Tag Archives: racing

Destiny is hard to call your own


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At Homestead, the race that counted most, in the end it wasn’t who got unlucky that mattered so much as whose good luck was in being passed over by the bad.

A twist, perhaps, on the usual intrusion of Fate in racin’, but then a five-consecutive-championship finish called for special intervention.

In the plunder of ill fortune, Wynona turned the wheels just so and so and Hamlin spun, not bad enough to wreck but souring the No. 11 for the rest of the race.

Harvick was a hot contender – always up toward the front – but he entered pit row once a cunthair — guess whose? — over the speed limit, and that set him back far enough, for long enough.

All those slow pits might have ruined my run, but me those mistakes proved human – far, far smaller than Wynona’s jiggles on the dance floor of Destiny.

Enough distraction on her part to allow me to race calm and determined as sunrise toward the front, finishing second with Harvick gnashing his teeth on my rear bumper.

Second in the race, first in the Chase: How Johnsonian, as they will say in the years to come.

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But then, they don’t know jack about Wynona.

But Jimmie does.

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Five championships in a row—unprecedented.  The media wires are abuzz. No one can attribute it to anything special, least of all  to me. Not with how freakin’ fast those RCR Chevvies were all season—flat-out better than every one of our Hendrick cars.

Not with Hamlin so dominant in every race in the No. 11 Toyota Camry, always dueling up from the back of the pack to the front. And staying there.

And yet it’s me they see holding up Cup Number Five, so bland and complacent, not a glint of cocky glee in my eyes, spreading a  goofy grin as if I’d been caught with my hand in the Cookie Lady’s undies again.

Hell, I almost dropped the damn thing trying to lift it. Wouldn’t that have been a photo op.

I even had the gall to say that the Cup was gravy — gravy! —  in a year which delivered a far groovier  event, the birth of my daughter. As if local, familial, family things counted more than momentousness.

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I wonder how many racing fans swore off the sport forever to see me hold high that mockup of a check for more than five million bucks as the confetti flags flew. Five championships in a row –- five nails successively final nails, it’s muttered in every low corner next to the online water cooler,  in NASCAR’s coffin. NASCAR’s bad enough, I heard them whisper filing out the speedway stands, “But him – and five times now, fer Crissakes?”

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Odd, don’t you think? That in the end, Victory seemed so routine, a deflated balloon, a spent condom, flat Coke, no fireworks fucking the girl you always dreamt of having on a night like this.

Another championship: impossible. And yet so bland …

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But you knew all this. Saw it all play out in endless replays on the media for one 24-hour block until that was that and the season was over.

The only difference between you and me today is that I don’t—know anything, I mean. I  truly, turdly don’t know shit. I didn’t when Rick Hendrick brought me into his stable,  didn’t when I won my first championship, and I know even less today as I face the tedium of fame, chained as I now am to every pundit’s  hyperbole and hard candy sound bites.

I wanted this thing —  who fucking wouldn’t -– but I knew that winning wasn’t — hell, couldn’t —  be the goal.

All I did was hold steady while She greased the track around me.

That’s what Victory the Wynona Way means.,  a night in her undersea Airstream trailer, a run of a night which lasts for one race or a season or for five. For a lifetime, maybe more.

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I don’t think about it much (that’s the rule, you know), but I think She and I go way way way way back. Sometimes I dream about chariots and sun-horses and her voice in the marrow of the high cold wind, bidding me to drive the sun across the sky and back beneath the sea where she’ll be waiting wet and wanton for me. (When I wake, Chandra sleeps like a blonde angel, smoother than polished stone. Another quintessence I did not deserve but won anyway, as if wooing and racing were pistolas in a holster Wynona threw into my crib.)

These days, to be charmed means riding low enough to miss the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune. To get in Victory’s shorts is to ride the middle lane while everyone else gets wrecked or loses an engine trying to poke Her.

No one can properly aim for this thing called stock car racin’ fame. It is Her’s to decide.

If there’s anything I take pride in, it’s in not having a clue why any of this is happening. I just smile, smile, smile for the cameras and go home to Chandra shaking my head.  Again.

I don’ take pride in it really, but I am confident I know the way to Wynona’s trailer at the bottom of everything, where all of racing’s fame is decided.

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Yeah, I know, there’s skill, and supreme mechanics: But truly, my one distinguishing talent is that  I know where to find Her. She’s always  on a lonely stretch of coastal highway in the middle of a cold, rainy night, somewhere between San Diego and the seven undersea volcanoes off the coast of Santa Barbara. The precise location can’t be found on any map and there isn’t any road that will take you there. You just drive to the edge of exhaustion, peering through a wet windshield while the wipers keep time with old songs on the radio until She’s suddenly there.

And that’s how it all begins.

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I’d tell you more about the things She whispered to me last week after Phoenix when all of Homestead’s drama was set.

As usual, I found Her following a long night’s drive and let Her whisper the directions in my ear, turning this way then that then then that, driving off the coastal highway and plunging glub glub glub down the deep Pacific. Coming at last to her Airsream trailer,  somewhere between I and Thou, east of the sun and west of the moon, between the devil in a blue dress and the deep blue sea.

I would, but I’ll be damned if I can remember a word of it.

Maybe it was the exhaustion of driving all those laps unstrung from any race track and laid out in a meandering long coastal highway.

Maybe it was all the booze we drank sitting on deck chairs, staring up at the thin wafer of the moon flickering a thousand leagues up.

Maybe the sexual swoon which followed, her kiss and thrash taking me too deep for any human to dive and survive..

Or maybe I was simply dreaming.

Or remembering things from a distant life.

Whatever.

All I know is that she told me a lot that night, but I don’t remember anything between “Going my way?” and “Time to shove off, pardner.”

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I do remember the following morning. Weak, watery light of dawn blueing up the window. She was sitting up in bed, smoking a cigarette, brushing out long red hair which fell sassy over her naked breasts. A blue brassiere hung from one bedpost, my firesuit on another.

A tinny bedside radio was still on from the night before, playing scratchy and staticky  the distant croons of a singer I heard once long ago in a smoky nightclub off the coastal highway:

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

Yes. Earlier she had hovered over me naked in moonlight, her entire shape and savaging of me like a long deep draught of victory champagne from a double magnum. She was awesome, her red hair waterfalling all over me, her thighs gripping my hips as she worked up and down on my resolve to win at Homesead, pistoning the works of Fate into the gears in my mind which command my hands and feet to turn the steering wheel and shift and brake and hit the gas, her breasts rubbing my chest like everything always coming into view around the next turn,  her rosy nipples leaking a blue-white milk of  track mojo on my face and hands and chest, leaving snail-trails which had dried and crusted come morning.  (I didn’t wash them off.)

But it was her eyes which stared down at me in that darkness which nails me still – burning green and gold with flecks of a blue so dark they were almost ultraviolet, a gaze which did no so much as take me in as shower me with the brilliant cold magnitude of a full moon sailing overhead.

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That’s Destiny – a one-night stand with Eternity. Sometimes your fame lasts for 15 minutes, sometimes for 5 seasons, maybe more. But never forever. That belongs to Wynona as she sings along with the radio whose tower is God.

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When I came to,  She hardly noticed me stir, intent instead on brushing out those long red tresses, smoking a cigarette and humming along to the song:

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

I knew I had to get on outta there -– find my way back to the coastal highway and on to San Diego where a charter jet was waiting to take me to Homestead –- but who wants to leave Eden?

And although I was hooked, I was at the same time banned, for She is a Queen of moonlight and moonshine. Waking to see her in the light of day was like taking a bite of the apple; it all became quite apparent, in the spreading magnitude of morning light, exactly who She was.

I saw how old She  really was—not in any feature of her flawless body, her breasts so full and smooth, her back and ass and legs so white as she reached over to the nightstand to retrieve a comb to put in her long red hair, or her oval pure face as she turned back to look at me.

It was the look in Her eyes, seeing me awake and staring back.

Like starlight on the coldest night of the year, so achingly lonely and bittersweet yet knowing, like the wildest depths of the heart spread out across the infinity of the sky.

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Like the last light at the speedway after every other one’s been turned off for the night.

Like the eyes of the world’s first goddess staring through a mortal mask of a thirtysomehing, 21st century woman’s mature perfection.

We held that gaze for a long time, all the way through the last lines of the song on the radio:

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

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

The song ended and a commercial for Hancock’s Flapjack Mix came on, followed by a PSA for war bonds.

She finally broke off our gaze and looked away, off toward the light which was turning from blue to soft gold.  All I could see of her was a waterfall of red hair splashing down to a heart-shaped ass.

Her voice was soft and maternal and icy-sad.

“Time to shove off, pardner.”

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Time to race at Homestead.

The trick is somehow staying clueless as championship after championship gets larded on your heard.

In not getting seduced by the shine of the bling into thinking you know shit after all.

No: The only thing you can know is when to open your door to drenched strangers on past-midnight washed-out coastal roads.

And where to go when She says Now.

When is Opportunity.

Where is Victory.

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At least, I used to know those things.

Now the game is all about losing the mantle -– when, and where.

Which means She and I now enter a new house of mirrors.

While the unreal city we play this game in —- some say Rome, others Atlanta, still others Charlotte –- burns.

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Links to two other posts about Jimmie Johnson’s underwater quest:

Here Comes the Flood (Blues for Jimmie) – June 2, 2010

Jimmie at the Blue Door, Again – Oct. 20, 2010

Three fates, two minds, one track


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It was not the race result everyone was expecting. Denny Hamlin was tearing up the Phoenix track, well ahead of Jimmie Johnson. The No. 48 Chevy just didn’t seem to be able to muster enough champion horsepower in the late afternoon sun. His fade into history’s footnote (as in, set the record for consecutive championships at 4) looked like a sure thing.

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Chad Knaus extorted his driver over the radio. “Come on, buddy. You can find us something.” You could hear desperation in his voice. But there wasn’t anything to find. Johnson slipped one position in the running order, then another, while Hamlin picked up bonus points for leading the most laps in the race. “Believe me, I’m trying,” Johnson radioed back. “Don’t try, do,” Knaus radioed back and then there was silence. The inevitable continued rolling out.

Kevin Harvick had already slipped, a tire changer missing a lug nut on the last pit, forcing him to come back in, get the damn nut, more gas and two tires and miring him back in the field. His only chance was a long, long green flag run (with the leaders eventually needing to pit for fuel).

Entering the last 20 laps it appeared that that might happen. He charged slowly through the field, though it didn’t look like there would be enough race ahead of him to make it to the front without a caution or a competition pit by the leaders.

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And then the unexpected happened, and the race was turned on its ass. The No. 11 ran out of fuel way early. Crew chief Mike Ford told Hamlin that he was about eleven laps short of fuel. He had to come in.

He did, and that was that. The dominant driver in the Kobalt Tools 500 ended up finishing 12th, behind Jimmy Johnson in fifth and Harvick in sixth.

Fuel became the big issue on the final laps. Harvick was the only one who was sure to make it on fuel. Edwards kept the lead but was vulnerable. Juan Pablo Montoya, who was running second, ran out of fuel on the final lap.

And no one, on one at all expected the No. 48 to make it, their past attempts at fuel strategy never panning out.

Edwards did it, winning his first Sprint Cup in 70 tries (he hadn’t won since the last race of the 2008 season) and then, miraculously—-strangely, in that race of strange outcomes—-the No. 48 held out, finishing fifth just ahead of charging Harvick.

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At the next-to-the-last race of the 2010 season, Carl Edwards celebrated his first Sprint Cup win since the last race of the 2008 season.

Everything that looked like destiny for Denny Hamlin, who lead for 190of the first 300 laps, spiraled out of control on the last 12.

And thus Denny Hamlin’s Sprint Cup lock turned like that into a points dead heat, with Hamlin leading Johnson by only 15 points and Harvick by 46.

A points lead which will be challenged ultimately in one winner-take-all race at Homestead this weekend.

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Hamlin had the stunned look of a beaten man in the post-race press conference. “I couldn’t control it,” he said, meaning the strange twist of events at race’s end. “I did everything I was supposed to do. Things didn’t work out for me.” He couldn’t believe that the No. 11 had a fuel issue where the other cars didn’t, suggesting that Ford had been too conservative in his fuel mileage estimate.

And here’s my point: How is it that such certainty can suddenly turn on three dimes into something altogether different? Three dimes – Hamlin’s fuel pit, Harvick’s missing lug nut and Johnson’s miraculous fuel survival – which fell neatly an opposite way to set up the fiercest final Chase race in history.

Well, (I assert), that’s racin’: a tightly controlled mayhem where mastery and dumb luck have stunningly equal clout.

And that’s what makes it so damn fun.

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Johnson, whose No. 48 was clearly fading and looking lost to the Chase, emerged looking like the clear winner, having bested not Denny Hamlin but Fate, or rather been championed by Her this next time, at least enough to keep him within a shorthair of the Championship for another week.

Smiling and joking on pit road after the race, Johnson acted like he was way out in the lead rather than in a dead-heat with Hamlin. He sure was talking trash. “The biggest thing we have working for us right now is to put pressure on [Hamlin], and the fact that we reduced that points lead,” Johnson said. “I hope he has a hell of a time sleeping all week. I hope he hears every rattle in that car, and everything you could imagine at Homestead.”

