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Is "The Amazing Race" populated by vile sinners? Is Regis Philbin the seventh sign of the apocalypse? Is freedom just another word for nothing left to lose? Where is the Lake of Fire, and are there curly fries there?

Published December 20, 2004 11:48PM (EST)

Newsflash: Red states very big indeed!
When you watch lots of TV, it's tough to get a sense of the world outside -- either outside your window, down the block, across town, or a few states over. It's all the same to you, sitting on your couch, your right hand buried in a bag of Spicy Ranchilada Doritos, your back slouched in the perfect C-shape, your eyes fixed on another interminable reality finale.

That's why I'm reporting to you from the field this week, fried chicken biscuits. Because you have questions about the world outside, questions that you need answered without straying too far from your television sets.

"Is freedom still on the march?" you sometimes wonder during that awful Gap commercial where Sarah Jessica Parker basks in her supreme adorableness. "Is this great nation of ours filled to the brim with liars and fornicators, or is the heart of this land as sweet and pure as milk and honey? What does fried okra taste like?"

Don't you worry your pretty little heads any longer. I've spent the past week traveling across this land of ours, and I have much wisdom and a variety of cured meats to share with you on this fine day.

Piss boy, bring me my bucket of cash!
First, and perhaps most important, you'll be comforted to know that freedom is still on the march. I witnessed this firsthand at a Wendy's near Kingman, Ariz., where they feel free to stop serving breakfast at 10 a.m.

I don't need to tell you that I was starving. The good Lord knows that I wouldn't have stopped at a Wendy's for breakfast if I hadn't been driving for several hours already, if my stomach wasn't roiling as violently as the liquidy fires of hell (we'll get to those later). But when I tried to order a bacon egg and cheese biscuit, the man behind the counter said that it was 10:09, and I'd missed breakfast by a full nine minutes.

That's when I knew how Jen must've felt during the finale of "The Apprentice," as a crowd of strangers ripped her performance and her character to shreds. Her mind filled with questions. "Didn't they see me model those Levi's? What about when I washed dogs and screwed up my manicure? Can't they see that Kelly is just an unrefined geek who couldn't chat aimlessly at a Harvard Law cocktail party to save his sorry life?"

I had questions, too: Who eats a burger and fries at 10 a.m.? Why is this strange man with Cookie Monster googly eyes staring at me while he waits for his burger and fries? No matter. The important thing is that the people of this big, beautiful country still feel free to stare, and to eat burgers and fries first thing in the morning, and to arbitrarily assign the prime breakfast hour as the deadline for ordering breakfast foods. That's freedom, pure and simple. Freedom marches on!

Look no further than the presence of Regis Philbin at the finale of "The Apprentice" for more evidence of freedom on the march. I know Trump wasn't exactly smooth as the master of ceremonies during the first season's finale, but does that excuse our having to see Reege's eager face, or hear his squeaky voice, or watch him scurry around, willy-nilly, doing Trump's bidding like some cackling Igor-type sidekick, but without the limp and with cleaner segues to the commercial breaks?

Let me just repeat that: Regis Philbin. Hello? Is this thing on? Does Mark Burnett remember that time when Rosie O'Donnell hosted the "Survivor" finale, or did he get his henchmen to erase that scarring memory from his brain forever, along with "The Casino" and the second season of "The Restaurant"? And didn't it make your skin crawl every time Reege referred to Trump as "The Donald," as in, "When we get back, The Donald makes his final decision!"? Who signed off on that? Why must all people and things that are popular for being uniquely, deliciously cheesy eventually become parodies of themselves, parodies that are neither unique nor delicious nor cheesy in any kind of enjoyable way?

Watching the finale was like seeing B.B. King smash his prized guitar, Lucille, to smithereens onstage. Has any finale ever made it more painfully clear to you that you've been watching a show that's just not very good? Even if you factor out the incredibly inane banter and the queasy pomp and circumstance, just look at the two finalists: Kelly, a guy with zero charisma, and Jen, a woman with no interpersonal skills and the business instincts of a hamster.

