just be more wrong-headedness, more larding of bells and whistles over what is simply and only racin’. NASCAR’s golden years were commercially unviable, unsafe and wide-open; today, there is so much glitz, rules and authority that the beast wears Armani and votes Republican, desiring that tax cut on their stratospheric wealth more than winning races.

As William Blake once said: “Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of Genius.” Give me ovals, round boobulous bibulous periolous ovals, and I will scream my profane joy as the reaper’s scythe kisses my obsolete neck bye-bye.

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An Arabic prayer to Saturn (Saturnus) comes from the Picatrix of the tenth century, which was widely circulated through Western Europe of the Late Middle Ages and found its way down into the cooking-pots of the alchemists as they moonshined for gold:

O Master of sublime name and great power, supreme Master: O Master Saturn: Thou, the Cold, the Sterile, the Mournful, the Pernicious; Thou, whose life is sincere and whose word sure: Thou, the Sage and Solitary, the Impenetrable; Thou, whose promises are kept; Thou who art weak and weary; Thou who hast cares greater than any other, who knowest neither pleasure nor joy; Thou, the old and the cunning, master of all artifice, deceitful, wise and judicious; Thou who bringest prosperity or ruin and makest men to be happy or unhappy! I conjure Thee, O Supreme Father, by Thy great benevolence and Thy generous bounty, to do for me what I ask …

This is the guy – or god, I should say – who was King in the old day, lord of Chaos before the coming of Light, a powerful, vain, greedy Dad who downed “the fiery drink of the black mother” (that’s what the ancient Greeks called booze) and chased every nymph-skirt around his sportive wilderness. Afraid the prophecy that he would one day be replaced by a son (remembering, perhaps, how he took power over things, lopping off the balls of his father Uranos with a sickle and tossing his marbles to the foam of the wave, which gave birth – ta daa – to Venus, or watery Venusian fantasy at least), Saturn ate every child to emerge from his wife Rhea until she connived to delve up a stone which was a decoy for her last son Zeus, who got away while Saturn gobbled rock tenderloin.

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Zeus led the prophecy-fulfilling revolt of the Olympians against the primordial Titans of Saturn and won, exiling old King Saturn from this life and sending down to rule the lower regions of the body–not Hell necessarily, for that belongs to Hades’ realm of souls– but rather to the realm of the past, of past glories, of old age.

He’s the old part of me, reveling in old glories, rememberer of Glorias in back seats, his lust goaty and old-mannish, a wearer of dirty trenchcoats in the fabled x-rated theaters of old, drooling at offended nubile Kardashians who know nothing – for now – of age, sitting here at the ramparts of night defending this post, this Rome whose walls constitute my skull, vigilant against the incursions of youth, spiteful and lustful and fearful of the next generation and keeper of a bursting silo of gold, vendor of it too, doling out treasure and  pleasure and leisure to this one, lack of lustre and slackened libido to the next.

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What Saturn hates most is the seemingly infinite reservoir of testosterone the young bucks have; hates their youth, their bulletproof attitudes, their high-flyin’ ways and daredevil moves. And he has the ability to trip ‘em up with a seemingly casual sweep of his fateful scythe, mowing down the young on highways and on the battlefield and in needles, giving the too-foolish babyfaces a nudge on the precipitous Edge the young are addicted to. The Sons are in charge now – they always take over – but the Father has his clout, rising up from nether regions to bless and curse our days.

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He’s Wynona’s silent partner, you know. There’s always an old man behind the jaw-dropping babe, her charms inked in the sexuality of the father, passed on in that weird way where the shadow of history runs way back and darkens the  present, making it so  damn sexy. Remember Venus was born from her granddady’s floating testicles. Wynona inherited her Airstream when the old man, a no-good drunken fiddler and auctioneer who fucked everything in sight (including a few failed attempts to climb into her prepubescent twin bed) was packed off to jail for trafficking in moonshine.

So when a driver kisses Wynona’s totem gold horseshoe for luck (representing the golden arch over her cleft portal to infinity), he’s also bussing Saturn’s warty wrinkled ass, devotion to the one implicitly arousing the presence of the other. Wynona’s curves were honed by Saturn’s sickle, that rounding blade which harvests and maims, proferring the bounty of booty as well as the chagrin of the deballed.

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A dangerous duplicity, wouldn’t you say? But that’s what racin’ dreams are made of: crooked roads and siloes of luck for better or ill.

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Since the weekend, time has remained in an odd, inbetween, waters-becalmed mode.

The final round of primaries in the mid-term election season were held on Tuesday, setting into the place the final contenders vying for rule in Congress. End the internecine, intra-party slaughtering and get ready for the real hardball policticking.  This week is the last pause before that season begins in earnest.

(Here in Florida, Republican candidate for governor Rick Scott appears eerily, creepily calm in his early ads, saving his vicious attack juice against Democrat Alex Sink for the closing weeks. Something about that calm is redolent of Lurch and the serial killer in “Manhunter” — big bad fish swimming beneath the surface.

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The news from Atlantic storm season is many storms, zero threat. Bonnie, Colin, Danielle, Earl, Fiona, Igor and now Julia, all with grand potential (Igor is at Category 4 now, a perfect monster spiral), none of ‘em a threat.

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Wynon’s elder sister is seducing all of this season’s hurricanes her way.

The loacal weatherforcasters are starting to sweat on camera, they have little news to tell us in what is this Christmas season of big storms. The oceans are preternaturally stilled, the storms drawn up and away to the north by two high pressure rounds I swear belong to Wynona – upon Saturn’s direction.

Maybe their sweating because without real rock ‘n’ roll storm s news, their jobs may become obsolete, replaced by weather bots. The tracking software online is all most of us need. Weathercasters may become obsolete, the way armies and spacemen and newspapermen like myself are losing any sense of belonging to the present.

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Hell, races could easily become obsolete with robot cars – the ultimate safe vehicle – operated by fans – the ultimate indulgence.

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Stanley, a Volkswagen Touareg robot car, won the 2007 DARPA Grand Challenge, a 131-mile robot car race across the desert near Las Vegas.

Pleasured by virtual Wynonas who will perform any act housed in your goaty silo of Penthouse fantasies.

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Not much else is news. Flooding continues in Pakistan. Iran released an American hiker after being held for more than a year on espionage charges. The explosion of a gas pipeline in San Francisco last week has raised concerns about the similar explosions happening in an aging gas pipe system which spiders under the entire country. Rafael Nadal beat Novak Djokovic in four sets to win the U.S. Open in Monday night, making him only the seventh man to win all four Grand Slam events. A 3-year-old girl died after being left in a car for 90 minutes outside a Tampa church, Florida Gators wide receiver Chris Rainey was arrested on felony stalking charges. A bacteria has emerged which has been made resistant to nearly all antibiotics by an alarming new gene and is popping up all over the world. Outside it’s hot and still shadowy clouds forming overhead, though there is supposedly no chance for rain.

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Pakistan flood victims scrambled for food on Monday.

With such sophisticated equipage in place for 24-hour news, a quiet news week is almost an impossibility.  I mean, something is happening somewhere, right? Yet the stillness is palpable, a dark body pressed over us in sleep, the silence on the wires, traffic sparse outside, phones not ringing. The mood, the aura, the vibe is Time Out: A pause between seasons of something, a gathered breath which signifies that the readiness is all …

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The Greeks had a different name for Saturn – Cronos, meaning “time.” The rule of time was established when Cronos defeated his prehistorical, primordial father Uranos.  During the rule of Cronos, time proceeded slowly – three million years or so since the human species began to develop consciousness, with innovations coming very, very slowly. It wasn’t until 10,000 BC that agricultural societies formed around the tilling of the soil and civilized time began in earnest.

Fatefully, the sickle of Cronos, used to harvest grain, proved his downfall. Cronos couldn’t keep up with the new time of civilization, so urgent in its productions. Zeus was of a different order, ruling the Twelve Olympians with a powerful ego and a brilliant noodle. Instead of the slow sweeping arc of old time’s scythe, now the flash and thunderclap of inspiration.

The 2,500 years in which Zeus has reigned over Time, things have proceeded pretty damn fast—especially in the whirl of the past 50 years, when human knowledge began doubling every two years. Ditto for computing power; Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles every two years—in 1971, about 2,300 transistors; in 2008, about two billion. Such rapid empowerment of raw crunching power has shifted the acceleration and accumulation of a certain sort of knowledge into warp drive. Think thunderbolt to the twelfth power.

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Map of cyberspace.

‘Nuff said. The speed at which things are changing technologically is gathering up other things as well, taking out industries and workforces which will never return. Obsolescence occurs earlier now, even as maturity gets later. Whatever zone of success exists for a career has become indeterminate and fleeting, a quicksilver which fewer are able to nail down.

Certainly, the hyperfast, ultrared aura of Star Trek almost overpowers that of silver-blue moonlight pouring over this same old ancient night. Almost. But somehow the faster things get going, the greater the sense of things past firewalls any true leap into future.

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It seems that Saturn, the old brooding one, is present exactly here, warding off the Gauls with their Blackberries and iPads with his stony Otherworld grimace, a look which gives even the most fevered early adopter a frightening fit of ennui. Saturn is in our gut, coagulating the torrent of events into scars of experience. He’s brooding while I sleep, digesting my day in the augment of dream. Saturn rules the process of these posts, peeking into the locker room where the gals are changing and putting up a defense against getting anywhere too fast. Saturn sieves history to fathom its mystery, storing the bounty of knowledge in silos which hold up against the rising tide of white noise, that shriek of the present so stoned on futurity. He brings the flying boys back down from their precipitous aeries of ambition and pride, knowing that two feet stuck in heaven are no damn good. He puts the hurt in the moment – the leaden torpor of grief – so we can feel solid and grounded and real for this life.

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Saturn, I suspect, is walking the ramparts of our old-schoolish hearts, rejecting modernity for the fundamentalist version of the past, resisting change with his unchanging Holy Book, refuting new truths with beliefs as old as moon-magic. He keeps this country from evolving its practices about life and death, convincing the congregation that abortion docs should be murdered and that Obama leads a secret cabal of death-panels deciding to pull the plug on Grandma when her catastrophic care exceeds all hope of recovery.

Though he’s been exiled since we became dazzles with the next great thing, Saturn still rules from million-year dreamtime, slow, cold, father of gods and men, devourer of young whippersnappers, the only brakes left as civilization tries to leap into the next next generation of acceleration, into as many dimensions as possible at the same time. He’s the one holding on to our feet as we’re leaping in a plutonium well.

He’s the Counterforce which all drivers curse, keeping their cars from flying off the track to become angels.

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Woke up this morning (Wednesday) troubled by a heavy shade of a dream which in waking had receded so far into my pillow I couldn’t make any of its features out: That oppression I’ve dreamt several times before.

If I try to read the dream literally, it’s Headache and Toothache swelling my sinuses and making my ears ring, informing me that I will have to drag this season’s malaise with me like the man who was forced to walk all Hallowe’en night with a dead man clinging to his back. (Yesterday I spent an hour in the chair while my dentist drilled “almost to China” on a badly-decayed bicuspid, barely saving me – he hopes – from a root canal.)

Or I can read the dream as literature and read Saturn’s presence between my life’s worry-lines, done up in the gear of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, decked in old medieval military gear, rousing me to swear revenge for the crimes committed against him while at the same time bidding me adieu.

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He is me, I know; age has been laying heavy on me this season as I sense the hyper-fast onset of my obsolescence, which may only be a flag for a generation’s obsolescence. Or a species, the last sands of Humankind draining fast through the upper globe of the hourglass, draining away almost as fast as the world is heating up into an unbearable, unsustainable Future ….

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What a relief to feel a cool note in the air when I opened the windows after coming down to start my day at 2:45 a.m. Sixty-nine degrees: the first moment this neck of Florida has slipped below 70 since last May. The time is changing. The summer is slowing with such infinitesimals. The season of transformation approaches.

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Saturn – Old Man Time, if you will – owns this week. He is father to The Twelve of the Chase. It is he who directs Wynona to offer her favors this way then that as the Loudon race takes shape. Her charms, his favor, their moment, this witchy still hiatus in which I ring this lonely bell, far out on the blasted heath of a day, an age, become more fair and foul than any before.

The Twelve pay little heed to any of this. Their eyes are on Loudon, and Dover, and Kansas, and Fonatana, and Charlotte, and Martinsville, and Talladega (on Hallowe’en, no less), and Texas, and Phoenix, and finally Homestead.

The Twelve are elect; the racin’, now, is all.

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Note: The definitive work on the senex or Saturnu can be found in James Hillman’s essay “Senex and Puer,” anthologized in his book Puer Papers.

The Road to Richmond


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Jesus said, “The Kingdom of the (Father) is like a woman who was carrying a (jar) full of meal. While she was walking along (a) distant road, the handle of the jar brok and the meal spilled behind her (along) the road. She did not know it; she noticed no accident. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered it was empty.” –Gospel of Thomas (see Note at end of post)

This post-—my Richmond “Last Chance to Make the Chase” post-—begins far ahead of where I began it several days ago. The present moment–Tuesday morning, September 7, demands that I set tone and groove and oval motion with the facts of the Atlanta race on Sept. 5 in place, Tony Stewart in Victory Lane, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson close behind, the Brothers Busch finishing in fine Atlantan style. Clint Bowyer held onto his No. 12 berth in the Chase with a top-10 finish, making things exceedingly difficult for Chase hopefuls Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin and Ryan Newman as the haulers hit the road for Richmond. But more on that later.

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What I’m sawing into here this humid, warm, and finally-rain plenished morning in Central Florida is the thought that without outcomes past (the season, as well as NASCAR’s recent and past history) and future (what hangs over every race when the appointed grand martial shouts “Gentlemen, start … your engines!”) is that there is no proper enough stadium to hold a race.

Oh, there are real enough confines for such events, ovals with grandstands of girders and planks, vendors hawking Dale ballcaps and pit crews rolling out the cars, sportswriters up in the media room wisecracking to each other and cheesecake firesuited ESPN reporters doing interviews with drivers who are studiously avoiding looking at their boobs, fans flocking through the gates or atop their RVs yelling hoarsely for their man, almost too drunk before the race begins: all that counts for everything, and the racin’, too:

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Jamie Little of ESPN interviews Kevin Harvick at a Michgan race in 2008. Now I know why the drivers all wear shades—the camera can’t tell where you’re staring.

But there’s more to the Stadium than that in this Oval in my mind – it’s bigger, more mythic than that. It’s as if the next race in the next town in the next stadium was a  proscenium into regions of my cranium I didn’t know existed and can’t explore without the present metaphor, one which has two sides, two faces, two motions, the lucence of the full moon and the hidden, far stronger side behind, the face for public consumption and the older, mythic one inside, the in and out and round and down and whambam and thankyoumam which works the bellows of our lungs and keeps our heart in steady pulsing sursurration, sending out enriched blood on waxing waves, receiving exhausted blood back in on the ebb, giving the blue tide a fresh jolt of oxygen and making things cherry red for the next flood-tide of blood or semen or breath or thought, amen and hymen.

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It was William Blake who said, “without contraries there is no progression.” It’s a thought which testosterone- and adrenaline-enriched men in their racecars (on and off any legitimate track) have a hard time understanding. Balls-to-the-walls, pedal-to-the-metal aspirations know only forward movement—and fast—yet none of that transpires without so much to hold it back: gravity and wind resistance, the inevitable turns which require downshifting, caution flags and pit stops, the limits of time which demand that a checkered flag eventually fall. Without such contraries to speed, there is no race; but the obvious is the way our brains are tuned, calibrated and trimmed for speed, with all that darkness just outside the bright lights of the stadium shouting No.

Without contraries there is nothing for this rhetoric to grip as it wheels round its course; the Oval needs both God and Devil to make it to the end, a big-hootered homespun barely legal blonde angel at my left ear hymning “Go Daddy, Go!” while at my right ear, in a hoarse whisper poured from a forgotten still up in the mountains which ridge NASCAR’s One Track, an aged bleached-blonde-but-showing-deep-dark-roots Wal-Mart hussie whose blue push-up bra which peeks through a torn blue blouse can do little to brace the massive sag of time, I hear, “One lap more or I’ll will eat your balls and brains for breakfast.” Yikes. Perilous is the way with both of those babes cooing and screeching in my ear–and yet, without my blue and red contraries there is far too little gumption to make the runnin’ fun.

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And the road which leads to the next race – to Richmond, in this post’s case – stands for all that is prior to a race which gives the race heft and panache, a narrative, if you will, the storyline which finds in the title of “Last Race Before the Chase” a sense of momentum in forward and reverse, in high-odds betting over long-shot hopefuls, in watching to see if Denny Hamlin–the local son born 22 miles away from Richmond International Speedway—will win his second Virginia race and sixth of the season with a momentum-turning peformance on Saturday night. The road to Richmond is the framing device of this post, getting to the Air Guard 400 by way of many routes of soul rolled into that one path.

And so, to properly proceed …

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Saturday, Sept. 4

Jesus said, “If you bring out what is inside you, what you bring out will save you. If you fail to bring out what is inside you, what you fail to bring out will destroy you.” – Gospel of Thomas (see Note)

I don’t know if it’s the Nadolol, the new meds I’m taking to try to prevent migraine headaches, but I’ve been dreaming intensely of late, usually leaving a singular, harsh image on my mind as I wake –-  a spinning black vortex fingering around our bed, trying to grab me and haul me off a cyclone’s sky-wide abyss; pissing like a racehorse who has piss like Manannan’s mythic steed, all over the furniture in all the rooms of our house; trying to make some huge corporate announcement on the stage of the auditorium of my Spokane, Washington college, heavily burdened with books and coats and files and shoes, staggering about trying to hold all of that up while trying to mouth the words that will affect many lives, like a huge layoff. Or is the Word coming through about a much more personal termination, from my job — or my life?

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Who knows. Next-to-the-latest thought on dreams in the psychological literature suggests that dreaming is the mind’s way of condensing emotions into a single vibrating visual poem, working through a problem by means of bottomless metaphors. However, a paper published last November by Dr. J. Allen Thompson in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience suggest that dreams are physiological rather than psychological: the brain (not that hazy multiplex theatre of the noosphere called mind) is doing pushups and breathing exercises, warming itself up for the anticipated challenges of the day.

David Carey writes about the research in “A Dream Interpretation: Tuneups for the Mind,”

In studies, scientists have found evidence that REM activity helps the brain build neural connections, particularly in its visual areas. The developing fetus may be “seeing” something, in terms of brain activity, long before the eyes ever open —- the developing brain drawing on innate, biological models of space and time, like an internal virtual-reality machine. Full-on dreams, in the usual sense of the word, come much later. Their content, in this view, is a kind of crude test run for what the coming day may hold.

Either way – as my mind’s way of summing up my life, or my brain’s attempt to ready me for this particular day – my dreams tell me I’m screwed, that big shit (OK, piss) is going down and I’m rather helpless in the middle of it all.

Maybe it is just the Nadolol. The beta blocker does have a side effect of hallucinations. This would be OK if it was working better, or kept working. The first week I was on Nadolol, I didn’t have a single headache, in the week since, I’ve had them every day with a ferocity that leaves me feeling stunned and stupid and unable to shoulder my world, returning me to the bum cycle of daily migraines I’ve been suffering all summer, despite two courses of treatment of anti-inflammatories and now the Nadolol. Finally I called my neurologist and he’s scheduled me this week for infusions, a one-hour-twice-a-day-for-three-days umbilical of dramatic meds siphoned through a vein in my arm all through my body and up into my head, drenching the brainstem with DHA and other radicals, killing the unrestful bastard at last. We hope.

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Maybe these dreams are telling me Don’t Wake Up, Pal, Migraine in the Room, and I’m seeing the shadow of a migraine malaise which I’ve been suffering now for the past decade or so and may have to endure for the rest of my days.

Or maybe the dreams are cueing me to a malaise which may be the cause or the result of the next early morning of reading-and-writing followed by all-day hammering away on keyboard at work, something I’ve done for years now.

Or maybe my dreams are telling me that my migraine malaise is coming as much from without as within, from the world’s turning under a bad sign, a turn which is culminating and is soon to cover us all with a mile of water. Maybe a big meteor is coming, or a fusillade of nukes, or a pink slip at work or an infarction of a major artery, tearing me loose from this life with an O Shit and an Ahhhh.

Or maybe it is simply the normal birth-pangs of the next post, this next Oval Scream, a vowel movement squeezing through some oubliette of thought, out from a womb or into a crapper (probably both) in the general direction of Richmond, Virginia, host of the final race of the regular Sprint Cup season. My migraine story, my dream journal, these Ovalscream posts all aboard an enflamed hippocampus at the seat of my brain, shouting Go Man Go to the fracas of 1000-horsepower Sprint Cup cars careening round a 1/2-mile track under the lights of Richmond International Speedway.