Johnson’s uncharacteristically bad-assed statement was comparable to calling time-out to ice the opposing team’s field goal kicker on the last play of the game.

Let Denny think about how he did everything right to win and still lost as he heads to Homestead. Let him think, let him think. Johnson knows that the best way to lose a race is to let it get to your head; it is perhaps why he affects such a Alfred E. Newmanequse “what, me worry?” attitude off the track.

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Translating a “What, me worry?” attitude into 53 Sprint Cup wins and four consecutive championships over a nine-year career.

Right up until the very end, Phoenix was a talent show; in the final laps it showed its true colors as a mind-fuck. The unexpected had shown its clout once again, and revealed the high-wires these cars actually race upon, suspended hundreds of feet in the circular air.

Phoenix was racin’ at its best, delivering a satisfying knockout punch from out of that nowhere which is perhaps the only good thing the sport has going for it.

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The current NASCAR motto, “Everything else is just a game” shrewdly plays upon the mystical allure of the oval grotto. Into every race goes the finest auto technology available, with the best and smartest money creating clear leaders – but it seems that when these smart forces are comically ratcheted by monkey wrenches, upending outcomes with banana peels.

Clearly, Fate had spoken –- or the gods –- had turned Denny Hamlin’s dominance into hubris and Kevin Harvick’s missing lug nut into a golden horseshoe. And Jimmie Johnson, who had long been the dominant driver at Phoenix, leading more laps there over the past five years than all the other drivers combined, and yet didn’t lead a single lap at Sunday’s race at Phoenix — still beat his Sprint Cup challengers.

I suggest that the strange mix of domination and chance is what makes these final Chase races so damn satisfying to fans.  Not in a long while has the desperation of the few provided satisfaction to so many.

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Not that Jimmie Johnson is a fan favorite, by any means, but his weird survivals and un-champion-like, laid-back demeanor makes him the lowly country rube who manages to pull the Sword from the Stone where all the high knights of the court have failed.

He sure fooled me on Sunday. Or rather, his fate sure fooled me.

Go figure.

(OK, I’ll try …)

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This notion of unnatural selection (of chimp as champ) isn’t rational, but like the irresistible appeal of wrong lovin’, the appearance of divine intervention (for better or ill) in races is, in my opinion, what keeps the sport running at full song.

Sorry, Monte. I know you’d like a drier, more journalistic truth about racing. You’ve asserted recently the best cars win races. And you know what an uphill battle it is to convince anyone of that, because “what’s between the ears trumps what’s under the hood” – meaning, people are going to believe their own race narratives no matter what actually happens.

Now, I’m all for Truth. My brain tells me that Hamlin has the best car and the best crew chief this year. The evidence of that was clear at Phoenix. I despise the hijacking of truth by corporate media interests. FOX News is the worst, so confusing GOP PR with truth that facts are pulled out of any ass to make a point that takes a news cycle to get shot down, but by then the damage has been done. (MS-NBC is FOX News in drag – same methods, diff’rent party.) Flipping channels the other night, I heard Bill O’Reilly lead a debate on whether National Public Radio offered fair and balanced journalism – as if they cared in anything other than unleashing a wrecking ball on the competition.

However, as we also saw at Phoenix, the truth only gets you so far in racin’—maybe up to the point where some celebrity or lucky fan gets to shout, “Gentlemen, START YOUR ENGINES!” That’s when all the dirt devils and she-demons pour in through back door of the speedway and the shenanagins begin. Driving counterclockwise in the manner of medieval witches (who were also called “weird sisters”) circling backassward around a cauldron, their muttering and motion invoking arch weirdness. Engines mysteriously fail to fire or blow halfway into a race, bits of metal or plastic appear on the track causing leads to get lopped off, cars smoke and spin and wreck this other driver or not, rains begin to fall, fuel gauges play tricks. The margin  of error is too small and there are just so many things which can go wrong.

And when a wreck turns fantastical, going airborne, turning pirourettes in the air, landing with a glance which becomes smash which becomes a series of barrel-rolls showering the catchfence with parts ending in a fuming flaming shatter, the precipice of death is never more visible to the hundred thousand attendees and millions watching the race from every angle on TV. When the driver shakenly emerges and waves his hand, there is a collective sigh which is part relief that a man has beaten Death this once, part disappointment that such sacrifices have disappeared from the land. Then someone crosses the finish line -– often a master, many other times a lucky dog who survived others’ disaster –- and then Fate’s fickle money shots in Victory Lane.

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Sound reasonable? Of course it isn’t. Racin’ is an enduring article of faith in a world where the rational has killed off the Deity and His traces in just about every other place where the light shines. Racin’ with Wynona is old-school, like still-whiskey and Westboro Baptist Church and good ole boys who smoke Marlboros and drink Budweiser by the barrel, who wear t-shirts that read, “Tell your boobs to stop staring at my eyes” and still salute the Confederate flag. The South rises again at every race, ghostlike, still dripping blood from the horrendous losses of Shiloh and The Wilderness, unrepentant, unbowed, and reverently holding beer cans high to the winner, that hell of a good-time man who beat the devil at his own game.

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Actually, racin’ is much older than faith in stock cars.  They’re just the latest vehicle used in the ritual trial to prove the favor of Fate’s goddess. Racin’ survives from the second millennium BC, hearkening back to an age when the gods spoke to everyone, making every decision for us which consciousness eventually took over. (You try hauling ass and turning left faster than an angel can fly; you don’t think, you drive, obeying the voices which come into you over the radio in your headset).

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Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes (d. 1991), whose theories of bicameralism and the cultural evolution of consciousness were largely ignored until the development of brain scanning technology which lent great credence.

That’s the theory, at least, of Julian Jaynes, a former Princeton University professor of psychology who shook the science of mind back in the mid-1970s with his theory that human consciousness is actually a late, cultural invention. Formerly, humans had what were called bicameral brains, with the actions of left hemisphere relegated to “man” and the right hemisphere to “the gods.” The gods spoke through auditory hallucinations in the right hemisphere, speaking in one’s ear, so to speak, whenever any decision or action requiring thought was needed.

Fine and dandy, but shit always happens. Bicameral mind began to break down in the late 2d millennium BC when the auditory hallucinations of the right brain began to grow silent, losing their easy groove, requiring greater stress to speak at all, and eventually, on the personal level, went silent.

That’s because language-—particularly written language– began to overwrite the dominion of gods, replacing heavenly speech with articulated thought, creating a metaphorical interior world which had a force equal to survive and then master the outside world.

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Philistine Linear script, 1200 BCE: The self as text.

And so the gods began to disappear, growing remote, no longer in terran temples but somewhere up in the sky or down there in the sea, mediated by angels and deities, intermediaries which furthered the distance between god and man.

Religions formed as means of re-accessing these gods, and personal practices – like omens and superstitions, rituals and magic – were means of re-accessing the fading hallows of the god. But make way for rationality, the product of conscious thought, and by 600 BC – especially in Greece – we see civilization beginning to take off.

Now that technology is speeding faster than a quark on the lam, white noise is all we get of all those former certainties. Modernity, the inevitable product of civilization at warp speed, sucks.

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Bosch on WAY South Beach: Detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (ca 1510 AD), mapped the way from pre-conscious Eden into the darkness of the human mind.

That’s why the culture of the irrational is so resilient. According to Jaynes, irrationality is the very underpinning of rational civilization. You can’t get one without the other lurking in the shadows.

The Christian God lost much of His power as the Dark Ages morphed into Renaissance – some like Harold Bloom assert that the human was actually invented by Shakespeare’s self-reflexive characters as they tackled existence without a God’s direction.

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Illustration from King James’ “The Daemonologie” (1597); cover art of “Abraxas,” Santana’s second album (1970).

But King James – authoritor of the King James Bible, still the Bible of choice for many today — was obsessed with demonology, and Shakespeare was said to have written “Macbeth” for his benefit. Macbeth is an old-school warrior, haunted by witches and obsessed with destiny (much like every Sprint Cup Driver); Hamlet is driven by the Ghost of his father, but he questions every Christian dogma on his way down the primrose path to his destruction, showing a depth in the human intelligence which few have been able to peer down into.

God kept dying through the ages—drying up, fading into masses recited in dead Latin, exciting various proponents of one or other version of Christian truth into massive bloodbaths, fading to the point where Nietzsche would declare in the late 19th century that God was dead.

And yet He has kept surviving, perhaps because of our mortal fear of death, perhaps because, as Keith Richards once said, nothing interesting happens where the light is too bright.

Does it srike it odd to anyone else that in this age where knowledge is doubling every 15 years or so killer apps have about an 18-month lifecycle, that anti-intellectualism has never been more pervasive in the culture? The Texas Board of Education is bent on getting evolution out of science books, and Sarah Palin aw-shucks her down-home Alaska roots while she grinds her elk-blood-soaked boots onto the necks of Washington elites and readers of The New York Times. The culture seems to get dumb and dumber just as civilization gets smart and smarter; in this age of polarization, the extremes are mind-blowing, like pairing the big-bang spirallinggs of the Hadron particle accelerator with the backwarding declamations of “Jersey Shore” guidos and guidetttes.

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Dumb, Dumber, Dumberer and Dumberest.

Fear of modernity has almost surpassed fear of death, especially as dying gets marginalized, censured from the evening telecast about the war in Afghanistan and hidden away in anonymous nursing homes. The former fear is old enough, dating back to the very birth of modernity when human consciousness pried its way free of the bicameral brain.

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An apple a day keeps old gods away.

The Garden of Eden story is a tale about fears of modernity, with Satan’s offering just what modernity brings – knowledge of good and evil. When god spoke loudly in our ears, there was no need for good or evil – Just Do It was the overwhelming command; but when an inner world grew up around the tree of knowledge, morality – subjective conscience – became a stand-in for the evaporated Voice.

Evangelical movements have swept the United States every 20 years or so, and contemporary fundamentalism is strikingly similar to Muslim fundamentalism. The members of Westboro Church have as much love for the U.S. military – and contemporary society’s acceptance of homosexuals — as the Taliban.

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Birds of a fundamentalist feather.

We may never be rid of the shadow of bicameral mind, but like a schizophrenic recovering from the shower of voices in his or her head, we may learn eventually to temper it, to give it a certain due while suppressing the darkness further from our lit capitals. When is it ever truly dark in a city? How far must you drive out of town to see the stars?

Actually, mind may be slowly growing towards a more mediated consciousness. Banning irrationality has worked as well as, say, Prohibition: nothing like putting tape over a stripper’s nipples to make her boobage more compelling. Rather, it may be that people become self-authorized, i.e., able to have their personal relations with God of their own choosing – be that deity Old Granddad himself or the ocean or a rich metaphorical monestary in the mind – with the permission of society. It seems that the evolutionary direction is toward mediation of the brain’s hemispheres, so that one talks out of both sides of the brain, so to speak, at once verbal and spatial, deep and far, technical and mythical. Just think if we worked at things with our whole brains at play. Then the Kingdom of Heaven would no longer be lost at Eden or drifting beyond reach in the sky. Then it would be somewhere between heart and mind, soul and brain. East of the Sun and West of the Moon.

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East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

Or so Julian Jaynes saw it, until he died in 1997. His theories didn’t have much truck in varied scientific circles until brain imaging technology began to show neural activity which was amazingly constant with his idea of consciousness rooted in language (in the left hemisphere of the brain) with all sort of archaic, mystical, wondrous and strange stuff originating from a goddess’s castle at the bottom of the sea of the right hemisphere.

As it turns out, we really are bi-. –Cameral, that is.

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Back to Homestead, or on to it, for the final, winner-take-all race of the 2010 season. Miami will be a comfort to many, for winter is a-cumin-in for much of the rest of the country. The dark season formally began when we set our clocks back last weekend. Earlier this week Minnesota was dumped with a foot of snow. Trees have lost their leaves and lawns are turning brown. A cold wind blows down from the north. Ratso Rizzo, the sick and dying New Yorker in “Midnight Cowboy,” is aboard one of those haulers now driving way, way south, ferrying a hard-frozen soul into the balmy regions of paradise regained.

The forecast for Sunday’s race in Homestead is 80 degrees and partly sunny: summery weather indeed for just about anybody who doesn’t live in Florida, where this weather has been the norm in a temperate autumn. Warm without the hot humid gator fangs of what’s truly summer in Florida. Warm as a baby’s bottom, as a topless sunbather’s breasts, as the soft waves breaking so milky-blue at South Beach.

It will be warmer than the Daytona 500, a few hundred miles to the north and at the far end of the season. Central Florida was cold back then, in its coldest winter in 20 years. Someone even built a snowman near Pit Row one afternoon as Speed Weeks approached, following a slushy rainstorm.

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Snowstorm in Minneapolis, the usual at South Beach, Miami, Nov. 2010.

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Miami is no country for snowmen, except those boreal dudes in desperate need of shedding their pelts of ice in return for a decent soak wan sunshine, tall glass of rum-and-pineapple juice in hand, a combo playing bossa nova while half the reclining chairs around a beachside hotel are filled with oiled hotties.

Sweet home Miami, Homestead here we come.

