An Olympic reverie
Back at the turn of the 1980s I spent a couple of years working for a regional ski newspaper in Seattle. I was editor the year of the great drought, and so there was no snow; I was editor the year Mount St. Helens blew up, and so we kept the business alive that summer selling t-shirts that read “Mount St. Helens Ski Team: We Haul Ash.”
I didn’t ski, I should mention that, but I spent a little bit of time around that world, and once (for my first national publication, if memory serves) interviewed Steve or Phil Mahre (clearly memory doesn’t serve all that well) for Ski Racing, as whomever I was talking to took time out from building a house in Yakima and contemplated his father’s prospective ascent of Mount Everest.
Pet theory: Those of us who write (or wrote) about music wanted either to be musicians or sports writers. Or both. My musical talents were clear enough (no rhythm, different drummer, all that), but I did start out at the behest of my high school journalism teacher, Ms. Dena Leming, as a sports writer.
Because we are snow-bound, and have had one day of school with which to entertain our six-year-old, and that was last Monday, we have stayed up late to watch the Olympics.
In music, we talk and think about and stalk moments in time. Pure moments of music, when the sound and the emotion and the sense of the words sway together within both the audience and the maker; or when the illusion of that is so masterfully presented as to make the illusion a shimmering and believable thing.
But if you don’t quite reach that moment every night, the simple skill of being able to play well enough to climb up on a stage is generally sufficient to entertain an audience, to leave them wanting more, as the cliche goes.
One of my interns years ago back at The Rocket stays intermittently in touch, and one of her daughters, for a time, contemplated committing herself (and her family) to a career in figure skating. She and they thought better of it.
Watching last night as the pairs missed key components of their programs, I felt bad for them. They get one night, work their whole lives for that night, and if something goes wrong, some synapse misfires or somebody moves funny in the audience enough to distract them or their partner’s breath smells wrong or whatever, then it’s over. It’s done.
I cannot imagine the pressure. It was gratifying to watch a Chinese pair who are both married to each other and who have skated together for 18 years — old, by athletic standards — win, followed by another Chinese pair who have skated together for 17 years.
So much of life to give up for one moment, to give up chasing that moment again (and again, and again, for the victors).
I’m not opposed to pressure. Deadlines can be good things, and are often the only way to pry words from writers.
But as we watch these skaters and skiers and biathletes and whatever else may come down the mountains in Vancouver these next day, I will stay haunted by the fates of those who don’t make it. Who gave their childhood away for a dream that cannot come true. Whose knees and ankles are forever scared by the trying. By the high school linebacker whose back will never recover from playing hurt the one game a college scout was in the stands. By the little girl who wanted so badly to wear a gold medal around her neck that she sacrificed her childhood and barely knows her siblings.
We pay funny prices. I mean not to judge, not this morning.
But the cost of all this bread and circus stuff, the human cost…sometimes it’s hard to hide that amid the pageantry.
Our musicians pay different costs, sacrifice different parts of themselves. I suppose it’s the knowing when to quit that’s the key to it all.
P.S. For those who have reason to care, my next radio show (“Grant Alden’s Field Notes”) airs this Friday, at 7 p.m., on WMKY. This show is an hour-long attempt to reckon with black country music, and includes a rare piece of a Jamup & Honey recording.