Before, After, and the Olympics

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Consider the pervasive idea of before-and-after. DIY and HGTV thrive on our interest in things not so good becoming things better. Here are dozens from the former. Here are hundreds from the latter. Years ago, our plan for a makeover was a fresh coat of paint. These days, knocking down a wall or two, moving or closing up a window, even adding a second story are par for the course. A new show called No Demo Reno is not set in Nevada but in our own north Dallas. Here is the call for applicants; you will need a budget of $45-60,000 and live within 30 miles of Allen. Sort of a gimmick but fun to have a local.

Some shows involve buying a new house, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t in the model. There is the element of choice—the assumption of going up the achievement ladder and getting to pick a better house. The popular series Love It or List It combines the two. To support the argument, the “love it” redo has won 90 times versus the “list it” 64.

Lara Spencer, the co-anchor of Good Morning America, hosts a self-explanatory program named Flea Market Flip. Contestants in two teams receive $500 to run through a downscale flea to find projects to fit a minimal category like “eyesore to chic” or “fabric project” or “form and function.” Here are 45 examples, most of which I think I actually watched. The title calls them “unbelievable” but that’s maybe a bit too far. If you need more help, here are 25 similar projects that don’t need help from a pro. Just time and elbow grease, plus more links at the end. Mention should be made of the country’s largest and oldest flea market: Canton’s First Monday Trade Days. Canton, Texas, of course. But with 100,000 shoppers on 100 acres, the thought overwhelms me. I did go once for 3-4 hours, over 20 years ago. My husband had a friend who came up to visit there, but being literal, they went on Monday. Obviously before Google since this flea runs Thursday-Sunday.

For something completely different—check out this YouTube channel: Primitive Survival Tools. It is perhaps the ultimate before and after. We watch as two men in the jungles of Cambodia take a bit of space and a lot of clay to go from nothing to something. In all those American shows, I’m watching the first few minutes and pausing or recording to watch the reveal. I can just barely bear the continuous “Amazing!” or “Oh my gosh!” ecstasies from the beneficiaries of the designer’s art. But I can’t take my eyes off the shirtless men (no, not that part) using the simplest of tools to scrape and dig, clay pots to bring up or carry water, and their hands to smooth or paint adobe-like walls and floors. With no apparent plans, they construct elaborate houses with pools and other structures that defy description. Technically, we see the end product first, luring us in with colorful photos. It’s the work itself that fascinates.

Other examples cover everything from makeup to surgeries, dermatological extractions to wardrobe overhauls. In this space there might be links to graphic examples, but having watched all but the wardrobe examples myself, I think it’s best to spare you, aware that you can go looking if you like. Carpet cleaning (shorter and just two colors) with a power washer and scrubbers has its own satisfaction and is not particularly scary. (For some reason, children like to watch this process as well as the Cambodian builders. Both have millions of viewers. Who knew?)

In summary, this site has 50 different kinds of transformations, with interesting uses of photography in many. Included are topics as varied as before and after an atomic explosion and a trip to the hair salon, a space module before and after its trip into space and a building being power washed. One that has particular relevance to a recent project shows a painting before and after restoration.

All that positivity has a sadder side, of course. Glaciers are melting all over the world. These pictures and these are side by sides, usually called repeat photos, of glaciers including those in Alaska. And it’s not just the face of the earth that can suffer. If the fear factor doesn’t solve all addiction, it’s not for lack of trying. The practice of showing before and after meth pictures began as just such a tactic.

Not all transitions to conclusions go smoothly. This is one such. We watched Olympic swimming heats, semi-finals, and finals for some hours last week. We watched women’s rugby. We watched gymnastics. Here are the medals as of Monday, August 2, 2021, at 7:05 am, a link that probably won’t persevere.

Now consider the implications of befores and afters for these Olympians. At some point, none of these people knew anything about the sports that would take up such enormous amounts of time. This list of the youngest competitors includes the 12-year-old table tennis player Hend Zaza from Syria. She lost, but she has only been playing for 9 years. The youngest US team member is Katie Grimes who, at 15, is the same age as her hero Katie Ledecky, now with 7 Olympic golds. Both swimmers begin/began their Olympic swims at 15.

It’s easy to separate ourselves from these exceptional people, but one thought keeps me watching. At some point, they were like us, the uninitiated. But they went from knowing nothing to accomplishing everything. From a spark to an inspiration to the learning curve to the practice, they changed—the essence of before and after. It’s a wondrous thing. We regret the scandals and tragedies, but for all of that, the spirit of the games perseveres.

Even “afters” are amazing to watch. These people know each, we assume, and the best part other than the joy of winning is the jubilation they show each other in what looks like sincere appreciation, even affection. Yes, sometimes there is individual disappointment: we saw divers flub and essentially not dive at all, runners stumble, and pole vaulters not clear their goals. Those can be heartbreaking. (If you need some humor, watch Paul Hunt, a gymnast and coach who developed comedy routines for balance beam, uneven parallels, and floor exercise. As a girl, so … charming and it won’t detract from the real things.) The athletes are competing against themselves, essentially, their best times before, hoping to reach a new high, a new after that is often, literally, tenths or even hundredths of a second faster or higher to the next better.

Most of us, of course, are able to enjoy the simple pleasures of dishes going from dirty to clean, a shirt from wrinkled to ironed, a child from hungry to fed. Viewership is indeed down for these odd 2020 Olympics, but as much as commentators would like to blame the pandemic or the politics, no one is sure why or we could read that link “here.” Amazement at the human condition, the “1% inspiration but 99% perspiration” trading the inspiration for raw talent, makes it still worthwhile.

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