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The article was also interesting (see, I’m not dead yet) in that it also said that it is widely accepted by psychologists that the brain is dreaming all the time; it’s just that when we become conscious (we wake up) that activity is drowned out or dimmed to the rear. Schizophrenics have little conscious cohesion so their dreams are constantly irrupting, spewing forth into a place of consciousness which confuses the phantastical with the real. For the rest of us, dreams live on by day in a restless boneyard, one which sings for a moment when we daydream, when I start falling asleep as I drive home and my mental reverie seems to step off a contintental shelf into the abyss, or when, as I write, a Voice seems to take over, and I’m not so much writing as taking dictation.

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Here at this hour—now 7 a.m. on Saturday of Labor Day Weekend 2010 – none of that whirling darkness is apparent. It’s receded to the background, farther back than I wish this migraine would have receded after taking two Frova. It looks so fair and green outside, windows open to a warm waking day (up to the middle 90s today, but the humidity’s low), scarcely a breeze winnowing the Mexican petunias in the garden: the portrait of Eden, Hurricane Earl far, far away, God in His Heaven on Earth.

I just wish the major residue of migraine and the minor residue of dream were still smaller. Low cellos are sawing low in this halcyon moment of morning, playing so softly the “Jaw” theme, informing me that under the surface, Something swims, circling, slowly surfacing, jaws opening wide revealing rows of white teeth big as hatchet-heads, gobbets of flesh still streaming from their nooks …

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A lucid dream? Or the hallucination of nightmare? Or both?

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I can’t say: I simply type what the Voice bid me to write down … And heed its sultry hoarse whisper, “Go baby, go” as I jam my food down on the gas pedal.

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Sunday, Sept. 5

Jesus saw some babies nursing. He said to his disciples, “These nursing babies are like those who enter the kingdom.” They said to him, “Then shall we enter the Kingdom as babies?” Jesus said to them, “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter the kingdom.”  — Gospel of Thomas

Watched the last 20 laps or so of the Great Clips 300 Nationwide Series race at Atlanta last night, enough to watch Jamie McMurray hold off Kyle Busch just enough to take the checkers. It was sort of a reversal of the Sprint Cup race at Bristol under the lights in August – in that race, it was Kyle in first place and McMurray in second – and perhaps a more distinctive win for Jamie since Kyle has been so hard to beat in Nationwide competition this year (ten wins). OK, Daytona and the Brickyard are both places to win in Sprint Cup competition, and McMurray has done both; but I’m sure Jamie is hoping this will be a warmup for tonight’s Sprint Cup race, where it will take a major mistake by Clint Bowyer and a top-5 finish to edge him closer to taking the 12th tier in the points standings. Mark Martin (currently 14th) and Ryan Newman (15th) are also within spitting distance of the Chase, but time is running out.

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Time is running out. At least, one time is running out. A new one begins after the Richmond race on Sept. 11 and the Chase for the Cup formally begins, with all eyes then on Dover, then Kansas, then Fontana, then Charlotte, Martinsville, Talladega, Texas, Phoenix and finally Homstead, the final race of the Chase. By then history may have already been decided; the math of the Chase in ineluctable; Hamlin or Johson or Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick may have established an impregnable lead based on their performance in the clinch.

“Clinch” – there’s a word. It has two meanings which seem to oppose each other. One is “to make final or irrefutable” and the other “to hold an opponent at close quarters with one or both arms.” The one meaning is certain of victory, the other leaves things in the balance, prior to outcome.

“Clinch” is what is called a “contranym” in grammarspeak –words whose meanings oppose each other. Another contranym  is “sanction”: “to allow,” as the Air Guard 400 in Richmond is a NASCAR-sanctioned race; yet it also means “to prohibit,” as NASCAR sanctions prohibits drivers who have violated its drug policy from racing. Contranyms are a sweet-faced, torrentially-voluptuous track girl whose berry-mouth opens so lusciously to say “No” when you ask her back to your RV for a beer. How could affirmation and negation exist at once, inside one body. Yet they do in contranyms, sashaying off with a swish of the hips and nary a look back over their shoulder.

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This is different from words or phrases which are often confused with each other. Like “flush out” – to bring something out of a hiding place (as in hunting), or discover hidden meanings – and “flesh out,” giving something substance by adding description or characterization, in order to make it more complete. The former makes a hidden thing visible, the other makes a visible thing more real.

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Another confusion is “complement,” something which makes a thing complete, with “compliment,” to express admiration for something. A red brassiere is the perfect complement for a red thong, but you are lush and plush in your compliments at what’s under the underwear when both come off.

Or this pair: “torturous” – something which is especially painful to endure (like torture) and “tortuous,” a route or procedure which is tricky with twists and turns. Some readers – the ones who gave up long ago – would consider posts like these torturous, preferring their ovals short and sweet, like a fast hard quickie on the hood of a Mustang), while others might enjoy the challenge of its tortuous rhetoric, like a road race or a night with a Tantric black-belt like Chloe Vevrier.

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The lovely Chloe Vervier, whose hourglass abundance both shapes and times this post.

Some words -– and worlds –- are inherently confusing, both things at once, sanctioned by our language to invite us in for a tickle pickle while at the same time giving us the finger and the boot when we get to close. Don’t blame NASCAR for not knowing what it sanctions and what it does not–or vice versa.

English is a muddy language — obviously — but we’re also greatly at fault for making it dirtier as we float, slowly and surely, generation after generation, away from the written culture of the book and the newspaper.

Reading is supposed to be one of the best ways of retaining knowledge – far better than listening or watching the same knowledge presented – But it’s a harder and more  concentrated act amid the profusion of convenient devices which exist mainly to entertain rather than inform.

But we can’t blame youth culture for this; technology has been making things more convenient for us since the development of writing, which allowed knowledge to fly from our heads onto the page. Need to know something? Go to the library and look it up. Plato loathed writing for how it cheapened thought. Irish poets before Christianity were expected to remember the entire body of oral literature before creating a poem  of their own; when the monks came around  and wrote down the oral culture in books, the bards died out. Now the word is dying out, replaced by eye candy.

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And we think we have it bad with porn: Plato thought books turned the mind to mush.

I mean, would you read this post if I didn’t wedge some tits into somewhere?

Call me a pragmatist.

Or a dreamer. I mean as one who loyal to the dark, twisty, convoluted, inverted and strange equiovcations of the dream, which always grab my plodding scholar’s feet to haul me down to the Land Down Under, seeing things with the Underworld perspective, the world of love and death and racin’ which defies sense and morality and yet is just right, as long as I don’t call any of it real and try to make a religion out of mystery. Literalism is for fundamentalists of every creed; this is literary foolery, the ape scribe mouthing the words of God which bark and blubber and ooze and sneeze from our mortal orifices. So  if I place big-hootered goddess of fate along the dark road to Richmond, then something keeps me keepin’ on, aroused, enthused, even enrapt, enough so that the rough slog of writing a post through hell and back is yet an adventure, like chasing Persephone thorugh all the honkeytonks still open at this wicked hour of late, late, early, early morning.

Call me a dancin’ fool, but She wants to go round and round the Oval ballroom til this world is done, and I’m game …

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The Roman God Janus had two faces, each looking in the opposite direction. His feast day was on New Year’s Day, January 1 in the Julian calendar — at the end of one year (looking one way) and the beginning of the next. Janus is the door which opens one way, thus closing in the other; he is akin to Wynona’s Wheel of Fortune, dishing out good and bad luck in the same spin of her wheel.

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Janus makes keen the edge of racin,’ the way a blade is tempered by swiping it two ways against a sharpening stone. The equivocation, the ambiguity of sense (am I in or out? Should I stay of should I go?) makes the moment keen.

Consider the Richmond race, where some drivers have already clinched their Chase berth (like Harvick and Jeff Gordon), while others will be in a heated clinch as they battle for the remaining 12th spot. If Jimmie Johnson wrecks or finishes poorly, he is awful – capable of creating awe yet finishing dismally. If Hamlin or Harvick wins, he’ll be bad to the bone – terribly great. Girl fans think Tony Stewart is so cool, but they really mean he’s hot, especially after his win at Atlanta last Saturday night. If Bowyer wrecks, the season goes downhill for him; and if Bowyer wrecks, a win by McMurray would be a downhill glide into the final Chase berth. And if Denny Hamlin finds his groove, he’ll drive straight through the pass between Wynona’s mounds to victory.

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Such thoughts keep Wynona’s big wheel(s) turning,

Proud Mary keep on burning
And we’re rolling, rolling, rolling on the river.

(Savage 8 by the band, taking us to the next stanza …)

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Would you like to hear my song? I’m afraid it’s rather long
Of the famous “On to Richmond” double trouble,
Of the half-a-dozen trips and half-a-dozen slips
And the very latest bursting of the bubble.
‘Tis pretty hard to sing and like a round, round ring
‘Tis a dreadful knotty puzzle to unravel;
Though all the papers swore, when we touched Virginia’s shore
That Richmond was a hard road to travel.

Then pull off your coat and roll up your sleeve,
Richmond is a hard road to travel,
Then pull off your coat and roll up your sleeve,
Richmond is a hard road to travel, I believe.

— “Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel,” American folk song

While the political big mouths are firing off against each other over the building of a mosque near Ground Zero—-a battle between Red and Blue visions of the future, with some of the figures talking out of both sides of their mouth at the same time (like the enraged Fox talking heads who say what desecration of American sacrifice the mosque would become, funded by terrorist money to boot, while saying nothing about the big money invested in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp by the same Saudi figure)–a quieter battle is being waged between history and posterity on two separate yet similar battlefields.

In the first instance, The National Coalition for History and The American Legion have teamed to oppose plans to create the Mason Dixon casino complex next to Gettysburg National History Park. The property in question is within a mile of South Cavalry Field, where some 8,000 Confederate and Union soldiers are said to be buried in unmarked graves.

“There is no way that The American Legion or the American people, especially her veterans, will stand by and let the memory and meaning of Gettysburg National Military Park be besmirched by this misbegotten plan to erect a casino in proximity to this hallowed ground,” said Clarence Hill, American Legion National Commander.

Yet the 100-acre lot is zoned for commercial, mixed-use businesses, and the 300-room hotel which the casino owners want to convert has been standing there for 40 years. The local American Legion post in Gettysburg hasn’t joined with the national organization in the protest – unemployment is around 8 percent in Adams County, and vets need jobs, too.

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A similar fight is going on in Orange County, Virginia, where Wal-Mart wants to build a Supercenter at the intersection of Routes 20 and 3 in New Market Heights. The property in question is part of the grounds where the fierce Battle of the Wilderness was fought in May 1864. That conflict saw 100,000 Union soldiers and 61,000 Confederates bloodily engaged, resulting in 28,000 casualties. The victory went to Union forces, and from there there marched on to Richmond and finally to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.

Part of the Wilderness grounds (about 27,000 acres) are protected by the Fredricksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. But the rest has been largely developed with housing and those franchises which have virally covered the United States, so that every town looks like every other — Office Depots and TGI Fridays and Targets and Cracker Barrels. The proposed Wal Mart Supercenter is about a mile from the entrance to the military park.

On the preservation side is the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the actor Robert Duvall, who is a descendent of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In a letter sent to Wal-Mart president and CEO H. Lee Scott signed by 253 scholars including Pulitzer prize winner David McCullough and filmmaker Ken Burns, Wal-Mart was urged to build somewhere further away from the battlefield. “The Wilderness is an indelible part of our history,” the letters says, “its very ground hallowed by the American blood spilled there, and it cannot be moved.”

On Wal-Mart’s side are the locals. “Go find a shirt in Orange,” someone wrote the local paper. “You can’t.” The county stands to earn $500,000 in tax revenue. “In these economic times, the fact that Wal-Mart wants to come into the county is an economic plus,” said R. Mark Johnson, a tire shop owner and chairman of the county’s board of supervisors. “This is hardly pristine wilderness we’re talking about.”

OK, pristine wilderness may be as hard to find these days anywhere in hyper-suburban America as the likelihood that your date has never done it before, but overwriting heritage with a Wal-Mart is like going straight from the dreamy, wet-eyed innocence of virgin puppy love to the thornier charms of girls named Cherry or Porsche wearing  g-strings and slapping immobile silicones in your face down at Thee Down House. I mean, there’s got to be a middle ground between Eden and the Fall, right, where origin and present have a shared interest and a little mutual respect for the other?

Rigggghhhht. Only in my dreams.

A civil suit goes to court on the issue in January.

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In both cases, it’s preservation for national history’s sake – something which has no real dollar value – versus development for the local economy’s sake. Tough decision, eh. And not an uncommon one. The Wilderness is one of 25 battlefields listed by the Civil War Preservation Trust as “endangered” by commercial development and suburban sprawl. In this country, history is an endangered species, much as the ivory-billed woodpecker and the grey wolf—too small to defend itself against our God-given right to dig and clear-cut and put up another Wendy’s sign.

This poem was by Linda Lee posted in the comments section of an article on the fracas in the U.S. News & World Report’s website on May 13:

The Sins of This Generation

Bullets flew into the storm of cannon, shot and shell,
dry grass popped and cracked that night, a field of death and hell.
Warmth had left and what remained, grew cold and stiff and still.
It did not hurt that death had won, it’s darkness left no chill.
I heard the cries of wounded men and smelled the flesh that burned.
I heard the shovels digging dirt, but no one has returned.
One day I heard the squeal of pigs, felt them push against my bones;
sweaty mules strained in harness, moving rocks and splitting stones.
Often they would snort while plowing, walking over where I lay;
mule and man never knowing, plowing ground that covers gray.
My blood has seeped out long ago and bones are scattered all around,
I yearn to have my loved ones close, to lie beside them in the ground.
But now I hear a strange, new noise, smell another kind of smoke.
I feel the dirt around me move, pull bits of cloth from tattered cloak.
I strain to hear what’s being said, above the noise of their machines;
I fear no one will come for me and wonder what a Walmart means.

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That Battle of the Wilderness.

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Monday, Sept. 6 – Labor Day

Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the Kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of heaven will precede you. If they say to you, ‘it is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you Rather, the Kingdom is inside you and outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are poverty.” – Gospel of Thomas

Ah, Wal-Mart, we know ye well. America’s most successful retailer, it’s largest employer, and the world’s largest single producer of revenue. Founded in 1962 by Sam Walton, Wal-Mart is a ubiquitous global product, virally spread through all 50 states of this country and thriving in Mexico, the United Kingdom, China and South Korea. In 2009, the store generated $258 billion in revenue in the U.S. alone, half of that from grocery sales.

The retail giant is a marvel of technology, with its own satellite network linking all operating unites of the company with its Bentonville, Ark. office via two-way voice and data transmission. The network is a functioning commercial brain, capable of just-in-time delivery which keeps inventory costs at a minimum while maximizing the availability of its products, most of which are purchased overseas in sweetheart deals with Chinese manufacturers.

If there is an example of how franchising is perhaps the most successful example of our human capacity to replicate viruses, it is Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is the model of moving into a community offering such low prices on everything that local businesses cannot compete. Kenneth Stone, a Professor of Economics at Iowa State University, found that some small towns can lose almost half of their retail trade within ten years of a Wal-Mart store opening.

In the raw calculus of human behavior, Wal-Mart is most appealing in that least-common-denominator manner: low prices trumps quality-of product or business model—every time. Each week, about 100 million Americans—a third of our population—will shop at a Wal-Mart. It is especially appealing to the poor (no duh); about a fifth of its shoppers have no bank account. Wal-Mart shoppers are also the most politically conservative; a poll indicated that after 2004 US Presidential Election 76% of voters who shopped at Wal-Mart once a week voted for George W. Bush, while only 23% supported senator John Kerry.

Wal-Mart attracts a special sort of shopper which you can’t find elsewhere whose clothing and grooming can only be described as Pig Hallow Baroque: beyond unkempt, it taks a certain pride in seeing how low the jeans will go and just how bitty the spandex can be spread over wallows of fat. Who hasn’t seen the circulating e-mails on Wal-Mart fashion?

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But Wal-Mart finds a lower rung as a place to work than to show off trailer park chic. About 70 percent of its workforce leaves within the first year. A 2006 report by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy estimates that Wal-Mart workers earn, on average, about 20 percent less than the average retail worker. Although Wal-Mart pays benefit to workers who put in at least 34 hours a week, the majority of its workforce is considered part-time (only 44 percent receive health care benefits). A class-action suit in Missouri on behalf of some 200,000 people in 2005 accused Wal-Mart for forcing people to work off-the-clock, denying overtime pay, and not allowing workers to take breaks. Wal-Mart has been sued for locking night workers into their stores and violating child-labor laws. And then there is the current class-action suit on behalf of some 1.5 million current and former female workers accusing the retail behemoth of sex discrimination, paying female employees less than their male counterparts, giving fewer female promotions, and forcing females to wait longer for their promotions. That suit just cleared the final hurdle before heading to the Supreme Court, and with its current pro-business bent under Chief Justice John Roberts, justice looks like it will be served the Wal-Mart way.

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Wal-Mart gets most of its cheap goods through deals with foreign manufacturers, some of which have been accused of using sweatshop and prison labor. There’s one report that one Wal-Mart supplier used teenagers in Bangladesh, working them for 80 hours a week at fourteen cents an hour.

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An American TV manufacturer went to court over unfair trade practices by Chinese competitors, and Wal-Mart sided with the Chinese.

Their website once carried the anti-Semitic book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a known forgery, claiming the book to be real. It also suggested that a documentary on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was similar to the Planet of the Apes boxed DVD set.

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Until the mid-1990s, Wal-Mart took out corporate-owned life insurance policies on its employees including “low level” employees such as janitors, cashiers, and stockers. Usually taken out to cover a company against financial loss when a high-ranking employees dies, “key man insurance” was derided in Wal-Mart practice as “Dead Peasants Insurance” – profiting off the deaths of its employees, and taking advantage of the tax law which allowed it to deduct the premiums. The practice was stopped after a crackdown by the federal government.

Oh Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart. For all you have done to the American development, business and labor landscape, a middle finger in kind for you this Labor Day, your Satanic Xmas, your saggy, haggy, tramp-stamped double-D-Day, your antithetical Appomatox, surrendering all human pride for your owners’ piggy banks: Christy Walton, widow of John Walton, son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton ($21 billion net worth); Jim Walton, brother of John $19.5 billion); their sister Alice ($19.3 billion) and brother Samuel Robson Walton ($19 billion). That was their net worth at the end of 2009;  it’s projected that the family fortune will pass into the $100 billion dollar range by the end of this  year. Not much in common with the base, wouldn’t you say?

Enjoy the obscene privilege on your Labor Day picnic.

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The Fall of Richmond, April 2, 1865

The proposed Wal-Mart, whose foundation (if it is allowed by commerce to be dug, will surely inter the bones of Civil War dead), is 58 miles to the north of Richmond International Speedway as the crow flies along merry, meandering, bucolic, pristine I-95. Following their victory at the Wilderness, the Union Army marched south along a route which may have trampled the grounds which became that neck of interstate highway, capturing Richmond (the capital of the Confederacy) on April 2, 1865. Eight days later Robert E. Lee’s retreating Army of North Virginia surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on the steps of the Appomattox Court House, symbolically ending the Civil War.

Saturday’s race—the Air Guard 400–at Richmond International Speedway is the final race of the Sprint Cup season, and it traditionally called “One Last Race to Make the Chase.”

One last chance, perhaps, but as with most roads to glory, the result is often a foregone conclusion. Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin nor Ryan Newman were able to close their gap in points on Clint Boyer in Atlanta. McMurray, who was closest to Boyer, now 128 points behind. For him to beat out Boyer, McMurray would have to lead all of the laps at Richmond and Bowyer would have to finish 39th. Only catastrophic luck on Boywer’s part and statrospheric luck by McMurray will do the job.

The Sprint Cup’s “Road to Richmond” arrives by way of Atlanta from the south, but the Civil War got to Richmond by way of Fredricksburg from the North.  As I’ve frequently said here, the center of the world – OK, America – is found at a Sprint Cup race. So there’s a lesson in the older route to Richmond from the site of the proposed Wal-Mart, some feet above the cataclysm of the Civil War—almost in oblivion. And in the same way that the Wilderness is being written over by commercial development, so NASCAR’s roots have largely been obscured by the advent of big money.

