The Official Flaming Underpants of the 2020 Covid Olympics

This week our local schools revealed their plans for the fall. There are as many different approaches as there are school districts involved, but the one thing that is fairly consistent is that if students return to the classroom, they’ll be wearing face masks.

It’s going to take some adjustment and patience, but I suspect most kids will do okay with this. Image by Leo Fontes from Pixabay

I don’t think that comes as such a shock. Also this week, most stores in our area began requiring masks inside, a mandate that has not come from our governor in the state of Missouri, but has been left up to county health officials, local governments, and business owners. A good number of people were wearing them anyway, but now it’s official policy.

That’s led to a little bit of grumbling, as there are still some people who question the practice, but for the most part, the folks in my little corner of the world are handling any conflicts with calm discussion and a touch of humor.

Mostly, we talk about underwear.

It’s all over my social media feeds as clever memes that draw parallels between wearing a face mask and wearing a bra or panties or boxer briefs. A mask, they say, should be treated like underwear—it should be kept dry, worn clean, and not adjusted in public. Many ladies add to the discussion by proudly proclaiming that even though it’s uncomfortable and kind of a pain, they wear a bra in public for the benefit of others. Unfortunately, outside of social media, and in the sticky summer St. Louis heat, the resolve of some seems to fall away and that particular metaphor doesn’t always hold.

But the point is still valid. And what else do we have to talk about?

Because on this day in 2020, when the world should be sharing in the celebration of the parade of nations and the end of the Olympic torch relay at the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, instead we’re sharing a virus.

One of many great disappointments in 2020. photo credit: Tim Schofield IMG_0965 via photopin (license)

And when we should be watching with pride as the torch is run into an Olympic stadium filled with the best elite athletes the world has to offer, anticipating gymnastics floor routines, swimming medley relays, and (in my household particularly) epic fencing bouts, we’re stuck instead with endless conversations about the fallout of Covid-19. And underwear.

In 1956, the topics actually overlapped, because that’s when the great underwear torch relay occurred. The Olympic torch, of course, is the symbol of connection and continuity from the Olympics of Ancient Greece and the modern-day event, which draws the world together in a spirit of friendly competition, cooperation, and good fun.

I can’t help but wonder how many people have touched this and whether or not their hands were clean.

The relay, however, which sees the lighted torch carried from Olympia, Greece to the host city, making appearances in cities around the world on the way, has much shallower roots, only dating back to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. It was a tradition begun by Nazis.

For this and probably lots of other geopolitical reasons, the torch relay and the torch itself, has at times been the target of protests. In 1956, one such protest carried out by eight students from St. John’s College at the University of Sydney, involved a fake torch made from a silver-painted wooden chair leg, a plum pudding can, and a flaming pair of underpants.

Approximating the dress of an official torch runner, and accompanied by a uniformed buddy on a motorcycle, one student carried the flaming drawers ahead of the official torch and even managed to hand it off to then Lord Mayor of Sydney Pat Hills, who, flustered at the earlier than expected arrival of the torch, proceeded to give a prepared speech to an expectant crowd. By the time he learned of the deception, the student had disappeared.

The real torch did make its way to the handoff at Sydney Town Hall amid a little bit of mayhem. It went on from there to Melbourne where it burned brightly over the Olympic Games that year. The student who’d handed off the flaming underwear, a young man named Barry Larkin, went on to establish a successful veterinary practice, and as is so often the case, no one really seems to know what he and his friends were actually protesting.

photo credit: pburka Mask required via photopin (license)

But I suppose people will always find a reason to get a little riled up. It might be that we disagree with the way our local school districts have decided to try to navigate an impossible situation. Or it might be that we have deep-rooted personal beliefs about whether or not people should be required to wear face masks into WalMart.

I wish we could all be watching the Olympics. But I guess instead we’ll talk about underwear.

Fake It ‘til You Make It

In 1496, Cardinal Raffaele Riario of San Giorgio purchased an ancient marble sculpture of a sleeping cupid from Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco of the House of Medici. The cardinal must have been delighted with the artistry of the piece, its exquisite detail found only among the works of the ancient greats, because even after he discovered the sculpture was really a modern creation, he remained impressed with the young forger who had pulled it off.

The artist was then twenty-year-old Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, who you probably know as the Michelangelo widely remembered for lending his name to one of the teenage mutant ninja turtles. He also painted a pretty famous ceiling.

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You might have heard of this little thing he did over in Vatican City. Sistine Chapel Ceiling painted by Michelangelo. By Aaron Logan, from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/italy/4_G & Talmoryair / Public domain

But before any of that, he was a young artist just trying to break into that mystical world in which it’s possible to make a living based upon one’s creative endeavors. There’s a chance that he was entirely innocent in the whole art forgery scheme and that it was either Lorenzo, or the shady art dealer he employed, who treated The Cupid with acidic earth. It’s also possible that a very young man was influenced by an unscrupulous banker who knew he could make a lot more money off a classical sculpture than he could a modern one.

Whoever was ultimately responsible, it was only Lorenzo who got the blame. While Cardinal Riario didn’t take kindly to being swindled and was quick to demand a refund of his investment, he also recognized talent. The cardinal invited Michelangelo to Rome and commissioned a piece he later decided he didn’t want. Still, the artist’s credibility began to grow.