And let's just remind ourselves what they're competing for: the supreme privilege of becoming Trump's piss boy. Only Carolyn can wear that one well, and that's because she's supernaturally confident and looks a little bit like Princess Diana. Kelly looks like a frightened squirrel in a Wallace and Gromit film.

All season, we suspend our disbelief through challenges that amount to extended commercials for soda and toothpaste and jeans, just so we can see which sharp, smooth, attractive, easy-to-despise yuppie will win it all. Instead, we get a bunch of confused miscreants flailing around and attacking each other? Just look at the creepy women who were in the running this year. Ivana? Maria? The two Stacys? These are the finest women in business, selected from over half a million candidates?

I'm done with this show. Done with it! Now that's freedom.

Next exit: Lake of fire!
"This world's educational system is leading multitudes to hell by telling them that they came from a monkey. Let me tell you something, I wouldn't send my child to a school who calls God a liar and still claim to be a child of God. I don't think God thinks that's very funny. I don't think God is amused a bit by Christian people letting their children be led to hell by a lie called evolution." --R.G. Kelly, "The Hell of Hell"

I hate how fundamentalist preachers underestimate God's sense of humor. Look, the fact that we came from a monkey itself is one of God's finest jokes. "Yeah, you think you're so special? Well, your ancestors are chimps! Feast on that, you smug jerkwads!"

My dog and I were feasting on some honey-cured ham sandwiches at Robertson's Hams in Seminole, Okla., when we came across a basket that said "Free!" on it. Can you imagine that, city folk? It actually had the word "Free!" written right on it, and that actually meant that the stuff in the basket was free.

In the basket were tapes, each one with a different title. Thrilled and filled to the gills with ham, I grabbed a tape called "The Hell of Hell" for the ride to Van Buren, Ark.

So here's what I learned. There's this thing called the Book of Life. If your name isn't in there (and it probably isn't, since I doubt you've accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior), then you're going to some place called the Lake of Fire. The Lake of Fire is not a national park or even a state park, from what I can tell. According to Pastor Kelly, there are no water fountains there, so I can only assume there are no Starbucks there, either.

The idea here is that it's really not wise to put off this getting-saved thing. "There could be a blood clot flowing through your veins!" Kelly bellowed at me from the tape deck. "You're lost now! You're not gonna be lost, you're lost now! Your name is not in that book! And if your name is not in that book, you're going to the Lake of Fire!"

Then Kelly told of how he'd watched many, many people take their last breaths at the hospital. He reenacted heavy breathing, and the breathing got slower and slower and then, "Aaaaaahheeeee! Aaaaarghaaaayeee!"

The idea being that, seconds after your last breath, you're burning in the Lake of Fire. Blam! No short, informal discussion with Gabriel, no brief informational meeting with God. Just breath, breath, breath, and then: "Aaaaayyeeee!"

You die, and then you're in excruciating pain, a pain that lasts for all eternity? Come on. You can't tell me God doesn't have a sense of humor.

Amazing race, how sweet the sound!
The good people of Robertson's Hams had a sense of humor, but you could tell that they thought that, based on my style of dress and the fact that I came from Los Angeles, I could probably use saving. It was a safe bet that my name was not inscribed in the Book of Life. With dog hair on my sweater and chocolate from the morning's Goo Goo Cluster smudged on my shirt, I had "vile sinner" written all over me.

When I feel all dirty and Californian, that's when I watch "The Amazing Race," so I can see that frightening couple Jonathan and Victoria, each Botoxed within an inch of their lives, each utterly devoid of any guiding principles or standards of behavior, a couple of angry toddlers parading their wildly dysfunctional relationship in front of the cameras without any sense of shame or dignity and without any fear of the Lake of Fire whatsoever.