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The final race of the regular season also falls in Richmond on September 11—the ninth anniversary of the terrorist bombing, the destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and taking out the fifth wall of the Pentagon’s. In all some 3,000 were killed, including 19 Al-Quaida terrorists who took their holy book way too literally, deciding they were mandated by God to be His scimitar mowing down the Great Satan (us).  On that day in 2001, the uber-symbol of American economic clout was felled not the missiles our Space Wars defense system was so vigilant upon but by commercial airline hijackers armed with boxcutters. Thus began the longest military conflict in U.S. history, and the road’s final destination is unclear.

Hindsight is manageable – what happened did – but foresight is a dicey thing.  Some say those who fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it; others—-like Glenn Beck (a literalist of Biblical proportions who has decided to return this country back to God from the infidel (us)-—believe the future is won by those who own the ruling version of it, and is now back there at the Congressional Congress having a much more mean-spirtited and fundamentalist Constitution written. (His owners are quietly going the other way and purchasing the rights to history, the way that estate of Michael Jackson, the best-selling pop artist, owns own the rights to the catalog of The Beatles, the greatest rock-n-roll band.)

Thus the preservationists and the developers are forever going at it over history and its future.

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Tuesday, September  7

This is September – traditionally  the big hurricane month for these parts – yet so far, the conga line of storms coming across the Atlantic has followed pretty much the same pattern, turning north before striking the U.S. Weathercasters explain it as a weak high pressure over Bermuda and a persistent dip in the jet stream, but image which sticks in my imaginative mind is the polarity of two high pressure systems, one over the U.S., the other somewhere over the mid-Atlantic. The storms are not so much steered up off the coast of the U.S. as lured between those big spinnin’ mounds.

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Weathercasters don’t know why these formations occur, nor is there any certainty how long they will last. The same pattern may provide safe passage through the rest of the hurricane season, and it may dissipate next week, giving way to other formations. Like in 2004, when the high pressure system off the coast of the United States steered all the storms right into Florida and the Gulf, resulting in four major hits that year.

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Dealing with hurricanes is like having sex with an 800-lb gorilla: the sex is over when the gorilla is finished. Hurricanes will do whatever they want to do, and science hasn’t a clue how to stop or steer them. They’re just too big.

Tooth pain is like having sex with an 800-lb gorilla. I’ve put off attending to these choppers for years and now several of them are playing the gorilla, beating its chest and bellowing whenever anything touches the bicuspid on the upper right side of my mouth or the molar on the lower right side at the back. Thank God that Nature gave us two of just about everything, including sides of a mouth. (Thank God almighty, though, men only were endowed with one of those pesky perky predatory peckers.) I eat southpaw style and drink cold water like a lefty. But the gorilla won’t be ignored any longer. Well, that’s for next week, in first of several ordeal in the chair where the there are needle-pricks of Novacain and high-whining drills and the smell of burning tooth and jolts of white pain which sear down to my toes. Ignore the teeth and the gorilla comes to visit.

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Migraines are also like having sex with an 800-lb gorilla. My migraine gorilla has been jumping up and down in my skull for a decade now, once to three times a week or so;  but this summer he hasn’t let up except for the first week I went onto the Nadolol. Tomorrow my neurologist is going to begin a fail-safe regimen of infusing twice a day a cocktail of meds which promises to drench my sickened brainstem with the big guns of pharma. Let’s see how the gorilla squatting on my head right now likes that.

The infusions worked back in ’05, the last time the gorilla got a hold and let go – but I’m not holding out any high hopes for anything more than a return to frequent visits by migraine, if not a permanent residence. This migraine will leave for good when it’s done with me, or I’m done.

Back in ’05 I wrote a series of poems called The Shamanic Letters, based on belief that the shaman’s initiatory experience (brutal, transformative) had parallels with migraines. (One of the Letters from that series concludes this post.) As much as the pain of migraine sucks, there are benefits. My brain is stimulated during the onset of a migraine; it’s both more creative and hornier. When it finally lifts there is sometimes the feeling of elation—whether it’s a spiritual afterglow or simply the relief of finally feeling well again, who knows.

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Neither the infusions – nor the poems – were potent enough to shamanize away whatever dark spirit who loves to dig its hooves into the grooves of my brainstem. I’m not sure what the message of this migraine is—-I’ve given up on the metaphysics. I’m taking a more physiological rather than psychological approach. Like a hurricane season, this summer’s Migraine from Hell has been in the hot weather, the bum economy, our failing finances, Jimmie Johnson’s fall from grace and the vagaries of this mid-term election season. At least, all of that goes round and round the pain-sump of my bleedin’ mind.

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But maybe the experience is still shamanic: my malaise has flashes of silver in its blue-black slime, allowing me to see what I couldn’t in the bright blue skies of a day without migraine. Not all of it is damage and dearth.

As the thinking goes, wounds damage, but they can also be wombs for growth. Everyone’s heard of post—traumatic stress disorder, the harrowing grip that damaging memories have upon a person’s mind. But there is also a phenomenon called post-traumatic “growth” or “adversarial” syndrome. Some soldiers have been documented emerging from combat—sometimes with massive wounds—feeling enhanced, rather than diminished, by the experience. There are feelings of spiritual development, improved relationships, a sense of personal strength and a greater appreciation for the moment.

A 1980 study cited in a Washington Post article found that 61 percent of American POWS in North Vietnam believed their experience was ultimately beneficial. The article relates this experience:

Tom McNish, a former Air Force pilot who was a prisoner in North Vietnam for six years, said: “There is no question in my mind that the experience I had in Vietnam has had an overall very positive effect on my life. But I don’t recommend it for anybody else. And I don’t want to have to do it again.”

Basically, one’s worst experience becomes a door to a new life with benefits which make the ordeal, in hindsight, a fertile, positive, transforming event.

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Meaning: the road to Richmond passes by Civil War battlefields and Wal-Mart, but it also has gone through Oz and Xanadu, Kansas and your home town; past cemeteries and VA hospitals, factories and farmland; past cities in ruin and churches whose steeples are just being set, and schools brimming with our future, and assisted-living facilities where the dying let go, sometimes screaming, sometimes with a smile; past honkeytonks where all hope is squandered except for a few who don’t die one night as they should and wake up instead, gather up their clothes and head for the heartland, walking on the side of the road beside us, smiling and waving as we pass. The road to Richmond includes all of these heavily-migrained mornings as I peer through the pain to see what I’m typing on the page, somehow believing that if I just make to Richmond – to the end of the post anyway – by then I’ll feel better, cleansed by the saying and Toradol and DHA. But then, by Richmond the gorilla will have grunted and zipped up and wandered off back into the Wilderness, free to return whenever HE chooses. Can’t do anything about that; but I can complete my travels here, for this post …

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Wednesday, September 8

“The kingdom will not come by expectation. The Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth, and men do not find it.” – Gospel of  Thomas

So in my dream I’m sitting in an operating chair at the doctor’s – whether my dentist or neurologist, I can’t tell. Maybe both, the two compressed into one figment in the way of dreams. And neither: I can’t figure out who this guy is, don’t recall visiting this particular dentist (though I’ve seen three in the ordeal leading up to the eventual work which begins next week). Perhaps he is one of a series of Dentists who have Operated on Me (my teeth, my soul). Or one of the many Doctors who have Examined My Head (psychiatrist, psychologist, or neurologist). But I have work to do with the other doctors; how do I explain to him that he’s not the one? He orders x-rays, unsure I’m in any actual dental pain, attributing the soreness to migraines. Or is it the other way around? Skull or teeth, head or gut? I have a beer, and the doctor thinks that’s a good idea and has one, too. For this “consultation,” I’m to explain not only where the pain is coming from, but also why. I wake up when my wife goes to the loo to pee, and discover I have a bad migraine and my two bum teeth are throbbingly sore.

I get up-—at 2:30 a.m.—to get to work here. Might as well get something done here, even if what I accomplish is just digging me deeper into my own self-styled grave. Well, pass by my headstone there in the quaint country graveyard on the Road to Richmond, the one inscribed – I Did It My Way – Ouch! And I’ll never know which side of war being waged in my brain, my heart and my soul eventually won – the Preservationist who likes his beaches pristine – hearkening back to Eden, or maybe just my mother’s womb (where eternal seas softly and almost-silently plash)– or the Developer whose eyeing the shoreline seeing high rises and big box retailers with big-busted cashiers who are always available for More – more sugar, more spice, more gorillas, more words here.

The Doctor shrugged and said: I’ll have one too.

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Nowhere else in this country – except maybe in Nevada – is the viral scour of development so evident as in Florida. Florida was nothing for centuries – poor hunting grounds for the locals, of no value to the Union (Florida was the only state in the South which saw no battles during the Civil War), a sub-tropic wilderness until steamships started exploring the state’s meandering waterways late in 19th century. That’s when winter playgrounds for the rich were built – huge mansions and resorts and casinos on the borders of water (lakes, rivers and the sea). Then came the railroads penetrating further into around the state, then the roads. Slowly the state’s potential (besides growing oranges) as a tourist mecca emerged. Thus wilderness was cleared and the building began. The railroad which once crossed through our town (only the tracks remain) brought all manner of snowbirds who stayed for one season. Our  house was built in 1921 by a retired woman who paid her bills by renting out the lower half of the house in the winter. Only those in the support industry (the-barely- middle-class locals) and the blacks and the crackers weathered Florida’s withering summers without a/c.

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The big boom came after the war with the advent of air conditioning. Tourist parks like Weekie Watchee and Silver Springs and Marineland sprouted up, along with clusters of motels for the faithful. Suburbs began to grow in Tampa and Jacksonville, Miami and Daytona Beach. Orlando got its windfall when I-4 was built connecting the east and west coasts of Central Florida, and Disney World was built in the south of the town. And the land craze was on, with huge parcels  being bought up by developers with rich connections in the pro-business Florida legislature. Plenty of room to build on, huge swaths of forest and swamps and beachfront acreage. Once the emptiest state on the nation’s  east coast, Florida is now its second most populous at 18 million, just behind New York.

Nothing stands in the way of developers; and what is already developed is easily torn down and built over anew. There is little heritage in this state, because something gleamingly new is sitting on it. Humans have trekked through Florida for 10,000 years (always, it seems, on the road to somewhere else); there are few remains of their earlier residence, written over by successive moments of the present.

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The Miami Circle (see below), an ancient American Indian site found in the foundations of an apartment complex being torn down in for condo highrises. It took the state almost a decade to free the land from those greedy developers.

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Rarely does an attempt to preserve Florida’s past survive the stony pro-business will which fills the greedy hearts of city commissioners and state legislators – unless a better buck can be made. In 1995 the city of Miami approved a plan by a developer to raze the Brickell Point Apartments (on the south shore of the city looking out on the Straits of Florida) and build high-rise condos there, even though the site was within an archaeological conservation area. In 1998 while demolition was underway, black earth midden deposits were discovered – and then the Miami Circle, a perfect circle of 24 holes or basins cut into the limestone bedrock, surrounded by a large number of other ‘minor’ holes. It is the only known evidence of a prehistoric permanent structure cut into the bedrock in the United States, and considerably predates other known permanent settlements on the East Coast. It is believed to have been the location of a structure, built by the Tequesta Indians, in what was possibly their capital, some 1700 to 2000 years old.

The city considered having the Circle moved in order to have the condo construction proceed, but media attention became heated and a public outcry resulted in the city sued to gain the right acquiring the 2-acre property. The developer fought back, asserting that the Circle was probably the imprint of a septic system left by the former apartment buildings. A long legal battle with the developer ensued, and support from the Florida legislature failed to materialize until Florida Senator Bob Graham managed to get a bill to pass the state legislature in 2002 and the site got registered on the National Register of Historic Places.

Who knows what other antiquities are sitting under some Holiday Inn or Target, under the footers of millionaire McHouses or mobile home parks which equally fester the landscape. Ka-Ching! is the developer’s mantra, all of those gold coins spilling into their laps as whatever Florida once was is going, going gone. And what we get is a drab suburban uniformity where one place pretty well looks exactly like another, where you know you’ve entered the next town when the next set of Wendys and Wal-Marts come into view.

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And nowhere is the Great Bust in view as here in Florida, one of the countries hottest development prospects until just a few years ago. Driving about you can find abandoned housing developments which stopped in their tracks when the real-estate market collapsed, tracts of roads with square plots geometrically fitted into their sides where PVC pipes sprout from the ground but not much else except a rising tide of weeds -– thousands of these abandoned sites around the state whose lonely emptiness is echoed by completed developments now only a tenth occupied as most of the houses fell into sub-prime mortgage foreclosure. As I’ve written before, only one out of four mortgages in the Orlando area currently has at least a dollar of equity in it; the vast majority are underwater, covered in financial miasma the way the state has been covered by the sea many times in its history.

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I think of our neighborhood, mostly underwater the way our mortgage is, with people we know somewhat falling down the same hole we have fallen into; when I sit outside in the early morning feeding our black stray I see lights on in windows at 4 a.m., knowing the worry sets heavily on us all, resulting in insomnia and cheap amusements and abandonments. I drank a beer nonchalantly in my dream, even though I’ve foresworn alchohol for the past nine years (when I drink, I have a tendency for tossing my wedding ring or breaking out in handcuffs). I’ll have a beer too, the Doctor said in my dream.

What else areyagonnado, except keep on bailing, piling up the sandbags of contingency and credit, a structure which usually collapses eventually of its own unsteady making, allowing in the dark cold pour of realities imagined and all too real for too many. Here in Florida, people aren’t marrying, they aren’t having kids (or so many kids), they aren’t divorcing. But they are dying, or leaving, driving back north on the southbound road of dreams, headed back to some dust-bowl Kansas or rust-belt Ohio which has no greater opportunity but at least is home. Leaving the rest of us to eke out what remains, listening to tide waters rise outside the door.

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US-441 – the Orange Blossom Trail — is the road south from here which takes me to my job every day. As I’ve written earlier in the year, it is also the highway of nasty, the road of highway hookers and strip-club nubilettes named Chloe and Bristol who will shake their nipple-taped ta-ta’s in your face for a twenty, and with a smile for two. It is the road of perdition, fer sure, whether because it takes me to the salt mines or flesh dives of the soul.

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Going north on US-441 from here, that road is for many us in Central Florida the road of salvation, the yellowed brick road to The Swamp, home of the University of Florida Gators in Gainesville. That college football team wis as close to religion as many local good ole boys will get on any day other than Sunday. It is a road, in that direction, not unlike the pilgrimage to Mecca, where those (alas) almost-undefeated champs beat all comers while the loyal blue-and-orange fans chomp the air with their outstretched arms. Even though the Gators defeated Miami (OH) last weekend 34-12, their play was so sloppy that they slipped to No. 8 in the national rankings. The real Miami team – the one down there in Circle Town, FLA – plays, oddly, Ohio State this weekend.)

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For 17 of the past 20 matchups, the Florida Gators have chomped the Bulldogs of Georgia. Gator fans have been effusive in their liquid enthusiasm for the home team.

The Florida-Georgia football classic was dubbed “The World’s largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” by Florida Time-Union sports columnists Bill Kastelz in the 1950s, when he saw a drunken tailgater offer a drink to a cop. The practice remains in massive force though both schools have officially disavowed themselves of the handle. Recruiting based on stratospheric blood alcohol content versus academic excellence is not good official PR, but the U. of F. attracts a lot of students. (Surprisingly, the University of Central Florida has the largest student population – in fact, it’s the third largest in the country).

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Heading just north out of Gainesville, the road to salvation takes a hard right at the Dove World Outreach Center, where a trueblood Bible Belt evangelist named Terry Jones plans to hold a Quran-burning event (that’s Ko-ran, for you loyal Bushies) on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. For Jones, it’s simple: the Koran is filled with lies. Signs outside the church proclaim: “Islam is of the devil.” (Well, they did; some dissenter keeps stealing the “Islam” sign.) Asked in his dark office (where there are posters of George Bush and Mel Gibson as Braveheart) what he knew of the Quran, he replied: “I have no experience with it whatsoever. I only know that the Bible says.”

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Announced back in July, the news of “International Burn a Koran Day” has slowly snowballed into a major media event (I’m not surprising anyone with this news), and the backlash against Jones and his mission has ranged from the local (some two dozen Christian churches, Jewish temples and Muslim organizations in Gainesville – it is a college town – are planning protest events featuring readings from the Quran on the night) to the national (Gen. David Petraeus has asked Jones to desist, saying that such an event would only endanger American troops in Irag and Afghanistan) to the globe (evidence the burnings of American-flag-draped effigies of Jones on the Middle Eastern Street). Jones says he’s received a hundred or so death threats and packs a .40 caliber pistol, which the minister says he is licensed to carry. (Jones was a hotel manager before taking up his crusade.)

Jones is representative of the recent spread of anti-Muslim sentiment around the country, heated still further by Republican and especially Tea Party candidates for the mid-term elections. Ron McNeil, a Republican candidate for Congress in the Florida Panhandle, told a group of high school and middle school students last week that Islam’s plan “is to destroy our way of life.” He added: “It’s our place as Christians to stand up for the word of God and what the Bible says.” McNeill is running against incumbent Allen Boyd “and the Democrat’s progressive ideology and liberal agenda.” (from McNeill’s website).

And then there’s plain old American racial hatred. President Obama is twice-damned – for being black and foreign Muslim to boot, no matter how much the President professes to be both American and Christian and has all the documents to prove it. Good ole boys have been heard to crack that the Quran should be barbecued with pork (which is banned in Islam).

Fortunately for Gator fans, the event will transpire after the game.

Unfortunately for Richmond fans, the Air Guard 400 will take place at the same time. It’s bad enough that there are two contending college football games on the tube – No. 18 Penn State vs. No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Oregon vs. unranked Tennessee – (thank God the Virginia Tech make-up ass-whupping against James Madison will be done by then) — but think of the added live coverage of the Gainesville bonfire on the cable news stations.

If it comes off. By the time this post gets up, the resolve of Revd. Jones may have collapsed. I mean, it’s one tip of a growing iceberg against the world, right?

So much drama on Saturday, with so little to prove at Richmond, the track at end of the road for the Sprint Cup’s regular season.

Stay tuned. To something.

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Thursday, September 9

His disciples said, “When will you appear to us and when shall we see you?” Jesus answered, “When you strip off your clothes without being ashamed, and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample them, then (you) will see the son of the living one and not be afraid.” – Gospel of Thomas

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We are very much perplexed to know who is the next
To command the new Richmond expedition,
For the Capital must blaze, and that in ninety days,
And Jeff and his men be sent to perdition.
We’ll take the cursed town, and then we’ll burn it down,
And plunder and hang up each cursed Rebel;
Yet the contraband was right when he told us they would fight
“Oh, yes, massa, they fight like the devil!”

Then pull off your coat and roll up your sleeve,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel;
Then pull off your coat and roll up your sleeve,
For Richmond is a hard road to travel, I believe!

Eventually all roads come to an end.  They must, for our minds cannot endure the thought of eternal passage here on earth. That would be another form of damnation: a road too far. I swear this post will come to an end. I swear, I swear, I swear, dagnammit.

When a road never ends, an entire Earth is circled. The landscape gets familiar again: haven’t I been here before? And still the course winds over the horizon. Poor fool us, we don’t know when to stop on roads such as that.

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the poet is allowed to walk through the Nine Circles of Hell, guided by the Roman poet Virgil, damned for living before Christ. Dante is able to walk out of Hell and on to Purgatory and Paradise, but the fallen are stuck down there, damned for all eternity to symbolically reenact their sins. Down in at the bottom of the Eight Circle, where things are about as bad as they get, sowers of discord (which include, in Dante’s Book, Muhammad), are hacked to pieces by a sword-wielding demon; these schematics walk around and round their Circle, bodies slowly healing back together, only o be hacked back to pieces again by the demon and sent on their eternal round. (Muslims would surely argue who split who off from the Truth — there is practically no difference between a Christian and Islamic fundamentalist, so sure they both are that each has exclusive rights to God’s mercy.)

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William Blake’s “The Schismatics and Sowers of Discord.” Muhammad is the bearded figure whose chest has been slashed open by the sword-wielding demon.

Problem is, one man’s meat is another’s poison. In Islamic countries, the Muslim Street knows America as the Great Satan, blaspheming their Allah with descecrations great and small. There’s a long road for Pastor Jones to walk in Jahannam, the Muslim Hell (after Greek Gehenna), long after every bad Muslim has been sprung from the joint. (They have a much more merciful God than the one preached by hard-right evangelicals.) Who’s the real sower of discord? Who’s yer daddy? Such questions hang in the air as the road comes to an end in Richmond.

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Sediments from the eroding Appalachinan mountains traveled south, forming the Florida peninsula. The Tequesta Indians traveled south down that peninsula until they came to the sea, and built their cathedral to safe passage there. Many have driven south into Florida with eyes full of Weeki Watchee mermaids serving pina coladas to them in their backyard pool.