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But Florida – especially South Florida – is no Eden, not any more. Massively over-developed, Miami is an day-glo carbuncle on the southernmost tip of Florida’s garish peninsular penis, sold out to big money and dope-runners and the spray-tan of every other form of self-aggrandizement.

Donald Sher Roth of the Miami Herald recently blogged about the hostility of South Florida’s residents, citing a 2010 Travel and Leisure article placing Miami almost dead-last on its list 35 Favorite Cities in America, even though a 2009 survey placed Miami first in attractive people. Roth attributed Miami’s bad rep to an almost complete disregard for social conscience – its citizens the most aggressive, arrogant and annoying of any place on earth, as likely to hit-and-run as leave it to you to step in their dog’s shit.

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It’s important to use proper turn signals when driving in Miami.

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Homestead is still recovering from the annihilations of Hurricane Andrew, a Cat-5 buzzsaw which ripped through the town just south of Miami in 1991 like the Rabid Wild Sow of Hell, a pissed-off cyclone blowing houses down with enormous farts from the sky. And even though the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway is the season’s last, race attendance has typically been anemic, as is attendance a just about any Miami-area sporting event. Maybe everyone would rather be at the beach. Or maybe no one wants to face what awaits them on the roads, trying to get home.

The Homestead race this year should see top attendance, what with it all truly coming down to that singular venue. We’ll see. I have my doubts. Miami is a long way for a NASCAR faithful to trek, especially these days. And with faith in NASCAR at an all-time low.

NASCAR wants to move the season’s final race to Las Vegas, placing it nearer to the location of the season’s end-of-year banquets and celebrations. They better make up their minds, because the gods are surely angry at those surly, uppity Miamiams.

Researchers in Greenland and Antarctica are becoming alarmed at the rate those massive ice sheets are now melting, far faster than the speedy 20th century, which saw a 7-inch rise in sea-level. By 2100, the seas could rise another three feet, putting a good chunk of South Florida, including Miami and Miami-Homestead Speedway, under water.

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Ice is melting faster than a Holopaw debutante’s resolve to stay virginal after a couple of belts of Rebel Yell in the back seat of an old Caddy convertible.

Now, global warming is more the result of a billion new cars in China than a ten thousand hothead drivers in Miami, but that point will be lost on members of Westboro Baptist Church. They will feel vindicated in their belief in the wrath of a dead god. Most of us Floridians won’t grieve the drowning of the Miami Miasma, either — Governor-elect Rick Scott and Tea Party Senator-elect Marco Rubio are both from those parts, and all of Florida will now pay for their presence in the offices of power — but then we’re not looking forward either to the migration of millions of ill-tempered assholes into our neighborhoods, up here on (somewhat) elevated and drier land.

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Florida ca 2100. Note the greatly receded coastline, with Miami under a good 200 feet of water, and the new beach starts west of Daytona.

Maybe we can bus ‘em to Kansas where they can be reeducated in the ways of the Lord by the wonder-wonks of Westboro.

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Guess who’s coming to dinner.

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To work through to the end of the point in this post, I’m going to have to go back – back before the beginning of the season and back before the beginning of NASCAR. Way way back there I think are a few things which best explains the next and last race I’ll probably ever write about.

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In 1902 a curious find was unearthed from the Trundholm moor on the northwest coast of Zealand, an island off the southeast coast of Denmark (a location comparable to Iona off the coast of Scotland): a bronze statue of a sun chariot, featuring a large bronze disk that’s sitting on a device supported by spoked wheels. A mare stands in front, also on a similar apparatus supported by wheels.

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The Trundholm Chariot.

Curiously, the piece is gilded on one side only and supports the notion that the Trundholm Chariot was a votive of the sun goddess Sunna. In Norse legend, Sunna drives her sun chariot across the sky, chased by wolves. Her brother is Manni, the moon. The lack of gilding on the obverse side of the votive suggests a return passage in darkness, in the transit from sunset to sunrise. The piece is dated to the 18th to 16th century BC.

The burial of such an exquisite and costly piece was obviously intended as a offering to a deity, surely the Sun goddess Sunna: such rituals were one of many ways that people stayed connected to an increasingly remote heaven. No longer whispering in their ears, the gods were symbolically planted back under ground, that their voices may one day rise again.

Many silent centuries ensued as memory of Sunna faded away. But racin’ kept her gilded mojo, assuring to every victor her blessing.

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The Tarot is a manner of card-divination which emerged in the mid-15th century (though some say it roots back to ancient Egyptian practice) which was somewhat similar to a deck of playing cards. The Querent asks a question, and then the cards are laid out in some sequence. What’s called the “minor arcane” of the Tarot are four suits (cups, wands, pentacles and swords) working from one to ten and topped off by four royal cards (page, knight, queen, king). Each card has a significance and potency, especially when aligned near others. Then there are the “major arcana” cards, featuring allegorical illustrations and personages – the Fool, the Hierophant, the Wizard, the Tower, the Sun, the Moon, the Lovers, the Devil, the World, etc. By laying out the cards in a proscribed manner, one’s fortune – and destiny – supposedly could be divined.

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Now, one of the Major Arcana cards is the Chariot, and there’s an interesting story associated with this card which we need to remember at Homestead:

The Fool is close to completing what he set out to create long ago, back when the Magician revealed those tools to him. But enemies are now standing in his way, devious human enemies, bad circumstances, even confusion in his own mind. There’s no more forward momentum; he feels he is fighting just to stay where he is. Walking along the shore, watching the waves come in, he puzzles over how to defeat these enemies and get things moving forward once again.

It is here that he comes across a charioteer, standing in his gold and silver chariot, his black and white steeds at rest. “You seem a victorious warrior,” the Fool remarks. “Tell me, what is the best way to defeat an enemy?” The Charioteer nods out at the ocean. “Have you ever been swimming in the water and been trapped in that tide which pulls you out to sea? If you try to swim forward, head-on, you go nowhere. You swim forward, the tide pulls you back and, if you tire yourself out, you drown. The only way to win without sapping all your energy is to swim parallel to shore, and come in slowly, diagonally. So, too, when fighting in a chariot. You win by coming up alongside that which you wish to defeat.” The warrior nods to his beasts. “Your steeds keep the wheels turning, but it is your control and direction that brings victory. Dark and light, they must be made to draw in harmony, under your guidance.”

The Fool is impressed and inspired. He thinks he now knows how to win his own war. He thanks the warrior, but before he leaves, the warrior stays the Fool, “One thing more,” he says, “no victory can be won unless you have unwavering confidence in your cause. And remember this above all, victory is not the end, it is the beginning.”

The Charioteer, as some have divined in meditation, is a tricky sort of character, double-natured–perhaps of two minds: A warrior who fights on land and water and who succeeds not frontally but from the side. A  tricky dicky. Jaynes asserts that one of the first symptoms of consciousness was guile: a defeated people had to ignore the demands of their god for retaliation (which would have often meant slaughter) and, instead, acted compliant while planning their revenge. Think of Odysseus managing to massacre all of those suitors trying to get into his wife Penelope’s panties; he had to approach his own home pretending he was a beggar, so he could slip through the defenses. Badasses weren’t muscle-bound berserkers, they were mind-fuckers, riding their chariots on the ledge between head (reason) and gut.

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Odysseus, having pretended to be a lowly beggar outside his court, gets allowed in — and then takes his revenge on the Suitors.

And finally, the Charioteer knows the end of battle is not Victory but what comes after. This was lost on Don Rumsfeld when he went to war with Iraq in 2003, but Jimmie Johnson learned that Top Five keeps you alive where Victory will bite you in the ass. He didn’t lead a single lap last week in Phoenix and yet he still managed to finish ahead of the one who led the most laps.

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Jaynes suggests that musicians and poets manage to work from both sides of their brains: sound patterns register more fluently from the right hemisphere, with their meanings affixed to language originating from the right. Most of the old religious liturgies were sung because they sounded like the old voices of the gods. Music was a gift of Apollo, divine, harmonized to the heavenly spheres.

Now, most musicians know that keeping things mediated between the two lobes isn’t an easy thing to do. Words get lost in the melody, and if you have too much purpose, if you think too hard, you lose the thread of the song.

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Two representations of Arion, the mythical Greek singer who knew how to ride a song. (The left one’s tattooed on my left arm, since I’m left-handed, and compose my verses in long-hand.)

Arion is the legendary player of the lyre in Greek history (or pre-history) and a good singer, too, attributed with inventing the dithyramb, a literary composition for chorus. He was such a good singer that it literally (OK, mythically) saved his ass.

Arion had attended a musical competition in Sicily and was returning home when he was kidnapped by pirates who wanted his prize money. He was given three fates: commit suicide with a proper burial once back on land or get thrown into the sea. Arion buys time by asking for permission to sing a last song, a paean to Apollo. The song is so beautiful that entranced dolphins circle the ship. At the end of the song, Arion throws himself overboard rather than die and one of the dolphins carried him to the sanctuary of Poseidon at Cape Tainaron.

I have a tattoo at the top of my left arm of Arion riding a dolphin, playing a flute; it was actually a logo for a series of poetry books. It reminds me of that precarious balance between words and music, how help comes from below rather from the skies, and how every next sentence is a dive into the drink, not knowing with any certainty what is to come next.

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The Uffington Horse.

The other figure I have tattooed on my (other) arm is a representation of the Uffington Horse, a 374-foot figure carved in white chalk on the slopes of White Horse Hill in Oxfordshire, England. Without constant periodic cleaning, the figure quickly vanishes from sight; up until the 19th century, a ritual scouring of the chalk trenches was done every seven years, accompanied by a festival. Couples sleeping within the small circle of the head (and directly upon the eye) were guaranteed fertility.

Most agree that the figure is a horse, though some of the locals assert it’s a representation of the dragon that St. George killed. Scientific dating places the hillside carving toward the end of the Bronze Age, somewhere between 1400 and 600 BC, attributing the carving to migrating Germano-Celtic tribe from the steppes of Eurasia whose totem was the horse. (The Celtic sea-god Manannan rides a white chariot called Ocean Sweeper over the swells, drawn by a golden horse called Splendid Mane)

A big-ass votive for a lost god: There is a church and that is its steeple, but what happened to god and all of His people? No one rides the Horse.

Still, the energy of the figure remains and sustains. I often think of that horse as I haul ass at the gym on a cycle, summoning energies older and bigger than my own through the image of a huge, hills-racing horse.

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Finally, atop my father’s Irish crest there is a naked man riding a fish. Three drinking cups adorn the face of the crest, and the motto reads Non Providentia Sed Victoria -– “Not by Providence, but Victory!” You’d think we were a pirate clan, but actually, our heritage was bardic –- the three drinking cups symbolizing the old Irish triad which said songs fit in three categories –- Laughter, Weeping and Sleep.

Odd that song and war would be paired in the image, but something tells me that the rider of the Tarot Chariot knows something similar to Arion whose song guaranteed passage back to land aboard a dolphin, as does the Uffington Horse who rides the swells of the hills, as does my own totem of the naked man atop a fish: a deep image of racin’ perhaps, intimate of land and sea, united (at least, well-mediated) of right and left brain.

All of these suggest that the leys of song and victory are meandering, indirect, and dark, bereft of the blessing of the old sun-goddess, or blessed from the mysterious place where She swam over the horizon for the last time, returning in moonshine and wild sex and lucky breaks on the track, urging her Horse on to victory there between the dry and wet minds, overriding the squawk of spotters and crew chief like the voice of Obi Wan Kenobe in Luke Skywalker’s ear as he makes a final run on the Death Star.

“Luke … Trust the Force,” the dead Jedi knight whispers into the young racer’s ear.

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“Giddyap!” whispers the lost Goddess through the ghostly wires of her appointed Victor’s headset, as soothing as the sound of lost love in the whine of the wires attended by the Witchita Lineman.

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With less that 50 points separating the top three suitors for possession of Wynona’s blue bonnet, bustier and thong, expect the heat to be fiercer at Homestead-Miami Speedway than a dope-runner’s girlfriend sunning herself on the deck of his gently-drifting Cigarette speedboat at noon. It all comes down to this.

One race, winner take all.

Know that crew chiefs Mike Ford, Chad Knaus and Gil Martin are not getting much sleep this week as they tool and prepare the Nos. 11, 48 and 29 cars for Sunday’s Ford 400. The technology available to these three men is as cutting-edge as it gets, the best that three racing organizations – Gibbs, Hendrick and Childress – can buy. Crew chiefs fulfill the ancient role of the smith, armorer to the hero, the ones with the devilish knowledge of the forge, hammering out on a huge anvil something hauled up out of raw nature’s womb.

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Crew chiefs Mike Ford, Chad Knaus and Gil Martin: Their  job is to tool the best car for Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick.

Their faith in technology – I doubt they’d call it faith as much as certainty, but only belief is absolutely sure of itself – the faith of these three crew chiefs in their quest for stock car racin’ perfection is as deep and abiding as the faith in a vengeant God by the yammering Yahovahs of Westboro.

(Quick caveat: I mean no offense against the Christian faith — in any faith, for that matter. Culturally, God may be slowly disappearing, but belief is enduring. The futurist Alvin Toffler once proscribed a manner for surviving the onslaught of futurity: the willingness to change on one side mediated by deep roots into tradition on the other. A marriage of the minds, so to speak.)

