The Irresistible Lotus and the Complaints Choir

I headed off to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington with my family last weekend, amidst my usual flurried cacophony of activity: nonstop Olympics-watching, course prep for next semester and worrying about being behind in my course prep for next semester, practicing driving in preparation for acquiring my license. You might very well wonder how I got to a doctorate-getting age without ever earning the legal right to drive. The answer is a potent combination of circumstances: living in cities that are very pedestrian friendly, having very kindly friends who are willing to help on the relatively infrequent occasions when I need a ride, and the keen awareness of the fragility of my own mortality that hits me like an anvil whenever I get behind the wheel of a car.

Luckily I am beginning to get over that.

At any rate, I practice-drove out to Kenilworth with my parents and our friends - my first visit, and a stunner.

The lotuses were out, and according to our friend, just ever so slightly past their peak.

This meant that there was a marvelous array of buds, full blooms, explosively full blooms, and "shower heads" on stalks.

The blooms were endlessly fascinating, each its own unique intricate sculpture.

You could understand how easy it would be to fall into artistic absorption with them, O'Keefe-like.

The gardens were also filled with different varieties of birds and butterflies (slightly more difficult to photograph, and thus not in evidence here): herons, ducks, geese. A few monarchs were even making their gleaming way through.

In fact, they are apparently having quite the problem with a non-migratory and highly aggressive flock of geese that has taken up residence here and are driving everything else off. The solution? An NGO is oiling their eggs, so they never hatch. Who would have thunk it?

If you are in the DC area, take a gander at the gardens: they are in an unexpected neighborhood for tourists and even residents, but as a result they rate high on the "haven" meter. Also, like so many of the best things in Washington, they are part of the National Park Service and free to enter.


Additional links and tidbits? Mais oui!

  • Harold Meyerson has an interesting opinion piece in today's Washington Post about the Olympics. In it, he makes a number of the same observations about the opening ceremonies that I did in my last post, but is rather more alarmed and skeptical about their implications:
    If ever there was a display of affable collectivism, it was filmmaker Zhang Yimou's opening ceremonies, which in their reduction of humans to a mass precision abstraction seemed to derive in equal measure from Busby Berkeley and Leni Riefenstahl.
  • In the LA Times, about a month ago (I am still working through the back list of interesting tidbits I have noted during the busyness of the summer), Charles McNulty talks about the perils of critical deadlines, and the impulsive writing they can produce:
    Harder for a critic to cope with are the failures of language that are an inevitable byproduct of rapid-fire daily journalism. In a morning skirmish with adjectives, as my review of "Curtains" at the Ahmanson Theatre was already past deadline, I concluded by saying that for all its faults, the musical has a delirious showbiz quality that's "irresistible." That final word, blurbed as it inevitably was in newspaper ads, overstated my feelings. What I meant to say was "hard to resist" -- and the distinction, hairsplitting though it may sound, was a source of purgatorial torment to me.
  • In the Times of London, Neil Fischer recounts his experience with the phenomenon of the "complaints choir":
    In Finland, where the movement began, valituskuoro, or chorus of complaints, was what angry schoolteachers called recalcitrant pupils, until Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen and his wife Tellervo decided to take the expression at literal value. In the UK, they naturally drifted to Birmingham first (“the city with most complaints about the people themselves”, Kochta-Kalleinen says). It got its first complaints choir in 2005, at around the same time as Helsinki and St Petersburg. The simple formula - meet, moan, set it to (mostly original) music - proved wildly popular and easily exportable. There are now complaints choirs from Jerusalem to Buenos Aires, Budapest to Toronto. Some take requests from their local communities for complaints; others simply draw on their own miseries.

Olympics, corpse flowers, and musical bilingualism

I come out of the depths of blog absence to tell you this: I love the Olympics. I am that person who watches the entire opening ceremonies and weeps voluminously when tiny or embattled countries parade with their one or two athletes. This year's games made me really nervous for the same reasons that were worrying everyone: the poor environmental conditions, Chinese policy on Tibet and Sudan, the revoking of visas for athletes who spoke out against Chinese policy, the government's insistence that hotels allow them to spy on foreign guests, etc.