But the end of the road is not always so cheerful. In The Planet of the Apes, Charleton Heston rides to the sea only to find that he’s crash-landed his spaceship on no foreign planet but our Earth of the future, finding there at the water’s edge, sticking halfway out of the sand, the Statue of Liberty, causing Heston to curse humanity.

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And in Mad Max and The Road Warrior, Max (played by Mel Gibson), a heartbroken and somewhat deranged state trooper still patrolling the highways after apocalypse, engages at both movies’ end in a chase which runs out of reel before it runs out of road, causing, I guess for expediency’s sake, that the chase make a 180 in media res.

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Sometimes the road goes on a lot further than we know. More people left Florida in 2009 than relocated or were born here for the first time in decades. Lots of people around the country are on the road, many of them driving in the only lodging they have.

And sometimes the road is over before we know it’s over. There was a house in our neighborhood which sported a sign by the front door which said, “Dun Roamin’” until the house was sold, the occupant who thought he was finished moved on to better digs elsewhere – in assisted living or the grave.

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The road to Richmond — for the Sprint Cup, at least — comes on Saturday by way of a race season engineered for maxiumum fan pleasure though grandstands were ever-emptier (Bristol failing to fill twice, after 54 straight Sprint Cup sellouts). There is the haunt of the old losing battle to the moment, troops rallied but future prospects dimmer.

Hopefully the road to Richmond will also bring some pleasure of homecoming to racing’s former glory. Think of the hobbits in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings returning to the Shire after setting out, too long ago, for adventure in the depths of Mordor and the Crack of Doom. Homecoming means the sweetness of childhood memories in the smell of local hearthsmoke and mown grass, scents those little warriors never imagined smelling again.

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Homecoming in Richmond after the Civil War must have been a mixed pleasure for the defeated Confederate Army. A different home in a changed world.

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Bitter–yet sweet, for many of the old icons of pride are there –- the Virginia State Capital and the White House of the Confederacy. On Monument Avenue you’ll find a number of monuments dedicated to leading figures of the Confederacy -– Robert E. Leeand J.E.B. Stuart and “Stonewall” Jackson on their bronze horses, leading their winning battles in a losing fray.

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And there are newer monuments to Southern pride. NASCAR is one of them. So is the durability of country music, now the safe haven of every white rock n roller. And so, too, is the Wal-Mart which Fredicksburg locals want to erect over the humiliation at the Wilderness, against the pressure of tree-hugging, Union-loving, godless, Quaran-wielding and unpatriotic preservationists.

But what about the bittersweetness of these homecomings at the end of the road? Bittersweet: now there’s an equiovcation, a mixed pleasure, like the beauty of the day following a funeral or a love song on the radio for the one who got away so long, long ago.

For Virginian Denny Hamlin, his Sprint Cup homecoming to Richmond is one of the few vital dramas of the event, for a win would start him at the front of the Chase with a lead in bonus points for what would be his sixth victory of the year. That would be sweet indeed. But if things go as they have in the last month of his racing, things could go sour again, and he’ll have to face the Chase inside the fabled chill of a stalled, failing and falling momentum. Bad breaks last year kept him from stopping Jimmie Johnson’s fourth championship run; he was probably the best other driver out there.

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Of course, it won’t be the road to Richmond but the one which finishes at Homestead in Miami which will perhaps engender the bittersweetest of feelings for all but the one who may have by then mathematically sewed up the championship. To have pitted oneself for 35 races against his peers and come up so close to the title but failed to reach the season’s Victory Lane – again, again, again for so many – must be awful bitter; so, too, for champions like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon who haven’t held the gold cup for quite a while. Ten of the final 12 will be honored, regardless, in Las Vegas; but only one takes the checker ed flag which sums the one which fell at all 36 races of the season. (And that driver may not have won a single one of those races this year.)

But more of that later this year. The moment is the road to Richmond, and I make my way to an end – to this end, for this post – here. I imagine Denny Hamlin looking out the window of his car (Camaro? Viper? Mustang? Taxi?) as he approaches Richmond International Speedway for this race weekend, his face revealing the contrary emotions of elation and worry, resolve and resignation. The bittersweetness of homecoming.

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Not unlike the feelings I have when I drive the last blocks home on my daily commute to my not-enough-job, eyes weary, head usually throbbing with migraine, the news on National Public Radio usually troubling. I take notice of this house or that, especially ones where For Sale signs have hung for too long, each month on the market dragging down house values of the entire neighborhood. An old guy walks alone; his dog Lucky must have died a while back. Oh sad, falling world.

Then I soften, admiring the landscaping in front of that house, the father walking alongside a his adopted Oriental girl as she gamely rides a bicycle fitted with training wheels. Sweet dreams are made of this, everything sad inside the old womb’s future bliss. One more stop sign, one more turn and I’m on my block, passing houses I can see with my eyes closed, even in sleep, just outside the window of the Doctor’s office I dream, each with dramas I know well enough.

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And then I’m turning into my driveway, admiring our garden now plush and lush in late summer, Mexican petunias long and waving in a breeze which tokens no tropical disturbance (Igor brews in the Antilles and looks to grow into one feral huge fucker, but I have trust that Chloe (Vevrier, that’s the model I’ve kidnapped for use in these pics), our busty Lady of Diversion, is out in the Atlantic holding vigil, guiding every bum storm system up the space between her marvelous, high-pressure mounds. I can see the TV in the living room, tuned, probably to “King of Queens,” comedy always for the end of hard day. Black Mamacita’s on the front porch waiting for her dinner, the stray we’ve cared for after all of her kittens died or grew up to die. , my wife’s car parked in back – she’s home from her work, the fourth and last probably carried off by a coyote three years ago.

Coming inside I’m greeted by Belle, our calico cat, ever the watchful, wakeful, attentive one. She’s probably looking for more food, but her expression for it is love, mewing at me and rubbing up against my leg. Hi Dad. And as I write these last lines, looking forward to shutting down this laptop, showering and shaving and getting back in bed with my wife to wake her up, gently rubbing her feet – I see myself come home to find my weary wife just back from her job, checking messages on the phone, looking beautiful to me, an aging woman whose heart I live and breathe and have my being in – a fragile, great risk, to love a mortal so – so ultimately bittersweet. I see myself hugging by way of homecoming. Into her ear I whisper “I love you”; and, as useless physic for all that we struggle against (today she takes her mother to her cardiologist appointment; she’s suffering from a fast and hard onset coronary heart disease) I add, “everything’s going to be OK,” which is my faith that God is here on this earth, in this life, this day, present in every moment of the journey and waiting for us at the end of the road. And not “everything is going to be OK” but “everything IS ok,” in God’s world, in the mystery and the depths and the profound discoveries and simple delights to be found when you peer into the moment and see the infinite looking back.

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On to Richmond we go …

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Postscript – Friday, September 10

In my dream last night – affected or afflicted, or both, by Nadolol and the cocktail of steroids, DHA and anti-nausea drugs flowing through my veins twice a day for three days at the research lab that’s next to my neurologist’s offce –all intended to break the hold of the 800-lb gorilla of a migraine who’s been happily humping away all summer on my cortical pain conduits – sitting, now doubt, on that pesky hippocampus where the mongol hordes from my brainstem into my head – In my dream I am attending a race, or a pre-race event. I look for a parking spot in a foggy dark lot – it’s very very late at night, not long before I get up every day – and cars are parked so helter-skelter I have to jam in sideways between two muscle cars.

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In a large hall Sprint Cup cars are being rolled into place along one wall, and there are folding chairs set up in the remainder of the hall for fans and the media. I get a seat up front (actually the cars are lined up along the west wall, as if rolled in from the garage next to Pit Row); Greg Biffle’s No. 16 Ford is the next rolled into place, so I move towards the north entrance, hoping to get a seat next to Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy. A woman sits next to me, indeterminate age, not young or old, pretty in an indeterminate way, perhaps coming from within. She says she writes poems about racing mostly but is blogging this event in prose. I say hmmm, I wrote poems for ten years every day and then all that just shut up in me, and these racin’ blogs eventually started pouring forth. Poetry is much more spiritual, I say, and she agrees. But racin’ demands a bigger mouth. She starts to say something to me but is drowned out by an announcer on the PA who says its time for me to wake up. The event is finishing this post. I think of her as I write these lines, no threat to the real woman who’s sleeping a few more minutes after my ritual of softly rubbing her soles in slow downward motions – she was up in the night, worried no doubt about her mother, our money, this life. But the presence of that woman in my dream made me confident there was a way to the end of this post, making sure every last grain was spilled from the cup of Richmond before tapping the last period.

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Note

The Gospel According to Thomas or Gospel of Thomas, is a non-canonical gospel which was discovered in the cache of early Christian texts in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in December 1945. Written in the Coptic language, it originated in a school of early Christians and is attributed to Didymos Judas Thomas, a figure whose authenticity is debated and therefore of unknown authorship. It was included in the first New Testament canon, but in the fourth century only four canonical gospels – those of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – were formally include in the Council of Nicea. An excellent account of how so many gospels of Jesus that were popular in the days of early Christendom came to be rejected as the Church institutionalized itself can found in Eileen Pagels’ Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003).

As the sayings from that rejected gospel indicate in this post, in the Book of Thomas Jesus is presented as a deeply mystical figure who tried to convice his disciples that Heaven was in the here and now. “I am the light that is over all things,” he says in another part of the gospel. “I am all. From me all came forth, and to me all extends. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” The rhetorical style is closest to that of St. John’s, connotatively elusive and deep, inviting an engaging meditation which allows the reader to walk a broad and inclusive highway of faith. The Church grew in the other way, denotatively actual and concrete, it’s authority based on what it deemed the Truth – facts. It hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages, and battles a world which hasn’t stopped changing since.

Joseph Campbell once said, “Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religions traditions … are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

The middle road to faith—-between the warring realms of literalist religion and fact-based science—is, I believe, myth. Joseph Campbell again: “A mythology may be understood as an organization of metaphorical figures connotative of states of mind that are not finally of this or that nation or historical period, even though the figures themselves seem on their surface to suggest a concrete localization. The metaphorical languages of both mythology and metaphysics are not denotative of actual worlds or gods, but rather connote levels and entities within the person touched by them. Metaphors only seem to describe the outer world of time and place. Their real universe is the spiritual realm of the inner life. The Kingdom of God is within you.” (Thou Art That, 7)

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The Fourth Shamanic Letter:

DOCTOR

Nov. 13, 2005

Among the Alarsk Buryat studied by Sandschejew, shamanism is transmitted in the paternal or maternal line. But it is also spontaneous. In either case vocation is manifested by dreams and convulsions, both provided by ancestral spirits (utcha).

A shamanic vocation is obligatory; one cannot refuse it. If there are no suitable candidates, the ancestral spirits torture children, who cry in their sleep, becomenervous and dreamy, and at 13 are designated for the profession. The preparatory period involves a long series of ecstatic experiences which are at the same time initiatory; the ancestral spirits appear in dreams and sometimes carry the candidate down to the underworld.

Meanwhile the youth continues to study under the shamans and the elders; he learns the clan genealogy and traditions, the shamanic mythology and vocabulary. The teacher is called the Father Shaman. During his ecstasy the candidate sings shamanic hymns. This is the sign that contact with the Beyond has finally been established.

—Mercea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy

A Frova, Prednasone, two Tegretols,
a cup of Cuban coffee, some AA
literature, a bit of the wanker souse
purveying glossy boobs in Swank,
doses of Faust Part II and Eliade
and Jessie Weston & I’m off again,
saddled up for this next letter to You,
here at 5:15 on a Sunday morning,
exhausted from all the work we put
into a our so-so yard sale (enough to help
pay the next round of bills) but feeling
well enough to sing here again, the way
I do when I’m not feeling well at all,
only less pained to do be so verbally
pained. Does that matter at all to You?

Will my tongue actually become too
clotted with its joy to swirl the milky
depths of Soma’s awful truths buried
deeper in these words for a rougher
wilder world than I alone could not
have lived, much less sung to all the
gods? An owl hoots from a dark
tree in our dark neighborhood and
yet again, scaring off Hamlet’s Ghost
in his fatherly equipage.

A third time yet, holding my mind
to that edge between this waking world
and Your wet thundering surge
of all abyssal blissful ends. I’ve come
to trust this hour’s mood of matin chant,
the charm of sound between the lobes
of aging brain and bone, staircasing down
the foam of waters which drowned
You a thousand singers’ songs ago.

Is there a physic of the word which
knits wounds with verbal herbs
plucked from the blackest hedge beyond
the last lights of nighttown? When I
left for college 30 years ago I planned
to become a doctor of some sort, of
medicine or divinity for sure (as all
fools and adolescents swear), healing
the world of my own vast wounds, of
my parents’ and their parents’ more
vast and vaster woundings too.

But one course in human biology revealed
a nature in those wounds which refused
taxonomy; in all the catalogue of doors
that might have opened them at last
—muscular-skeletal doors, digestive ones,
circulatory labyrinths opening and closing
not that heart, endrocrinal egresses,
the royal road of neurons rising a spine
which was no arch I knew inside, beyond
those sterile names.

None of that seemed wild or wet enough
to shore that seeming sea that sucked
my toes at night and drowned me in dreams.
My father saw me as a Princeton man,
packing me onto my westbound flight
decked in a blue blazer he thought
a future man of God would be desired
by everymonied pulpit in the realm.
Yet I stepped off that plane far west of home
and was aghast to see my peers in
ratty jeans and hippie shirts, the girls
all Californian, so Mephistophelean-bright
I swore their smiles had roots in
tie-died thunderwear. Divinity adieu!

I swore, hanging up that blue blazer
for good. New older gods were singing
to me from a blue, blacker wood,
half-pecker, half trunk wild-hurling
ache, a forest of guitar necks stained
in hooch. Topside by day I was just
a dorky college freshman with a
nowhere kind of face, blundering

from dorm to class amid such freshening
tits and ass weaving, like fog, through
all those cathedralling pines. Further
down, far from topside view, the freshly
unGodded man sought infernal solace
in the words.

I loved history and Western Civ and
writing poetry the way I loved and hated
solitude, tearing into texts like meat and
bleeding inharmoniously as I tried
to write poems, line after sing-song line,
page after silly page. (I know—what truly
changes in the single wheeling of our life?)

In Your tutorage I was wholly blind
to the nurture of its nocturned source;
dark breasts swole unseen to books
lending to my greedy lips all that coffee
and those cigarettes in long hours
of riven study where I proved nothing
to the world but a raging, distant solitude.

Each line I read and wrote was like
a suture on my lips, sealing me tight
into a darkened room far so fucking
far below. Savage boobs by day
denied by every passing blouse sure
put the hurt in thirst as I guzzled
later beers by night, cans secreted
in my basement window and packed
in snow as the fall fell all the way.

I drank a sixpack every night while
my monkish ink dried on the page,
spinning Jethro Tull and Led Zep III
on my tinny stereo, my hands
twitching as Jimmy Page psalmed the way
on “Since I Been Lovin You,” roaring down
perdition’s 12-bar road of blues,
astride that red dragon Gibson ES-335.

I wanted none of it and all it,
the word and world I mean: I would
have given my entire soul for one night
free of books and poems as their
awful consequence in me, the IsoSoul,
the gray-faced scholist with with the
tiny pen that spewed such feral ire.

And that’s just what You offered me a
ways on further down that winter’s
hoary night: A woman walked out of
that pinewood mist to grip my penis
tight inside her half-looped mouth.
I couldn’t come for the life of me,
not even for my soul, though I traded
it any way—too shocked to be so
naked of all words, I guess—

But from that night my studies found
a tooth to them, turning every ivory
tower into an alabaster cock of thought,
desperate and ready to shove down
all walls to enter the well of Her—
I mean Your—conspiratorial blue dolor.

Thus my truer education thrust me down
the ramps of fire, soon plugged into
an amplifier & wielding an electric
blue guitar, burning every word I know
between Persephone’s own thighs,
good-time queen in that honky tonk
at the bottom of every night’s too
deep well of desire.

Doctor indeed I now am, of petrel cry
beyond all waking surf, my bag
stuffed with starfish and sand
dubbloons and the trailing skirts
of manowars. My physic works best
dripping from this pen’s nib,
playing salt guitar with Adam’s rib.

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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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Reversal of Fortune


Wrong way to the Cup, JJ: Jimmie spins out at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 21 after contact with Juan Pablo Montoya. The No. 48 Chevrolet limped into the garage and got back out on the track 75 laps down, resulting in a 35th-place finish.

This weekend is the last one without a Sprint Cup race until the end of the season. The drivers who also participate in Nationwide Series races are headed for this weekend’s race in Montreal.

For many of these drivers, it may be the last season they attempt to race in both series, given that Nationwide purses are being cut 20 percent next year and Sprint Cup drivers may be barred from championship eligibility. But then, if you’re Kyle Busch, wins count more than any series, since he’s trying to rack up 200 wins in combined Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series races.

No break this year for those guys, but next year, Sprint Cup drivers may become more Jimmie Johnsonian in their leisure hours. It’s probably just coincidence, but it is unusual that the guy who doesn’t try to race in both (or all) series is the consecutive four-time champ.

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Still, I hope that Jimmie Johnson will use the time off to address the meltdown in this season. Since his last win at Loudon on June 27, he’s finished 31st, 25th, 22d, 10th, 28th, 12th and 35th – craparoo for any driver, a shit blizzard for a 4-peat champ. It’s not that Johnson hasn’t been racing well – he has led 90 or more laps three times in past seven races – but the stuff of bad luck — pit miscues, part failures, wrecks — are becoming alarmingly more the norm.

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So alarming, you can’t help feel the whoosh of a downward spiral. It’s a bit reminiscent, albeit pre-Chase, of Kyle Busch in 2008, who won eight races (only Carl Edwards had more races with 9) but bonked right at the outset of the Chase and ended up 12th in points.

A similar sort of meltdown occurred during the Miss Universe pageant last night. Two contestants, Miss Philippines and Miss Mexico were neck and neck (or bustline and bustline?) in scoring going into the final round.

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William Baldwin asked Venus Raj, Miss Philippines, the final round question: “What is one big mistake you made in your life, and what did you do to correct it?”

Raj ahemmed for a moment and then, stroking her hair, replied, “You know sir, in my 22 years of existence, there is nothing major, major, major, I mean, problem, that I have done in my life.”

Rigggggggggggt. That wrong-headed response is what prompted the judges to give the final nod and crown of Miss Universe to Jimena Navarette of Mexico.

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Miss Phillipines was a knockout, but she didn’t have the brains to conquer the Universe.

In that arena of competition, beauty and brains disconnect at great peril. Let’s recall the remarks by Miss South Carolina Lauren Caitlin Upton in the Miss Teen USA 2007 pageant. She was asked, “Why can’t one fifth of Americans locate America on the map?” The halcyon ur-blonde replied,

I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some, uh, people out there in our nation don’t have maps and, uh, I believe that our, uh, education like such as, uh, South Africa and, uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and, I believe that they should, uh, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, or, uh, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future, for our children.

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Thank you, Miss South Carolina, and here’s to Miss Teen America 2007 Hilary Cruz of Colorodo.

Some other notable meltdowns on the home stretch:

– In 1992, the Houston Oilers were carrying a 33-point lead into the fourth quarter of their AFC wild card game and ended up losing to 38-35 to the Buffalo Bills.

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– In 2007, New York Mets pitcher and two-time Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine pitched a nightmarish first inning against the Florida Marlins, giving up seven runs and knocking the Mets out of playoff contention.

– Zinedine Zidane headbutted a competitor during the 2006 World Cup final which sidelined France’s best scorer and led to Italy’s 5-3 shootout win. (The Italian was rumored to have said something about Zidane’s mother.)

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– Earlier this month, Tiger Woods blew it bigtime at the $8.5 million WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, ending up with a 7-over-77, the highest four-round score of his pro career. I guess thinking about all that wide-open strange he’ll be getting without worrying about what his wife knows made his putter go wild.

Big league flubbing rouses shameful memories in me of watching my own heroes bite it bigtime. The year was 1969 and my Chicago Cubs were enjoying on Sept. 2 a 84-52 record with a solid, 5-game lead over the second-place New York Mets. The Cubs hadn’t made the playoffs since 1945 and won their last World Series in 1908; the whole city (well, north of Cominsky Park and the White Sox) was a-twirl with visions of glory.

And then my Cubbies went into a September tailspin, losing 17 of their last 25 games and the league title going to the Mets, who went on to win the World Series. I was 12 at the time at the die-hardest Cubs fan, watching games from our house in the northern suburb of Evanston, eyes glued the set, fingers, toes, heart crossed as I watched my boys who seemed so certain to win the division title choke and choke big, day after day, week after week, spiraling down the gutter of my dream.

