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Watching things fall apart - Daniel Silliman

When a car rots in the rain, in the forests of the American Northwest, it dies in a slow riot of color.

I am always surprised by these scenes. On roads crowded by woods, where the constant, temperate rain leaves everything wet and green, the abandoned cars are startling.

They're left a little ways in from the road, behind a forest curtain. Dumped, up on blocks, gutted of all their good parts, the cars are just left there, dissolving in water.

In the rain, the paint warps and peels. The previous paint job is exposed, bubbling up and exploding in color chips and flakes. Bondo work is washed out in streaks. Metal is laid bare, shiny at first and then flecked with rust.

The rust grows, thickening in reddish goose bumps until the metal disappears, and there's only a ragged hole. Driving by on a thin road, the world seems soaked with green, and the dying car is a surprise of wild colors.

In other places, abandoned cars die differently. Down in the Mojave Desert, the incessant wind blasts old vehicles, stripping them down to fiberglass. The sand swabs up oil, clogs up gears, and grinds everything away.

In the Midwest, it's the winter snows and the road ice, the snow freezing thermostats and icing engines, the salt eating away the underside of the cars.

I like watching the ways cars disintegrate. I like watching the layers come apart, the whole collapse into pieces, and the recognizable structure dissolve into the ruined hulk that remains.

Watching, I feel like I understand something about the forces of nature, which we all live with, but often don't really understand. I don't normally notice the force of wind and the weight of rain. I feel, too, like I learn something about cars by watching the way they rot.

When a car is working, I hurtle down highways not noticing the machine I'm in.

Maybe other people always notice the mechanics and the forces, but I only really understand when I see the aftermath.

It would probably be better to understand things while they're working, instead of learning from the break down, but, sometimes, it's hard to understand a machine from the inside. In the movie "Burn After Reading," Brad Pitts' character tries to sell secrets to the Russians. In the Russian embassy, telling a burly bureaucrat he wants money, Pitt is asked, "So you are not ideological?" and he says he doesn't think so, but he doesn't know.

If he understood the question, he probably would deny being ideological, because he's not trying to make a political point. But he is, in fact, acting in accordance with a theory. The answer, "I don't know," is perfect because, in some way, he can't know. He is so inside an ideology that equates value with money, that he doesn't recognize the possibility of anything being different. He couldn't, unless his ideology started to fall apart.

Like many Americans, I've been learning a lot about the economy these past few weeks. I was surprised by the crisis, by the way it flared out fiercely and the way the panic was so palpable, everywhere I went.

I know a little bit about economics, enjoyed the class I took in college, and have a few friends in the "financial sector." But most of what I know is partisan.

I've read more by libertarians and socialists than I have from actual economists. So, it turns out I really don't know much, except for traces of fights over theory, and I, like many Americans, am learning details by watching the disintegration.

It's ugly and scary, but it also feels like a discovery. The plummet exposes things I never noticed, things I never understood, things that surrounded me as I hurtled through the "Information Age."

I feel like I felt when I learned the theoretical explanation of a dying of a star. The technical explanation is much wilder than the poetic and prosaic pictures of the same thing. The technical explanations make me stop and realize how weird the world is.

I probably should have focused on the violence of the collapse, but I'm so startled by the colors, so fascinated by the layers only now visible in decay, and I see, now, how this thing works. It's good to stop and notice.

You learn something from noticing how things fall apart.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.