I was gazing out at the mighty Mississippi from the pilothouse of Capt. Gordy's tour boat, The Spirit of Dubuque, and thinking, as the constructivist shores slid by, that this country, above St. Louis, is in the throes of optimism. Upper Mississippians are so drunk with optimism they've thrown caution to the winds that blow on the weather channel. Ask fishermen from Wynona, Minn., to Dubuque, Iowa, how they are doing and they point to huge catches that flabbergast judges on the fishing channel. They don't eat what they catch, preferring frozen fish from Alaska, but that's rarely discussed since it would put a dent in the optimism. Or ask anybody how the Mississippi River is doing and they'll break into hosannas: Cleaner than ever! Never been so clean! That may be true, but then why won't they eat the fish?
Some farmers are growing organic corn or turning their crops to pasture under generous government subsidies, hoping to beat back the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico that's fed by fertilizers. But the craze of ethanol is doubling the price of corn, so farmers with fewer scruples are planting fertilized corn in every holler. They even have bumper stickers with the slogan, "Ethanol doesn't need an escort," showing a gunboat crossed out.
Many of the people I met on the Upper Mississippi felt themselves to be prosperous as well as optimistic. Prosperity raises the stakes for optimism, which is a form of rhetoric familiar to all from TV contests. The Dubuque Diamond Jo Casino versus the Dream of Downtown! The Prairie Island Casino versus The Nuclear Plant! CNN versus Fox! Blue against Red! Ethanol versus Big Oil! All sides are optimistic. Optimism is a dream of cash. Pessimism is the lack of it. The dream, I mean. The cash itself, some have it, some don't but everybody feels like they've got it. It's not really optimism that drives Middle America in the days of high-priced gas, but the heady feeling that anyone can pay the entrance fee to the contests that make us dream.
Meanwhile, the Dead Zone grows.