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.)

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