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My heart was broken forever in 1969; never again have I been able to muster much faith in my home team. I’m always surprised when my favorite team is able to do much of anything, like when the Bears won the Super Bowl in ’85 or the Florida State Seminoles won the national title in ’91.

I didn’t have any faith that Jimmie Johnson could win a third consecutive championship, much less a fourth; and now my faith is at an all time low in JJ, confirmed with events of the past eight race. It may be still August, but it feels like the Fall, or that falling season in which grand aspirations overwhelm the brain and start shorting out natural abilities. Is that it? Is Jimmie thinking too hard? Is Chad Knaus getting out-pitted by his own furious calculations?

Johnson seems sure to make the Chase – even in 9th place now he can’t fall out of the points before the start of the Chase — but it looks like he’ll finish the Race to the Chase at about the bottom of the twelve. No matter, you’d say: his five wins gives him bonus points position which will re-set him toward the front of the pack. But right now all he has is reverse momentum, hitting a backward stride which seems to be headed Kyle Busch’s 2008 way.

Midway through the season I posted a fantasia of how Jimmie got his groove back, but fantasy ain’t reality, and what counts on the track is what really happens—a fickle, fateful thing. Early in the season Kevin Harvick said that JJ had the golden horsehoe up his ass; now it seems that Harvick has wrested that happy half-oval free (no comments here on how he achieved that) and has affixed it to his rear bumper of his #29 Pennzoil RCR Chevrolet, where all the also rans can watch it and weep.

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Well—Atlanta and then Richmond and the Chase will be on. Many seasoned motorsports writers who have been around for a while point out that Johnson was never leading in the points when the Chase started, that his racing always became stellar when it counted most.

Johnson has been quoted: “What I keep telling myself is that those 10 races in the Chase, it is its own world.” And that’s true. No matter how badly things go for the next two races, he will start the Chase no worse than 20 points back.  “The people act and react differently under pressure,” he said, “including us, and for the last four years we have done a great job in that environment.”

As a JJ fan, I’m sure hoping for that. But it’s a little like watching a hurricane float toward Florida with the forecasters calmly assuring us that it will turn at the last moment. Skies are getting awfully cloudy and the wind’s picking up. Do I keep faith in Jimmie’s talent and once-golden good luck, or should I start boarding up the house?

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Over There


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O-ver there, o-ver there, send the word, send the word, o-ver there,
That the Yanks are com-ing, the Yanks are com-ing,
The drums rum-tum-ming ev’-ry where
So pre-pare, say a prayer, send the word, send the word to be-ware
We’ll be o-ver, we’re com-ing o-ver,
And we won’t come back ’til it’s o-ver O-ver There!

–“Over There,” 1917 song popular with United States soldiers in both world wars

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Saving Abel lead vocalist Jared Weeks absolutely butchered the National Anthem before the CARFAX 400 at Michigan on August 15. Monte Dutton wrote about it thus in one of his after-race columns: “Imagine ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ by Leon Redbone. Drunk.”

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Saving Abel. Singer Jared Weeks, center.

Yecch. This blogger opined more darkly:

In a time when NASCAR is keenly aware of protecting their image and that of the whole sport, even to the extent of fining drivers who speak negatively about it, maybe it’s time they took matters into their own hands and instituted an approval process by which anthem singers were screened, auditioned, and voted worthy of the honor that it is. If that means the people singing each week are names we’ve never heard of, who cares?

Ironically, Saving Abel, a hard- alt- southern-rock band (is there no permutation—-cowpunk, gangsta Nashville, salsa Tex Mex??–that can’t be squeezed into country musics’s vast crossover mainstream?) are just off a solo USO tour, playing in Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq, as well as on board the USS Carl Vinson.

Singer Weeks said about the tour,

The soldiers actually requested us to go over there and play. Usually with a USO tour, they do a whole set, like Kid Rock will come and they’ll have a comedian come out. Robin Williams was there in the past. Usually they bring a whole bunch of people and it’s like a whole show. This time the guys just wanted us to come play for them, so we just went out there solo and played by ourselves.

I mean, these guys wake up everyday and protect us. It’s the least we could do. We always talk about supporting our troops and it was always talk. We wanted to do something big and we got on a plane and went over there and we laid it all for those guys. Just some of the looks on their faces, I guarantee – I’ll speak for the guys – we could’ve been up there in our underwear playing banjos and those guys wouldn’t have cared. They were definitely appreciative of what we did.

It was awesome and it kind of opened my eyes to what these guys do. You don’t have to be a political person. In my book, you have to support the men and women that protect everybody else. So mainly that’s why we did it, because we love those guys.

Well, maybe Weeks had the right spirit, but he sure didn’t have the pipes to match. The obligatory military flyover by three Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolts of the 107th Fighter Squadron of the Michigan National Guard (jets which have flown missions out of Kirkuk into Iraq and Afghanistan) came as some relief to his yowls about the bombs bursting in air. It was an odd pairing of civilian and military expressions of patriotism which left those of us both earthbound and stateside appearing sorely lacking.

Any vet will agree that I don’t know jack shit about war. My tale is typical: my dad was in WWII, but then everyone was. Knew a kid down the block who’s older brother went off to ‘Nam and didn’t return while we listened to Beatles albums. The mother of a friend of my younger brothers was said to slow dance alone at night holding empty hands while her husband, a ‘copter pilot, languished in a Hanoi prison for years. I missed the draft by a couple of years, never thinking, in my grand intellectual and then rock-wastrel youth, to volunteer. Watched the first Gulf campaign on cable news, that eager 24-hour eye for events gobbling up all the bombing sorties taking off from the decks of aircraft carriers. Watched bombs go off in the mountains of Afghanistan and watched American liberators in Iraq blitz the a country which turned around and rioted full-scale. Have heard the news of the conflict and its toll for years as I dove in to work at jobs wholly unaffected by war.

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Watched it all from afar. War, for an American, has been since the Civil War, Over There, as distant from my suburban nest as a bridge or bunker is from the air when the smart bombs get loosed. No wonder Americans have loved fighting from the air, free of all the hell Down There, leaving the dirty work to grunts on the ground. Now the winged emissaries of death don’t even require pilots, those expensive bombers with human freight replaced by drones piloted by men in command centers hundreds of miles away from any action.

 

What does any of this sum for a guy who’s done three or four tours of duty, maybe sporting a prosthetic leg or a fake eyeball, whose memories of war are necessarily body-baggged into a dark place so he or she can go about the business of work and marriage in a country which doesn’t understand war, whose dark place unzips in sleep and crawls out in the form of nightmares — who dreams at night that everything is exploding and he is trying to fight back with no weapons and no ammunition other than a bucket of old bullets, or seeing his wife and friends in a cemetery surrounding a hole into which he is suddenly falling. The disconnect between civilian life Right Here and the military experience Over There has become so wide that a military flyover before a race is like Pentacostals speaking in tongues: the sound is human (louder than the collective throat of the Sprint Cup pack as it goes green) but the speech is foreign, lost to the ear, darkly angelic and gleamingly demonic. It just doesn’t make sense as we stand there listening to a butchered rendition of the National Anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” written in 1814 a poem written by Francis Scott Key, after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British Royal Navy ships in Chesapeake Bay during the Battle of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812 and set to a Redcoat drinking song.

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The Ft. Henry bombardment which was the inspiration of our National Anthem. The caption reads: The caption reads “A VIEW of the BOMBARDMENT of Fort McHenry, near Baltimore, by the British fleet taken from the Observatory under the Command of Admirals Cochrane & Cockburn on the morning of the 13th of Sept 1814 which lasted 24 hours & thrown from 1500 to 1800 shells in the Night attempted to land by forcing a passage up the ferry branch but were repulsed with great loss.”

Originally there were four stanzas to the song (a fifth was added during the Civil War, including the lines, “Down, down with the traitor that tries to defile / The flag of the stars, and the page of her story!”), only the first is sung in the Anthem proper:

O! say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming.
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

A proper salute to a battle-harrowed flag, punched through by shot, tattered by bursting shells, unrepentant and holding the line despite withering fire. And so we all stand and take off our ball caps in deference to the song and our country, silence eerily whipping the flags atop the speedway as one person alone sings for all of us the anthem, each time someone different—kid wonder, gossamer country girl, noble black baritone, or this, this, this stretch-of-a-license-to-sing punk, strangling the Anthem almost as badly as Roseanne Barr did in her rendition during the seventh inning stretch at a baseball game back in the ‘90’s: Call it art or call it mockery, but thank God for the 107th and those three A-10s shrieking over, symbolic a military which has gained superpower status, ensuring that no bombs burst in our air any more, keeping the fight Over There, on someone else’s back yard barbecue. We citizens who have been privileged (in the backhanded sense) to have grown up without the faintest whiff of sulphur or cordite not generated by our own gun-happy angst do not and can not understand how much it costs to keep the U.S. of A. in an airtight seal of defense by meeting the enemy abroad; and because we don’t understand that cost, can’t understand how the tab is bankrupting us along with spiraling healthcare costs and an economy which has been engineered tt profit only the rich and richer and richer.

But more on that later. Over there. Down this deep, war-ravaging page. So that we rescue the National Anthem from its latest shellacking by a shattered baritone and an indifference which creeps over the land like mustard gas.

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At the other end of the race I watched Kevin Harvick in Victory Lane after his win, shouting and exultant, his entire crew assembled along with team owner Richard Childress and wife Delana in her matching firesuit, Delana supporting her man, the leader in Sprint Cup points and the one who appears to be poised to run away with the season and wrest the championhship cup from Jimmie Johnson’s hands at Homestead in November. Something about that jazzy image of kick-ass made me think of winning and losing’s bigger human picture. NASCAR wives like Delana Havick may kiss their spouses and say a prayer that their beloved race successfully and safely, but they do so with all confidence that they will manage the latter quite well. Military spouses have no such comfort, not even today with the best medicine available.

I know, I know – NASCAR is engaged in a far different battle – yet it and the military are united in the same war in ways so fleeting you can’t see them until you realize that NASCAR’s fan base is smack dab in the middle of the recruitment demographics for today’s professional military: 85 percent male; bottom two-thirds of the high school academic class; economically from the ranks of the lower middle class to the working poor.

NASCAR fans are a patriotic bunch – that investment of passion may be due to the large numbers of families which see both military service and NASCAR attendance. It must pain these fans when a top recording draw gets up and butchers the National Anthem. Another slap in the face, another instance of NASCAR’s growing distance from its fans.

This comes at a time when American support of—-and any interest in–the war in Afghanistan is on the wane, The latest Gallup poll found that 58 percent of the country favors Obama’s announced 2011 withdrawal timeline. Gen. David H. Petraeus has begun a campaign to convince the public that the American-led coalition can still succeed there though the timeline will have to be longer. In this current war without boundaries against an enemy without a face, the lack of any tangible goals – no cities to capture, no battles to be won except in the hearts of a stony local people – it’s hard to muster much support. Besides, the costs are astronomical, and the losses keep piling up, and it’s over there, so far, far away …

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There’s a 40-year gap where you find no driver involved in any of the Gulf War conflicts or Vietnam or even Korea. Why? Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Sr. are said to have dodged the draft to race.

It was before big money began to make an impact on racing that we see vets in NASCAR. Joe Weatherley served in the Army in the Second World War. He had a long scar down the left side of his cheek, which was said to be from a German sniper in the second world war, but it was actually the result of a 1946 street race in Norfolk, VA, that nearly killed him and injured five passengers.

Car owner Bud Moore served in the Army, landing at Utah Beach during D-Day. He recalls a shell hitting a man next to him who “just disappeared.” Over the next nine months he engaged in five major battles and was awarded five Purple Harts and two Bronze Stars. Moore had 63 wind and 43 poles as an owner, winning two Championship titles, one with Joe Weatherley and the other with Buck Baker. Moore is among the 25 nominees for the second annual NASCAR Hall of Fame, to be announced in October.

Driver Red Byron began racing in 1932 and saw rising success into the 1940’s until he volunteered for the US Army Air Force as a flight engineer during the WWII. His B-24 was hit by enemy fire and he suffered a serious leg injury. It took two years to rebuild his leg but he managed to recover, walking with a limp. Returning to racing in the late 1940’s, Byron had a special clutch fitted in his cars for his gimp leg but he went on to win two NASCAR series championships in the late 1940’s. Byron is also among the 25 nominees for the next class of five to be inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame.

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Driver Red Byron’s leg was shattered when running a bombing raid during the Second World War. The docs fixed his leg back up OK, but he had to have a specially-rigged clutch to race after coming home.

The gap is pretty amazing. I guess rich guys can buy their way out of the draft and have no financial inducement for volunteering for a professional military.

But hey — Joey Logano may have been a Cub Scout.

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August 14 was the 65th anniversary of V-J Day – the day on which Japan surrendered to the Allies, just days after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. About

750,000 people had gathered in Times Square in New York City in anticipation of the news. At 7:03 p.m., the words finally blazed in a news zipper: “OFFICIAL – TRUMAN ANNOUNCES JAPANESE SURRENDER.” August 14, 1945 thus became V-J — “Victory over Japan” — Day.

Times Square burst into celebration. Shortly after the announcement the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt  saw a sailor running down the street kissing every girl. The photographer turned and caught the sailor bending a nurse over for a kiss, and he shot the picture.

By 10pm, the crowd had swelled to more than 2 million, as New Yorkers flooded the Square, a generation uniting to celebrate the conclusion of the 20th Century’s most devastating conflict. A week later Eisenstaedt’s picture appeared in Life magazine, and The Kiss, as it became known, became an icon of victory.

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“The Kiss” (1945) and The Kiss (2010).

On August 13 of this year, a 26-foot statue titled “The Smootch” was installed in Time Square in preparation for a mass reenactment of the kiss by the Times Square Alliance. For the celebrations on August 14, hundreds of couples donned sailor hats and nurse’s caps and kissed, The Kiss-wise, around the 26-foot statue of The Kiss in Times Square.

NPR.org reported,

World War II veterans and their children on hand for the kiss said they want today’s generation to remember the sacrifices of those who fought in the war.

“I want to keep that day alive,” said Rocco Moretto, 86, a retired infantry staff sergeant now living in Queens.

Moretto, who stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day and arrived in Times Square in his uniform, kissed his friend Margie Zwick, who served in the Women’s Army Corps.

“It was terrific,” he said of the kiss. “It’s been a long time coming.”

August 14, 1945, was a long time coming, too. Although the U.S. didn’t enter the conflict until 1941—two years after hostilities had broken out—it suffered some 418,000 deaths in the war with another 617,000 wounded. There had been some major losses along the way: 7,000 lost during the D-Day invasion; 3,000 at Pearl Harbor; 80,000 killed during the Battle of the Bulge; a total 114,000 casualties during the Italian campaign; 62,000 at Okinawa, 20,000 at Iwo Jima and 5,000 during the Bataan Death March.

So its no wonder that anticipation was running at a fever pitch on August 14, 1945. Word of Japanese surrender was immanent but it had been torturously slow in coming. The Germans had surrendered earlier in the spring after the fall of Berlin and the united campaign against Japan by the U.S., the Chinese and the Russians was crushing the island nation. The U.S. firebombed 62 Japanese cities that spring and early summer to no avail.

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Atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Then came the nuclear bombing of the cities of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, killing some 200,000 civilians. (Many more would die in the ensuing years from radiation-induced cancer and leukemia). After the Hiroshima bombing, President Truman issued a statement demanding Japanese surrender. In it he announced the use of the new weapon, and promised:

If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.

More nuclear attacks were planned, with the next one on August 18, three more in September and another three in October. The Manhattan Project—begun as an attempt to beat the Germans to the creation of the world’s first nuclear bomb and eventually becoming a full-scale bomb-making facility, employing more than 130,000 people and costing some $2 billion in 1940’s valuation—was in full deadly swing.

On August 14, Japanese Emperor Hirohito recorded a surrender speech which was broadcast the following day to the Japanese people over the radio. In it he referred to the nuclear bombings:

Moreover, the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.

Such being the case, how are We to save the millions of Our subjects, or to atone Ourselves before the hallowed spirits of Our Imperial Ancestors? This is the reason why We have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers.

On August 15 the Japanese officially announced their surrender, signing the surrender documents on the deck of the American battleship USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945, officially bringing to an end the Second World War.

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A woman named Edith Shain claimed to be the nurse in Eisenstaedt’s famous picture and says that after the kiss, she and the sailor went their separate ways, never seeing each other again. She died last June at the age of 91. According to a recent account in The New York Times, Gloria Delaney, 84, claims to have been a few feet away from that famous kiss and that it actually occurred some hours before the announcement became official at 7:03 p.m. The streets were milling with people excited about the announcement, and the sailor had simply jumped the gun in a moment of premature exultation.

The nurse didn’t seem to mind. “She wasn’t really struggling,” Mrs. Delaney said. “It looked to me like she was trying to keep her skirt down. I got the impression she was enjoying it. Maybe that was because I was enjoying all the excitement, so I figured she was too.” When Miss Delaney turned away from the spectacle to catch up with her friend, “They were still kissing.”

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Still kissing in August 2010.

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Nothing more American than a good, jubilant, jive-jumpin’ smooch to button – and silence — the horrors of war. Still, other nations suffered far worse. Japan: some 2.7 million deaths, including 500,000 civilian deaths. Germany suffered more than 8 million deaths, including 160,000 civilian deaths (10 percent of the ’39 population). There were 5.5 million civilian deaths in Poland including nearly 3 million Jewish Holocaust victims (military deaths totaled 240 thousand); Chinese citizens suffered worse in the hands of the Japanese, with some 17 million deaths. But the biggest punching-boy of war was Soviet Russia, which suffered almost 24 million deaths, including 1 million civilian deaths–14 percent of its 1939 population. In all, it’s estimated that about 60 to 70 million people were killed in the war, a number which bloated considerably afterwards due to war wounds, disease, and starvation due to famine.

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VJ Day celebrations in Times Square, New York; Hiroshima victim, both from August 1945.

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Far different the scene on August 6 of this year in Hiroshima, site of the 20th century’s most complete devastation (though some argue that firebombed Dresden or Staligrad after its siege rival for so dismal an honor). V-J Day is an American B-J; in Hiroshima, the Peace Ceremony was celebrated with high-ranking ambassadors from some 67 countries, including, for the first time this year, the United States. As a crowd of about 55,000 gathered near the city’s center in a memorial park, there was a gong from a Buddhist temple bell and a release of a pack of doves. The American presence renewed debate of whether the United States should apologize for the use of nuclear weapons in the war. United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, who attended the event for the first time, called on the international community to eliminate nuclear weapons, saying it was time to move “from ground zero to global zero.”

The days are long past when the fear of global nuclear annihilation was an icy thread in daily life – it was, back in the late 60s when I was growing up; and although the Cold War has become mostly a thing of the past, the terrfiying idea of rogue nations like North Korea and Iran armed with nukes and attitude, or even worse, a nuke in a shipping container parking in New York Harbor, sent there by Bin Laden & Co., is all too real.

But let’s go back to America’s exultation over the war’s end on August 14, 1945. Perhaps the effervescence of American celebration – symbolized, quintessentially, by The Kiss — could find no rival because our homeland had come out of the conflict almost unscathed by enemy fire (except for the bombing of distant Pearl Harbor). Owing to our country’s relative geographical isolation, there hadn’t been any local consequences of war either in World War I or the Spanish-American war. Experience of war in our back yard can’t be found until way back to the Civil War, and it wouldn’t be for another 55 years after V-J Day that it would come again, when domestic airliners were hijacked and flown into the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, Molotov cocktails brimming with screaming passengers.

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On Sept. 11, 2001, a series of suicide attacks by al-Quaida in hijacked passenger airliners upon the United States resulted in the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York City and a section of the Pentagon. In all, some 2,995 were killed, including the 19 hijackers.

The sense of bewilderment and violation we experienced on Sept. 11, 2001, was real and harrowing, yet it was only a small taste of what London experienced during the Battle of Britain or Stalingrad in its siege or Berlin after Hitler finally committed suicide in a bunker on a cold spring day in 1945. What two cities in Japan experienced as the only populated areas in the world to be targeted by nuclear bombs.

That’s not to say the jubilation of The Kiss wasn’t real, just a bit more exuberant for winning a war with so much of the homeland intact. That had a deciding affect on all of our military scrapes since—Korea, Vietnam, the first and second Gulf Wars, including our current counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan.

