Monday, April 20, 2009

Coming out of Hibernation

I have been in a state of hibernation for quite a while now. Brenda called me a recluse. We used to take a lot of trips together but we've hardly been anywhere for the last year or so. She was unhappy that her traveling companion deserted her. She said she thought it was because of depression but it really wasn't. I was simply involved in other things that kept me home - reading (I've discovered several new authors I love), writing (I just completed a novel) and watching NASCAR (which takes up most of every weekend during the season). Going to Florida to see the kids seemed to reawaken me to the pleasures of journeying again though, that and the fact of reaching a natural pause in my writing. So I promised Brenda that my reclusive persona has been put away and we're going to hit the road again more often.

We started Easter weekend with a trip to Nashville, Indiana, where we spent the night. Nashville is one of our favorite places because of all the little shops, the art galleries, the down home restaurants as well as the sense of timelessness that permeates Nashville despite its commercialism. Brown County is a beautiful part of the state with its wooded hills and grassy valleys and log houses (the most of any county in Indiana) and small towns like Gnaw Bone and Story. Story is a quaint old village caught in a time warp, except that the general store is also a fine restaurant, one not to be passed up if you're in that area. We were lucky to be able to shop in Nashville for homemade candy and leather goods, jewelry and books, rugs and soap in between downpours.

The next day, we set off for the horse racing track at Shelbyville with its new casino. Along the way, we stopped at the Outlet Mall in Edinburgh. Brenda is attending a class for which she was instructed to dress in "office casual". I used to think I knew what office casual meant but for the younger girls, casual is a lot more casual than it used to be. The road we were supposed to take to Shelbyville was closed for road construction. Secure in our ability to find a short cut, (although there is nothing in our past experience that would instill such confidence), we ignored the official detour. Our shortcut ended up taking twice as along as if we'd followed the State Highway's Department's route because we got lost. Neither of us have a sense of direction so once we ended up out in farm country, we hadn't a clue, and just guessed whenever we came to a tee road.

Eventually, we wandered into Shelbyville via the back door and found our way to the casino. Of course, getting lost and arriving late probably saved us money since we had less time to throw our dollars into the slot machines. Perhaps because they are new and they want to encourage return visits, the slots at Shelbyville seemed loose. Of course, I lost all my money in the end anyway but I seemed to lose it more slowly than normal.

I couldn't pass up a visit to the bookstore so we stopped in at Mounds Mall in Anderson where they have a really neat used bookstore. I bought five books there. (New favorite authors: Barry Eisler, Charlie Huston, Andrew Vachss, Tom Cain, Tim Hallinan, William Lashner). My taste in reading has gotten more out of the mainstream than it used to be so I have to order more from Amazon.com.

Brenda was thrilled that she has her old road partner back. We're planning our next trip to Lake Michigan but we're going to wait for the weather to warm up.....if it ever does.

Heroes

If ever our country needed heroes, it is now. We seem to have a collective inferiority complex and no wonder. We're not exactly sure what our place in the world is these days when our lone super-power status is being challenged. We hardly manufacture anything anymore. We'll be lucky if we still have an auto industry left by 2010. India provides our technical support. China sells us our goods (and sometimes poisons us while doing so), while Mexico sells us our drugs (ditto poisoning only in a more deliberate way). The money men scammed even the supposedly smartest of us (i.e., Mort Zuckerman) and are still doing it with our bail-out money. Our economy is in the pit and those of us who still have a job and half-way decent health insurance can consider ourselves lucky. The people we look up to are foolish female celebrities like Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears or the contestants of shows like American Idol and Survivor. No wonder we seem to have lost our way in the 21st century.

And then Somalian pirates highjacked the Maersk Alabama, taking the crew as hostages (which is depressing in itself in that the the world seems to tolerate this type of thuggery with an oh, well shrug as the cost of doing business.) But this time turned out differently. In the first act of heroism, the courageous Captain Richard Phillips offered himself to the pirates in the place of his crew, reminding us that there are still men whose lives are ruled by honor and duty and dignity.