It makes sense to learn as much as possible by studying, and at least initially, imitating the great artists who have come before. Of course, it’s also true that chemically treating your pieces to make them fraudulently appear older and passing them off as the works of a different artist is probably over the line. Way over.

But I’m not sharing this story because I think artists should begin their careers with forgery. I’m sharing it because there are times when we all find ourselves flailing a little bit, trying to learn a new task, to break into a role we want to fill, and we don’t know exactly what we’re doing, so we fake it a little until we do.

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Hang in there. We’ll all be back to our normal routines eventually. photo credit: woodleywonderworks first drop of water is the best drop of water via photopin (license)

I suspect a lot of us are there right now. Social distancing has forced many of us to work at home, struggling to master new technologies and skills that make that possible. And for many of us, our children are doing the same. That means we’ve also suddenly been thrown into becoming teachers, facilitating academic learning for our children with the materials teachers quickly pulled together, even though many of them previously didn’t really know how to do that and certainly never expected to have to.

From what I’ve seen, and in our experience, the teachers have been wonderful. And you know, the parent have been, too. Everyday my social media feed is filled with pictures of at home learning—kids working alongside and with their parents. I’m also seeing the sharing of online resources and suggestions between parents, offers of help from educators, and yes, a little bit of commiserating when homeschool students are not as cooperative as their makeshift teachers hoped they would be.

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I mean he really was a pretty good sculptor. David by Michelangelo. Jörg Bittner Unna / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

For the time being, we’re all faking it a little. Will there be some academic slips? Probably. Are there some students whose home environments are not as conducive to learning outside of a structured classroom? I’m sure there are. Are there lots of parent who simply cannot work from home and are struggling to figure out childcare, let alone homeschool? Of course.

Still, I think this experience of just making it work, of doing our best to imitate the professional teachers and provide our children with whatever we can, will likely produce some beauty. It will definitely result in some unique learning opportunities for our kids, who like Michelangelo, will move on having survived the experience.

Allegedly, while Michelangelo’s star rose, his Cupid changed hands a few times, often displayed among legitimate classic sculptures because it was good. Eventually the piece wound up in the possession of England’s Charles I and was most likely lost to fire in London’s Whitehall Palace in 1689.

I don’t know anything about art valuation, but if I had to guess, that sculpture, forgery or not, would be worth quite a lot of money today. I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard of this Michelangelo guy. He may have started out faking it, but he ended up making it.

And we will, too.

When the Band Begins to Play

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a grand tradition that has thankfully faded since its heyday prior to World War I. For one day only, I conducted a school band. There are a few things you might need to know about me before you realize the absurdity of that statement. First, I haven’t played in a band, school or otherwise, for more than twenty years. Second, to the best of my recollection, I have never conducted one. Until last week.

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By far the coolest hats in school. photo credit: Prayitno / Thank you for (12 millions +) view Red Raider Marching Band Pulaski H.S. ~ Wisconsin via photopin (license)

After World War I, the American school band movement, with roots in the mid-19th century, found its footing as a large number of military trained musicians returned to civilian life and brought with them a set of skills they could put to good use in public schools. Before that, school band was kind of an afterthought. If it existed at all, it was generally led by whatever teacher maybe had a little musical knowledge and wanted the extra cash.

But with an influx of actual talent and a hefty push from the instrument manufacturing industry, 1923 saw the first Schools Band Contest of America in Chicago. Small and poorly organized at first, the contest continued to improve and grow, encouraging the spread of school band programs and spawning the mostly state level contests of today.

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What I thought I looked like.

More than 90% of American schools now have some form of band education, and it’s a great thing that they do because students who participate in music have improved logic and reasoning skills, increased coordination, higher levels of engagement in their education, better stress management ability, greater self-confidence, and better standardized test scores on average than their nonmusical peers.

I’m grateful that the schools my kiddos attend have strong band programs with talented teachers. Of course that does mean that sometimes those teachers travel with parts of the program for performances and competitions, and have to leave the rest of their students in the hands of whatever substitute teacher may have a little musical knowledge and wants the extra cash.

This brings me to my conducting gig last week. I’ve been trying to do some occasional substitute teaching in our district lately, which has turned out to be a great way to get to know the teachers and administrators in the schools my kids attend. It does also occasionally stretch me a little outside of my comfort zone.

Last week, two of our directors accompanied the high school band to a competition, and I stepped in to help back at home. I started my day in study hall with about twenty high schoolers that didn’t go on the trip. No problem there. I also got to enjoy listening to the rehearsal of some impressive middle schoolers who stayed on task while one of their own teacher-designated peers guest conducted.

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What I actually looked like.

But then there was the grade school, where I found myself in charge of a class of sixth graders just getting their musical bearings. Fortunately, the lesson plan was specific and thorough. I had access to the students’ musical exercises through an app so I could have them play along. That helped smooth over my shortcomings somewhat. Then we got to an exercise that could be played as a round and the students, who had been remarkably cooperative, really wanted to do it.

The app couldn’t help me with that. With trepidation, I assigned parts, counted off the time, and waved my hand in a 4/4 cross pattern like I almost knew what I was doing. I kind of even sort of gave cues when it was time for each new section to start. Then I provided them with a nice big cutoff at the end, which they played right through because they’re sixth graders and they weren’t watching me anyway. But much like my early American school band movement predecessors, I somehow muddled through.

Fortunately this week, the real band directors are back.