After Hiroshima, Japan became a decidedly un-militaristic society, cauterizing that impulse with the images of nuclear devastation. America became a military superpower, armed past the teeth. War-ravaged countries suffered depression and an agonizing rebuilding after the Second World War, while America floated up out of its Depression into the dream-years of the ‘50s, GIs flooding colleges on the GI bill, everyone attaining the middle-class dream of house in the ‘burbs with wives in perky dresses cooking up all that food lonely GI’s dreamt of in the frozen forests of The Bulge, with kids who all looked like the Beaver as said “aw Geez” as they walked back from sandlot baseball games.

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Happiness on the post-war home front.

America’s halcyon 50’s were a product of the Kiss—for better and worse. I was born in the month which was the apex of the baby boom – August 1957 – back when the military-industrial complex was becoming the economic engine of our country. My Boomer generation is the one which is watching the middle-class dream created by that engine deflate due to bloat and excess—the Iraq conflict alone is estimated to have cost some $2 trillion off-the-budged bucks, and our health care system is spiraling out of control as we try to live forever, at least long past any semblance of life. Perhaps if we had been more ravished by war the dream of the 1950’s wouldn’t have become such a nightmare. We are as removed from the facts of war (our fighting is now outsourced to a professional-class army) as we are from the butchering of our chickens.

A lot was silenced by that Kiss–or seduced the wrong way.

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A congressional resolution widened the scope of festivities earlier this month declaring August 14 “The Spirit of ’45 Day” in honor of the sacrifice of 400,000 American soldiers in the war, as well as the “the courage, dedication, self-sacrifice, and compassion of the World War II generation” – an example which saw us through the Vietnam conflict and into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Did you know about this event? The first I heard about it was on August 15, researching the events of Times Square Kiss Day 2010. But then, like most Americans these days, I live far from the reach of war. I follow the news, which doesn’t much cover the Iraq-Afghanistan conflicts any more as they drag on through their first decade of engagement (longest continuous war in U.S. history, you know). I know of a few guys who have deployed overseas. I’m sure the pre-race festivities for Nationwide and Sprint Cup series races  at Michigan International Speedway had a nod to the official day. But except for bubbling about Kiss Day in Times Square, I couldn’t find a single mention online of commemorative festivities.

V-J Day was 65 years ago. That’s a long, long time for American memories which have a hard time recalling who was last year’s ‘American Idol.” Most of the surviving veterans of that war are in their eighth decade-lots of ‘em still around thanks to contemporary healthcare, but Alzheimer’s obliterates a lot of the mnemonic landscape. Not that the WWII generation cared to remember the events of their war. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” roots back to the attitude of GI’s who were so ready to volunteer for service and came back with their lips sealed tight, never speaking of what they saw on the battlefield. Impregnate The Kiss with that silence, a shared pact to bury the past and get on with things.

That unwillingness to tell the truths of World War II was nowhere more evident than in Hollywood, which didn’t get around to attempting to re-create the actual conditions of battle until 1998 with the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” The moment is the landing of American soldiers on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, and for 24 minutes sheer hell erupts in total chaos as soldiers leap from landing craft to be strafed by withering machine-gun fire and grenades from dug-in German defenses. The absolute mayhem and reckless turns of fortune’s wheel – this one shot, the next saved, the water churning red with blood, men screaming where they lay with limbs missing – was captured in maniacal perfection by Spielberg, who eschewed Technicolor presentation for the desaturated look of color newsreel footage, grainy and shaky as the operators of hand-held cameras were fighting for their lives as well. (The image I most remember from the sequence is that of a GI who gets pinged in the helmet by a bullet; he takes the helmet off in amazement to look at the dent and is promptly shot between the eyes.) Esquire magazine called it the “greatest battle scene of all time”; for GIs of the era, it was the first real attempt by Hollywood to tell their truth, the one they had not spoken of for decades.

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Stephen Spielberg’s 24-minute opening sequence of the D-Day invasion in “Saving Private Ryan” was heraled by Esquire Magazine as “the best battle scene of all time.” It’s awful hard to watch because it’s awful real.

Literature had been going at World War 2 for some time, but books like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and The Dead (D-Day) Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (fireboming of Dresden), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (bombing missions against Germany), Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (German rocket program) and Elie Wiesel’s slim Night (Jewish Holocaust) did not make it that far into the mainstream. Perhaps its because we know our sacrifice in the war was much smaller than we boasted, and our complicity in its greatest horrors was far greater than we care to admit. The ever-buoyant American dream takes a load of carbine-fire to think of good American boys become scorched-earth killers.

But I’m not here to pick on soldiers, those ever-lovin’, eternally-bloodied pawns in a game whose benefits serve the interests of Powers that Be—corporations, governments, banks. The shared humanity of soldiers surviving a conflict is readily shown by the friendships which sprang up between former aggressors -– Japanese, Germans and Americans all shaking hands once the fight was declared over. I’m not sure that nations share that humanity with each other, derringers concealed behind waistbands and big Bowie knives strapped to their shins as they meet and greet in the great commercial square of the present.

The great tragedy of war is the endlessness of it—-to steal a saying from the working world, it’s always been same day, different war. Since earning our independence from the redcoats during the Revolutionary War, the United States of America has been involved in 23 extraterritorial and major domestic employments lasting some 60 years—about a quarter of our entire existence.

James Hillman writes in A Terrible Love of War (2004),

Achilles was in Vietnam and the U.S. Marines were in Try. The normalcy of war’s madness does not change. All wars are the same war because war is always going on. As Clausewitz implied, peace is merely a superficial and temporary hiatus, an armistice, in the everlasting war. In its elemental nature, war is Freud’s repetition compulsion enacted, Vico’s recorso confirmed, and it validates Thucydides’ thesis that history demonstrates the general consistency of human nature: we can imagine what will happen by studying what has happened.

“War is always going on”: so much so that the news from the Afghanistan conflict is barely heard because it’s been going on for so long, and being fought not by draftees but volunteers (albeit economic volunteers, there not being many opportunities for young people elsewhere these days). It’s old news. The release last June of the Wikileaks papers (revealing, with some substance, the difficulties and hidden crimes of our occupying military in that eternally conflict-ridden country) barely roused a yawn from Washington and public alike. Well duh: war is bad.

The more disturbing truth in Hillman’s statement, “war is always going on” is that it’s always going on in our heads, at some level or another.

Perhaps its because Americans haven’t seen their homes and cities destroyed by war that the fantasy of war is so easy to come by, so separate from daily realities unmarred by war. The disconnect has strange effects. As the public bullhorns of this political season shrieks about tax increases—in a country which has one of the lowest taxation rates in developed countries—so the bandwidth for gun rights is weirdly wide, given we’ve never had occasion since the Revolution to arm up local militias.

Violence is rife in American life, wherever you look, from those home armories of assault rifles to violent video games and movies, on to the pornographic “eye candy” of images of rotting headless corpses and burnt-beyond-recognition buddies in blown-up Humvees on laptops and cellphones of GI’s on deployment. (Count the damning evidence of abuses at Abu Ghraib upon Iraqi prisoners by American MPs as not that much different from the storied horrors of that jail under Saddam, where torture was de jour and an executioner named Sword would leap onto the bodies swinging hangropes, assisting the damned to their deaths).

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Fast Times at Abu Ghraib High.

Fascination with the horror of “ultraviolence” (as the droogie Alex put it in Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” a futuristic meditation on violence in a rotting society) – the “eye candy” of violent fantasy — is part of the juvenile male psyche, I think, rooting way back to the primal horrors of the predatory male simian waving, with such relish, a bloodied bone-club in our deepest brainstem.

When I was a kid – I must have been seven years old or so – I remember a coffee-table book at someone’s house we visited occasionally of paintings and lithographs of battle scenes from American history, from the Revolution through the Second World War. Every time we went there I headed straight for that book and laid it on the floor, turning the pages slowly, my eyes filling their awakened thirst for the mayhem of battle, gunfire everywhere, grim men thrusting bayonets into pleading men, hats and helmets askew, blood patching on cannon-split tree-trunks and staining the snow of midwinter. Most indelible the images of after-battle scenes, thousands of dead at Gettysburg and the Somme and Okinawa, the ultimate sacrifice of so many accomplished, left behind like so much trash after a concert as the theater of war moves on to the next inevitable explosion of cordite and guts. I’ll never forget those images, nor the wide-eyed, terrified relish I had in soaking in them, imagining the unimaginable.

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Civil War Battle of the Wilderness, 1864.

It is one thing to imagine hell – our literature is most livid and gothic and thrilling with those accounts – yet it is another thing altogether to live it, to harrow the hells of battle, to come home with a brain full of horrors which have no ground or roof in our obese, superficial, trash-talkin’, hedonistic and opinionated free society. War’s wounds gash deeper than whatever implements furrowed them – knife or AK-47 round or IED, more than the fragmented milliseconds of a firefight in which enemy or comrade or both were killed. Back in the Second World War, you went home and never talked about it and suffered the night sweats and nightmares with a culture-wide stoicism; in the Vietnam War you took lots of dope; in the Gulf War, the Army discharged thousands of soldiers for what they called “personality disorders” when they were actually suffering what just about any soldier who gets dipped in hell for a night becomes sick with, post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms of the disorder include intense anxiety, persistent nightmares, depression, uncontrollable anger, and difficulties coping with work, family, and social relationships.

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David Finkel’s book The Good Soldiers (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009) is about U.S. Army lieutenant Ralph Kauzlarich and the battalion of some eight hundred soldiers he led into Bagdhad as part of George w. Bush’s 2007 surge. They were on a peace-making mission of sorts, crushing resistance on the one hand while trying to gain the good will of the people so essential in counterinsurgency efforts in the other. It meant facing the daily truth the people they were trying to help were as likely to shake their hands and detonate a roadside bomb under their Humvee.

One incident from the book—on May 7, 2007–conveys the perfectly ripe ingredients of PTSD inherent of the mission: the constant sense of impending danger and doom, the sudden irruptions (and eruptions) of enemy fire and bombs, the wholly random nature of war—lucky today, snake eyes tomorrow—all the while having to check one’s own trigger finger, erring on the side of trust with often disastrous results.

Wynona’s sister Morrigan– war’s own goddess of fate–smiles at the luck of racear drivers before turning her eyes back on this scene:

As usual, before leaving, Nate Showman gathered other soldiers in the convoy to brief them on the latest intelligence reports. He had been awake since dawn, when an IED had blown up outside the FOB on Route Pluto as soldiers from another battalion rolled by in a tank. Badness circling, closer and closer – that’s how 2-16 soldiers were starting to feel. Now they watched Showman trace a road on a map he was holding. “First Street is closed off because of an IED. First Street is black. We’re not going that way,” he said. Next he pointed to a spot on the edge of the FOB. “Two days ago, on the fifth, this guard tower on the very northernmost section of the FOB was engaged. One round went right through the ballistic glass, impacted on the right side of one of the guard’s heads. All it did was hit his Kelvar,” his helmet. “He received minor scratches from it, will be all right.”  Next he pointed to a spot on Route Pluto. “Hey, that thing that woke us up this morning was One-eight hitting an IED just north of Checkpoint Five-Fifteen.

“On Pluto?” a soldier said.

“No shit?” another said.

“It hit a tank. The thing blew up, and they just burned right on through. The tank didn’t even stop rolling,” Showman said. “The bigger thing for us is the fact that in the last three days there have been about six EFP’s on Route Predators, right up by Kamaliyah.”

“Right where we’re heading,” another soldier said.

“Yeah.”

They decided to bypass Predators and take Berm Road, the only other route to Kamaliyah, (an) elevated dirt road … No road frelt worse to travel than Berm Road. There were only so many points to climb onto it and drop off of it, and once up there, the feeling was of being utterly exposed and vulnerable, that the places to hide a bomb were limitless, including in the soft dirt underneath. The surrounding landscape didn’t help, either: pools of fetid water, dead animals, vast piles of trash being picked through by families and dogs, grotesque pieces of twisted metal that in the dust clouds kicked up by the convoy reminded some soldiers of pictures they’d seen of the wreckage of the World Trade Center after 9/11. On Berm Road,, Iraq could not only seem lost, but irredeemable.

But on this day it was the better way. As the convoy inched along, reports were coming in of yet another IED explosion on Predators; on Berm, meanwhile, the worst of it was some kids who paused in their trash-picking to throw rocks at the convoy as it passed them and coated them with dust.

Kauzlarich, looking out the window, was uncharacteristically quiet. He had slept badly and woken uneasily. Something about the day didn’t feel right, he’d said before getting in the Humvee. Once he saw the COP, though, his mood brightened. In a week’s time it had gone from an abandoned building with nothing inside of it other than a family of squatters to a company of 120 soldiers. Cots stretched from one side end to another. Genreators chugged away so there was electricity. There was a working kitchen, a row of new portable toilets, and gun nests on the roof behind camouflage netting. The whole thing was enclosed in solid perimeter of high blast walls, and even when Jeff Jager mentioned the isolating effect this was having regarding the relationship with the adjacent neighborhood, it was clear that Kauzlarich’s confidence about what he was accomplishing in Kamaliyah had returned.

“I’d say about forty percent of the people who live around here are gone,” Jager said.

“Forty percent?” Kauzlarich said.

Jager nodded.

“They’ll be back,” Kauzlarich said.

“Maybe,” Jager said.

“Six weeks, they’ll be back,” Kauzlarich said, and soon after that he was again in his Humvee, now passing the spaghetti factory, now passing the little house that showed no signs of life, now climbing back up onto Berm Road to leave Kamaliyah – that that’s when the EFP exploded.

And was he in the midst of saying something when it happened? Was he looking at something specific? Was he thinking of something in particular? His wife? His children? The COP? The shitters? Was he singing to himself, as he had done earlier, when the convoy was leaving Rustamiyah and he sang, to no reocognizable tune, just sang the words he had been thinking. “Oh, we’re gonna go to Kamiliyah, to se what kind of trouble we can get in today?”

boom.

It wasn’t that loud.

It was the sound of something being ripped, as if the air were made of silk.

It was so sudden that at first it was a series of questions, none of which made any sense: What was that flash? Why is it white out? What is that shudder moving through me? What is that sound? Why is there an echo inside of me? Why is it grey out? Why is it brown out?

And then the answer:

“Fuck,” said Kauzlarich.

“Fuck,” said the gunner.

“Fuck,” said the driver.

“Fuck,” said Showman.

The smoke cleared. The dirt finished falling. Throughts slowed. Breathing returned. Shaking began. Eyes focused on arms: there. Hand: there. Legs: there. Feet: there.

All there.

“We’re okay,” Kauzlarich said.

“We’re good,” Showman said.

It had come from the left.

“Stay put,” Kauzlarich said.

It had come from the left, where someone had stood watching while holding a trigger.

“Look for secondary,” Kauzlarich said.

It had come from the left, where someone had stood watching while holding a trigger and pressed it a tenth of a second too early or a tenth of a second too late, because the main charge of the EEP passed through the small gap in between Kauzlarich’s Humvee and the one in front of it. And though there were flat tires and cracked windows and a few holes here and there from secondary effects of the explosion, all of the soldiers were okay, except for the shaking, and blinking, and headaches, and anger that began to rise in their throats.

“Fucking dirty cocksucker,” one soldier said as the convoy moved off of Berm Road and into a place safe enough for the medic to check for signs of concussions and ears for hearing loss.

“When it blew up, everything turned black,” another soldier said.

“I just saw a bunch of dust.”

“Everything was like fucking crazy.”

“I was shaking like a fucking …”

“We’re alive, guys. That’s the name of the fucking game.”

“ … like a fucking …”

“Trust me. The situation could have been a lot fucking worse.”

“It’s luck. It’s fucking luck. That’s all it is.”

“I can tell you I’ll be glad when these days are done fore me. Fuck this shit.”

“All right. We’re going to stay focused. We’re in a war,” Kauzlarich said, but he was shaken, too, and now, as the convoy limped away from Kamaliyah through a maze of dirt trails and more trash mounds, everything was anger, everything was fucking, everything was fudk.

The fucking dirt.

The fucking wind.

The fucking stink.

They passed a fucking water buffalo.

They passed a fucking goat.

They passed a fucking man on a fucking bicycle an didn’t give a fuck when he began coughing from the fucking dust.

This fucking country.

They neared a child who stood by herself waving. She had filthy hair and a filthy face and was wearing a filthy red dress, the only bit of color visible at the moment in this entire place, and as she kept waving at the convoy, and now at Kauzlarich himself, he had a decision to make.

He stared out his window.

He raised his hand slowly.

He waved at the fucking child.

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“Going Back In” by Steve Mumford.

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Support of a war effort engaged overseas – far out of sight and almost out of mind, given the surface normalcy of life-as-usual U.S.A. – was something different years ago. Wartime production all but eliminated the unemployment of the Great Depression.

Civilians were heavily engaged in the war effort, making what sacrifices they could to support the troops overseas. A Civil Air Patrol was established, which enrolled civilian spotters in air reconnaissance, search-and-rescue, and transport. Towers were built in coastal and border towns, and spotters were trained to recognize enemy aircraft. Blackouts were practiced in every city, even those far from the coast. All lighting had to be extinguished to avoid helping the enemy in targeting at night. There was little actual threat; the main purpose was to remind people that there was a war on and to provide activities that would engage the civil spirit of millions of people not otherwise involved in the war effort.

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Women staffed millions of jobs in community service roles, such as nursing, USO, and Red Cross while the men were at war. And they were in the workplace, helping to fill millions of new jobs created in the military manufacturing machine. In 1943, almost 30 percent of the workforce was populated Rosie the Riveters.

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“Rosie the Riveter” working on an A-31 “Vengeance” dive bomber. Tennessee, 1943.

Rationing in the U.S. during World War II was widespread: tires, passenger automobiles, typewriters, sugar, gasoline, bicycles, footwear, fuel oil, coffee, stoves, shoes, meat, lard, shortening and oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods (canned, bottled and frozen), dried fruits, canned milk, firewood and coal, jams, jellies and fruit butter, were all on the list by 1943.

War bonds were a major source of funding for the war, and everyone got into the act of selling them. Nearly a quarter of a million dollars of advertising art was donated. Norman Rockwell created four paintings in 1943 titled The Four Freedoms, and the exhibition raised some $132 million in bonds. A total 85 million Americans bought war bonds equaling $186.7 billion dollars.

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Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” series.

Try to imagine that sort of civilian effort after 9/11/2001. The mood was there—who wasn’t affect, enraged and/or engaged after the horrible images broadcast on that fair sunny morning in New York City as one Trade Center Tower than the other was hit by passenger planes, burned a good while, saw people leaping in desperation from the 90th floor and higher and then fell, one after other, in an imploding collapse of death and dust?–but “go shopping” was the only word of sacrifice and patriotism uttered by the Bush Administration. Meaning, keep the economy flush with consumer spending. An outsourced military would handle all of the dirty work, and every effort was made to keep that work invisible from everyday life stateside. (Remember the ban on photographing coffins being unloaded stateside from transport planes?) Unless you had a family member overseas, the ripples from 9 years of Gulf War – the longest sustained U.S. conflict ever – have been tiny, almost imperceptible.

So try to imagine what a civilian life would be like in a country getting torn apart by war, as Londoners were during the Battle of Britain. There the burden of sacrifice was real and tallied in nightly death tolls from bombed houses and schools and churches.

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Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) offers one of the best accounts of what civilian life is like in a war-ravaged country, just barely off the map of battle and engagement, suffering casualties almost greater than the men and women in uniform. It’s set, primarily, in England in the final months of the war, after the bombers of the Luftwaffe were all shot down in the Battle of Britain and then were replaced by A-2 bombs of the fledgling German rocket program (whose brain trust was appropriated by the Americans following the end of German hostilities and put to work making all of those nuclear missiles which proliferated into the Cold War). The book’s main protagonist, if there is one (a meta-narrative in early-postmodernist style, there are multiple stories and personae which weave through each other) is Tyrone Slothrop, part of U.S. intelligence operations in the OSS (precursor to the CIA) stationed in London; the American presence there allows the author to play Samuel Clemens observing Life Abroad – Over there. The book travels then into Germany after the war—a Zone of desperation, yes, but also of wild yet temporary freedoms which blossomed while the Powers decided how to carve Germany up. A wonderful, massive, maddening, harrowing, delightful book, written at a desk in Mexico while the Vietnam War raged on with no end in sight and the sum of nuclear firepower stored in siloes and subs around the world so great that the world could easily be destroyed hundreds of times over.