In the second act of heroism, although political versus physical, our president approved the military to do whatever had to be done to rescue the Captain should they determine his safety was in jeopardy. This may not seem like much compared to the Captain Phillips' selfless actions but it actually was because American presidents have been intimidated by the humiliating possibility of rescues gone wrong since Jimmy Carter sent the Special Forces into Iran in an attempt to rescue the hostages there. Those of us who were around then remember that, instead of being given credit for the intent, he was held in contempt for the failure. And then, Somalia again, Blackship Down. Another embarrassment for President Bill Clinton. So it took a high degree of willingness to take political risk for President Obama to say yes, especially considering that he's a Democrat and the liberal wing of his party has little appetite for military adventurism. If the mission had failed, perhaps resulting in the death of the Captain or a miscue on the part of the shooters, you know Barack Obama would have been crucified by the media and both political parties.

Finally, of course, is the military itself, especially the extraordinary Navy SEALs who, in a show of training, skill and will, killed the three pirates with three simultaneous sniper shots, then disappeared back into the nonentity of their positions.

It was because daring, courage, taking responsibility for dangerous decisions are in such short supply in the country today that I have become a NASCAR fan. Granted, racers can't be compared to Navy snipers in the larger scheme of things. For one thing, drivers get gold and glory in return for their fearlessness instead of fading back into the woodwork until we need them again. Soldiers only have the gratitude and admiration of their nation. For them, knowing that we consider them heroes, at a time when we yearn for heroes, must be enough.

A Short Visit to Paradise

Winter was like a visitor who refused to depart although you're so sick of his presence, you can't stand it. You dream of the day he packs up his bags and heads out the front door. He isn't always the most welcome of guests anyway, being frequently demanding and difficult to get along with. You feel this way especially because you know the next time your doorbell rings, it will be Spring standing there. Spring, that smiling, beautiful, young thing - you delight in her company even while acknowledging that she is capable of the occasional tornadic temper tantrum.

It was in the midst of the chilly, damp, depressing dregs of winter that Mom and I made a trip to see the kids where they live now in the Florida Keys. I've been to Florida several times but never to this southernmost part. It is a section of the country that doesn't even have a passing acquaintance with winter.

The Keys have an alien feel for Hoosiers. They are populated by plants you've never seen or heard of. There are the usual palms and palmettos, of course, but beyond that are the gumbo limbo trees, so shiny-barked, they look as if Mother Nature's cleaning crew polishes them every night. There are palm trees with fronds that grow into fan shapes instead of up and down layers. There are trees with limbs that tortuously twist and turn, braiding themselves together. Most of all, are the mysterious mangroves, with their interlocking net of above-water roots, so thick, they create their own islands. Mangrove constructs range from tiny clumps, the size of a breadbox, to vast areas. And, of course, while Indiana remains mired in gray drabness, enormous bougainvillea bushes erupt in explosions of scarlet blossoms in the Keys. Playing counterpoint to the land is the water - ocean on one side, gulf on the other. In some places the finger of land is so narrow, you can see both out of your car windows. And what water it is - turquoise swirled with emerald green swirled with quicksilver. Its so clear, you can watch the angel fish and clown fish and needle fish and barracudas and dolphins and rays swimming beneath the surface. The sky is blue, filled with puffy clouds, along with gulls and herons and egrets and pelicans.

Most of the houses, like the one where John and Lisa live, are as close to living outdoors as it is possible to be. They are built high on pillars with windows all around and screened balconies facing the water side. While we are there, all the windows and balcony doors are open (air conditioning will come later), ceiling fans circle lazily, tiled floors are cool beneath your bare feet. From the hammock on the balcony, you can drift, half-asleep, surrounded by the scent of flowers, the sound of crying gulls and the swish of water against pilings, the feel of a breeze gentle against your skin.