Jaynes was quick to point out that bicameralism survives even into the brightest arenas of science, with each school defending their Truth with the zeal and bloodlust of an Inquisitor defending the Church. Philosophers and psychologists alike howled derision at Jaynes’ notion that awareness doesn’t equal consciousness, that until language constructs an inner metaphorical world, subjective thought can’t take place. Scientific paradigms are now adjusting to irrefutable evidence produced by brain scans, the way Mike Ford is seriously re-evaluating the issue of fuel consumption of the No. 11 Toyota Camry.

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For Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick, their preparations for the final and deciding and definitive race of the 2010 Sprint Cup season must follow a bit more fluid course. They must take in all of that data, calibrating their attention to the specifics of their car as it applies to Homestead’s intermediate track, with its banking and turns and straightaways. They also take in data about the weather, tire wear, pit road speed, fuel consumption, etc.

Yet -– and this is crucial to Sunday’s outcome — at the same time they are sending out their feelings into the undersides and peripheries and insides of Homestead, which is not just a track but an entire season, and not just a season but a career, and not just a career but a Destiny as it works out at speeds of up to 175 mph.

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Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick must wind through all of this brain- and soul-data the way the Tarot Charioteer wends a course between land and water, successfully negotiating both with an eye toward Victory the way a driver must see through a wreck: The end is not the checkers but finishing in front of two other men sufficiently so, men they have been pitted against since Speed Weeks last February, and for several seasons previous.

It is a perilous race. Of the three, only Hamlin has won at Homestead, in last year’s finale. Harvick has finished second twice; Johnson has finished second once, and finished 40th once after a crash. None are masters of this track; the track has no master, the way Miami is surly and unruly unlike Alabama fans at Talladega – under the rule of harsher mistress, perhaps.

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If Jaynes is right, the divine voice who once instructed every one of us how to proceed through prehistory has faded a long way from our ears, growing distant the way that the universe is expanding to a point where one night in the future we won’t be able to see many stars in the sky. By then, the moon will also appear small in the heavens, having drifted far from Earth’s orbit; by then it may be gone altogether, leaving the Earth like the jilted lover in “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.”

And as that divinity fades, so does Wynona, NASCAR’s goddess of fate. Once mighty at the track, we’ve done our best to banish her presence  from there, especially since the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow, a car so safe as to eliminate Her greatest clout — the fear of death.

The Winston girls in their short shorts and cancer-causing sponsor have been replaced by Sprint Cup girls so zipped up that the only trace of vestal femininity are in their wide beauty-pageant-smiles which race victors so happily provide champagne facials and other choad-load effervescents.

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A Winston Cup girl doing her post-race duty, and Sprint Cup girl Monica Palumbo, who’s job is brand placement and that’s all.

Incredible the distance now from track to TV, where most folks watch races; even further online racing apps, where the collective experience of racin’ is reduced to one devotee with his hands on his joystick.

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Why put up with the hassle of being there when racin’ – and lovin’ – are now so virtually real? (The NASCAR 09 video game costs $29.99; the RealDoll, $5,999. Dating, at least, is still cheaper.)

If NASCAR seems on its death-bed, Wynona’s exclusion surely plays a part. She may have cursed the sport, the way Psyche was cursed by Aphrodite for failing to tend her altar. But that doesn’t mean She doesn’t still have plenty of clout, especially in the middle of all that high-tech driving apparatus Sprint Cup drivers must worm their way into. Each – and especially, right now, Denny Hamlin, Jimmy Johnson and Kevin Harvick – knows that without Her blessing, they’re fucked. If there’s one song a Sprint Cup driver knows by heart, it’s “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” by Jimmy Webb:

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

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

The deal each driver must make with Her comes from an age that’s as buried as the Trundholm Chariot was. Yet that heart and womb is still fertile, and the big winner at Homestead this weekend must strike a profane deal with Her whether he cares to or not. Crew chiefs try to master every chance element to get thrown their way during a race; a driver’s mastery comes in knowing just when to roll the dice. Even in these smaller, lonelier times.

Providence was not what we thought it was, and Victory isn’t as it is supposed: In fact, the way we think racin’ is is not the way She runs it at all.

Knowing that, a driver can only surrender to whatever Fate awaits him down the track – and then go drive the ever-lovin’ wheels off his car.

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More about Julian Jaynes here.

More about Homestead and South Florida  here.

By the time we got to Phoenix


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Summer of Love was over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example, in one exchange “Snaptie” commented,

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

To which “Noonetou” replied,

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

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

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

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

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Eight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lone Star Rising


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Wednesday, Nov. 3

Imagine, if you will, that the 2010 midterm elections—-whose dust still settles with a few yet-decided races—-were like the predicament of the Scandinavian god Thor, master of thunder, whose hammer was known to hurl around the moon, returning to split the earth like vengeance from god, which it was.

For purposes of metaphor, let’s say that Thor represents the American people—restless, moody, quick to anger, slow between the ears when it comes to long-range vision and patient constructions. Thor was unhappy with the state of things in Valhalla – tribute from humanity in decline, votive idols left unattended in moor and on height, harder times in the gold halls of lazy, self-centered pursuits.

Thor was bored, too, was same old same old Valkyrie nonsense, you know, those birds in the stable overspending on makeup and pushup-bras, campaigning for better healthcare benefits for all the bastard children Thor had sired in his aeon-long chicken-coop romps, overtaxing his testosterone with Heaven-sponsored Valkyrie orgies, three-somes and thirty-three somes which sapped too much precious Rumplemintz from the bull-marbles of the god.

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Time for a change, Thor reflected from the cloudy ramparts of Valhalla as the svelte Nordic rabble chicken-crooned on from within. So he took a big breath and leapt out of the sky, hurling earthward using his tunic for a chute.

When he landed, it was Saturday night and he was outside Hogeye, Texas, a bleak staunch Republican town where the Tea Party maintained a roadhouse named Palin’s Cowboy Palace of Sin on the state highway between Hogeye and those ‘burgs further south down the ancient evolutionary trail like Neanderthaltown and Homo Erectionville.

Let’s say that Palin’s Cowboy Palace of Sin represents a lil’ GOP strange for dudes in desperate need so somewhere to go to vent their collective, bemoaning-the-range, Saturday-night angst.

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Inside Palin’s Palace Thor could hear a honky tonk band wheeling out a blistering, whiskied-up two-step he couldn’t resist. Arranging his tunic to look more like Levi’s and a checkered shirt with string bow tie, Thor paid the cover at the door with a gold torc and strode into the smoky den of right-winged iniquities.

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O it was a charnel house indeed, burning with resentments, fights breaking out up and down the bar in lieu of having any actual trembling Obama supporter or tree hugger to inspire a proper stomping by racists and/or fascists.

The band went by the name of U.S. Chamber and its songs sounded like negative attack ads in Western Swing rhythm at punk-rock volumes, lyrics sung by a front man who looked like Sean Hannity in cowboy drag, dripping with innuendo and vilification of Democrats. The guitar player whipped out bluesy riffs in and around and through the twang and looked like bastard offspring of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Ann Coulter, vaguely Nordic (which he liked) yet bad, bad, bad to the bone, dealing out riffs like they were pure spleen, burning tumbleweeds whirling across the frozen hard-scrabble midnight between nowhere and Hell.

The crowd of dancers loved it, mashing the idea of all-out patriotic revolt of into the grimy, vomit- and blood-stained floor with something between rage and glee. There were pictures of these same opponents grossly misrepresented in obscene cartoons printed on the cocktail napkins and on every sheet of toilet paper in the rank bathrooms marked “Fillies” and “Stallions.”

The American flag, in all its glory, hung behind the bar alongside Confederate and Nazi flags.

A breath of fresh air, Thor sighed, ambling up to the bar where he ordered up a draft of cold Bud and three shots of Rebel Yell.

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The ensemble of booze lifted to his lips and disappeared faster than a bolt of lightning across a summer night’s sky.

He ordered up again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

And leaned back against the bar to enjoy the band, turning around after every song to order up again.

Around midnight, right- (or empty-) minded once again, Thor sighed and looked down the bar to check out the action. Let’s see: A redhead in a beehive where a few cigarettes had been parked, one of them still smouldering; a washed-out blonde eating pickled eggs with a trucker who had tattoos of evilly-tortured MS-NBC pundits up and down his bulging arms; and finally, there at the end of the bar, wearing an improbably sultry red dress, with a figure like an hourglass about to burst sand from both bells, with long black hair almost blue, the bloodiest red-lipsticked mouth sucking languidly on a rind of lemon, blue eyes staring directly at him was her, just the one he’d been looking for.

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Thor ambled down to the end next to her, clearing the way by tossing through the big picture window overlooking the highway a drunken accountant mumbling something about “it’s my money, dammit” who found it hard to explain his newfound Republican radicalism while in mid-air. Everyone edged three feet away from Thor after that except for the woman, who eyed him with keener interest.

“Whass your name?” Thor asked thickly, his voice as deeply resonant as a strolling thunderboom. You could see her barstool tremble a bit, whether from the bass in his voice or the response it elicited from her netherer regions.

Still, she stayed cool, blowing a smoke ring in his face. Then she smiled dimly.

“Darlene,” she shouted above din of the band.

“Buy ya drink?” Thor wasn’t used to having to ask for anything, but this was a night for Change. Thank Odin that most dayside conventions (like civil speech) were chucked nightly at Palin’s.

“Tea Martini,” she shouted back. Paused, looking at him. Blew another smoke ring in his face. “Make it a double. Two bags,” looking down at his crotch, “and two shots.”

Thor ordered up for her and himself and the party for two thus began and ran til closing time, Thor and Darlene knocking back round after round of their poisons, becoming more and more enamored of each other the hazier and darker things get. Thor grew godlike in Darlene’s eyes, like some hero from an ancient old age; Darlene grew curvier and more pliant, aggressively passive where every gal in the Valkyrie stable was aggressively aggressive.

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A gal you could do all kinds of things to, he thought, swimming in that smile which grew into an ocean as they staggered out of Palin’s and climbed into Darlene’s ancient, midnight-blue Buick, flying every whichway down a dark dirt country road that led to a ghastly-looking Airstream trailer so far out there you could hear wolves mixing it up with sabre-tooth tigers for rights to the chops of a fallen mastodon.

Whatever transpired in Darlene’s trailer that late, late night was lost to Thor, who had learned over the millennia to handle his mead but was proved no match that night for Rebel Yell.

When Thor came to early the next morning, his voluptuous conquest was snoring naked and greased from all of the fluids that had lubed and spurted from their bodies through the all-out drunken, hard-fucking night.

Shaking his head to clear the hangover, happy to have found true love at last, he took good second look at Miz Darlene, who turned out to have sleep apnea and was snoring like a rodeo bull with a bad attitude. Thor was amazed at what he found after all the heady, sensual smoke of Election Night clears.

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First of all, Darlene wasn’t so young. Now without makeup, there’s a web of wrinkles round her eyes and mouth and she has a faint moustache. And that voluptuousness he had been so enamored with sags with human gravity, those marvelous breasts he had supped from hanging like loose water balloons down to her waistline.

And the Miss was a Mrs., if the telltale gold ring on her left ring finger was any indication. Married to some interest or other, free to all comers.

Thor considered settling in with this peculiar bedmate, governing the affairs of a god from her Airstream in nowhere. Passing laws and meting out justice with this hag for a handmaiden.

What have I gotten myself into, Thor asked himself in horror: And decided to get the hell outta Dodge lickey-split. Light as a feather, fainter than a baby’s fart on a breezy summer day, the god deftly extricated himself from Darlene’s embrace and sneaky-peted it out the door of her Airstream. Outside, he took a deep breath and exhaled, as if to cleanse his lungs of the night: then lifted suddenly and streaked his way back up to heaven.

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A few mornings later, Thor was walking the ramparts of Valhalla again, having supped the night before on five Valkyries named Anna, Llyana, Vivanna, Olyanna and Svue. His god-balls sang softly, still trembling from the forceful emptying of their contents into an empyrean fivefold pink Swedish Bikini Team mouths in as many minutes.

Thor should have been content, but he couldn’t get that damn Darlene out of his mind. Now, he couldn’t figure it out – she had turned out to be so desperately mortal, banal and dull and old where he had expected new fireworks, a soaring sort of love which could redeem everything. You know, like a triumphant Tea Party march on Washington.

But what did he expect? Politics is politics, no matter how you mix it up, whether on heaven or on earth.

He sighed. And then it occurred to him: He never did tell Darlene who he was. The point was important, at least to Thor: That guy who’d gotten into her spandex pantsuit the previous Saturday night was none other than a god. More god than Fabio or Waylon Jennings or newly-re-elected Republican Texas Governor Rick Perry. What a disservice he would be doing to not let her know who was she had lucked out with for that one night in history. Never again would she have so starry a one-night stand in heaven. Or so he thought. Gods—like electorates– are mighty, but not mighty smart. Just because the engine’s running, it don’t mean that anyone’s driving.

So Thor took another deep breath and leapt over Heaven’s ramparts, falling miles and miles down to the earth, with his tunic plopping out like a parachute at the last minute to assure a soft landing, right outside Palin’s Palace of Sin, shuttered up at this hour of 8 a.m. like a campaign finance PAC deserting the airwaves and returning to its regular business of making millions of dollars of the power elites they had gotten elected.