Anyhow, I present the following passage from Gravity’s Rainbow to catch the deep inner chill and savage beauty of war as experienced by the collaterals, or rather, an American imagining that strange, uber-local, un-rootless- American experience of war on the homefront:

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Advent blows from the sea, which at sunset tonight shone green and smooth as iron-rich glass: blows daily upon us, all the sky above pregnant with saints and slender heralds’ trumpets. Another year of wedding dresses abandoned in the heart of winter, never called for, hanging in quiet satin ranks now, their white-crumpled veils begun to yellow, rippling slightly only at your passing, spectator . . . visitor to the city at all the dead ends. . . . Glimpsing in the gowns your own reflection once or twice, halfway from shadow, only blurred flesh-colors across the peau de soie, urging you in to where you can smell the mildew’s first horrible touch, which was really the idea–covering all trace of her own smell, middleclass bride-to-be perspiring, genteel soap and powder. But virgin, in her heart, in her hopes. None of your bright-Swiss or crystalline season here, but darkly billowed in the day with cloud and the snow falling like gowns in the country, gowns of the winter, gentle at night, a nearly windless breathing around you. In the stations of the city the prisoners are back from Indo-China, wandering their poor visible bones, light as dreamers or men on the moon, among chrome-sprung prams of black hide resonant as drumheads, blonde wood high-chairs pink and blue with scraped and mush-spattered floral decals, folding-cots and bears with red felt tongues, baby-blankets making bright pastel clouds in the coal and steam smells, the metal spaces, among the queued, the drifting, the warily asleep, come by their hundreds in for the holidays, despite the warnings, the gravity of Mr. Morrison, the tube under the river a German rocket may pierce now, even now as the words are set down, the absences that may be waiting them, the city addresses that surely can no longer exist. The eyes from Burma, from Tonkin, watch these women at their hundred perseverances-stare out of blued orbits, through headaches no Alasils can ease. Italian P/Ws curse underneath the mail sacks that are puffing, echo-clanking in now each hour, in seasonal swell, clogging the snowy trainloads like mushrooms, as if the trains have been all night underground, passing through the country of the dead. If these Eyeties sing now and then you can bet it’s not “Giovinezza” but something probably from Rigoletto or La Boheme–indeed the Post Office is considering issuing a list of Nonacceptable Songs, with ukulele chords as an aid to ready identification. Their cheer and songful ness, this lot, is genuine up to a point-but as the days pile up, as this orgy of Christmas greeting grows daily beyond healthy limits, with no containment in sight before Boxing Day, they settle, themselves, for being more professionally Italian, rolling the odd eye at the lady evacuees, finding techniques of balancing the sack with one hand whilst the other goes playing “dead”–cioe, conditionally alive–where the crowds thicken most feminine, directionless . . . well, most promising. Life has to go on. Both kinds of prisoner recognize that, but there’s no mano morto for the Englishmen back from CBI, no leap from dead to living at mere permission from a likely haunch or thigh-no play, for God’s sake, about life-and-death! They want no more adventures: only the old dutch fussing over the old stove or warming the old bed, cricketers in the wintertime, they want the semi-detached Sunday dead-leaf somnolence of a dried garden. If the brave new world should also come about, a kind of windfall, why there’ll be time to adjust certainly to that. . . .But they want the nearly postwar luxury this week of buying an electric train set for the kid, trying that way each to light his own set of sleek little faces here, calibrating his strangeness,  well-known photographs all, brought to life now, oohs and aahs but not yet, not here in the station, any of the moves most necessary: the War has shunted them, earthed them, those heedless destroying signalings of love. The children have unfolded last year’s toys and found reincarnated Spam tins, they’re hep this may be the other and, who knows, unavoidable side to the Christmas game. In the months between-country springs and summers–they played with real Spam tins-tanks, tank-destroyers, pillboxes, dreadnoughts deploying meat-pink, yellow- and blue about the dusty floors of lumber-rooms or butteries, under the cots or couches of their exile. Now it’s time again. The plaster baby, the oxen frosted with gold leaf and the human-eyed sheep are turning real again, paint quickens to flesh. To believe is not a price they pay-it happens all by itself. He is the New Baby. On the magic night before, the animals will talk, and the sky will be milk. The grandparents, who’ve waited each week for the Radio Doctor asking, What Are Piles? What Is Emphysema? What Is A Heart Attack? will wait, up beyond insomnia, watching again for the yearly impossible not to occur, but with some mean residue-this is the hillside, the sky can show us a light-like a thrill, a good time you wanted too much, not a complete loss but still too far short of a miracle . . . keeping their sweatered and shawled vigils, theatrically bitter, but with the residue inside going through a new winter fermentation every year, each time a bit less, but always good for a revival at this season. . . . All but naked now, the shiny suits and gowns of their pubcrawling primes long torn to strips for lagging the hot-water pipes and heaters of landlords, strangers, for holding the houses’ identities against the w inter. The War needs coal. They have taken the next-to-last steps, at tended the Radio Doctor’s certifications of what they knew in their bodies, and at Christmas they are naked as geese under this woolen, murky, cheap old-people’s swaddling. Their electric clocks run fast, even Big Ben will be fast now until the new spring’s run in, all fast, and no one else seems to understand or to care. The War needs electricity. It’s alively game, Electric Monopoly, among the power companies, the Central Electricity Board, and other War agencies, to keep Grid Time synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time. In the night, the deepest concrete wells of night, dynamos whose locations are classified spin faster, and so, responding, the clock-hands next to all the old, sleepless eyes, gathering in their minutes whining, pitching higher toward the vertigo of a siren. It is the Night’s Mad Carnival. There is merriment under the shadows of the minute-hands. Hysteria in the pale faces between the numerals. The power companies speak of loads, war-drains so vast the clocks will slow again unless this nighttime march is stolen, but the loads expected daily do not occur, and the Grid runs inching ever faster, and the old faces turn to the clock faces, thinking plot, and the numbers go whirling toward the Nativity, a violence, a nova of heart that will turn us all, change us forever to the very forgotten roots of who we are. But over the sea the fog tonight still is quietly scalloped pearl. Up in the city the arc-lamps crackle, furious, in smothered blaze up the centerlines of the streets, too ice-colored for candles, too chill-dropleted for holocaust . . . the tall red busses sway, all the headlamps by regulation newly unmasked now parry, cross, traverse and blind, torn great fistfuls of wetness blow by, desolate as the beaches beneath the nacre fog, whose barbed wire that never knew the inward sting of current, that only lay passive, oxidizing in the night, now weaves  like underwater grass, looped, bitter cold, sharp as the scorpion, all the printless sand miles past cruisers abandoned in the last summers of peacetime that once holidayed the old world away, wine and olive-grove and pipesmoke evenings away the other side of the War, stripped now to rust axles and brackets and smelling inside of the same brine as this beach you cannot really walk, because of the War. Up across the downs, past the spotlights where the migrant birds in autumn choked the beams night after night, fatally held till they dropped exhausted out of the sky, a shower, of dead birds, the compline worshipers sit in the unheated church, shivering, voiceless as the choir asks: where are the joys? Where else but there where the Angels sing new songs and the bells ring out in the court of the King. “Eia” — strange thousand-year sigh-”eia, warn wir da!”,  “were we but there”. . . . The tired men and their black bellwether reaching as far as they can, as far from their sheeps’ clothing as the year will let them stray. Come then. Leave your war awhile, paper or iron war, petrol or flesh, come in with your love, your fear of losing, your exhaustion with it. All day it’s been at you, coercing, jiving, claiming your belief in so much that isn’t true. Is that who you are, that vaguely criminal face on your ID card, its soul snatched by the government camera as the guillotine shutter fell-or maybe just left behind with your heart, at the Stage Door Canteen, where they’re counting the night’s take, the NAAFI girls, the girls named Eileen, carefully sorting into refrigerated compartments the rubbery maroon organs with their yellow garnishes of fat-oh Linda come here feel this one, put your finger down in the ventricle here, isn’t it swoony, it’s still going. . . . Everybody you don’t suspect is in on this, everybody but you: the chaplain, the doctor, your mother hoping to hang that Gold Star, the vapid soprano last night on the Home Service programme, let’s not forget Mr. Noel Coward so stylish and cute about death and the afterlife, packing them into the Duchess for the fourth year running, the lads in Hollywood telling us how grand it all is over here, how much fun, Walt Disney causing Dumbo the elephant to clutch to that feather like how many carcasses under the snow tonight among the white-painted tanks, how many hands each frozen around a Miraculous Medal, lucky piece of worn bone, half-dollar with the grinning sun peering up under Liberty’s wispy gown, clutching, dumb, when the 88 fell-what do you think, it’s a children’s story? There aren’t any. The children are away dreaming, but the Empire has no place for dreams and it’s Adults Only in here tonight, here in this refuge with the lamps burning deep, in pre-Cambrian exhalation, savory as food cooking, heavy as soot. And 6o miles up the rockets hanging the measureless instant over the black North Sea before the fall, ever faster, to orange heat, Christmas star, in helpless plunge to Earth. Lower in the sky the flying bombs are out too, roaring like the Adversary, seeking whom they may devour. It’s a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one-something to raise the possibility of another night that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are: for the one night, leaving only the clear way home and the memory of the infant you saw, almost too frail, there’s too much shit in these streets, camels and other beasts stir heavily outside, each hoof a chance to wipe him out, make him only another Messiah, and sure somebody’s around already taking bets on that one, while here in this town the Jewish collaborators are selling useful gossip to Imperial Intelligence, and the local hookers are keeping the foreskinned invaders happy, charging whatever the traffic will bear, just like the innkeepers who’re naturally delighted with this registration thing, and up in the capital they’re wondering should they, maybe, give everybody a number, yeah, something to help SPQR Record-keeping … and Herod or Hitler, fellas (the chaplains out in the Bulge are manly, haggard, hard drinkers), what kind of a world is it (“You forgot Roosevelt, padre,” come the voices from the back, the good father can never see them, they harass him, these tempters, even into his dreams: “Wendell Willkiel” “How about Churchill?” “‘Arry Pollitt!”) for a baby to come in tippin’ those Toledos at 7 pounds 8 ounces thinkin’ he’s gonna redeem it, why, he oughta have his head examined. . . . But on the way home tonight, you wish you’d picked him up, held him a bit. Just held him, very close to your heart, his cheek by the hollow of your shoulder, full of sleep. As if it were you who could, some how, save him caring who you’re supposed to be registered as. For the moment anyway, no longer who the Caesars say you are.

0 Jesu parvule,
Nach dir ist mir so weh . . .

So this pickup group, these exiles and horny kids, sullen civilians called up in their middle age, men fattening despite their hunger, flatulent because of it, pre-ulcerous, hoarse, runny-nosed, red-eyed sorethroated, piss-swollen men suffering from acute lower backs and all-day hangovers, wishing death on officers they truly hate, men you have seen on foot and smileless in the cities but forgot, men who, don’t remember YOU either, knowing they ought to be grabbing a little sleep, not out here performing for strangers, give you this evensong, climaxing now with its rising fragment of some ancient scale, voices overlapping threeand fourfold, up, echoing, filling the entire hollow of the church-no counterfeit baby, no announcement of the Kingdom, not even a try at warming or lighting this terrible night, only, damn us, our scruffy obligatory little cry, our maximum reach outward — praise be to God! — for you to take back to your war-address, your war-identity, across the snow’s footprints and tire tracks finally to the past you must create for yourself, alone in the dark. Whether you want it or not, whatever seas you have crossed, the way home …

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“Baghdad ER,” Steve Mumford

4,440 Americans have been killed in action over in Iraq since hostilities began in 2003 – another 1,227 in Afghanistan; with a total number of wounded of about 32,000 (10 percent with serious brain or spinal injuries). However, the total number of brain injuries (including PTSD) is estimated at 320,000. About 18 veterans commit suicide every day. Credit medical advances that the death toll isn’t higher, but it puts a disproportunate number of severely handicapped soldiers back into the mainstream.

(And for a little more perspective, what about the other  guy in this conflict. One statistic puts the total number of Iraqis killed in the conflict so far at 1.3 million, with about 2.6 million displaced and another 1.9 million refugees)

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“Dying Insurgent,” Steve Mumford (2006).

About 1.6 million men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent report by a special Pentagon Task Force found that 38 percent of soldiers and 50 percent of National Guard members coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan have mental health issues, ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to brain injuries. Only 27 of the VA’s 1,400 hospitals have inpatient post- traumatic stress disorder programs.

In May, President Obama signed legislation that expands mental health and counseling services to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including National Guardsmen and reservists. It also allows the Veterans Administration to use hospitals outside the VA network to treat more returning soldiers suffering from brain injuries, eliminates co-payments for “catastrophically disabled” veterans, increases housing and transportation assistance for veterans living far from hospitals in rural areas, and expands health care services for women veterans, including maternity care for newborns. The bill will begin a pilot child-care program for veterans receiving intensive medical care and expand support for homeless veterans — “because,” Obama said in a White House signing ceremony, “no one who has served this nation in uniform should ever be living on the streets.”

Unfortunately, decent care of our servicemen has a high price tag. A dead soldier is worth about $500,000 in government survivor benefits. Projected total healthcare benefits for disabled veterans range from $422 billion to $717 billion.

The annual defense budget is around $700 billion. The war currently costs about $300 million dollars a day, with a total cost so far of as high as $2 trillion.

Yet, as usual, some of the only bright spots in our dismal economy are places where military spending is in full swing. According to an analysis by USA Today, 16 of the 20 metro areas with the largest jumps in per capita income had military installations nearby. Better pay and the weak economy has helped the Pentagon meet all of its recruiting goals since 2009.

And the cost of one dead or mutilated or nightmare-ridden soldier back stateside?

Priceless.

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Last night before heading to bed I watched two enormous ghostly thunderclouds just to the west, their billowy heights still visible in the last of the day’s light, flashing with lightning here and there in their towering sails of cumulus, rumbling low and faint, too far away to be of much import for us (though we did get a brief shower after days of impotent, mid-90’s heat). It made me think of a battle between two big-gunned man-o-war’s, fighting old-school-style: side by side and just blasting away, ripping each others bulwark of oak and flesh to shreds.

Courage was of a different order in wars past, when soldiers were expected to walk in ranks into withering lines of buckshot and bayonet: the sum of battle was tallied by force, always of arms (the great battleships had row upon row of cannonade) but also torsos and legs and fragile brainpans, I mean the men who were expected to stand and deliver at whatever cost. Civilian populations too: it wasn’t until the Gulf War that great pains were taken to limit collateral damage with “smart bombs” and “precision raids.” War was much more total engagement, and as I watched those two thunderclouds last night I was gripped by the wide-eyed terror inherent in bravery, of that moment of madness where the former decides (or is whipped into deciding) to fight rather than flee, stare down all those fire-spouting cannon mouths and the shriek of incoming 40-lb lead balls that could splinter a main mast or catch a man in the chest and blow him through the opposite side of the ship.

There is the engagement-either between two ships or a sortie of both sides or between entire fleets—whose name is enshrined in the bloody book of war (Salamis, 480 BC; Lepanto, 1571; Trafalgar, 1805; Hampton Roads, 1862 (in the Civil War, between the new ironclad Monitor and Merrimack); the engagement of the British and German fleets off Jutland in 1916; Coral Sea, 1942); and there is the aftermath, victor steaming away to jubilant cheers, the loser thrashed or trashed, adrift or sunk, left like a stripped whale to be feasted upon by the tides.

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So James Russell Lowell wrote in “On Board the ’76” in 1864 about that long sad drifting farewell:

Our ship lay tumbling in an angry sea,
Her rudder gone, her mainmast o’er the side;
Her scuppers, from the waves’ clutch staggering free,
Trailed threads of priceless crimson through the tide;
Sails, shrouds, and spars with pirate cannon torn,
We lay, awaiting morn.

Awaiting morn, such morn as mocks despair;
And she that bare the promise of the world.
Within her sides, now hopeless, helmless, bare,
At random o’er the wildering waters hurled;
The reek of battle drifting slow alee
Not sullener than we.

Morn came at last to peer into our woe,
When lo, a sail! Mow surely help was nigh;
The red cross flames aloft, Christ’s pledge; but no,
Her black guns grinning hate, she rushes by
And hails us:–‘Gains the leak! Ay, so we thought!
Sink, then, with curses fraught!’

I leaned against my gun still angry-hot,
And my lids tingled with the tears held back:
This scorn methought was crueller than shot:
The manly death-grip in the battle-wrack,
Yard-arm to yard-arm, were more friendly far
Than such fear-smothered war . . .

Indeed, it is the scenes of the results of war – battlefields stewn with the dead and dying fixed in odd postures or crying out incoherent fading nothings, cities in smoking ruin, bloated corposes picked by crows and vultures – it is these scenes which the eye knows it must not look upon but cannot help peeking, supping on the full horror of war with visions (and nightmares) to last a lifetime.

So Stephen Crane writes in media res of a Civil War skirmish in The Red Badge of Courage:

The captain of the youth’s company had been killed in an early part of the action. His body lay stretched out in the position of a tired man resting, but upon his face there was an astonished and sorrowful look, as if he thought some friend had done him an ill turn. The babbling man was grazed by a shot that made the blood stream widely down his face. He clapped both hands to his head. “Oh!” he said, and ran. Another grunted suddenly as if he had been struck by a club in the stomach. He sat down and gazed ruefully. In his eyes there was mute, indefinite reproach. Farther up the line a man, standing behind a tree, had had his knee joint splintered by a ball. Immediately he had dropped his rifle and gripped the tree with both arms. And there he remained, clinging desperately and crying for assistance that he might withdraw his hold upon the tree.

… Under foot there were a few ghastly forms motionless. They lay twisted in fantastic contortions. Arms were bent and heads were turned in incredible ways. It seemed that the dead men must have fallen from some great height to get into such positions. They looked to be dumped out upon the ground from the sky.

Though many of the rules of engagement have changed, not a single note of the same bugle-taps is present when another Humvee in David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers is caught dead-on by a perfectly-timed IED while on patrol in the early morning hours of April 6, 2007 (my sister’s 48th birthday).

A wire ran from the trigger to another shadow, this one at the edge of the road. Almost certainly the man couldn’t see the actual IED, but he’d line it up beforehand with a tall, sliding, broken, otherwise useless light pole on the far side which he could use as an aiming point. The first Humvee arrived at the aiming point, and, for whatever reason, the man didn’t push the trigger. The second Humvee arrived, and again he didn’t push. The third Humvee arrived, and, for whatever reason, now he did push, and the resulting explosion sent several large steel discs toward the Humvee at such high velocity that by the time they reached (PFC) Cajimat’s door, they had been reshaped into unstoppable, semi-molten slugs. At most, the IED cost $100 to make, and against it the $150,000 Humvee might as well have been constructed of lace.

In went the slugs through the armor and into the crew compartment, turning everything in their paths into flying pieces of shrapnel. There were five soldiers inside. Four managed to get out and tumble, bleeding, to the ground, but Cajimat remained in his seat as the Humvee, on fire now, rolled forward, picked up speed, and crashed into an ambulance that had been stopped by the convoy. The ambulance burst into flames as well. After that, a thousand or so rounds of ammunition inside the Humvee began cooking off and exploding, and by the time the Humvee was transported back to Rustamiyah  toward sunrise, there wasn’t much left to see. As the battalion doctor noted on Cajimat’s death report: “Severely burned,” and then added: “(beyond recognition).”

Nonetheless, there were procedures to follow in such circumstances, and (Lieutenant) Kauzlarich now got to learn precisely what those involved.

They began when the Humvee was unloaded at Vehicle Sanitation, a tarped-off area with decent drainage just inside the gate. There, hidden from view, photographs were taken of the damage, the holes in the door were measured and analyzed, and the soldiers did their best to disinfect what was left of the Humvee with bottle of peroxide and Simple Green. “I mean, it’s clean. It’s cleaner than when it comes off the assembly line,” the officer in charge told Kauzlarich of what his soldiers usually accomplished – but in this case, he said, “You’re more consolidating it and getting it ready for shipment, because you can’t really clean that.”

At the same time, Cajimat’s remains were being prepared for shipment behind the locked doors of a little stand-alone building in which there were sixteen storage compartments for bodies, a stock of vinyl body bags, a stack of new American  flags, and two Mortuary Affairs soldiers whose job was to search the remains for anything personal that a soldier might have wanted with him when he was alive.

“Pictures,” one of the soldiers, Sergeant First Class Ernesto Gonzalez, would say later, describing what he found in uniforms of the bodies he has prepared. “Graduation pictures. Baby pictures. Standing with their family. Pictures of them with their cars.”

“Folded flags,” said his assistant, Specialist Jason Sutton.

“A sonogram image,” Gonzalez said.

“A letter that a guy had in his flak vest,” Sutton said, thinking of the first body he worked on. “This is to my family. If you’re reading this, I’ve passed away.”