The Keys have a personality too. They are laid-back and tolerant. People flee to the area from other, more up-tight places. Not outlaws necessarily but non-conformists. They want to be left alone to live as they please without criticism or complaint from their neighbors. Most of them are not engaged in whatever an earlier life anticipated for them. Doctors are sailors; accountants are waitresses; lawyers own bars. The Keys provide second chances to do whatever it is you think will make you happy. There are homeless here, some voluntary and some not. Whatever else happens to them, they won't freeze and they won't starve either if they can throw a hook into the water.

In the Keys, you eat fresh fish outdoors looking out across the ocean, and polish your meal off with a piece of Key Lime pie. If you feel like partying, you can travel south to Key West, crossing the awe-inspiring Seven-Mile Bridge. Key West is sort of like a mini-New Orleans. We were there on St Patrick's Day. Bars served green beer and other emerald drinks. Revelers dyed their hair and faces green and wore green clothes and multiple strands of green beads (and probably felt a hungover shade of green by the next morning).

The Keys feature co-existing ethnicities and lifestyles, religions and non-religions, socioeconomic ranges. Residents don't lock their doors or worry about being out alone at night. It seems contradictory for an an area that welcomes the off-beat to have such a low crime rate. Perhaps even criminals take life easier here. Taking life easy seems to be what the Keys are all about and that, in the end, is even better than the weather.

Mom and I hoped that during the two weeks we were gone, Winter would have moved out and Spring moved into Indiana. A week after we got home, it snowed.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Can Only Christians be NASCAR fans?

Every week, I can't help noticing with some irritation, that every NASCAR race opens with a Christian prayer and I always wonder why. Is it that NASCAR officials don't acknowledge any faith but Christianity? Do they not even realize that Jews and Buddhists and Muslims and even atheists can love watching cars race around a track? Do they not know, or is it that they don't care, that foisting any particular religion onto someone who doesn't agree is bad form? Or do they just think, "the hell with you, Christianity is THE religion and if you don't like hearing it, stay the hell away?" Just about every place I go now that offers up a prayer (which none of them would have to do on my account since I prefer to deal with my beliefs privately, thank you very much) at least bows in the direction of equality, either by making the prayer non-denominational or sharing the podium around among purveyors of different faiths.

Not NASCAR though. For NASCAR, it is "in JESUS' name we pray", and that, my friends, is that.

Irony

The first part of the NASCAR season is televised by Fox. Many of the supplemental NASCAR programs appear on SPEED, which is owned by Fox. Fox is, of course, the pet channel of Republicans, particularly conservative Republicans. I assume that also makes Fox the preferred channel for most of NASCAR nation, which is also known to to lean toward the right politically. One of the issues conservatives take very much to heart is the Second Amendment, which they believe should be interpreted as all Americans' right to bear arms if they so choose. It so happens that although my political home is more toward the mushy middle, I love my guns and my constitutional right to have them.

Imagine my shock then when I heard on my Sirius radio that Johnny Benson's team, Red Horse Racing, part of NASCAR's Camping World Truck series, had been offered a sponsorship from a firearms manufacturer but that the deal fell through because Speed TV has a policy against advertising that promotes guns.

On the same show, another team owner (I didn't catch his name) called in to confirm this astonishing information. He too had once had a promising relationship with Glock until informed by SPEED, Fox and ABC that they would censor his vehicle if it appeared on the race track with Glock's logo on the side.

This comes at a critical time when team owners need all the help they can get with sponsorship? The caller said that Glock was pleased with their initial research about advertising via NASCAR. The exposure for each dollar invested was extremely high. They would certainly be happy to maintain that partnership, except for the prejudice against them on the part of television.

How can this possibly be, coming from a channel that doesn't hesitate to get on its high horse about any suggestion of liberal bias? This was the channel that fell at the feet of the moose-hunting Governor Palin. The one that adores iconic figures like Charlton Heston, actor and former head of the National Rifle Association.