Thor followed the road down the long miles into prehistory, coming at last to Darlene’s dirty Airstream trailer which, in daylight, he discovered to be sitting on the exact spot where archeologists found the oldest fossil remains of human beings, dated at some 3 million years. Figures.

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He hesitated as he stood at the door to the trailer: then knocked.

Nothing.

Knocked again, his brute knuckles sounding like mortar shells exploding against the aluminum shell.

Still nothing.

Knocked a third time, rocking the trailer so badly that finally an irrated female voice sounded from within.

“Who the fuck is it?”

Thor knew how the ritual must work. “You have to come to the door to find out.”

Silence, then murmuring, the rustling of sheets and/or clothing.

First to the door is the accountant that Thor had unceremoniously thrown through the plate glass window of Palin’s Palace of Sin. He’s wearing this not-gonna-take-any-shit-any-more, definitely-gonna-kick-some-ass look on his face. But when he saw who was standing outside at the threshold–a dude morphed out of the pages of Marvel Comics, his long locks falling in a blonde waterfall over his shoulders, handlebar moustache thicker than rope, built like a pro wrestler and hung like John Holmes (the god’s hammer-haft is only a few inches longer, bumping menacingly at the deity’s leather-embuckled knee)–the accountant, whose name was Lester, thought better, went back inside, and then crashed through the living room window all by himself, saving Thor, he figured, the trouble, and ran off down the road butt-naked except for black cowboy boots and more than happy to survive into the next election cycle.

Darlene appeared, next wondering what the fuck is going on, smoking a cigarette, eyes veiled with the next night’s hangover and revealing just a glint of the smitten-forlorn.

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Thor cleared his throat, no pal of human niceties.

“I’m Thor.”

“You’re still thor?” Darlene spat. “I thought I had it bad. I was so thor I could hardly powdy-puff my face.”

Realizing that Darlene would never get it, Thor kissed her on her rouged and wrinkly cheek and walked off back down the road to eternity.

And that was that between Thor and Darlene, or, if you will, between the American public and the grievous GOP marketing machine.

Til next Saturday night, at least.

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Thursday, November 4

In the pendulous swing of American history’s freedom-filled mammaries, it must be a milky comfort to ex-President George Bush that the Republican hegemony in Washington he was once the symbol of has been won so convincingly in the House of Representatives and busted the filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate.

Perhaps it does feel to him the South is rising again – or rather, Texas, that mighty state of gumption and all things big and Republican red, from business to religion, politics, sports, boobs and big-talkin’ boobery.

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George Bush is not tall, but he still wears big Texan boots. For a no-brainer kind of guy (he hearkens back to the action figures of the 2d millennium BC, before the emergence of human consciousness), he does remember his former glories with Texan relish.

Back in 2000, Carl Rove had promised a Republican supremacy with George Bush leading the way to Washington. Rove, whom many account as Bush’s brain (Bush’s own epithet for Rove was Boy Genius or, alternately, Turd Blossom), used Bush to cement a Republican power base which could last for decades with the proper amount of dicking, such as placing incompetent cronies in agencies they meant to dismantle,  opening every back door to corporate influence, and using signing statements by the President to give the finger to legislation he would do his best to deball.

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(Another voice in George Bush’s head was Dick Cheney’s, who whispered hawkish stratagems and cowboyish proclamations into his ear through tiny speakers sewn into his bedside pillows.)

(The third, of course, was God Hisself.)

Oh, the future looked bright for Republicans back in ‘00, once the Florida Supreme court stopped a vote count which was headed Al Gore’s way. The party was on, with corporate jets lined up to ferry fellow Texan and speaker of the house Tom Delay (“The Hammer”) to his next assignation.

Then came 9/11 and the party became a patriotic firestorm, a proper Texan stomp on the jar-head terrorist-with-weapons-of-mass-destruction-Hydra by big American boots – remember Shock and Awe?

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If only those damned Eye-Rackies had not become a human boil of resentment unleashed upon American troops and each other and the short victorious military campaign become an long and violent occupation battling an ungrateful counter-insurgency.

If only the financial industry had waited just a mere six more months to collapse as everyone knew it would, bloated on de-regulated and largely unknown financial instruments designed to make the Wall Street fat cats even fatter.

If only the spoil of greed was not ruination. First came the lobbying scandal of Jack Abramov (where the lid of payola by corporations to DeLay and his cronies was lifted), then the collapse of Bear Stearns, which famously ridiculed Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s “let the boys race” attitude toward keeping the financial industry unregulated, rather rosily asserting that the industry knew how to police itself.

If only an unmanageable war and a prematurely devastated economy hadn’t been burning at the gates of Washington during the Presidential election season of 2008, Republicans would have continued their dynasty.

But another alternate party running on the same platform of Change which had worked for Republicans and Democrats alike since Jimmy Carter toot-and-hooted their way into the White House and both houses of Congress, sweeping aside the Republican empire like an El Paso hooker flea-flicking a drunken cowboy with offering nothing more than a limp pecker in his hand.

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And so it was over, and George Bush, the ur-symbol of that former now vilified hegemony, retired from all view to his ranch at Crawford. (Republican presidents, who apparently never saw their official duties as public service as much as corporate enterprise, have all retired the way CEOs do.)

George was free in his new anonymity to clear brush and drive his pickup into town and sit on his porch and watch the Texas sunset, free just to languish, perhaps remember the good old days in the kingdom. Perhaps, on that last one: memory is a conscious activity, and consciousness is not quality normally ascribed to a man who admitted to never cracking a book and never expressed any interest in the complex undercurrent of events. Exiled King George seemed happy with his retirement, finished with taking all of those surreptitious left hooks of derision as he stood in the limelight butchering the conventions of English with statements such as “”Rarely is the questioned asked: Is our children learning?” and “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family.”

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(Sarah Palin, as an inheritor of the trend begun by Bush of selecting boobs for leaders—an American reflection, perhaps, of the marginalization of independent thought–would find new ways of torturing a sentence to get through her talking points. Such as when, at a 2008 fundraiser in Greenville, North Carolina, she said; “We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C. … We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.” Zombies are more coherent than Sarah Palin, but then perhaps that’s the point.)

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Two years later, George Bush must feel aflush with something akin to vindication. But only akin. I mean, no one was waving pictures of lGeorge W. Bush during the heated political season. And a different type of Republican is leading the vanguard of rage back into Washington.

Their anger makes his skin creep, for he knows that what these motivated Americans are most pissed off about are Republican policies of his Administration which the GOP PR wonks have effectively hung on Democrats, using Socialism as a the mean old wolf’s  pelt the old Republican power-junkies could hide their stanky shenanagans inside.

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Bush knows better than to correct them. Don’t expect his memoir Decision Points, due to be released in a few days, to be of any more insightful caliber than Reagan’s diaries, clearing the brush of the Bush legacy with talking points instead of insight. Remember, Bush is old-style–I mean, 2d millennium BC-style, the king whose authority came from voices inside his head – Rove, Cheney, Gawd.

(One of the great get-out-the-vote characterizations of Bush was that of a saved Christian who got personal guidance on matters of authority from the Big Big Guy in Heaven. That image, no matter how cobbled together from that of a party animal who had the handle Gin and Tonic when he was a Yale frat boy, was enough to stream the bluehaired masses of church ladies into polling booths to vote for GW (much to the glee of Bush’s corporate handlers).

Even with the publication of a 500-page-plus memoir, Bush will keep his mouth shut for the Party’s party’s sake. That isn’t easy for a constitutionally and geographically cocksure Texan to do. But George knows which side his bread is buttered on. Expect lots of Decisions but no troubling details.

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A cut and dry time was his in Washington, effortless as a moron’s afternoon, full of the assured ease of spitting tobacco juice on a scorpion, or bull-whipping an unruly Negro: you did things because you were so damn right, no matter what the truth actually was. He was The Decider (thus, fer sure, the tie-in to Decision Points) -– never so much a function of the man except as servant of the Christian god who spoke to him and him alone on matters great and small.

George’s sense of almost-vindication is really the Party’s, for Republicans know they are getting back a greater share of a mess they created and maybe be too big now for any party to fix. Republicans re-assured election in 2010 by stonewalling the first two years of President Obama’a administration, voting as a wall –- albeit not a big enough one to matter –- against every initiative. Let the Dems take the credit for trying to fix that bloated, sunken, unfixable mess -– then you can blame them for all of it.

It worked, but now with reins at least partially back in their hands, the problem is much different. Broken Washington is strangely like a horse which refuses to be broken, a nasty bronc which will surely toss any Party who tries to out on their ass.

Well, with the boisterous House as their squawk-box, Republicans can spend another two years blaming Obama and Co., sending every sort of cantankerous law on to the Senate where it will get voted down there or vetoed by Obama, building their case for an even more contentious and contemptuous run in the Presidential election of 2012.

But this new wave of Republicans flowing into Washington are a bilious brew, not a solid wall of goose-steppers as before but carrying in its ranks (and perhaps given primary authority by) a raucous rabble of independent Tea-Partiers. These are uncomfy bedmates to be sure, folks who would rather burn Congress down to its foundations as legislate any effective change. (It is rumored that the conservative elites are now puzzling how to derail Sarah Palin from a 2012 Presidential run, thinking that Obama would have the surest chance of re-election running against the likes of Palin. But as P.T. Barnum once famously said, one should never underestimate the stupidity of the American people.)

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A pyrrhic victory, then, for Bush’s class of ’00 and ‘04, like proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” when one colossal victory on the battlefield has actually only spread the black wings of an unwinnable war, a mission without real purpose or end, become 40 years in the wilderness, the voice of God silent except where the PR guys have dummied one up.

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George’s pain might be eased in knowing that all is well, Republican-wise, in Texas, a greater state in every way than that United one. Republicans won everything in the Nov. 2 elections – governor’s mansion and both houses of the state congress. The Texan economy is the most robust of any state in the union, adding most of the jobs in the nation’s recovery.

But these things, too, amount to what is only a pyrrhic victory to ex-King George, because Texas sports is belly-flopping in a shit-hole wearing its mama’s underpants. To wit:

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– The Cowboys suck, suck, suck, losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday 35-17 in brand new Cowboys Cathedral Stadium. They’re now 1-6 on the year, tied with Carolina for the worst record in the NFC.

– Those sorry-ass Houston Texans, who have the 32d-worst defense in the NFL, got picked apart by Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts on Monday night, 30-17. They’re now 4-3.

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– The Jesus H. Christ University of Texas Longhorns are 4-4 after losing to the Baylor I mean Baylor fucking Bears fer Chrissakes, once yesterday’s buttwipe for every other Big 12 team.

The only football team in Texas to warm a range-frozen heart are those Horny Toads of TCU, unbeaten so far this year, big fish in an unfortunately small pond and unlikely to stand up against the likes of Oregon or Auburn or Alabama.

– The Houston Rockets are 0-3 so far on the season, and everyone’s starting to wonder about them. Aging, heavy-footed, with that lumbering skyscraper Yao Ming looking like a confused Chinese manufacturer at an inflatable fillie sex doll convention, they don’t look to stand a chance against the likes of the Los Angeles Lakers.

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World Series MVP Edgar Renteria gives the Giants the lead for good with a two-out, three-run home run off Rangers ace Cliff Lee in the seventh inning of Game 4 of the Worlds Series.

– And don’t even get poor George going on those Texas Rangers, shee-it, eliminated from the World Series on Monday night after losing to the San Francisco Giants 3-1. Only one victory in five games. You’d think a former property of GW Bush would have the decency to perform like proper Texans, stomping those tree-hugging Giants the way the finished off those liber’l New York Yankees to gain entrance to the series.

But the only game they managed to win in losing the World Series was Game 3 — the only one George W. didn’t attend. How can a Texan stand to look hisself in the mirror knowing that his baseball team has been taken down like a Brokeback Mountain dude by a feeble beehived man in waitress-drag who hails from that ulta-socialist, blue-to-the-balls, anti-Christian pothead Mekkuh of San Francisco?

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Well, you can put your boots in the oven, but that don’t make ‘em biscuits.

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Well, fuck ‘em all. Texans still have things to hold their heads high over. No respecter of intellectual prowess – leave that to uppity Ivy League East-Coasters, they can take a certain pride that Houston was recently named the fourth-dumbest city in the country (based on factors like the percentage of its population holding BA’s and the number of  libraries within city limits) with Dallas and San Antonio on either side of them in the cellar. They weren’t the plumb dumbest (reserve that honor for Las Vegas, dumber than dumb in its support of mindless—extra Texan—pleasures and voting back in Harry Reid), but dumb enough to keep Republicans in office, look the other way on corporate cronyism and be sure to teach creationism in schools. Texans love truth—you know, beliefs that so surely ought to be true that laws are passed to ensure they will be.

Yes, there’s nothing like a Cowboy Conservative to bring the rich man’s bacon home.

Like there’s nothing like fully stacked cowgirl to keep the home-away-from-home fires glowing.

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And there’s nothing like a Texan’s balls to bully back from Nowhere, that vast flat scrub of hardtack real estate Texans so endearingly call the Lone Star State.

