Today, after a few hours of watching Olympic archery and beach volleyball I made my way to Abbott Kinney Blvd. in Venice, got a really perfect iced green tea at Intelligensia Coffee and felt genuinely happy to be alive. That’s surprising in some ways since over the course of the last few weeks I’ve lost my apartment, watched my laptop die not once but twice and moved more deeply into my research for a book of prose I’m writing that focuses on my mother’s suicide and the general and uncomfortable question (for me, anyway) of why she killed herself and why I, seemingly, will not. Suffice to say it’s been a pretty brutal few weeks.
I think I feel so great because of the Olympics. I’ve got to say I love all of it, starting with the trials and continuing right onto the opening ceremonies last night. I gather a lot of folks didn’t like the Opening Ceremonies but I thought the James Bond bit was funny and the fireworks were great. And how can you not love all those athletes smiling and taking photos and marching alongside their teams of 200 or 20 or 2? I love that there’s an Independent Olympic Athlete’s delegation for athletes like South Sudanese runner Guor Marial, who can’t run for South Sudan because the newly formed country doesn’t have an Olympic body and will not run under the flag of Sudan because as says, "My family lost 28 members in the war with Sudan. Millions of my people were killed by Sudan forces. I can only forgive, but I cannot honor and glorify a country that killed my people." I love that every single Olympic team has at least one woman athlete (a first) and that, for the first time, the American team has more women than men. And I love Caster Semenya’s raised fist as she walked into the stadium holding her flag.
Which is to say, I love that tremendous joy and unspeakable tragedy can live in the same body and in the same moment of time. When it’s packaged by the media this balance can be destroyed and come off as melodrama. But one can simply go back to the athletes themselves as they do what they do best and find all of these seemingly opposing forces working themselves into something extraordinary. Take gymnast John Orozco, who I really don’t know much about. I learned about him during the months leading up to the games. One Saturday I was having some trouble getting out of my pajamas to go to the coffee shop and write. I may have been having some trouble doing a number of things related to going outdoors. I turned on the television in hopes of finding some baseball or bull riding. I wanted to watch someone do something super hard and make it look effortless. And I wanted to watch closely enough that I could begin to see the decisions they were making that made it look so much easier than it was. It calms me to do that. I thought it might get me up and out the door. Neither sport was on and didn’t want to see some comedy or light movie so I looked at the guide and saw the men’s gymnastic trials were on. Though it may have been a competition leading up to the trials. As I’ve said, I was and am new to gymnastics and the world of the trials. I didn’t really care. I pulled the blanket over myself and started watching.
And there was John Orozco.
Over the course of the afternoon I found out John Orozco is from the Bronx. His father suffered a major stroke, which forced him to retire from his job at the sanitation department. His mother suffers from lupus and rheumatoid arthritis and, according to her son, is in pain all the time, which did not keep her from driving the hour round trip most days of the week to get him to gymnastics practice. Terrible things. Things you don’t recover from. I listened to the commentators at the same time that I watched John Orozco do the most remarkable things with his body. I watched him get very still and then burst into motion. What struck me was that the beauty of what he was doing didn’t undo any of the darkness of the story. The things that were broken would stay broken and the beauty and achievement would live alongside it. And together they would make a young man’s life. I decided I’d make sure to watch him during the Olympics because he had a lot to teach me about what it is to be an adult. And I did get up and go to the coffee shop, which oddly enough I almost omitted from this piece because it sounds sort of clichéd but like most clichés it’s actually true.
Over the next two weeks I’ll be wearing various hats here at Sports Desk. I’ll be writing short bits about the Olympics at the end of each day and I’ll be thinking about the sorts of things I want to talk about as I return to this space on a monthly basis after a long time away. I’ll also be featuring a great project I’m working on as the Poetry Editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books. Because I’ve been looking forward to the Olympics and thinking about all the things I don’t know, I thought I’d ask some amazing poets and poet-critics to help me make sense of the balance of formal rigor and unabashed optimism that it takes to be an Olympian and a poet. The Best American Poetry is our partner in this project and will be featuring all the essays published at LARB. And we'll be having Olympic adventures at Sports Desk as well. And the team can keep growing, so lend me your voice.
When the team from Great Britain entered the stadium David Bowie’s, “Heroes” started to play. I’ve had that song in my head for weeks, though I’m not sure I really know what the term means. I look forward to trying to find out. I think it’s going to take a whole team.