Saturday, September 5, 2009

David Foster Wallace's How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart

While running on Dick Woods Road this morning I listened to David Foster Wallace's essay "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," which is included in the Consider the Lobster collection.

Wallace grew up playing competitive tennis and was about the same age as Austin -- he followed her career closely and had a crush on her ("we weren't so much jealous as agog"). He was extremely disappointed in her memoir and used his reaction to it as a jumping-off point for thinking about our fascination with athletes -- and with wanting to know their stories.

Wallace's writing in parts of this essay is absolutely amazing. He captures, beautifully, why watching athletes is so uplifting (and has such a powerful pull on me, anyway):
"Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power, and grace, and control to become not only incarnate but televisable.

To be a top athlete performing is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.

So we want to know them, these gifted, driven physical achievers. We too as audience are driven. Watching the performance is not enough; we want to get intimate with all that profundity. We want inside them. We want the story. We want to hear about humble roots, privation, precocity ... team spirit, sacrifice, killer instinct, liniment and pain.

We want to know how they did it. How many hours a night did the child Bird spend in his driveway hitting jumpers under home-strung flood lights? What ungodly time did Bjorn get up for practice every morning? What exact makes of cars did the Butkus boys work out by pushing up and down Chicago streets? What did Palmer and Brett and Payton and Evert have to give up?

And of course, too, we want to know how it feels inside to be both beautiful and best. How did it feel to win the big one? What combination of blankness and concentration is required to sink a putt or a free throw for thousands of dollars in front of millions of unblinking eyes?

What goes through their minds? Are these athletes real people? Are they even remotely like us? Is their agony of defeat anything like our little agonies of daily failure?"

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