So crack a smile for us, George, alone on the porch their in  the satiate glow of the Texan twilight, skies all Republican red and Darlene pink, someone off in the cookingg shed playing a lonely plains air on a harmonica, dinner soon served up inside by Laura, your food, your  retirement and your legacy all blessed by the God of the Texas Board of Education who now say school textbooks must say that the world was created by God and ruled best of all by George.

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Ex-President George Bush’s ranch complex in Crawford.

Don’t be troubled by the Texas Cowboys or Rangers: A better team can always be bought.

Just like in politics.

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Rick Perry celebrates winning the governorship for a third term on Tuesday night.

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Friday, Nov. 4

It is highly ironic that the fiercest Chase in recent memory – Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick are tighter than bark on a tree, separated by a mere 38 points – comes at the very time when NASCAR has never seemed so irrelevant to the American public, perhaps not since it began making regular appearances on TV.

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You can’t fault the contenders, really. The Johnson-Hamlin-Harvick matchup is perfect, with the laid-back, technically-masterful Johnson going at it against a silent yet determined Hamlin and balls-to-the-walls Harvick. A three-way race to the finish from here on, but something tells me that in the end, it will come down to just two. When I watched Harvick and Johnson battle for the finish in the one of the Gatorade Duels at the start of the finish (Johnson beat him by a hair), I thought to myself, that’s how the season’s gonna finish.

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This is how things looked at the end of the second Gatorade Duel during Speed Weeks at Daytona last February. It may look the same at Homestead in a couple of weeks.

We’ll see. Hamlin may end up beating both of them like a rented mule. He’s made a run despite the handicaps of a torn knee ligament (from a pickup basktetball game) and that horrid statement he made at Richmond when he captured the checkered flag. “All we do is win,” he exulted. The next week at Sonoma he finished 34th, and it was 11 races later until he won again. Foolishness and hubris have kept Hamlin a short-hair behind Johnson, but you have to give the boy some respect, ‘cause he races more like Johnson than anyone else – no fireworks, always up in front.

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But all the excitement of this year’s Chase may not mean enough to a sport which is deflating faster than a Democrat’s ambitions anywhere in Texas. The official estimate of last Sunday’s race at Talladega—an exciting enough race, by NASCAR standards, fast and dangerous with more lead changes than a Dallas socialite swaps out hairdoes–was 110,000 (Monte Dutton, who reported on the race and was there, set it closer to 98,000). That’s down from 123,000 in the spring race, down from 142,000 in the spring 2009 race, down from 170,000 in 2003. In Texan terms, that’s all hat and no cattle.

Monte Dutton reflected on the conundrum in his piece, “Who Knows Why the Bubble Burst.” There are obvious problems in the economy, and the falling and rising stars of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson may be sufficiently pissing off fans. But he then reflected that what’s happened to NASCAR is what happened to the stock market in the late ‘90s and more currently in real estate market: a fast-rising bubble of popularity – and wealth – outgrew itself and then collapsed, like a Ponzi scheme, for lack of enough fast new growth. “It’s still big, but not as big,” he writes.

I think Dutton’s being rather charitable. No one likes how fast real estate prices are falling, and everyone asserts that the turnaround is not that far off, but the reality could be much, much worse than anyone wants, with real estate depressing far below the values properties were at before the boom began.  That’s the problem with bubbles: the faster your rise, the harder you fall.

NASCAR is and is not to blame for this bubble. They obviously got greedy and tried to grow the sport beyond its britches, reaching out to fickle younger audiences (while disaffecting the loyal base) who stuck around for a while and then drifted back off, content with iRacing and the distraction of more violent and/or sexy activities. (That’s the conclusion I made at the end of my previous post, What Really Scares Me about Talladega.”)

It is surely galling to Johnson and Hamlin and Harvick, who have been putting on the best show every week racing for the Sprint Cup, that their thrilling performances fall on ever-more-dulled eyes.

Sadly then, whoever takes the championship in Homestead, it will surely be a pyrrhic victory, something akin to the Republicans’ 50-seat gain in the House of Representatives in a Washington which will remain Democratic in the main for at least another two years. It’s just the next Chase in the same old NASCAR, the next Change to assault the indomitable Beltway. All the rule changes in NASCAR or spirited speeches to come in the House don’t change the fact that NASCAR is still France Corporation, a privately held firm whose main responsibility is its billionaire owners. The same way that Congress is still trapped in Washington, a place that’s crooked as a barrel of snakes and leaves a politician who dares to enter its fray looking like someone who’s been rode hard and put up wet. And nothing gets done.

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I’ll bet that King George of Crawford is looking forward to the Triple-A 500 at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend. It  promises to spit-shine racin’ with Texas glory. I mean, it’s gonna be a real race this time, with Johnson and Hamlin and Harvick running so close. A dynasty could fall in Texas with a new one crowned there: But know one knows who. Sunday’s outcome at Texas Motor Speedway is darker than midnight under a skillet.

There’s hope, yessiree. Republicans back in the saddle and the next NASCAR champion riding off into the Texan sunset.

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If only those three drivers weren’t coasters –- Johnson and Harvick from California, Hamlin from Virginny. Heck, the only Texans in Sprint Cup competition this year are Bobby Labonte (ranked 31st) and Robert Richardson (54th). )The two of ‘em finished dead last among the unwrecked or otherwise undamaged at Tallaega last weekend.

Not much to hang your Stetson on, George.

Well, you can tell a Texan, but you can’t tell him much. Texans live in one of the dreariest landscapes in the country, but their tall cowyboy hats are brimming with dreams of glory. For their next Saturday night at Palin’s Cowyboy Palace of Sin. Or up in a Democrat-free heaven, all the donkeys shoved off the trail down into Hell’s abyss where they belong. Or attending cotillions in the governor’s mansion, served up drinks by blacks in white uniforms, strolling through moonlit gardens carefully attended by invisible Hispanics.

Or putting your boots up on the desk of the Oval Office, doing Lady Liberty the Texan way.

A Texan dreams big, you know.

Big, as in a Dallas stripper’s bustline.

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Big, as the cathedral reaches of the brand new Cowboys stadium.

Big as in rich, with more than 350,000 millionaires in the state.

Big as in big poverty — more than 4.262 million Texans (17 percent) live beneath the poverty level, making the second-largest state in the Union the 8th poorest.

Big, as in the number of executions, killing inmates 4 times more frequently than any other state.

Big as in the number of combat fatalities in the Iraq-Afghanistan conflicts, second only to California in young men and women dying for their state, I mean, country.

And big as George W. Bush’s old vision of himself as the Reagan of the 00’s. That grand dream was greatly tarnished, however, by all of them pyrrhic victories effected by the Liberal Plot otherwise known as History.

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But George wouldn’t use a phrase like “pyrrhic victory,” which sounds like something a New Yorker would say over fish eggs and a Shirley Temple. Instead, he’d call his twist of fate catty whuompus, destiny that somehow got out of line.

Catty whompus is George W. Bush sitting on his porch at Crawford thinking that November 4, 2010 was Retribution Day for Republicans and God, and then looking at the view of wasteland from his porch. It’s turning his thoughts then to the Dallas Cowboys and the Texas Longhorns and the Texas Rangers. It’s thinking about the Saturday’s Triple-A 500 and forseeing no decent Texan in Victory Row.

A real frog-strangler on the reign of George, know what I mean?

But then, no one remembers next week how the game was won. A V is a V.

Especially if you’re a W, where if in your mind you’re a Texan, and that’s all that counts.

p.s. Texas is bigger than California, ha ha.

And France.

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Jimmie at the Blue Door, Again


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One

The last seaside bar on earth lies just beyond the city limits of a small beach town off the Pacific Coastal Highway. The town isn’t on any map; like a bottle with a scrolled Grail inside tossed to the wave in some faraway beach, you can’t find it nor the bar except by accident, turning left where you meant to turn right three miles back as you drove back from a race one late, weary night.

The bar is old and looking pretty beat-up from storms and the a constant stiff breeze which always works the coast—a ramshackle building, timbers worn thin and grey as bone, just a couple of pickup trucks and a battered woody station wagon from the 40’s parked outside, a single blue neon sign which flickers intermittently, advertising a beer you’ve never heard of.

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Getting out of your car—-a royal blue Chevrolet with a big yellow 48 painted on the roof–the first thing to hit you is the breeze, steady and hard, carrying in its fists the sound of big waves crashing in the distance. As you cross the lot toward the bar’s entrance, each wave’s collapse trembles the ground beneath your feet.

It’s dark outside, O so dark, the gas station and diner across the street empty and mute — perhaps for decades, forever — the sky impenetrable with its dim silvery blue glow of unreachable galaxies, the sea beyond a frontier of absolute black, the bourne no racer returns from.

You can make out faint music leaking from the bar’s interior, almost indecipherable amid the hard coastal mash of wind and wave but alluring, like a stranger’s perfume which has lingered on your pillow from the night before. A jazzy, slow, after-midnight sort of music, the purest accompaniment to hard drinking and desperate liaisons.

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You hate that you find yourself exactly here, between the last wild track and the great blue sea so late at night, so late in the season, with so many angry hot cars right on your tail, with all the added responsibilities of age screaming at you to turn around and go home.

But you know no champion can fail this trial. Racing’s Grail Castle is exactly this anonymous bar smelling of fried oysters and brine – never the same one, but always some dive that seems about to be carried off on the next tide.

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This bar is arrived at only after so long a quest -– 30 races so far, this year – and inside there waits the Cup, hovering in the air behind Wynona, racing’s castle Queen. You know — the pale one with the red hair and violet eyes and blue satin dress. The one whose proper wooing means everything, with the foretold words spoken wholly of the moment, not written in a psalter rescued from the bottom of the sea, or whispered in your ear by a dying priest at Machu Picchu, or radioed in by a crew chief who’s tired, tired of all this shit, who only knows how many tires to change out, how many turns of the trackbar will give your Chevy more grunt and growl than the rest of the field for enough laps to get that Top 5 finish, those precious, lead-adding point.

No, no one has told you the words, and you know you aren’t smart enough to compose them yourself: All you have is your driver’s instinct for the moment, a gift for seeing openings and trouble on the track infinitesimal instants before or ahead of anyone else.

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That instinct will give you the words at just the right moment. It must, or her eyes will glaze into a gaze which lets you know she’s already focused on someone behind you and made up her mind to tryst with him, bestowing her silvery blue satin scarf around the next champ’s neck, hoisting him high on that invisible hanging tree that lurks just behind Victory Row, taking her prize just as the man beams and holds the Cup high, as if that were the prize, the end …

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But first, you have to get through that door.

Four times now you’ve walked up to the threshold and grabbed hold of the door’s handle, your heart pounding, the night grown suddenly huge: Four times it has creaked open, allowing you access to a spot at the bar with her as the jazz band plays improvisations of old standards with a remove reserved for the dead. Cool blue jazz indeed, a flicker of a heartbeat above rigormortis.

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Four times you’ve clinked glassware with Wynona til time made no sense, and when she leaned close to kiss you, that immense feminine power of the track goddess enveloped you in a roar of horsepower not found in any car, ever. You then found yourself crossing dreaming winter heavens in your Chevy’s boat-cum-crystal bed with her, romancing the infinite leagues of her abyss, celebrating the New Year in her blue jazz honkeytonk beneath the wave amid the ghosts of so many champions – Fireball Roberts and Joe Weatherley, Tim Flock and Lee Petty, Buck Baker and Dale Earnhardt, all of them now dead, all raising their gold cups to you with hard eyes and icy smiles fraught with the knowledge of Destiny’s infinitely wild and deep and ultimately drowning sea.

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Is it just a night you spend there, always on the eve of your next championship? Seems like 300 years passes before you come to on pit row at Daytona walking up to your Chevy, now cleaned of all the kelp and barnacles and shipwreck tackle that got mired in its works by passage, primed and ready the next great run. Someone else stood in for you during Champion’s Week at Vegas; a smiling moneyed and relaxed Jimmie-doppelganger vacationed with Chandra at Cazumel and Capri and Thailand; that picture of you with President Obama with your No. 48 Chevy parked in front of the White House – staged by Wynona’s Powers, her vast blue satin veil of fame settling over our eyes so that all we see is fame and its receipts, hiding the true boon of Victory – Her feast, from November through January, on the mortal bone of her Champion.

No wonder you race as in a daze, preternaturally composed, unsure even which track you are to head for next. That’s because you are less and less on every track you race now, slowly waking to the possibility of that dark blue dream of yet another tryst with Her. The greater the destiny—now a record five consecutive championships in the offing—the cooler you seem, more laid-back than a 14-year-old surfer dreaming on the warm sands of Pismo Beach. You’re almost invisible now at the wheel.

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And here you are again, on the verge of entering for the fifth row in a year — something no one else has done?

Not that the door will open. Nothing was decided enough at Charlotte; you finished third behind non-Chase contender Jamie McMurray and out-of-Chase Kyle Busch; Denny Hamlin was right behind you; Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon lost enough ground to render making it up very difficult. Martinsville this weekend will be the showdown between the leaders; you and Hamlin have won the past eight races there; the fateful checkers may fall there.

But then, Talladega waits …

No one has found this bar so many years in a row.

Few have gained entrance as many times.

Will it open yet again?

