The Olympic fairy tale

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More confessions: I love the Olympics. I love them a lot. I get surprisingly emotional during sports that I ordinarily don’t pay attention to. Heck, I even get emotional while watching Olympic-themed commercials.

It’s only day 2 of the games, but already dreams are coming true and dreams are being crushed. After Michael Phelps’s fairy-tale success in Beijing, so far London has only brought disappointment. And after the huge hype around gymnast Jordyn Wieber, today she failed to qualify for the all-around competition. But in their tragedies lies the potential for others’ fairy tale endings to materialize. So far in London there hasn’t been that one moment that will stand out in the record books, but moments from previous Olympic will remain in our memories forever. And, lest we forget, there’s always Morgan Freeman to make the games feel just a little more dreamlike:

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How to live in a fairy tale

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What you’ll need: fairy godmother, magical animal friends

Songlist: When you wish upon a star

Further reading: Household stories from the collection of the brothers Grimm

Beauty and her Beast

I have a confession: I spent three hours last night watching the finale of The Bachelorette, in which the lovely Emily Maynard got engaged to her Prince Charming. The man she chose as her fiancé had previously said of her, “Emily gives me the feeling that people write fairy tales about.”

The Bachelor franchise has an obsession with fairy tale endings. Contestants often speak in fairy tale terms as they describe their dates of dining in castles or swimming with dolphins in the world’s most gorgeous places (actually, they more often speak in ridiculous metaphors such as “Today we jumped off a helicopter together into the ocean, because, you know, love is a leap of faith”). It’s a natural comparison to make because fairy tale endings are romantic, simplistic, and, oh, they don’t last.

On Saturday night I went to a brilliant performance of Into the Woods, the Stephen Sondheim musical that follows Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack of Beanstalk fame, and Rapunzel to their happily ever afters…and beyond. For the initiate, intermission is confusing since the characters have each already accomplished all they set out to do–what more do we need to see? In the second half, though, we find out that while Cinderella has stopped running, her prince hasn’t given up chasing. Jack slew a giant, but now the giant’s wife is hungry for vengeance. And characters start dying. After a frivolous first half, the second half is surprisingly sobering.

Which is like that time I watched the non-Disney version of The Little Mermaid and found out the original Ariel committed suicide to spare her beloved prince. Ouch.

Fairy tales are not particularly happy places to live in. Sure, a lot of the Grimm Brothers’ tales end in marriage, but first there are deals with the devil, murders, severing of limbs, and disowning of family members. In one particularly gruesome story, a stepmother feeds her stepson to her husband so that her daughter may be the only heir. And then, of course, a magical bird drops a millstone on the evil stepmother and the son is returned to the father, happy and whole.

Moral of the story: don’t try to live in a fairy tale unless you’re really good at communicating with birds. Emily Maynard, start working on your songs.

Know your songs

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Here’s a handy guide to a few common birds and their songs:

Which one is your favorite?

A murmuration

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One of my favorite things to do when I lived in Spain was sit on my rooftop terrace at sunset. From there I could watch dark birds glide in  air currents around the cathedral towers. It was like being able to see the wind.

When I first saw a video of a starling murmuration, I though it was the same phenomenon. After all, the shapes that these flocks of thousands form into look like the rolling of waves, the inflation of clouds. But apparently scientists still aren’t sure how individual creatures operate on a mass scale. The best theory compares the starling flock to a liquid becoming a gas, or the origin of an avalanche. These are all systems on the brink of transition, capable of instantaneous change. Not surprisingly, this is a theory that comes out of physics; starlings are one of the few macrobiological examples of phase transitions. The only contribution from biology is that this might be an evolutionary tactic to avoid predators, but it’s still unknown how simultaneous communication occurs between thousands of these birds. The only thing we know for sure is that it’s beautiful:

This is the video I first saw and is pretty cool because the birds fly directly overhead. Starts at 0:22:

How to be an ornithologist

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What you’ll need: binoculars, checklist

Songlist: Freebird, Fly

Further reading: Audubon guides, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Last week, at my aunt’s house in Wyoming, we ate dinner with two avid birders. As they were talking about trips to scout out species, I found myself thinking that I was not particularly interested in birds. My parents, however, were excited to hear about the types of birds found in Wyoming, especially the fact that this couple had seen three distinct variations of blue birds in their own backyard.

