Thursday, January 31, 2013

Today disavowed yesterday

Driving on a dark back road, I was puzzled by the leaves. Are those leaves hopping? No, not leaves. Frogs. Like, uh, a million of em'. In January. The air busied itself to 73 degrees (6 degrees higher than ever recorded in this town) and a half inch of warm rain fell. There was a tornado warning. As the weather was typical for May, the frogs, understandably, came out of their pseudo-hibernation.

I was fixing new latches onto some of my greenhouse windows, today. It started to snow. Wind whistling. The work required dexterity which gloves blunt. I hurried my ass up so I could get inside before the pain in my finger tips became too much.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Magic in a Gesture

An exhilarating, emotional event is not always a good story to re-tell. Even if the event was full of drama and joy, like so many good stories. Because those moments that seem so special often operate by the logic of magic. And magic only works with incomplete understanding. If only we could leave it at that.

Tee vee programs specialize in presenting the angst surrounding virtues (vices too) in a story-form. Viewers tune in for their serial drama or comedy, where one or two virtues is confronted, circled, poked at, misunderstood, re-considered, and then wrapped up. It works well. Competent actors under the watch of writers and suits. The viewer knows this, and then somewhat intentionally forgets it, and that is, more or less, that. Its a good little trick. But there is another trick that the tee vee attempts, with much less success: to recreate what feels good about a "feel good" story.

Take the recent feel good case of Owen Groesser, the dedicated equipment manager for his middle school's basketball team. He has Down Syndrome. His mother asks the coach if Owen might wear the team uniform and play in a game, despite not being a player. The coach agrees, and makes some sort of an arrangement with the opposing coach. So Owen gets to play in the game. He makes a few shots. The crowd cheers enthusiastically. Smiles abound. And then tee vee shows up (via Twitter) to re-tell the tale.

Clearly stated: what was done for Owen was a very nice gesture — even if his mother instigating it makes it a little less cool. But regardless of how nice it was... it is a gesture. From medieval Latin gestura, from Latin gerere ‘bear, wield, perform.’ And a large number of "feel good" stories (hell... maybe most) seek to capture the effects of a gesture. A gesture which often seeks to make the impossible, possible.

So a gesture is a type of performance. Symbolic. A tool. For example: I want to express gratitude to a friend for helping me with something unpleasant. I take him out for a few drinks, dinner, pay the bill, pay for the cab, and my gratitude has been signified with food and banter. I don't even need to "say" thank you, I've signified with actions. A simple gesture. Or, a homeless family can be given a house on national television. Also a gesture.

Owen was unable to make the team. Everybody knows this. It is a "cut" league, serious business, so you don't get to play just by paying your entry fee. You must qualify to pay. And Owen didn't qualify. But the gesture invalidates that truth. Quite suddenly, Owen is on the team! Like magic.

The magic of a performance is easy to mess up. The other actors have to stay in character, and so does the audience — they have to know: this is special. This gesture rearranges normal. We ignore the sense that Owen being on the court isn't right. And then the curtain raises and its already happening. Owen is on the court. He's catching a pass. He's heaving the ball towards the hoop, and it falls in. A boy with down syndrome, who isn't on the team, is on the team, and he's scoring points. You see... magic.

But for the sake of all that is good, don't talk about it! Nothing robs the gesture of its magic like pointing out what is actually happening. So just enjoy it. Don't try to get on ESPN, just be happy it happened, magic doesn't reward the greedy. Because if you talk about it... if you make a big fuss and tell other people... well. The truth. Oh shit. The truth doesn't come out. Thankfully. But something does. And it's a huge pile of shit.

The pile is Amazing! He defies all odds! He's a superstar!

Oh. No. What just happened? Owen made two out of four shots in a middle school basketball game. It was not amazing because... Owen is a pretty decent shooter, according to his father, and the video I saw. The kid can shoot. Did he defy all odds? Well, this is inherently hyperbolic, but while the one-too-many chromosome crowd aren't the most athletic bunch... we're talking about basketball. A put-the-ball-in-the-goal game. 
Eighth-grader Owen Groesser always knew he had what it takes to be a superstar and that’s what he has become. (Los Angeles Daily News)
A superstar? Again, I get that overstatement happens, but in these cases, the absurdity is necessary to avoid the limits of the story.

This video from Detroit's ABC affiliate, the news person says:
The sincere care for this kid, who happens to have Down Syndrome, was unbelievable, and would make anyone witnessing these acts of kindness shed a tear.
The casualness of "who happens to have Down Syndrome" makes this fact sound incidental, rather than essential. The whole idea is that Owen was unable to make the team because of his genetic disability, no fault of his own. And the hyperbole about the crying...

And then from the same segment, a teammate is interviewed:
I think its a good experience for our team and our school, for somebody to show that anything is possible, no matter what kind of disability you have.
Again, while this boy is saying a nice thing, it's also nonsense. Nothing about the evening proved that anything is possible.

I've probably given too many examples already, I'm arguing that a gesture can be really lovely, a beautiful thing. But talking about it, or trying to publicize it, or recreate it, destroys the moment by either:

 A) pulling back the curtain. Explaining exactly what the gesture meant, and that it was a performance. Symbolic. And then the magic is gone.

B) Rather than destroy the magic, a bunch of nonsense hyperbole is presented as truth.

And once you're committed to the hyperbole, it's easy to lose a simple truth: trying to repeat a nice gesture, because it made YOU feel good, starts to look like charity. Owen was back on the court for the next game. Wearing his uniform. Catching a pass. Taking a shot. When Owen's shot failed to go in, the opposing team gathered the rebound, and returned the ball to their opponent. Owen missed another shot. The opposing team returned the ball. Keep shooting until you make it, was the new gesture. No longer could we have that moment of disbelief, when the impossible was possible. And the magic was gone, because everybody understood.