And where is the N.R.A. anyway? Geez, they practically foam at the mouth over the merest mention of the mildest forms of gun control. Background checks? No way! Closing the gun show loop hole? Never! Banning assault weapons? Over our dead bodies! But, Fox and its sister network, censor legal advertising of legal weapons on race cars and you don't hear a peep out of them?

Where are all the rowdy, good old boy, gun-totin' rednecks who love huntin' and fishin' and beatin' and bangin'? Shouldn't they be protesting this outrageous decision on the part of Fox and SPEED (forget ABC - they are probably too far gone for salvation)? Shouldn't they be threatening to boycott Fox and Speed and flooding their corporate offices with indignant e-mails and contacting Rush Limbaugh to insist that Rupert and Fox and Speed grow a backbone? What the heck is wrong with these people anyway? Just when there is finally an issue on which I'd be ready to man the battlements with them, they wimp out on me?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Jimmie Wins!

Finally, Jimmie's first win of the season at Martinsville - yes! It was a terrific race. Jimmie's car wasn't that great in the beginning, so Chad pitted him twice to make changes when everyone else stayed out. As a result, he lost track position and was running 30th, I believe, at one time. But he worked his way to the front with great driving and quick pit stops. Denny Hamlin led the most laps and also ran an awesome race. Toward the end, Jimmie took the lead after a caution and Denny made a spectacular move, beating him to the front. With only 15 laps to go, Jimmie squeezed his nose under Denny's car; Denny moved down to try to maintain his spot; both cars were sliding; both drivers kept control and Jimmie raced to the lead, keeping it to the checkered flag.

This is the kind of racing NASCAR fans always say they want to see - cars making risky passes, bumping, almost wrecking, driving for the win. So, wow, you'd think we'd hear a lot about it on all the post-race radio and television shows. But, you'd be wrong if you thought that because mostly what took all the attention in the aftermath of Martinsville was Kyle Busch.

Kyle Busch is NASCAR media's current hero. And I will grant you that the 23-year-old is a phenomenal driver. He's already won two Sprint Cup races this season, and that's out of only six. When Kyle wins, I expect him to be the center of attention. But, somehow it seems that he gets all the publicity even when he runs crappy, as he did this week in both the Cup race and the truck race. Why? Because when he loses, he acts like a pure jerk and for some reason, NASCAR reporters and many fans think that's cool.

Last week in Bristol, Kyle was pissed at an error by his pit crew so he abandoned his car on turn three and sulked off. The next day, before the Cup race, he told them - "Ladies, it's time to man up and get the job done." They did and he did and he won that race.

This week in Martinsville on Sunday, he screwed up and wrecked Scott Speed in the Cup race. I'm not sure where Kyle finished but it was back in the 20's. Meanwhile, poor Scott finished something like 70 laps down so his day was completely ruined. Monday was the truck race. I don't know if Kyle's crew chief or pit crew called him a "lady" or told him to "man up" but if they didn't, they should have.

In that race, Kyle made a mistake. In trying to rub the fender off a tire, he passed the commitment line going to pit road. NASCAR rules says you must go to pit road if you pass that line. Kyle didn't and was penalized. He finished the race 17th. When it was over, he parked his car and literally ran down pit road and behind the grandstands and out of the track, drawing attention to his childish behavior.

So, that was the talk instead of the masterful performances by Jimmie and Denny.

Most, although not all, of the radio hosts gave Kyle a pass and many of the fans (especially men) did as well. They said that acting the way he did simply showed his "passion for winning". They didn't see anything so wrong about abandoning his car, humiliating his crew. Because, you know, "he can drive the wheels off a racecar" and that seems to be the catch-all excuse for being an asshole for much of NASCAR nation.