But this past week, Jonathan sunk to an all-time low. In the final stretch, Jonathan threw down his backpack, but Victoria grabbed it, afraid that someone would take it. Running with two backpacks proved to be difficult, though, as evidenced by Victoria's crying hysterically and screaming, "Jonathan! I can't! I can't!" The pack slowed her down so much that they were passed by another team in the final stretch. By the time they stumbled into the pit-stop area, Victoria couldn't even look up at the host, Phil, she was crying so hard. Jonathan responded to this by berating her at the top of his lungs for picking up his pack and then shoving her. It was, um, awkward. Finally, Victoria ran off in tears, and Phil advised Jonathan to act like something resembling a human being and comfort his wife. Jonathan responded by stomping off and telling Victoria that this was a race, and there was no room for compassion as long as the race was on.

Tell that to the Lord on Judgment Day, little man! Oh wait, you don't get a face-to-face appointment with the Lord, I almost forgot. Looks like Jonathan's going to ride that compassionless pony straight to -- you guessed it -- the Lake of Fire!

And for this casting choice, which is so beyond the pale it's making even hardcore "TAR" fanatics lose their lunches, I'm guessing the producers and the casting director of this show might be taking a little dip in the Lake of Fire as well.

Newsflash: Evil not limited to blue states!
Melvern, Kan. - (AP) A woman charged with killing an expectant mother and cutting the baby from her womb was showing the child off to people at a cafe and to her pastor hours before she was arrested, residents said on Saturday.

Many customers were surprised to hear the infant was only a day old, [said Kathy Sage, owner of the Whistle Stop Cafe in Melvern, a small eastern Kansas town]. She knew a special alert had been issued for a baby missing from Missouri but did not realize the infant the Montgomerys carried was connected until hearing from a reporter on Friday.

"You read about this stuff," she said. "It blows you away when it's here. This stuff is supposed to be in New York City or Los Angeles."

Ah, yes. Just when you thought that all of the wretched, hell-deserving, lying, stealing, adulterating, fornicating souls lived in Los Angeles or New York, along comes a wannabe mother with a creative solution. If the contestants on "The Apprentice" were that creative, The Donald might never have to grapple with bankruptcy again.

My favorite part, though, is the part where she shows her baby, the baby that she cut from the womb of another woman, to her pastor. Some things are just not as they seem, my little pulled pork sandwiches. The most pious, most saved, least vile, least wretched humans among us are often capable of the most terrible things. Still, to walk right up and show off the baby to your pastor! Some people are just bargain-hunting for a one-way ticket to the Lake of Fire.

Homeward bound
Oh, I have so much more to tell you about, my darling fried okra nuggets. The sweet potato fries at Rick's Ribhouse in Van Buren, Ark., for example. The truck I saw with the "It's not a choice, it's a child" bumper sticker on it in Texas, followed by a Ford Taurus with one that read: "It's not a child, it's a zygote." I could tell you about trying to watch that red-state stalwart "JAG" in a Motel 6 in Albuquerque, N.M., and falling asleep five minutes into it. We could even trade notes on how much we hated the "Survivor" finale again, and how I'm really, really, really not going to watch the next season of "Survivor," and this time I mean it. We could talk Texas barbecue vs. Memphis barbecue vs. North Carolina barbecue. We could discuss the disadvantages of cruise control, namely, the fact that you often forget that you're driving and stare down at something in the car, like, say, the little seat-adjustment knobs that make your seat move around in the strangest ways, only to look up, oh, two minutes later, and find yourself headed straight for the grassy knoll. Thank the good Lord for cars that drive themselves, even while your mind is on vacation.

But I have to get back on the road now. There are two sausage biscuits out there, along with about 400 miles of road with my name on it. Freedom, country hams, is just another word for nothing left to lose. In that sense, I'm not really free, because I've got my car with my dog and a bunch of other stuff in it that I couldn't part with. But still. Freedom is good, and I've traveled across this land of the free and now I know that we are, indeed, as free as ever. Free to be you and me. Free to make fantastic ham sandwiches and preach about the Hell of Hell on little cassette tapes and commit heinous crimes and scream at our wives on national television. Aren't you glad you're free? I sure am.

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  • By Heather Havrilesky

    Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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