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Cheering for a Better Future

Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

St. Paul put on an excellent parade Sunday for Suni Lee, the 18-year-old Olympic gold-medal gymnast and hometown girl, a practically impromptu but very intense parade, which is no easy thing with no mainstream press around these days and everybody getting their news hither and yon and gun lunatics around who might put your picture on the front page, but thousands of skinny girls turned out along the route and the entire Hmong community, and a good crowd attracts a bigger crowd, and it was very festive. The fact that the mayor was there was of slight importance. Mayors do not draw crowds anymore, if they ever did, they try to follow them.

Suni Lee won all-around gold with stunning impossible routines on the vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise, and the fact she is one of us is hard to believe. We Minnesotans are built for stability — agility, not so much. Girls’ basketball and hockey are big, kids with German and Scandinavian surnames knocking each other around. And our culture aims the young toward a B-plus, slightly above average. We hope to be good enough and not that bad. Perfection is not talked about, lest the bar be set too high and someone miss a beat and end up discouraged and disconsolate and fall to pieces.

Suni Lee won all-around gold with stunning impossible routines on the vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise, and the fact she is one of us is hard to believe.

But Suni Lee brings some fresh heredity to the pool and the newcomer-made-good is a sweet story and it was a fine day. All those skinny girls thought so, all the Sierras and Taras and Karas, Fionas, Madisons, who probably have video of Suni on their phones, and plenty of us old grumblers think so too.

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Where do you go after you take Olympic gold? Maybe she’ll get an endorsement contract, maybe a terrific college scholarship to a top school, maybe she’ll be drawn toward medicine or physics or chemistry, courses that demand perfection — why would a gifted gymnast want to sit in the library and churn out turgid term papers about 19th-century English novels? — but I somehow wish she’d take up stand-up comedy, which is what America needs right now, a heroic over-achiever humorist instead of us romantic losers usually drawn to it. She could be a comic whose physical presence is unerring, every step, every shrug and grimace a perfect ten, who takes precise aim at the culture of sloppiness all around us, a comedy routine like her uneven-bars routine, spinning, swinging, flipping, skewering pretense and dishonesty, and shaming the self-righteous. The nation needs it. God help us.

Four of us old grumblers ate lunch on Sunday and touched on the country’s drift into treacherous waters, but mostly it was lively, sitting outdoors under an umbrella at a café in an old part of town where young people like to go, signs of romance around, couples venturing into conversation, feeling their way in the dark. A gaggle of excited grade-schoolers crossed the street and waited for their caretakers to figure out directions on an iPhone, and the friend opposite me, newly retired from a career in primary ed, said, quietly, “I hate children.” I wrote it down on a napkin, below an earlier comment by the friend next to her, who’d managed a couple of dance companies and seen more dance than she cared to remember, who said, “There isn’t anything I care for that much anymore.” And below it was a comment from the gentleman opposite me who said, of a writer he’d known, “He wasn’t what you’d call brilliant but he was a pretty nice guy.” A line to be someday carved into a fake granite stone under my name and dates, so I wrote it down.

Yes, I do take notes at lunch. “I hate children” is a great opening line for a routine but it would only work coming from a soft-spoken woman, not a tall pale male like me. Same with “There isn’t anything I care for that much anymore.” It maybe applies to dance where fakery can go a long way — same in poetry where godawful stuff can win big prizes — but it isn’t true in gymnastics or in comedy. “Close enough” doesn’t count.

GARRISON KEILLOR

Seeing Suni Lee running top-speed toward the uneven bars, small slight woman, immovable obstacle, I think, “Sheer bravado is exactly what comedy needs and the nation.” People are dying from dishonesty. When a town comes out to cheer for discipline and hard work and mental toughness, the young woman standing, poised, blinks, then begins her run toward the bars, we’re cheering for a better future.

Garrison Keillor
Prairie Home Productions