COLUMN: When the world is in your living room

This is my Sunday column for the Aug. 5, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. A version of this piece aired yesterday on “Between You and Me” for KAXE/KBXE Northern Community Radio.

When the world is in your living room
By Aaron J. Brown

I always get excited for the Olympics and it’s certainly not related to my own athletic ability. Most of the things athletes do in the Olympics would literally kill me. Rather, it goes back to my favorite Olympic memory.

It was my summer delivering pizzas for a place in Eveleth. As the summer faded I decided to find a new job for the school year, one that didn’t involve coleslaw and people telling me someone they hooked up with that night was still in their house. Maybe they were. Maybe. Just pay for the pizza, OK.

Giving notice at the start of a shift, I set out on two weeks of deliveries comfortable in the knowledge that these would be my last days of pizza dispensary.

In this spirit I later arrived at a home in Gilbert, people who were somehow related to one of the cooks. It was a classic scene from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, open doors and windows, cigarette smoke and multi-family, multi-generational drinking.

“You gotta see this,” said the head of the household, a combination of dough and muscles from which a beer bottle protruded. “It’s the opening ceremonies.”

The Range is so often a rigid place, hard like the rock mined beneath it. Perhaps that’s why the culture so often finds occasional wiggle room in social norms and the constitution of appropriate behavior. I guess the same is true of Olympic Village, where young athletes reportedly breed like muscular rabbits. Anyway, at age 16 I had already delivered chicken wings to a stripper on stage earlier that summer, and on this day I entered a rollicking house party to watch the Olympics with strangers.

This was 1996, when the Olympics were in Atlanta, the year Mohammed Ali, even then wracked by Parkinson’s, carried the torch to light a flaming arrow. I spent several minutes there, watching with this family on a hot summer night.

“Oh, man. You don’t think they’re going to let Ali shoot that arrow, do you? That could be bad.

Well, they didn’t let Ali shoot the arrow, which was for the best. I doubt I said more than a handful of words during my time on the couch, nor do I think I stopped smiling. I was free. I was pretty much a grown-up. I was an American. I was from the Iron Range. All of these things would define the years that lay ahead. I know now how those years turn out, but nothing beats the way those years felt then.

The people there ranged in age from childhood to grey hair. They worked hard for a living, and played hard. Life had not given them everything they wanted. But the Olympics were on, and we were Americans, whatever that meant. The unique thing about America is the way your own personal story defines what it means. No two stories are the same.

I declined the beer and pizza and headed back to work. I doubt that my absence was noted; I am probably over-remembering how long I was even there. But every Olympics since – Athens, Sydney, Beijing and now London – I’ve thought of this day, the odd way that ceremony and sports connect people who don’t normally talk to one another, even though they live in the same place.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts 91.7 KAXE’s Great Northern Radio Show on public stations.

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