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What Ifs


On February 2nd, the Super Bowl opened with a military recruitment prompt, a freedom flyover. This propaganda extravaganza occurred just hours after an announcement—that Philip Seymour Hoffman was dead. The actor was found with an ultimate freedom syringe in his arm.

About the time Hoffman’s death was reported, a security guard at a Duke Energy power plant in North Carolina discovered that coal ash was spewing into the Dan River. Unregulated by the environmental Protection Agency, coal ash is the waste from burned coal. It contains mercury, arsenic, lead, radioactive uranium, and other toxins. So far, the company estimates that 82,000 tons of ash, mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water, has spilled into the river.

Brian Williams, a canoe guide asked and then answered his own question:

How do you clean this up? Dredge the whole river bottom for miles? You can’t clean this up. It’s going up the food chain, from the filter feeders, to the fish, to the otters and birds, to people. Everything in the ecosystem of a river is connected.

No mention of the disaster in “the news” on Sunday. This time, we can’t blame the corporate media for failure to deliver much more than wardrobe malfunctions, celebrity arrests, threats of underwear and toothpaste-tube explosives, and the lurid, though; company officials waited 24 hours to report the spill. Perhaps they were busy watching the Super Bowl and maybe small talking about the death of an acclaimed actor. But it’s Thursday now, three days after those officials revealed the leak, and Big News remains avoidant.

Sometimes, I engage in what ifs. I know this is unproductive, but I ask them still.

What if no one had too much, each of us had enough, and all agreed that it couldn’t get any better than this?

What if we didn’t glorify the military? What if we didn’t glorify war? What if we revered peace? Revered Humanity? All life forms?

What if everyone embraced the Golden Rule?

What if our lives were so meaningful, no one had to escape darkness?

Yes, I’m thinking about Hoffman again, without mourning the loss of talent. My sadness resides with his family and especially those three young children he didn’t pick up at his longtime partner’s apartment. Didn’t pick up because he was dead. I don’t know if Hoffman intended to take his children back to his place. Nor do I know if Mimi O’Donnell would have allowed her children to leave with their father if she’d recognized he was high. I’m thinking of the 50 or 70 bags (?) of heroin found in Hoffman’s apartment and am shuddering with what ifs. What if those children had discovered the heroin and thought, candy? What if?

And what if multiple bags of heroin had been found in the apartment of someone without fame who failed to pick up his or her children? Probably we’d hear some stereotypical shit about deadbeat addicts, allowed to breed. You know, white trash and black trash.

Hoffman’s friends are left to ask their what ifs, to wonder what they might have done to help.

Meanwhile in NC, near the site of yet another assault on our planet, environmental experts also are making assessments, evaluating the damage. I think of the name of the town where the spill occurred, Eden, and stare at the letters, imagining a garden of delight, a paradise where a couple frolicked, free from worries. How lovely to say, “I spent my childhood in Eden.” That seems impossible today, even as a metaphor.

Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Baltimore. Email:

Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in BaltimoreEmail:

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