And do you have you the strength, the cajones, the unrivaled gall to go in if it does, knowing what you do?

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Two

She explained things to you on the eve of the second Phoenix race in 2007, where you won your fourth straight race in a row and clinched your second straight championship.

That night the bar was closer to ‘Frisco – a fog-bound 2 a.m., freighters mooing to each other in the soup, the night cold, thickly insinuating itself like a ghost from an all-too recent past, a freshly cracked grave with dirty tracks disappearing into the woods.

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The door opened.

Inside, the gloom was cheery in that icy alcoholic dope-fiend way, everything in dreamy slo-mo free-fall, booze providing oblivion’s descending shroud, heroin shutting down the system to barely heart-and-lungs.

Up on the bandstand, the band was playing a version of “Freddie the Freeloader” with country flavors added in – three extra players riffing modally on banjo and jug and mouth-harp. The effect was disastrously perfect, a head-on collision between hostile genres, like a T-bird convertible of hep-cats mashed into the squonking Model T of the Beverley Hillbillies, bodies strewn everywhere. Yet the night was purple, stout and aching with the odd glee of Destiny, always the inverse of what we think. Only a goddess woulda thunk such cool country would herald her next appointment.

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You and her were drinking whiskey chasers with steins of Anchor Steam cold in hand. Her thick red hair almost black in the blue neon beer-lights hanging over the bar, her green dress like sharkskin, working the light so strangly, a huge blue sapphire hanging between her breasts. And you in your firesuit, still reeking of Charlotte.

Somehow your shapes almost merged in the cracked smoky mirror.

Because they were …

She was talking in your ear, loud enough to get around the band’s corn-pone version of “Flamenco Sketches.” “You fly the Oval heavens in your teammate, mentor and former friend Jeff Gordon’s double – a blue Chevy with a bright yellow 48 on the roof. The colors are not accidental to your tale. They are a perfect match for heaven – blue skies forever, the sun promising glory, gain, triumph, pleasure, truth, success. A championship blend, but it’s more than that. Blue is the color of the inner folds of my robe, the scent of my satin lingerie. Your dark blue is the color of that stratosphere you can only access with a thousand horses under the hood and straightaways at 200 mph.”

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She spoke staring at you in the mirror as you listened, staring directly at her. That’s how it works. You know. Fame is all about eyes – of beholder and beholden, the candescent celebrity and those who would see themselves in that light, the way Psyche loved Eros because she could see herself in the magnitude in his eyes. It’s like the Tarot card of the Lovers: the man looks on the naked breasts of his Beloved as the pure sum of his infinite; the woman looks up at Heaven to receive the full bestowal of her desire.

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Wynona took a drag on her Winston and exhaled slowly and thickly, like smoke from a burnout. Her violet eyes were almost black in the mirror’s dark reflection, aged at this game yet still aglint with the silver of wooing. “Blue is the color of your true love’s eyes, the one you will marry and who will bear your children. Blue is the inside of what is now called the Sprint Cup—a forbidding, welcoming blue, like the deep blue sea which folds and crashes on the shores of your beachside mansion, paid for by my secret, unholy embrace.”

Her voice was becoming thick and eel-like to your booze-befuddled ears, as if coming to you from surf instead of barstool.

“Blue is what I have again decided that I love about you. So buckle up and unzip, lover. We’re going to race together every sea and sky.”

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With that, she stubbed out her cigarette and headed out the door. You watched her leave in the mirror, her hips moving with such rounded perfection under that dark blue dress, her red hair caught for a moment in the Exit light beneath the door, suddenly aflame – then gone.

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Blue is color of the odd bittersweetness of achieving an unparalled human height and knowing you shall die unable to return to those portraits of infinity, holding high the next Cup as a million cameras flash like stars.

It is the color of knowing how all of this is out of your hands, though you do what you must. It’s just the color of the car you signed on to drive, though all that winning has made it the color every other driver has nightmares of, off and on the track.

Blue is the color of the door you must go through.

It lurks in all the shadows gathered here.

It endlessly folds and crashes and recedes, just beyond the last bar open at this hour on Earth.

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Following the rules of enactment, you stay on through the band’s final set. The country players file out quickly, jug of sour mash swinging from the banjo player’s hand. The jazzmen recessed to a back room where they shoot up. Boozers and dopers are a different breed, especially when it’s 4 a.m. going on forever.

That year it was Bill Evans who emerged that room and sat with you a while, his eyes looking freshly done up, icing his extraordinary, killing jones for Beauty. (His long-time girlfriend Peri Cousins once said he suffered so every time he took the stage, crucifying himself on an immortal cross of lyric perfection; the dope saved him from Rapture, bleeding him back to earth.)

Evans’ voice was calm and lucid as he continued that year’s lecture. There was much to learn, as the dimension of repeat championship changed everything, making winning big a mythic reenactment.

A Kool hung from Evans’ lips as he spoke, the way one did when he was at the piano onstage with the band. It made him talk in a sideways, almost sinister way. “The yellow of the 48 represents the sun, clear, wide-awake, beaming with precision and beauty. One end of yellow’s spectra is hot as burning sulphur, mad for victory, coming round the turns in a molten blur; on the other end it’s pure gold, like the satch of sunset on your wife’s face as she walks with you by the sea. That gold aura will hover over your future daughter as she sleeps.

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Framed by blue skies, yellow is waking in a bed after a night of passionate surrenders that’s far at sea, floating on uteral blue, the skies so lamped a perfect assent and surrender.”

Evans mashes out the butt of his Kool in a brimming plastic ashtray and taps another one out of the pack, lighting it from a matchbook bearing the insignia of the Village Vanguard in New York. He inhales deeply the mentholated smoke and then lets it ripple back out slowly, like a descending riff on the keyboard. The black hornrimmed glasses would look geeky on Evans were it not for the eyes inside – dark coals of insatiable desire, not for pussy so much as its cathedral mood, the romance of engangement, the enthralling feel of Beauty as the image of it floods the  heart.

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He stays silent, having played the chords of the setup. It’s your turn to solo, showing off the chops you’ve learned which gave you entrance through that door that night.

You begin slowly, turning a shotglass of Jose Cuervo Gold slowly one way then the other in your fingers, like a steering wheel during a caution. “Yellow is the flag which empowers the madness of the double-file green-white-checker restart. It is the streak of Hendrick enginepower which maneuvers around Hamlin and Harvick on the last lap, streaking like a torch under the checkers.

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“Yellow is the high five of blue, the only color apparent during burnouts,” you say. “It is what leaps from the firesuits of the Sprint Cup girls as they stand and smile while I spray their beaming faces with foaming jets of champagne.

“Yellow is the gold beam of the Sprint Cup as I hold it high, offering the Grail back to God. Yellow is the burn in my weary, track-harrowed, season-hallowed nerves, still bright despite the black exhaustion settling down, its triumph lifting me to NASCAR Valhalla once again, that RV in the sky where Wynona lounges with Dale and Lee and Fireball.” That’s all you know so you shut up.

Evans is silent for a while, bent over imaginary keys on the bar, pondering how to climb a pair of notes up and over that in a manner which replicates exactly the pouty red nipples which Wynona reveals when she drops her blue satin dress.

“We will meet again,” Evans pronounces, a statement which is bittersweet, so fraught with yes and no, blue and yellow, Jimmie Johnson and Sprint Cup Championships for more years than anyone can believe. (“We Will Meet Again” is also the song he composed after his brother’s suicide, and the title of the album which was posthumously released.)

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Lighting another Kool from the last, Evans heads off to join the band for another squeeze of the needle’s white oblivion.

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It’s long past closing time, but no one seems in any hurry to leave. The bartender (a beefy guy who’s surely cold-cocked more than a few drunken belligerents in his decades or centuries of service at this bar) whips you up a concoction that is somehow about eighty proof stronger than a combined Long Island Iced Tea, Bastard on the Beach and Zombie–six shots of various rotgut liquors laced with lemonade, seltzer water, fish sauce, what smells like Clorox and a fistful of cherries. A tiny pink umbrella sizzles and melts into the viscous mess. The cherries are so laced with preservatives that they hang out in the bottom of the drink like the balls of varied sharkbit skinnydippers.

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You drink it down in one long guzzle, like a magnum of Sunoco gasoline dumped into the tank of your pitting 48.

“The deep blue and brilliant yellow of the ‘48’ make it difficult to see or even imagine a driver,” the bartender says, completing the night’s, that season’s, lesson. “It is a chariot only a god can command, like Phoebus who rode the sun-car across the heavens every day. The man you mortally are is wholly hidden by the brilliant colors of the car.

“No one will figure out how you will manage to win so many consecutive championships. I mean, look at it – you ain’t no hillbilly Earnhardt, no firebrand Smoke or Harvick, no hotshot pisser Kyle Busch. You’re Jimmie fer Chrissakes, mild-mannered, diffident, Jiminy Cricket. Fame exudes from your countenance like cologne whose scent is too subtle for humans to smell, though she-wolves and sea-witches and certain track-bitches are said to go mad getting just a whiff.

He dumps glassware into a tub of the dirtiest-looking dishwater you have ever seen, swishes them once, dumps them into even dirtier-looking rinsewater in a second tub, then lines them up in a row. An tall, apelike, rough-looking guy, biceps like eggplants bulging from a t-shirt that has Spartacus in his chariot silk-screened on the front. (The back side, which you can see in the mirror, shows a diving sperm whale.) He could easily take on Popeye and Bruno at the same time. His forearms are heavily tattooed with a variety of broken hearts and anchors and dancing girls with devil’s tails.

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“But the ladies know. They have their favorites for different reasons. Those who love you would love to mother champions. Your sperm burns blue and gold, like gold at the bottom of the sea.

It doesn’t seem possible, but this brute begins waxing poetical-mythological. He’s obviously worked a long, long, shift.

“Yer fame, ya see, is growin’ like the visage of Zeus, the  Greek god Numero Uno who was too brilliant for any mortal or subdeity to behold. So when he spent one night with Semele the moon goddess in her silver trailer, he was taken aback when she asked to see her lover man’s face in the raw, in full radiance.

Zeus warned her of the peril, but the bitch was adamant, wanting a piece of god none of the other fillies at the track could claim to have gotten hold of. So the everlovin’ gawdamighty King of Heaven reluctantly pulled off the shroud which allowed him to go callin’ in the trailer chicken house. Semele was immolated by a thousand lightning bolts, crisped to charred black bacon by the full voltage of Zeus.”

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The bartender refreshes your drink by topping it off with a squirt of eel juice that makes your glass glow green.

“To save his child,” the bartender continues, badass Zeus reached into the blackened depths of Semele’s womb and pulled out quivering red mass. He tore his thigh, creating a space for the embryo, and then sewed the child back up until he’d grown to term.

“The child was named Dionysos and became blue-haired god of revelry and abandon, sun’s full gold invested in the blue-black wilderness of lunar landscapes. Whiskey’s fire is in his belly and every blue brassiere flung out a car window belongs to him. Wynona is his favorite booty-call and her come to her silver trailer at the bottom of the sea on nights when the sag of the sun far under the earth draws him to depths you and I will never be able to name.”

By this time, the bar is all but emptied out, the doper jazzmen not so much departed as wholly diffused, like spent smoke, the few lonely truckers speeding home in blackout zigzags on the coastal highway.

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The bartender finishes his assay as he stacks barstools, one by one, like the failed hopes of your Chase contenders.

“The deep blue and sulphur yellow of the No. 48 are the pistoning of Dionysos in Wynona, their cries lost in the thunder of the great Oval, or rather composing the deepest registers of it on race nights when your No. 48 can’t be beat. You’re just driving as you always do, radioing back to Chad the performance news, data to use on the next pit as your team tweaks, in Apollonian fashion, the sun car to its fiercest edge.

He pauses to wipe his forehead with an old yellow rag, perhaps as old as the Golden Fleece which Jason stole from a sleeping dragon.

“And yet it is Apollo’s dark brother who’s working the lanes ahead, pleasuring Wynona like no other, revealing creamy folds of vibrating pink for you to steer directly through, not so much driving and holding on for dear life as your little boat careens the oval vortex which devours all other comers.“

“Where do you get all this shit from?” you ask thickly, your tongue going flat like a tire in your mouth as the dark potion in your glass goes to work.

He stills, looking into a history made opaque by the gloom of the bar, so very, very late at night.

“She and I go way back. Way way back. I rode a championship team in the chariot races in the Arena for almost ten years straight. Then that bastard Spartacus showed up, and there was nothing I could do to keep her from chasing after him. For old time’s sake she hired me to work this joint on the dear edge of Hell.

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He pauses.

“Tonight you got lucky. You got in. You’re her man tonight. Which means you have work to do.

“Closing time, pal.”

Which is fine with you. The booze of that awful concoction (Destiny’s Booty Call, it’s called, served up only in that changeling bar you not so much discover as become lost at on the border between land and sea while getting hot at the end of the NASCAR season) has wormed its way through every conscious node and synapse, causing the silvery blue of your reverie to descend league by league toward the abyss of black. You barely recall leaving the joint –- the smack of freezing foggy late night air jolted you back for a moment -– or that, when you stumbled into your Chevy, she was sitting in a passenger seat which doesn’t exist on race day.