All this remains troubling (very troubling), but otherwise the Olympics seems to be unfolding as it should: a means of connecting athletes and viewers across national boundaries, of expanding our normal way of thinking about patriotism and national identity so that they incorporate concepts of internationalism, cooperation, and mutual enjoyment. How many other circumstances of mutual positive emotion come close to the international idealism of the opening ceremonies? Our moments of mass theatricality, of cultural spectacle, are usually limited to the peripheries of conflict (political or warlike) and are tinged with its violence and nastiness. The Games provide an opportunity for us to bask in the purely positive emotions of world community.

The opening ceremonies were an unprecedentedly classy self-representation on a grand scale by the host nation. 2008 people doing absolutely simultaneous Tai Chi motions in perfect circles unguided by any markings on the floor of the "Bird's Nest" stadium - they formed the shapes with absolute precision based only on a knowledge of where they should be located in comparison to their neighbors. Traditional drummers playing instruments with an ancient history whose motions also triggered the most modern of lighting effects. The whole spectacle spoke internally to a subtle array of Chinese values (a strong strain of Confucianism was undoubtedly much more layered in its symbolism than the English-language commentators had the time to convey) but also externally (to non-Chinese viewers) to the core concepts of Chinese self conception: We are the nation, it seemed to say, who invented paper, printing, and fireworks, but we will marry this history to the most cutting edge of spectacular technologies. And, even more crucially: as a nation our greatest resource is our people, and as a people we do unity really, really well. This obsessive emphasis on precision unity was the foundation of all the most spectacular effects of the opening ceremonies, but it also yielded most of the controversies that surrounded the games, controversies born out of a zeal for universal agreement.

Ah, but what stories have emerged in the first couple of days. There is the 33 year old gymnast who may give Germany a medal in the vault; she has been competing in the Olympics for as many years as most of her competitors have been alive. The American flag-bearer who was one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan and only became an American citizen a year ago. Talk about an amazing display of national self-conception: we said to the world, "We are a country in which a new citizen, seeking out refuge from persecution, is as much an American as someone whose family has been here for hundreds of years." Would that it were more extensively true. Also from the opening ceremonies: the little boy who survived the Szechuan earthquake and returned to the wreckage to rescue his classmates (because, he said, it was his responsibility as one of the designated class leaders). He led the Chinese delegation in the opening games, walking confidently beside basketball superstar Yao Ming (who seemed considerably more ill at ease than his tiny companion) as millions watched. Or from just last night: an American triumph over a (mildly) trash-talking French team in the 100m relay that went against all probability. It produced not just Michael Phelps's second gold of the games but also made the delightful Cullen Jones (whose joy in teaching won the support of everyone in my house) the second African-American to win gold in an Olympic swimming event. The relay (the link above is to the video) was by far the most exciting race of the Olympics so far: the world record was so resolutely shattered that even teams who didn't medal managed to beat it.

Well, I could go on and on. But instead, some links that have been sitting on the back burner for far too long. I need to get them off my chest so that I can (in good conscience) go back to checking all my favorite blogs, and summarizing their glories in a new list of links:

  • All those engaged in acquiring a master's or doctorate will appreciate this Onion article that my friend JG sent me: "Heroic Computer Dies to Save World from Master's Thesis." It may, however, be funniest when your thesis or dissertation is finally turned in and safe from the "heroics" of your computer.
  • A giant corpse flower bloomed at the Botanical Gardens in Berkeley in July! If the words "giant corpse flower" are not enough to pique your interest, consider this: the name of this specific giant corpse flower is "Odoardo." For pictures intriguingly labeled "Odoardo's decaying body" and for other information, see the University of California website.
  • A bilingual revival of "West Side Story" is set to open on Broadway this winter, under the direction of Arthur Laurents, who seems to feel that his original book for the musical had undergone a taming transformation in its various stagings and filmings over the years.
  • The World Archeological Congress urged its members in July to refuse any requests by the military for guidance on how to avoid bombing priceless historical sites in Iran. I am confused about my own opinion on the ethics of this: is a stance of non-collaboration with war efforts that will inevitably cause tremendous cultural and human damage worth the cost of greater harm to unique archaeological sites? The WAC seems to think that any advice from them wouldn't be heeded, so perhaps it is a moot point.
More soon, I hope! (If I can tear myself away from the Olympics coverage.)