“Hey, man. Don’t read no letters,” Gonzales said.

“It was the only time,” Sutton said. “I don’t read the letters. I don’t look at the pictures. It keeps me sane. I don’t want to know anything. I don’t want to know who you are. I want the bare minimum. If I don’t have to look at it, I won’t. If I don’t have to touch it, I won’t.

Meanwhile, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team was finishing its report about the explosion:

“Blast seat measured 8’ x 9’ x 2.5’ and was consistent with 60-80 lb of unknown explosives.”

The platoon leader was writing a statement about what had happened:

“PFC Cajimat was killed on impact and was not able to be pulled from the vehicle.”

The platoon sergeant was writing a statement, too:

“PFC Diaz came running out of the smoke from the explosion. Myself and CPL Chance put him in back of my truck where CPL chance treated his wounds. I then saw to the left of the HUMV three soldiers, one being pulled on the ground. I ran to the soldiers and saw it was CPL Pellecchia being dragged, screaming that he couldn’t get PFC Cajimat out of the vehicle.”

The battalion doctor was finishing his death report:

“All four limbs burned away, bony stumps visible. Superior portion of the cranium burned away. Remaining portion of torso severely charred. No further exam possible due to degree of charring.”

The Pentagon was preparing a news release on what would be the 3,276th U.S. fatality of the war:

“The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

And Kauzlarich, back in his office now, was on the phone with Cajimat’s mother, who was in tears asking him a question.

“Instantly,” he said.

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My father served as a pharmacist’s mate in the Navy at the end of the Second World War. After hostilities ended, he served out his tour at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Lake Forest, IL. He worked at “repatriation” of GIs who had been imprisoned in Bataan and Corregidor as well as other wounded. He told me of dealing with “guys who came up after their ships were sunk, and had their features burned off because of all the burning oil. They looked like something out of a horror movie. They’d ship back the bad ones. I remember one man in an oxygen tent who was having a hard time breathing. I went in to check on him and he asked me to hold his hand. So I reached over, took his hand, and he kind of pulled me toward him. And then he died just like that, holding my hand.”

He also did morgue duty at the hospital, working 12-hour shifts with the eventual dead, fingerprinting deceased sailors and Marines for reports to be sent to Washington. “Cherry Coke” was their handle for all the blood they had to mop up from the floors after autopsies.

My dad was 18. To keep his spirits up, he and one of the other guys he was doing morgue duty with began discussing Augustine’s City of God. He says the experience – of working amid so much death and dying, at the same time reading one of the most celestial texts ever written – is what led him to become a minister, attending Northwestern University and then Princeton Theological Seminary on the GI bill. War ended up being good for my dad, though there was a certain hell to be paid.

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Stateside, the Maui News ran in April 2007 the following story about the death of local son PFC Cajimat:

Jay S. Cajimat dies of injuries from vehicle-borne I.E.D.

LAHAINA – A 2005 Lahainaluna High School graduate who was described as a “loving son,” a “role model” to his siblings and the “unspoken leader” among friends died last week while fulfilling one of his dreams.

Pfc. Jay S. Cajimat, 20, died Friday in Baghdad of wounds suffered when a roadside car bomb exploded near his unit. He was with the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kan.

“He was a good soldier, and he loved to serve his nation,” said his mother, Lilibeth Cajimat, holding back tears.

“He always said he wanted to be in the Army,” added his 16-year-old sister, LC.

Cajimat is also survived by his father Dionie Cajimat and two other sisters Kaya, 18, and LJ, 3.

Dionie Cajimat said his son always set a positive example for his three younger sisters.

“He was a good son, always talked nice about his sisters and always advised them to be good,” he said.

LC said her brother had a “positive personality and was always easy to get along with.”

“He was really funny, lovable and just a fun person to hang out with. He loved to play and joke around,” she said.

Jay Cajimat was born in Manila, the Philippines, and his family moved to Maui when he was 3 years old. He enlisted in the Army immediately after graduating from high school.

Anne Goff, an 18-year English teacher at Lahainaluna, recalled Cajimat as being “very sweet, hardworking, very respectful.”

“His dream was to go into the military to serve his country,” she said. “He could hardly wait to graduate to join up.”

On a MySpace Web site page apparently set up by Cajimat, the soldier expressed his admiration for soldiers and other service workers. He wrote on the site that his heroes are “Past and Future veterans of the United States Armed Forces and all police officers, firefighters, and anyone who puts their lives on the line to save lives every day.”

… Even after his death, Cajimat seems to be helping his friends cope with this tragedy, Saribay said.

“We still confide in him and still go to him, even though he’s not here,” he said.

… Lahainaluna classmate Eileen Domingo, a 20-year-old sophomore at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Wash., said Cajimat seemed to have a premonition about not surviving the war.

“He knew that it was going to happen,” she said. “He knew he was going to die for his country . . . It was brave of him going in (to the military) knowing that.”

Taccuban said that when friends saw Cajimat in December on Maui they asked him if he was scared to go to Iraq.

“He said, yeah, but he was excited,” she said. “I guess he had mixed feelings about it.”

Classmate Tuan Pham, a 19-year-old student at Maui Community College, said Cajimat called him about a month ago in tears, saying he was worried about his family.

“He had an emotional breakdown, and he asked me to watch over his family if anything ever happened to him,” Pham said.

Another longtime friend who knew Cajimat since elementary school, 19-year-old Walter Batarina, said Cajimat “had his good and bad days” while serving in Iraq, but that he was very proud of the work he was doing.

“He was definitely proud of it,” Batarina said.

He added that Cajimat regretted being so far away from his 3-year-old sister, LJ, because he was afraid that he wouldn’t be home to take care of his baby sister as she grew up.

“She was attached to him, and he would always take care of her,” said Batarina. “I guess he was scared he wouldn’t be there as she got older.”

Cajimat’s sister Kaya Cajimat agreed that he wanted to be there for LJ.

“I think he regretted going because he wouldn’t get a chance to see her grow up,” she said.

LC said she kept in contact with her brother through a MySpace networking site on the Internet. The last time they communicated was last week, she said.

“He told me that Iraq was getting to him . . . It was getting hard for him, but he said don’t worry about him,” she said as she fought back tears. “I just told him to hang in there, and that we all love him.”

“He’s a hero to all of us,” said Kaya Cajimat.

“He’s such a loving son, I know he loved everybody so much,” added his mother.

She said the family will bring her son’s body back to Maui to be with friends and family. On Sunday, family members were undecided whether to bury Cajimat in the Philippines, where he was born, or in Hawaii.

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The cemetery of Tyne Cot in the Ypres salient where 325,000 Allied and Axis soldiers lost their lives in five fruitless battles during the First World War.

Where can we find closure for the monster post (again, yet again, my apologies my dim distant friends) but in the graveyards for war’s dead? There is the multi-national cemetery of Cassino in Italy where 16,000 WWI and 107,000 WWII dead from 32 nations are buried. There is Tyne Cot in the Ypres Salient in Belgium, where 325,000 Allied and Axis soldiers were killed in five fruitless trench offenses during WWI (nearly 12,000 soldiers are buried there, with another 35,000 commemorated on rear walls). In 2000, Russia opened a war cemetery for some 80,000 German soldiers who had lost their lives during the 900-day siege of Leningrad (now called Sologubovka) in WWII. (Russia has a total of 89 cemeteries for foreign soldiers, containing the remains of an estimated 400,000 people.) In France there Etapales (12,000 WWI graves) and in Germany there is Halbe (22,000 WWII graves). And in the United States there is Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where some 300,000 veterans and military casualties from each of the country’s wars ranging back to the Civil War are buried over 600 acres.

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Arlington National Cemetery.

To walk in these graveyards – imaginatively here yet surely over there with feet on such soft, tended grass – is to experience the odd peace of great death, the receipt of battles of such ferocity and magnitude and senselessness and cruel certainty that men and women swore never to forget, else such massive sins be repeated again. Yet the dead fall off the deep shelves into oblivion, the past quickly forgotten, the earth heals over and is covered with serene fixtures of the present so ably that even gravesites are beautiful, row upon row of crosses bleached white against blue skies, anchoring a fading sound of thunder and mayhem as wind and earth continue on as they have for billions of years.

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Some 370 miles to the southwest is the tiny cemetery of East Hill in Bristol, Tennessee, created in 1857 to serve the needs of the community and the final resting place of some 300 Confederate soldiers brought in to the hospital hub at Bristol from battles in Gettysburg, Fredricksburg, Spottsylvania, the Wilderness, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Atlanta. The final races toward the Chase loop through these bloodied fields – Bristol this weekend, then Atlanta, then Richmond – we complete the first circuit of the NASCAR season in the heartland of Dixie’s swelter and haunting.

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East Hill Cemetery in Bristol, TN.

Bloodied and dying Confederate soldiers rolled in by rail to Bristol too from the Battle of Chickamauga in northwest Georgia close to the Tennessee border, a Confederate victory of sorts and the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War – 34,000 losses out of the combined force of 120,000 over two days in September 1863. The name of the battle comes from West Chickamauga Creek, which the Cherokee, in local legend, had nicknamed “River of Death” for earlier conflicts. A bloodthirsty river, drinking the entire cistern of Union and Confederate dead.

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The Battle of Chickamauga.

The battle lines moved on – though technically a Confederate victory, the South suffered sufficient losses to enable Ulysses S. Grant to take Chattanooga and from there, enable William T. Sherman to march into the deep South, burning Atlanta. Victories at too great a cost are Pyrrhic, named after King Pyrrhus of Epirus, who defeated the Romans in 280 BC but said of the victory one more such victory would utterly undo him. War is costly, and the price of victory can bankrupt a nation’s will and treasury. Certainly a view of the battle-lines of Chickamauga after war is proof enough, but the only things Americans seem to have learned from their local destructions is that its smarter to fight your battles Over There, because we have done so ever since.

In the decades after the Civil War, a literature was born, that of the Civil War memoir; the wounds remained raw and such tales of battle from the survivors were a strange specie of horror tale, reliving a nightmare succored by civilian and veteran alike.

Walt Whitman, who served during the war as a wound-dresser and witnessed the full brutality of war’s ends—medicine was rough back then, without anaesthesia and amputation the simplest method of treating a ball-shattered limb (imagine heaps of legs and arms outside a medical tent where inside screams mix with the grinding of a saw-blade on bone). Harrowed by his visions, the man who loved the world found it difficult to walk on green pastures composted with the dead:

Something startles me where I thought I was safest,
I withdraw from the still woods I loved,
I will not go now on the pastures to walk,
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea,
I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh to renew me.

O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?

– “This Compost”

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Horeshoe Ridge in Chickamauga today.

How does the earth do it? The beauty of springtime seems obscene against the backdrop of death’s wintering pall. I remember the day after my younger brother died back in April 2008; I had driven down to my mother’s house to be with her a few hours before flying west to Portland, the first of the family entourage to head that way to gather up my dead brother’s ashes and effects. I remember sitting on my 80-year-old-mother’s couch holding her while she cried, absorbing her disconsolate, racking, hopeless sobs and watching out the window over her shoulder at a tabebouia tree in full bloom, its yellow blossoms so brilliant and gossamer and obscene given the freight of our loss. How could there be such beauty amid the blowing ashes of loss?

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Whitman, same poem:

The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings while the she-birds sit on their nests,

The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,
The new-born of animals appear, the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk, the lilacs bloom in the dooryards,
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.

“Innocent and disdainful” – so too the self-enthralled tides of the living who go on so blithely while PFC Clijimat lies in his grave along with the 4,000 or so other U.S. soldiers who were killed in Iraq. How is it that dead last only as long as the memories of the living, that their fate is always to lapse into oblivion and disappear forever?

There is an impulse by the aggrieved to hold on to their memories; that is why memorials are built, even for the utterly forgettable (I’m thinking here of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, erected in almost every war cemetery, holding the remains of lonely bones of a fallen soldier which could not be identified—such a huge chasm between that death and next-of-kin who spent the rest of their days wondering what happened to their son or brother or husband). That is why at places like Chickamuga battles are re-enacted, and Confederate flags wave from trailers in the infield, and collectors display vintage swords and rifles and tattered uniforms and glass cases of bullets pulled from rolling green pastures beneath which split cannon-axles and severed limbs and dead horses continue to sink deeper and deeper into forgetfulness.

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Playing Civil War at Chickamauga.

Grief slows the pace of time – the hours and days grind out so slowly, especially that first year – and renders the paradox of the living and the dead into a strange love affair, like Orpheus reaching after his wife Eurydice’s fading hand as the are forever separated at the threshold of oblivion. They never come back from Over There, and our mortal hours extend weirdly, as if there is in guilt in surviving, as if the real campaign becomes living out the rest of our days.

Grief too may help to keep our all-too-ready-swords in their scabbards. Two atom bombs were enough to make Japan renounce militarism; perhaps four thousand American dead in Iraq will slow the march to war next time. If the wounds are fresh enough, if they are remembered vividly enough.

As James Hillman pointed out, love is not the antidote to war, or, it is not enough of an antidote. Aphrodite, goddess of sexual love, shunned battle, but is the passionate lover of Ares, god of war. Opposites attract—that’s why good loves a fight with evil, and the sex is never better than between victor and booty. (For the victor, at least.) In Gravity’s Rainbow, there is a graffiti on a torn wall in occupied France: “An army of lovers can be defeated.” War trumps love every time: soldiers always take their leave of home and head Over There, and return on successive deployments because there is a part of them that loves the ultraviolence of war more than the happy monotonies of home and hearth.

Instead, the true deterrent to war may be war imagined too well. Shakespeare was said to pen “Macbeth” as a tale of horrors so great as to cause the viewer to renounce violence. It is not the sexual passion of Aphrodite but her aesthetic passion – with its power to harrow and balm the psyche – which, as Hillman puts it in A Terrible Love of War, “provides multiple fields for engagements with the inhuman and sublime certainly less catastrophic than the fields of battle.” We don’t have to go Over There to “sup full well with horrors,” as Macbeth put it. Metaphor – and metanarratives – may cool the choler of the lynch mob just enough to ease back on the red button which destroy us all.

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Otto Dix, “The Triumph of War” (1934)

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As with every NASCAR Sprint Cup race, as goes the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol on August 21 so goes the world. Thunderstorms have continuously dumped heavy rains over the grounds near Bristol Motor Speedway, bringing flash floods to nearby camping areas. Friday the storms will break for a bit—bringing temps soaring into the 90s—but the storms are forecast to return on Saturday morning. Recent flooding in Pakistan has made about 2 million homeless and without food or water, and in southwestern China, torrential rains have triggered massive mudslides, leaving scores of people missing and feared dead.

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Flash floods in Bristol echoed flooding in Pakistan (l) and rain-induced mudslides in China (r).

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A special military salute is being planned prior to the Saturday night race at BMS. This from a release on the BMS website:

… Military anthems from all branches of the armed services – the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard – will be played as flags of each branch are flown in, via parachutists. Fans in the military who currently serve, are veterans, or who have family members who are serving or who have served in the past, will be asked to stand and be recognized.

Bristol Motor Speedway’s fans will play a key role in the patriotic salute. Upon entering BMS that evening, they will be given a red, white or blue towel, which also commemorates the 100th Sprint Cup race at BMS. Once the flags have been flown in, fans will be asked to stand and wave their towels in unison to honor America and our military members.

Two CH-53E helicopters from Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C. will then fly over Bristol Motor Speedway, followed by the playing of God Bless the USA, at which time a parachutist will fly in, carrying the American flag. A pair of Harrier jets from the USMC VMFA-223 unit in Cherry Point will then perform a flyover…

This comes just two days after troops from the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2d Infantry Division, crossed the Iraqi border into Kuwait in heavily-armored vehicles, the last U.S. combat brigade to head home, seven and a half years after the United States invaded Iraq.

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A U.S. Stryker armored vehicle crosses the border from Iraq into Kuwait on August 18.

In Afghanistan, the 14h U.S. combat death for August occurred on August 13 when Staff Sgt. Micheal A. Bock, 26, of Leesburg, FL was killed by small-arms fire while supporting combat operations in Helmand province. Bock was on his first deployment in Afghanistan after serving two previous ones in Iraq. According to a story in the Orlando Sentinel, Bock was planning to purchase a home with his wife, Tiffany, where they would raise his son, Zander. “He was such a wonderful husband and an excellent father,” Tiffany was quoted. “Family was always the first thing on his mind.”

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Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Bock of Leesburg, FL–just up the road from here–with his wife Tiffany and their son Zander.

Also dead this week is Bill Millin, age 88, the Scot who played the bagpipes amid heavy gunfire while his fellow British troops came ashore at Sword Beach on D-Day. Piper Bill, as he became known, played the aire “Highland Laddie” as his friends fell all around him. “When you’re young, you do things you wouldn’t dream of doing when you’re older,” Millin told the BBC in a 2006 interview. “ I enjoyed playing the pipes, but I didn’t notice I was being shot at.”  Some of the men cheered as he strode up the beach—others yelled “Mad Bastard!”—a sobriquet normally reserved for the commanding officer. Millin continued to play Highland tunes as the brigade advanced about 5 miles inland under intense German infantry and sniper fire, to relieve the airborne troops at the Pegasus bridge over the Caen Canal and the Ranville bridge over the River Orne. A madman or hero, who knows?  His battle’s done.

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Piper Bill Millin of the 1st Special Service Brigade, who piped the Commandos ashore and signalled their arrival to “D” Company as they drew near to Bénouville Bridge.

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July 2010 was the deadliest month of the Afghan war for the United States, with 63 killed in action. The Afghan Surge gruels on in a dicey counterinsurgency which gets rattled every time a U.S. airstrike kills civilians in harm’s way or locals are wakened for after-dark house searches for insurgents.

The BMS release continues,

A 60′ x 90′ American flag will be displayed on the BMS front stretch as the anthem is sung and fireworks will go off around the track. At the conclusion of the anthem, the Washington D.C. Air National Guard’s 121st Fighter Squadron from Joint Base Andrews will perform the final flyover …

And the war’s dead sleep on in the fitless graves, no longer troubled by the world’s, as freshly interred as Private First Class  Jay Cajimat or Staff Sgt. Michael Bock or laid to rest in churchyards dating back to the American Revolution, in tiny groves of graves with their brothers-in-arms or massed in places like Arlington, Virginia, or far away in Cassino, Italy.

They sleep while the haulers work their way into Bristol Motor Speedway and unroll the siege engines of a formerly Southern frenzy, rebs fighting for the right to be wrong, fighting on long past the cessation of all hostilities, fighting on because fighting is the gold ore of the American temperament, a metal more precious than love or money, fighting the good fight, going down in glory.

Who knows if the cruel carnage of the Civil War has fallen far enough into oblivion that Tea Partiers and Tree Huggers will take up arms against each other, the Red and the Blue tearing the USA back into bloody halves, better armed now and just as insanely possessed of the old narrow black-and-white literalisms of the past which have always split countries into civil war. It’s been a long, long time since Atlanta burned to the ground and New York City was shelled by Union federales to convince the local boys that it was a good idea with conscript into battle; a long time since blood so soaked the fields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville and Shiloh and Antietam and Bull Run that flesh was harvested by the silo. Does the old unresolved angst simmer in oblivion til it wakens once again, like Dracula up from a long day’s sleep, ready to feast again?

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Diplomatic angst in the Ypres salient, ca. 1915.

Who knows if our lack of imagination about war’s horrors will drain our minds of all Technicolor, desaturating blood into news copy. Who knows if our distracted and self-engaged American sensibility flattens the flashes of bombs into two-dimensioned comic-book startles that go Blam! and Kapoom! where instead blast-wakes and the horrid smell of burning flesh should steer us clear of the next war’s ugly thunderclouds massing to east and west, be it North Korea or Iran, the Great Wall of China or the mountains of Pakistan. Not that we ever flee from any fight, but that we engage it only with only the greatest care, knowing that in the march to war that every attempt to preserve the peace is far more valuable than the casual and shallow venting of human spleen which in the end only swallows lives to prove no point greater than prove that war is like space – an endless, cold vacuum.

But such meditations are not common or much desired on Race Day. The Sprint Cars are safe now, and the racing at Bristol will be a high-banked sustained roar: Yet fans who have come hoping for blood pine and whine loudly for BMS racin’ of old: If only the wreckin’ could restore some of its old, Civil-War era glory, the ghosts of Chickamauga coming down from the mountains around BMS, bony hands gripping Springfield and Enfield rifles, gaping mouths of dirt and cobwebs crying for more, more of that good old daring and daunting daredevil’s charge to the front, holding the line, fighting off all comers, going down like a man should, for God and for good.

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On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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