The last thing you remembered that night—before Homestead, actually, was her whispering in his ear:

“Drive, lover. Drive like the wind. Drive like the sun-car racing to dawn. Drive with only clean air ahead. Drive with your pedal to the metal, your balls to my walls. Git ‘er done, love. Drive!”

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Three

Miles Davis and his sextet recorded Kind of Blue over two sessions in March and April of 1959. Davis assembled musicians considered at their pinnacle of cool inventiveness—pianist Bill Evans (for most of the album, though pianist Wynton Kelly was brought in for the two bluesiest numbers), Cannoball Adderley and John Coltrane on sax, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb. Bringing in just a few scribbled notes, Davis sketched out the tunes to the band and they just took off with them, recording the numbers with no rehearsal and in just two takes each.

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As hard bebop was beginning to wear out its welcome with ever-more-complex chord changes, Davis was experimenting with a new style called modal jazz, where improvising was freed from the minor and major key relationships of classical music. George Russell had begun the sea change with modal experiments in his band, and Bill Evans had been a member of that ensemble. Coltrane became an acknowledged master of the form. Instead of bebop’s complex, dragonish boil, modal jazz brought a form of cool detachment which served the time well, just as the young middle class was discovering recreational drugs and sought to silver the heating pace of history with something cold and blue and slower in temperament.

Kind of Blue was released in August 1959 and quickly became a gold standard for jazz. It is considered Davis’ best album, is the best-selling album ever released, and is consistently ranked among the best albums of all time.

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The cut “Blue in Green” is perhaps the most wistful, bittersweet piece on the album. Miles Davis always claimed authorship, but most believe that Bill Evans at least had a part in the composition. The chord progressions are quintessential Evans, gorgeous lattices upon which Davis and Coltrane and Adderley wove their earnest solos.

Imagine a rickety ladder which fails to clear the night to reach heaven although it tries, it tries, succeeding better than just about any other song, making its ultimate failure the quintessence of addict longing – there’s never enough, ever. The final wash of descending chords at the end of “Blue in Green” is like fate’s ebbing wave, exhausted, spent, its waxing beauty now just a fading resonance, soon enough gone forever.

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Play “Blue in Green” at the funerals of every player in the 1959 Kind of Blue sessions save one. Cool blues as they mastered it had cold rungs of alcohol and drug addiction on its modal ladder; you can hear it’s hole-in-the-soul sucking sound between every everlasting note. Coltrane, a fierce heroin addict, was dead of liver cancer in 1967 at 40. Pianist Wynton Kelly was the next to go in 1971, dead at age 39 from an epileptic seizure; Cannonball Adderley suffered diabetes and in 1975 died of stroke at 48. Bill Evans was a longtime heroin and then cocaine addict and died in 1980 at age 51 of bleeding ulcer, cirrhosis of the liver and bronchial pneumonia. (A friend characterized his death as “the longest suicide in history”). Miles Davis kicked his heroin habit and lived to age 65, succumbing in 1991 to stroke and respiratory failure. Only drummer Jimmy Cobb is still alive and kickin’ the kit, now 81.

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“Blue in Green” was recorded during the first Kind of Blue session, in March 1959. About the same time, Johnny Beauchamp won the Grand National race at Lakewood Speedway in ’59 T-Bird. It was his first career win, having been squeaked out in the photo finish earlier in the year at Daytona (he was 24 inches behind winner Lee Petty). Beauchamp would win one other race, the next year in Nashville.

Beauchamp lead all 100 laps of the Lakewood race against the brightest lights of NASCAR’s legendary days–Buck Baker and Tom Pistone and Fireball Roberts, Tiny Lund and Cotton Owens, and Lee Petty, the guy who won the inaugural race at Daytona Speedway earlier that year and who would go on to win his third Grand National championship with 12 wins.

Beauchamp won just once more, in Nashville the next year.

Like Fireball Roberts (who died in a flaming wreck in 1963), Lee Petty might surely have driven to NASCAR’s greatest fame. He won 5 races in 1960 finishing sixth overall. 1961 promised to be a great year, but during Speed Weeks at Daytona he and Johnny Beauchamp locked up during a qualifying run, causing both cars to bust through a guardrail and into a parking lot.

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Lee was seriously injured in the wreck –- he spent four months in the hospital –- and he was forced to retire the steering wheel of his team to his son Richard. It was Richard who became King, the winningest racer in all of NASCAR, with 200 victories and 7 championships. (Richard Petty also holds both the old and modern season record for wins at 27 and 13 respectively.)

Johnny Beauchamp suffered minor head injuries in the same wreck with Lee Petty, yet it was also his last NASCAR race.

Lee Petty was recently named to the second class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Johnny Beauchamp all but disappeared.

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Though Beauchamp’s career was short, fatefully ended tangled in the wreckage of the Petty who Would Be King, Wynona has a thing for the one who almost beat Lee at the ’59 Daytona 500. Actually, Beauchamp was first declared the winner, and would have stayed that way had not newsreel footage made available to Big Bill France caused NASCAR’s governor and CEO to reverse the decision in Petty’s favor.

After his wreck with Lee Petty in 1961 at Daytona, Beauchamp returned to Iowa and local dirt track racing; but his fame – all of it latent – Wynona kept for herself. That part of the man came to work as a barback at Wynona’s seaside bar(s), cleaning vomit from the bathroom stalls, blood from the walls and everything else after the bar’s closed down for the night.

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Actually, everyone who’s found in Wynona’s clamshell dig is really just the projection of their NASCAR fame, for better or worse, wound around the thorny calyx of her strange love for cool jazz. The silver parts of their shadows, the way that the band is the jonesing part of Kind of Blue, a personification of the riffs.

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It is the place where Fame comes to drink, with a thrist so great that it could empty the great blue sea in one long draught.

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It is now late in the night of October 20, 2010, and things in the Frolic Room are settling into the stilling freeze of the pickling process. Joe Weatherley and Fireball Roberts are knocking back empty shot glasses and miming rollicking laughter to a dirty joke. Up onstage, blue shadows of Miles and the crew are playing “Blue in Green,” Evans bent over his piano with a Kool hanging loosely from his lips, Miles silhouetted by the single spotlight trained on the stage, rasping out the notes Wynona loves so well.

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She’s at the bar alone, lost in reverie to the song, her pale white hands cupping a martini glass that’s filled with vodka colder than the ocean at 20 thousand leagues – cold comfort, wild solace, bitches’ brew.

She’s thinking, too, her mind turning on a spit beneath which booze and desire and “Blue and Green” are burning up her loins. Trying to make up her mind. Is love still blue and yellow? Or is it darker this year, blue gone down to a purple so deep its almost black, yellow gone red with frenzy?

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Yes, it could be Hamlin; he’s young and fierce and hungry, o so o so hungry. If only he hadn’t radioed in “All we do is win” ahead of her welcoming kiss. Since then it’s been dicey for the brash Virginian, harsher, harder, more fraught with trackside perils. He still in second behind Johnson, but her four-time champion is slowly, o so slowly beginning to pull away.

She lights a Winston and exhales slowly, the smoke making denser and more spectral Davis’ silhouette. Is it time for a change? Can she get the proper soul mileage out of Denny? Can he surrender the way Jimmie always has, with something between rage and infinite desire, both extremes trapped in the serenest of composures?

Not an easy thing to do, she reflects, turning the bell-shaped cocktail glass, her cold selkie hands warmed by the freezing vodka inside. Davis’ solo makes her shiver with a penetrating eel of pleasure – his horn gruffly barks and coos at the same time, breathing hot in her ear as the man hangs his body on the bloody crucifix of song.

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She delayed making her decision at the Bank of America 600 – still too soon – keeping Hamlin close behind Johnson. She reserves possibility too for Kevin Harvick, only 77 points further behind; his brash style promises a good fuck, but there’s way to much choler in that mustard-slathered No. 29 RCR Chevrolet. He sure knows how to swagger like a champ, she thinks. That would be a change.

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And then there’s her old flames Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart at 85 and 107 points behind respectively, four- and two-time champs who might be good for another roll in the destiny’s hay, if their need for her can burn through the haze of age …

Evans solos, wringing soul out of his piano like none other with Chambers on bass around and behind him, pitching rollers of deep sound like the crashing sea. Then Coltrane works in his saxophone, o so jonesing for big night music with notes more diffident than a suicide’s last look in the mirror. Then Evans again, this time playing with the bass, the two of them like a pair of pelicans scrolling over the sea in search of fish; then Coltrane again, taking the song further offshore, almost out of view of land—

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— And then Evans takes things home, collapsing the song wavelike to its end, playing those fatal falling chords like a Sprint Cup car that’s driven off the coastal highway and dropped into the sea, falling and falling down the shelves of abyss toward her final fatal bed (that’s what Championship looks like from her Otherworldly perspective -– the sweetest song to fall all the way to fame’s perdition).

Wynona lifts the glass to her lips and takes a long, deep pull on her martini, finishing it off in one draught. Her sigh is timed perfectly with the last note of the song.

She sets the drained glass back down and looks at herself in the smoky cracked mirror behind the bar. She’s not young any more -– no ripe maiden, at least –- indeterminately in her middle years (like a Penthouse Pet from the ‘80s), the way aging mortals have a fixed image in their minds of themselves, somewhere in their 30s as the years flood down and out the hourglass. Her red hair down in curly waves, her violet eyes burning cold, lips heavily lipsticked a rosy scarlet, like blood, her pale cleavage plunging heavily into a simple blue satin dress.

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She smiles at the mirror; terrified, a fresh crack forms in  its surface.

She’s made up her mind.

She’s ready to offer her boon.

She stares toward the door. Question is, is he ready for her? For what awaits at Martinsville?

At the horror of Talladega?

How close shall she keep it? Will it be decided at Texas or Phoenix? Or shall her handkerchief fall coming through turn 4 on the final lap of Homestead? How to make this interesting, dangerous, wild, sexy?

Small decisions nonetheless, the details of which she works out in her mind while dragging Beauchamp out behind the bar where the sea wind and surf-sounds are loudest. She kneels, unzipping his pants, taking him in her mouth. It’s the sound of his pleasure – ahs and omigods and gggnmmmms – that weave the final tapestry into place.

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Him spent in her mouth, she pats his rear lovingly like an old friend. She wipes her mouth, stands back up rearranging her bra and smoothing down her dress. Beauchamp’s eyes are closed, lost in the soaring orchestrals of the sated night.

She walks back n without looking back, humming Adderley’s solo to “All Blues.”

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Finale

Your sigh is lost in the ocean’s own, composed of waves which crash in milky smithereens of wet thunder and then expire in a sad Ah, the sound your wife always makes when you withdraw after coming in her. That welcome which grieves your every departure, every media appearance, every race.

You match that sound with a sigh of your own, one which no one can hear this night, a surrendering, grieving sound which has deep in its lungs a requietal no one but a repeating champion could know, to be so close and know how infinitely far away the finish line remains.

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You’re at the door now of the bar, gripping the handle of what turns out to be a heavy oak portal, requiring some muscle to pull open, some heft of heart-spirit and ball-spunk which tonight, at this moment, in your season-long fatigue, you don’t know you can muster. But you must; there is no other reason to be exactly here except to try opening that door.

You hear a singular laughter inside, light as tinsel and blue-throated as the sax solo to “Blue in Green” which you can also hear inside.

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You know who’s waiting in there for you. You know you couldn’t have found this bar unless she wanted you to at least try finding a way in.

It’s time now – should the door open — to have a drink with Wynona, fame’s eternal flame as she is called in NASCAR circles, though she has so many handles: Fortune. Destiny. Queen of Heaven. Aphrodite. Venus. Victory.

It’s time now to get down.

Time to dance.

Time to race.

But will the door open? Other cars are beginning to pull into the lot with the numbers 11, 27, 29 and 14 painted on them. They, too, are still in the mix. Are suitors. In hot pursuit. Most have been here before, but as the reigning knight in this quest, you have first crack at trying your hand. Opening this door is like trying to extract Excalibur from the stone: Only the future champion can.

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The handle is iron and exquisitely carved with dolphins and cupidon, horseshoes and dice, rounded at the top by a pair of naked breasts.

You pause and sigh once again, unsure of yourself. So much have hung in the balance this year, more than before. You have a kid now. There is a cost to this. Are you still willing to pay the price?

Gripping the handle, it’s cold, colder than the depths of the sea crashing wildly twenty yards away. Are you sure, are you sure?

You begin to pull.

The next offshore wave rises to an impossible height – 20, 40, 100 feet? You can’t see it, but you feel its tense breathless stretch as the wave reaches full height, as if the graze the the dreamy porches of the moon:

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And begins to fall as you pull with all your strength.

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Note: An  earlier post, “Here Comes the Flood,” used this same fantasia from the midpoint of the season, which wasn’t going as well for Johnson.

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)

Hey, NASCAR: Put the Blame on Mame


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weird.

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

I was done with racing. Perhaps forever.

Till next weekend, at least.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tim Russert and David Poole.

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

I guess it wasn’t my given Sunday.

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

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

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

Not ever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or 3.271 billion beats in a 52-year lifetime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was doing the same tango.

Or watching it.

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

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

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

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

Blame her, fer Crissakes.

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

A stupid move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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