It is an age-old question. Does having outstanding talent as an athlete, an actor, a musician buy you a perpetual waiver from having to treat others with respect and courtesy? I don't buy it. Being a arrogant, inconsiderate, spoiled brat is being a arrogant, inconsiderate, spoiled brat, whether you play softball for the Mayberry Maulers or the Boston Red Sox, whether you play for Led Zeppelin or the Hometown Bar Trio, whether Mike's Auto Body or M&M's is on the side of your car.

I don't even particularly care about how Kyle treats other drivers. They are the elite of the sport, his peers. Those old boys can take of themselves if he gives them grief. But any time, you bully your underlings, I've got to take exception. His pit crew work for him. They can't fight back. They just have to grit their teeth and take it. He said later, "they know I love them". And maybe he does in some ways but I've been the peon often enough to know how it feels to be disrespected by a superior. I didn't react either because I couldn't but if my boss had said, "she knows how much I love her so she doesn't mind if I put her down sometimes", inwardly I'd have been thinking, "you are flat freakin' wrong." Any time the powerful treat the less powerful with contempt, they themselves deserve contempt and talent has nothing to do with it.

As for bad behavior being synonymous with passion, that's baloney. The class guys in NASCAR like Jimmie and Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin and Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards and others get mad when they or others mess up and lose them a win. They can throw the f-bomb on the radio with abandon. They can cuss out their fellow competitors. That is stress and pressure and passion but calling out your crew, walking off from your car, nope, that's just being an immature crybaby. It's behavior that should be ignored rather than highlighted.

But Kyle is NASCAR media's flavor of the month. At the end of last season, it was Carl Edwards who was anointed The Man. In the spirit of "what have you done for me lately", Carl is old hat this year because he hasn't won. Jimmie won at Martinsville but it didn't seem to mean much. Maybe the reporters are bored with the three-time champion or maybe they just take his superior performance for granted. Kyle's their current pet. We can only hope they get over it soon and only give him credit (and publicity) when he deserves it.

What I Worry About

I don't care much about politics anymore. Well, actually, it's not that I don't care but that I've bowed out of being personally involved. Can't see that my little efforts were of much value so why bother? I'll let the younger generations have the responsibility of paying attention. So, I transferred my intense interest in politics to NASCAR and guess what? With my luck, politics has now reared its ugly head in my sport.

NASCAR is almost totally dependent on a) business sponsors and b) the automakers. Business and car manufacturers are almost totally dependent on the economy. Of course, the economy (most especially, the American auto industry) is in freefall so.....what does that do to NASCAR?

First, American businesses are trying to survive so perhaps spending the big bucks required to sponsor race cars might be jettisoned for the duration. GM, Ford and Chrysler may end up going bankrupt or out of business altogether. That would, naturally, end their commitment to NASCAR teams. But its probably more likely that political considerations would intervene. After all the hoopla about auto CEOs coming to Washington in corporate jets, I could imagine liberal politicians (assuming few of them are fans of stock car racing), such as the ones in power in 2009, holding the decision to invest in this rough and rowdy sport in utter contempt. I could see them waxing indignant about the automakers spending our bailout money by sponsoring cars going around in a circle! (As opposed to, say, advertising on the side of Starbucks cups).

So it may very well come down to a a cultural and political call. Businesses that are dependent on Washington want to please their political masters so they will take what the powers-that-be consider socially responsible courses of action. They won't want to be frowned upon by Nancy Pelosi so they may switch their advertising dollars to, I don't know, supporting ballet companies, even though market research has proven there are no more fanatical supporters and consumers than NASCAR fans. Myself, for instance. I would never consider going to any home improvement store but Lowe's because, of course, they sponsor Jimmie Johnson's 48 Chevrolet. I've switched to Ask.com as my search engine because they are the "official search engine of NASCAR". I buy my office supplies from Office Depot because their name is on the side of Tony Stewart's car.

