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Worsts get the best of us 

Rain, snakes and baggers, ’09

WORST REFRESHMENTS: A daycare operator at Scott, thinking it was Kool-Aid, served poisonous blue windshield-wiper fluid to 10 children, age 2 to 7, in March. They all survived, but the daycare didn't.
  • WORST REFRESHMENTS: A daycare operator at Scott, thinking it was Kool-Aid, served poisonous blue windshield-wiper fluid to 10 children, age 2 to 7, in March. They all survived, but the daycare didn't.

Longtime followers of the Best & Worst of Arkansas might notice that there are considerably more worsts than bests in the 2009 installment.

That's a departure for this feature, which had its debut more than 30 years ago. In the 20-plus years that I've been putting it together, I've tried to balance the bests and worsts, usually alternating them, first one then the other, a best for every worst, a worst for every best.

It didn't occur to me until this year that that approach represented one of those famous media biases. It promoted a notion that seems to me now to have no justification ? that is, that there's an evenness, a consistency, a normalcy in the character of the public life in Arkansas from year to year, decade to decade. We have our bests and worsts, our idiots and our saints, pretty much in the same proportion, a hero for every son-of-a-bitch, and vice versa. A noble or stirring deed for every egregiously stupid or dastardly one.

From those extremes, we can establish a steady middle that we don't have to be ashamed of, even if we can't exactly be proud of it either.

There's comfort in that view ? if life here could be better in many respects, it could also be worse; it could be Texas or South Carolina ? and there's a certain appealing tidiness in it from the journalism-textbook perspective. It gives you a hopeful place to start the compilation from each January, a template, if you will; what the philosophers call a method.

But while dualities exist in Dickens (best of times, worst of times), they don't exist in nature, and when you run across them, in high places or in tacky little tabloid hebdomadals, they always turn out to be just a contrivance. It might take you a couple of decades to recognize it as a contrivance, but there you are. It's even a contrivance to do the review annually ? instead of, say, every five years, like the Central High crisis rehashes. Or every 50 years, like we do war commemorations.

So no year has that true 50-50 balance of bests and worsts, or anywhere near it. A few are honestly happily best-heavy, though most are obliged to fotch a giant anvil of worsts. But the leveling impulse is so strong that it will sometimes put a best mask on a worst in the hope of evening the score. Several of the 2009 bests listed here are imposters of that sort. For example, the Jericho speed trap is entered below as an Arkansas best. A Stuttgart rattlesnake that could swallow grown peccaries is called a best. So is the new state lottery, though it is clearly based on Lucifer's original patent.

Another perplexity in the annual B & W compilation, much in evidence this year, is how a best or a worst can suddenly morph into its opposite, as particles sometimes do in quantum physics. Two examples from 2009 that come to mind involve rainfall and Mike Huckabee, the former governor.

Blessed rainfall, especially when it comes in moderate quantities following uncomfortable dry spells, which it usually does, is a perennial all-star Arkansas best. But this year it descended on Arkansas in serial deluges. None of these lasted 40 days and 40 nights but it seemed like at least three of them did, washing away three of our non-consecutive months in three different seasons. Washing away livestock, crops, festivals, automobiles with living people in them, unwary squatters on one-holers across a wide mountainous swath, and the uppermost 50 feet of topsoil, down to the magma, in a myriad of suburban yards. It was the same ol' best rainfall, transformed by the amount of it, the wretched excess of it, into a worst.

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