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'Tis nobler in the mind to suffer

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From forums to Safeway check-out lines this week, Bombers fans seemed almost resigned to the mess, their frustration losing yards to advancing apathy.

This is not a column about football exactly -- more about stories and how we live them -- but bear with me.

However the ball flew on Friday night -- my deadline lands two days before -- the first four games were not the start the Bombers wanted, especially not with their ugly play twice upstaged by the graceful curves of their new home: the stadium looks beautiful. The games, though, have been the Montezuma's revenge that wrecked the honeymoon, the more decadent plays erased by the slop that spilled across the turf.

Okay, I won't lie: That last line was pretty fun to write. See, sometimes words and ideas just fall right out of a writer's fingers, sometimes they stay canned up in the brain and refuse to be seen. In the grips of the latter this week, and with a deadline looming, I was wrestling with how to turn a potpurri of ideas into column inches when a friend texted me.

"You should write," he wrote, "on how Winnipeg would be happier if it could learn to revel in the losses somehow."

I scrinched up my nose and fired back: about the football team? Yes, he replied, about that, but in the way that the Bombers can stand for everything.

Look, in our civic history and our sports teams, Winnipeg is no stranger to losses, to potential scuttled by bad circumstance and by a lingering mediocrity. But I've always thought professional sports fills the cultural space that used to belong to mythology, and the hard fact of myth is this: In order to write a redemption arc, you must first author the tragedy.

Before a twist of fate very recently put me into writing about sports for a living, I craved sports writing. I devoured every feature about some journeyman player or woe-begotten team -- thanks be to the Toronto Maple Leafs and their army of gung-ho beat writers for penning many delicious examples of these. In narrative, the glow of victory is never quite as compelling as the gut-punches of defeat.

What I always adored about sports writing was the freedom of the form. Mostly liberated from the pressures of real life and real death -- concussions and occasional gruesome injuries are critical exceptions -- sports writing is a framework on which to hang the most remarkable of dramas. When a team or an athlete wins, they are vaulted close to legends; when they lose, writers apply adjectives normally seen only in major natural disasters.

Horror. Shock. Collapse. Crash.

I imagine Shakespeare would have loved sports, on the scale we do them now. All the parsing of coach and player innuendos, all the interlocking tensions.

Here's the funny thing, which we only rarely mention: none of it really matters. Don't mistake my meaning, I'm a diehard sports fan, but professional sports isn't environmental policy, humanitarian aid or an economic development plan. It's entertainment, it's a couple dozen people dancing out a rhythm to a song of cheers and jeers and dreams. Still, when you love something so much, the losses hurt.

But what if, as my friend suggested, we can flip the narrative and learn to love the failures just the same?

Earlier this summer, in my first article about the Winnipeg Goldeyes, I met a longtime season ticket holder whose young son was in love with the team and the game. What the father liked about the Fish, he said, was their lunch-pail legacy: while his son might prefer to cheer a victory, there's something important about how the Goldeyes taught that you can lose, and sometimes lose some more, and still pick yourself up again.

There is also this: You can walk into a streetlight pole, and giggle even though you're bleeding, because you're sort of clumsy and weren't looking.

And there is this: In Winnipeg's civic history of frustrating fits and starts, from our so often-thwarted sports teams to our sometimes silly public debates, our categorical resistance to any sort of change and one dead end of development after another, maybe we can learn to laugh at that, too. Just a little. Just enough to carry us through.

Hey, sports teams and cities can't always be winners -- but we can still revel in the ride, if we don't allow the stories we hang on them to grow bitter.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 0

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