Still, my dab of money, probably can't compete with John Kerry's opinion about motorsports. He can sign the big checks while I only sign small ones. He can influence make-or-break legislation. I can only pass on positive recommendations about my Chevy Cobalt and encourage friends and co-workers to buy one.

In the past, I've voted for lots of local Republican candidates as well as Democratic ones but on a national level, I have an almost 100 percent Democrat voting record. I didn't think there was anything that could convince me to come over to the Republicans since I disagree with them on almost every issue, plus I think they are the mean party - but, I promise you, if the Democrats take down NASCAR, I'm gone.

The Gap Widens

Once again, Washington proves that the money men are the country's aristocrats, too elite to be treated with the contempt they deserve, while those associated with manufacturing are the peons, deemed unworthy of respect. For decades now, manufacturing has been the red-headed step-child of the American economy and even under Democrats, that song remains the same.

Case in point, Rick Wagoner, CEO of General Motors, was unceremoniously booted out the door by the Obama administration. Granted, Mr Wagoner hasn't exactly presided over a flourishing industry but then, who has? (On the other hand, you could make the case that GM offers 18 models that give you 30 mpg - more than any other auto maker - and they have eight hybrids in their stable of cars and they've spent a ton to try to make the Volt their car of the future so they weren't exactly standing still in the area of looking ahead).

If the country's economy, including GM, is in trouble, who is most to blame? Why that would be the high-flying bankers and brokers. They've gotten $180 billion in bailout funds compared to $17.4 billion in loans to the automakers. The Wall Streeters have taken us all to the cleaners with the gigantic Ponzi scheme they've been engaged in for the last many years. Why are their CEO's not being given pink slips by the administration? Well, probably for the same reason, we weren't treated to indignant diatribes about the financial bigwigs coming to talk to Congress in their executive jets. Oh, you thought the banking heads rode to Washington in a Greyhound bus? The politicians and the money men are all pals together. The bankers slide in and out of cabinet positions like a game of economic musical chairs.

Meanwhile, the car guys were just trying to make and sell cars. Actually, the kind of cars we said we wanted, which were mostly trucks and SUVs. But I guess they were supposed to be our babysitters, saving us from ourselves. I guess they were supposed to tell us no, they wouldn't sell us that Navigator or Escalade because they thought we'd be better off with a what? Honda Civic?

Meanwhile, the money industry went right on pulling their scam. They had the financial shows and blogs and the business sections of newspapers wrapped up. We only knew what they were telling us because they were the only ones who got to tell us anything. The voices warning us of impending doom were ignored. Being consumers was the most patriotic thing we could do, our previous president said. Everything is fine, came the assurances from Washington.

Then gas went up (which was practically the death knell for American automakers and if you're a conspiracy theorist, you might wonder whose interests that served) and real estate prices went down and come to find out, the loans the banks were making and buying were no good and they all knew it but, hell, they were partying down in Las Vegas and Miami and being chauffeured in limousines and spending fortunes on drinks and meals and luxury suites so they were going to play it out as long as it lasted - and keep right on doing it even with our bailout money.

Somebody had to be the fall guy and guess who it got to be? Why, the auto industry, of course. Before it's over, they will probably be forced into bankruptcy. And what will that allow them to do? Get rid of all those nasty old legacy costs, like health care and pensions. Too bad, retirees. Promises are made to be broken. And they'll get to re-write their labor contracts, lowering wages and other benefits. Because, it's us, dontcha know, the working people who have ruined the country. And Wall Street will be so happy. Wall Street loves companies that are lean and mean and the hell with the employees who get screwed and still, even after all of this, you know, the boys on Wall Street is who we all have to please to be accepted.

When it's all over and the economy starts to come back and it will eventually, the only industry that will have been radically changed will be the auto industry, if there even still is an American auto industry. But, hell, we don't manufacture televisions or clothes or shoes or computers or (insert your own words here) anymore so what else is new?