At this dinner, my dad told a story about a pilgrimage we made when I was young to see swan migration. Suddenly, the scene came back to me: the air cold, the sky gray, and in front of me an entire Minnesotan lake covered with white trumpeter swans. It was an awe-inspiring sight. But surely this was different. Swans are so incredibly majestic, both in flight and in water. I could love swans without considering myself a birder.

The next day as we drove to a trailhead for our day hike, we passed a barren tree with a huge nest at the very top. Perched above was an osprey, gorgeous and menacing. Tiny osprey beaks peaked up over the nest. We swung over to the side of the road and hopped out to take pictures. Birds of prey, after all, are pretty cool.

You can see where this is going. My aunt was heading to a cruise around the Arctic circle and I eagerly pored over the pictures of animals she might see–including puffins. Super cool.

Western Tanager

A huge raven surprised us in another trailhead parking lot, and I remembered my newfound affinity for those birds after portraying one in a flamenco show last February. As we hiked into the Tetons my dad spotted a gorgeous little bird with a bright yellow body and a peach head. So much for my theory that I wasn’t interested in small birds.

My brother and his girlfriend were the main reason we went out to Wyoming, and they had made the trip out west partly because of my brother’s girlfriend’s sister, who is working an ornithological internship in Montana. This internship involves waking up before sunrise and checking on nesting behavior. Okay, so I might be more interested in birds than I thought, but that still sounds a little too intense for me.

On our last day as we drove away from the Tetons we saw a bunch of cars parked on the side of the road–a sure sign of some large mammal sighting. Having already seen a huge herd of bison on the trip as well as several other large ungulates, we were hoping for a bear. When we saw the large velvety antlers of an elk we sighed and kept driving. But just ahead in the meadow a shot of bright blue burst from the grass. A blue bird. Both my mom and I squealed. And suddenly I realized that I had just mentally checked off bluebird from my life list. I might be hooked.

Cowboy country

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Just got back from a week in Wyoming, the kind of place where the magazine rack at the grocery store looks like this:

You can buy skulls on the side of the road from the animal on the state flag:

bison skulls for sale

And you wake up to this sight in the morning:

The cowboy life is a good one.

The grand square

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Easier than it looks. Also harder than it looks.

In the 1930s, educator Dr. Lloyd “Pappy” Shaw realized that America would soon lose one of her greatest traditions, a tradition whose proponents were quickly dying off. Pappy took it upon himself to travel the country and document all the square dance versions he could find. He then began to teach students and teachers this new collection of steps. Pappy published “Cowboy Dances” in the 1950s right when returning WWII veterans were starting to pair up, and a boom was born (coincidence that the square dancing boom overlapped with the baby boom? I think not).

It’s because of ol’ Pappy that square dancing was a unit in my gym class from 1st-3rd grade. One time I got paired up with my crush, Noah, and it was only during a promenade that I realized Noah had peed himself. End of crush. Thanks, Pappy.

Last night at the Rustic Pine Tavern we filed into a dim, sweaty room for the weekly square dance. While most of the attendees were under 12 or over 50, there were a few cowboys in full getup along the wall. At 17 I would have desperately wanted one of these boys to ask me to dance the first square with him.

As it happened, though, I’d come with 7 family members which meant we formed a full square by ourselves. All capable of discerning right from left, we didn’t need any extra help from the caller. The same caller, I’ll note, was leading these dances 9 years ago when I lived on the ranch just up the road. The songs haven’t changed since 2003–or, I’d guess, 1973–either.

While we were quite competent, I did notice that the cowboys added a lot more flourishes to their dancing. If you want to impress that lady, you better twirl her more times than she’s ever been twirled. You also better not pee your pants.