[the palaverist]

Sunday, February 28, 2010

[how to fail like an olympian]

When you watch the Olympics, it can be easy to forget just how ridiculously good these people are at whatever bizarre thing it is they're doing. Take, for example, figure skating. Early in the evening of the ladies' long program, long before Kim Yu-Na and the other medal contenders took the ice, there was Tuğba Karademir, a Turkish skater who ultimately came in 24th.

Now, I have never been the 24th-best person in the world at any particular skill, as far as I know. It's an extraordinary achievement. And yet, watching her skate, it was absolutely clear why she was in a different class from the top five or six skaters in the world. So when you're watching the coverage of a medal contender in the slalom who misses a gate, or of a bobsled team that plays it conservatively and can't shave off that hundredth of a second they need to take the lead, you go, "Yeah, that was a mistake," and you forget how insanely difficult it is to do whatever it is the athletes are doing in the first place.

And after a couple of weeks of that sort of thing, today I went to my Korean dance class, and I imagined what it would mean to be the best in the world at it, or one of the top ten or twenty. For one thing, it would mean practicing more often than once a week for 90 minutes. My dance teacher is an extraordinary dancer, and part of how you get to be that way is to do it a lot. And then there's the level of detail: spending a week or a month or six months concentrating on just the right way to get your torso to expand and contract, or how to extend your fingers to draw out a line.

Beyond that, as I fumbled my way through my little bit of choreography, I started thinking about how much concentration is a part of athletic success. Sometimes, as I dance, some move I've just done half a dozen times will suddenly desert me, and I'll be shrugging my shoulders when I'm supposed to be twirling already, or my arms will be flopping at my sides because I've forgotten where they're supposed to be. Again, this is incredibly far removed from the kind of mental effort that serious athletes make, but I felt like it was an inkling, at the very least, of how it is that someone who's done a routine a thousand times in warm-ups can suddenly flub it in competition.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

[cold winters]

This winter is the coldest and snowiest I remember in a long time — maybe since my first winter in New York. I was a California boy then, new to the rigors of winter, so I've sometimes wondered whether my recollections were overblown — whether perhaps the winter of '94 had grown harsher in my imagination that it actually was.

Not so.

Here's a fun little sampling of articles on just how rough that season was:
I recall the Columbia campus covered in ice sheets an inch thick that made going to class a treacherous affair. My Lit Hum class was way over in the International Affairs Building, east of Amsterdam Avenue, and getting there required a late-afternoon traverse across the howling wind tunnel of West 120th Street, a canyon between the high walls of Teacher's College and the Columbia campus's forbidding backside. There were many afternoons when I simply didn't make the trip. I had a hard time meeting people and making friends because so few people went out and did anything. But when the snow banks had piled up above the height of the parked cars, someone carved an entire life-sized automobile from snow, with a grinning grille and an icicle for an antenna.

I remember that on that arctic January 17, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, the pipes in my dorm froze, leading to a basement fire. I heard my RA pounding on my door, shouting, "Get out! Get out! There's a real fire!" — we'd already spent much of the morning waiting out a false alarm in a slowly flooding lobby — and quickly pulling on boots and a coat over my T-shirt and sweat pants before running from the building. I didn't have my wallet or my student ID or socks. It was very, very cold, and there was nowhere for me to go. I begged my way into another dorm, where I sat in the lounge and watched pictures of the aftermath of the Los Angeles earthquake.

There were ice floes on the Hudson. I could see them from my dorm room's sliver of a river view.

I was totally unprepared for a winter like this. I didn't know to get long underwear. My boots were designed for jungle combat and had air vents down by the soles. When at last the snow began to melt, deep slush puddles formed at all the corners, and you could only cross at the corners, where cuts had been made in the towering snow banks. Going to the store directly across the street meant walking to the corner, crossing, and walking back.

I recall a long, wandering, intellectually confused discussion with my Logic and Rhetoric professor, an angry feminist grad student in the English department. I wanted to know what differentiated my B+ essays from my B- essays, and she came around to the position that her methods were holistic and could only be understood once the course was complete. Along the way, she suggested that maybe I needed to experience bad grades because I had already had so much white male privilege, "locker-room camaraderie" and the like. I countered that seeing as how I hadn't actually been on any sports teams, my friend Monica, who played rugby at Wesleyan, had undoubtedly experienced far more locker-room camaraderie than I ever had. This enlightened symposium took place outside in bitter cold. We were both too stubborn or too stupid to suggest going inside somewhere and continuing like civilized human beings.

My work-study job that year was at the reserve desk in the library, another institution dedicated to purging white male privilege. I was the only white person on the staff, and I'm fairly certain that was what my boss disliked about me, though I have no real proof. In any case, whenever I was on duty, it was invariably my job to go outside in the early morning and bring in the books from the drop-bin, which involved unlocking the Master Lock, which in turn required that I hold it in my bare hand until it thawed. Then I had to scrape the ice away from the bin door so that I could open it and retrieve the books. When I suggested that we perhaps wait a bit to open the bin on days when the temperature was in the single digits, it was pointed out to me that this would unfairly enable students to get away with returning their books late by several hours. I didn't think this was such a bad thing, but I wasn't in charge.

When at last the forecast was for 60 degrees, I went alone to Central Park — I was often alone in those days — and sat on a rock, thrilling that I was outside and it didn't hurt.

That was a very hard winter. The hardest I've known. This winter has seen a fair amount of cold and snow, but it's nothing like the winter of '94. 

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Previous Posts

[things i'd like to write about but haven't]
[drop the red lantern]
[how not to apply for a job]
[pop is the new alternative]
[what does it all mean?]
[national fears]
[lies, damn lies, and sound effects]
[our pakistan moment?]
[how to fail like an olympian]
[cold winters]


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