August 15, 2012

Narrative and the Olympics

I know I'm a bit late here (as usual). The Olympics are over, and we here in the U.S. will now go back to arguing about politics. But the stories from the Games are far from over. I wish I could hear them.

This is the first time I've been able to watch a significant amount of the competitions. And yeah, I have a lot of the same gripes with NBC's coverage--too much focus on a few sports, too few non-Americans shown--but I also have some that I suspect might be unique to me. Because what I really like are all the stories before, during, and after competition. What I like is the way the Olympics changes the participants' lives, for better or worse.

We never see most of these.

We only see this

We see the ones that fit the narrative. Family sacrifice, hard work paying off, dreams coming true. It's amazing when that happens (Gabby Douglas! Yay!), but it's not what mostly happens. Most of the athletes who make it to the Olympics don't medal. A lot of them don't even make it past qualifying rounds. We never hear about the swimmer with the slowest time--but there has to be one! What does it feel like to come in last place at the Olympics? What does it feel like to compete in one event, but not to make it to the finals. To have one race or performance or game, and then go home.

Those are the stories that interest me, and not just because I have a cynical, negative view of the world. The vast, overwhelming majority of us will never be outstanding at anything. We will never even be as amazing as Olympic losers. And if we believe the Olympic narrative that hard work pays off, in converse that means that the rest of us didn't work hard enough. What would it say about the world if we knew more about the last place Olympians? If we knew that they all worked just as hard as the winners, but went home with only memories? I find it hard to relate to champions (especially the athletic kind). The ones in last place are slightly more human in their defeat.

Another story that got beat into the ground this Olympics is the one about the supportive parents. "Thanks, mom and dad. Without you I wouldn't be here, and I'm doing this for you." So maybe I am cynical and negative, but I really want to see an interview with an Olympic champion who says, "F you, mom and dad. Thanks for nothing. I did this despite you." Of course, after I thought about it for a minute I realized that that was unlikely. Social pressure aside, it takes so much work, money, and support to get to the Olympics that it's probably impossible to do it without awesome parents.

And yet. . . . Surely there's more strife in these families than the simple narrative would have us believe. More complexity, more specificity, more awesome.

I would rather hear those stories than watch any more volleyball. Ever.


August 09, 2012

Postcards to humans

Submitted for your approval, a final(?) batch of postcards from the Clarion West Write-a-thon, which went out to sponsors this week. Thank you!

Dear Dominica, I stand here apprehensive, looking up at the alien structure towering over this snowy land. Logic tells me to trust them. They’ve come all this way, after all, so their launcher must work. The human scientists assure me it will work. The math is like none they’ve seen before, but it’s solid. And of course my sense of wonder urges me onward. To go where no human has ventured before. But perhaps not boldly. Among other things—a whole planet full of things!—I’ll miss you. Thank you for all your support. I fear I won’t be back. Yours, Ambassador to the galaxy

Dear Cat, The Iceland trip was going great. We went on nature walks, sat in blue hotsprings, ate exotic food (like puffin!). One night, it was barely dark enough to be called night, but we saw a bright shooting star. Jeremy said, “I wish we could stay here forever.” The next sensation was weird, like being squished & exploding, & I thought I was passing out or dying. But then it stopped & I looked at Jeremy, & his big nose was even bigger, & bright reddish-orange. It was a beak! We were puffins. So I guess we will be staying in Iceland forever. I just wish I hadn’t eaten that puffin meat. I know how tasty I am, & I don’t expect to survive for long. Best wishes, Emily

Dear Beth, I was about to break up with Dumbass. Yay, right? We walked near the cliffs, & I said, “We need to talk,” & like a DUMB ASS he shouted, “NO!” I heard a rumble, & I was sure he’d started an avalanche, but instead of rocks coming down, a strange silvery ship hove into view. With an unearthly light, these beams shot down all around us. They looked like shiny icicles, but they soon turned as solid as steel. It looked a bit like a dance club. We were left alone for hours in a cage made of the things. And we didn’t end up talking, much.  Anyway, your nephew will be born in six months. Here’s hoping he’s not a little Dumbass. Love, Your sis

Dear Liz, I’m worried about Dorothy. Ever since we got free of the Nome King she’s gone a little crazy. She keeps talking about these red shoes she used to have, & yelling for someone called Auntie Em. She thinks she’s from another world, and that in that world someone was trying to zap memories out of her with electricity, which I guess is some kind of magic. So lately I’ve been trying to keep an eye on her. Today I was looking after her as she bathed in a lake. When she saw me she screamed and tried to run and slipped under the water. She hasn’t come up yet.  So anyway, I’m worried. Best, The Gump p.s. Why do women run from me? I’m a nice guy!

Dear Andy, I shouldn’t be writing this. We’ve all been sworn to secrecy about the zeppelin assault; Hitler has ears everywhere. In this frozen wasteland, it’s easy to believe. You can hear a rock falling miles away. Or a gunshot. Our squad is down to a handful, barely enough to crew this beast. Worse, most of our munitions are “missing.” But I am determined to carry this bag of hydrogen onward to victory. The Nazis may delight in their unsinkable helium Hindenburg, but we’ll give them something spectacular. Even if it kills us.  Cheers, Captain Kollen, 1st Zeppelin Div. Svalbard