Is this futility dot meme
Thoughts on a very strange Olympics
warning: flashing gif at the end
I had a whole thing planned for this week. I was going to write about Vanessa Zoltan’s book Praying With Jane Eyre, which I read on vacation. Instead, I want to talk about the Olympics.
I love the Olympics. I love the pageantry, I love the ludicrous outfits, I love the parade of nations. I love the triumph of human determination. I love briefly becoming an expert on sports I don’t think about during the four years in between Olympics. (Now that I’m a winter sports person I am excited to pretend to know stuff about figure skating!)
But last night, as I watched the deeply bizarre and sometimes genuinely moving opening ceremony of the 2020(2021?) Tokyo games, I couldn’t get over the fact that all the pageantry, the dancing, the flags on parade were happening to an empty stadium. Oh, sure, there were the VIPs (Hi Dr. Biden!) and the Emperor and a handful of press. But it was so bizarre to hear silence instead of cheering. Empty seats instead of full.
Only 83% of the American athletes participating in the Games this year are vaccinated, and nearly 100 people associated with the Games have tested positive. There were big protests held outside the stadium before the ceremony started; Japan has mismanaged their own COVID response so much that they aren’t allowing any spectators at all at the various events.
One of the best parts of watching the Olympics is watching the spectators. What will an Olympics without an audience look like? I don’t know. I do know that it didn’t have to be this way. The US is not going to win any awards for how we’ve handled this pandemic. But it feels crazy to me, to hold the Olympics this year. It feels crazy that last night I had dinner in a crowded bar and no one else was wearing a mask, even as the Delta variant is raging through and breakthrough infections are happening among the vaccinated. It feels increasingly like this will never be over.
I cry every time I watch an opening ceremony. (I’m a big crier.) But last night, instead of an uncomplicated, emotional weep about the miracle of human achievement, I was crying about how much we’ve all been through. The ceremony began with an athlete alone on a treadmill, who was joined by other athletes, separate but together. How much work went into this opening ceremony that can only be seen on a screen? How much more moving would it have been to have a full stadium? Of course a full stadium would have been the height of irresponsibility - but isn’t holding the Games irresponsible anyway? I know it’s about money - I know that they basically have to hold the Games. But it still feels deranged to watch.
It doesn’t help that I’ve been rereading Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, one of her Oxford Time Travel novels. In it an Oxford student, Kivrin, is sent back to the year the Plague came to England, and as her panicked tutor tries to bring her back, a different pandemic rages in contemporary Oxford. In this world, there had been a Pandemic with a capital P some years before. Because of this pandemic (of a flulike virus not unlike COVID-19,) a group of American handbell players are stuck at Balliol, and one of them protests to the tutor about being kept under quarantine:
“I’m not used to having my civil liberties taken away like this. In America, nobody would dream of telling you where you can or can’t go.” And over thirty million Americans died during the Pandemic as a result of that sort of thinking, he thought.
This book was written in 1992. Setting aside the question of whether Connie Willis is an oracle (she is, she’s amazing, please read these books immediately) it’s sad that a fictional pandemic can so closely mirror what has actually happened. I don’t really know where I’m going with this - I guess I’m saying that, while I’ll be rooting for Simone Biles and the rest of the US Olympians, my joy in the Olympics won’t be uncomplicated this year. There are too many ghosts for it to be uncomplicated.
Do you have a question about writing, publishing, books? Is there something you want covered in this newsletter? Do you have a burning desire to hear my thoughts on Alexander Ovechkin’s contract renewal? Leave it in the comments or in a reply to the newsletter!
THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY
Well, the Seattle Kraken expansion draft happened. Despite a highly planned and hyped up live draft announcement planned for the evening of the 21st, news about the Kraken’s acquisitions started leaking out almost as soon as people started waking up. The Capitals lost goalie Vitek Vanecek to the Kraken, but otherwise the roster wasn’t too badly hit. I lost track of what wild trades and contract extensions happened in the aftermath. But one good thing happened: Predators prospect Luke Prokop came out, making him the first out gay active player in the NHL. One thing’s for sure- next season will be pretty interesting!
Welcome to the ‘What Are We Doing Here’ Olympics by Jen Chaney (Vulture)
She first appeared all alone in the center of Tokyo’s audience-free Olympic Stadium, while the image of a growing sapling was projected behind her, and later ran solo on a treadmill in the middle of the vast space. Another performer on an exercise cycle joined her, then another on a rowing machine, then still more running in place. Colored balls of light were projected into the space, perhaps to suggest that the digital realm kept athletes connected when an in-person Olympics could not. Personally, I looked at those balls of light and thought, Oh, nice. Pretty germs.
When is a Bird a ‘Birb?’ An Extremely Important Guide by Asher Elbin (Audobon)
There are certain terms that embed themselves into your consciousness like a woodpecker’s beak in particle board. “Birb” is one of them. For those not terminally online, birb is affectionate internet-speak for birds. The word began, as near as anyone can tell, when the absurdist Twitter account BirdsRightsActivist tweeted the single word “Birb,” out on November 2012; two years later, it had multiple entries in Urban Dictionary and a dedicated reddit forum. The term is seemingly designed for the internet: one syllable, beginning and ending with “b,” connoting a pleasant roundness, a warm mouth-feel. What a good birb, you might say, or I’m so glad we went birb-watching, or I love Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birbs.
The Masters’ Trap by Anne Helen Petersen
Amidst the sea of rejection letters that followed, there was a small, consolatory note from the University of Chicago. He hadn’t been admitted to the English PhD program, but there was an offer for the one-year MAPH — a program to which he hadn’t even applied. When he showed up in Chicago to make his decision, he recalls his hosts “pulling out all the stops.” There was a fancy dinner, and a screening of Jacques Tati’s Playtime. Prospective students were invited to sit in on classes, including those with famous faculty like Martha Nussbaum. “I remember coming back from Chicago feeling like I’d finally found an elevated place where I belonged,” he told me. “I barreled over my parents’ warnings about the debt I was taking on.”
Two People, One Room, 16 Months: The Studio-Apartment Couples of the Pandemic | The NHL’s lack of humanity is haunting. | Yeah, Jason Sudeikis is kind of like Ted Lasso in real life | 100 Bewildering Hours at Cannes Film Festival 2021 | Have you ever wondered why we don’t find fossils in the Appalachian mountains? The truth is we do, but they’re not the fossils you think | Rick and Morty and the rise of the ‘I’m a piece of shit’ defense
READING: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
LISTENING: “Content” by Bo Burnham
WATCHING: The Games of the 32nd Olympiad
This has been A Faster No, a dispatch on publishing, writing, books, and beyond. Is there something you’d like me to talk about? Leave it in the comments or reply to the email! You can support the newsletter here. If you purchase a book from any of the links to Bookshop.org I get a small commission at no cost to you. I am available for developmental editing and editorial assessment services via Reedsy.