Friday, October 31, 2008

Beijing Report: 08-11-08

Team handball is the Olympic equivalent of inadvertently brushing up against your great-aunt Mildred's breasts as you lurch across the Thanksgiving Day dinner table for your fifth refill of Safeway brand Merlot. Awkward glances are exchanged and then averted, and everyone feels a little uglier as a result. This has happened to me more times than I care to mention, but may explain the hefty birthday cards I received throughout my young adulthood. Nothing, on the other hand, can explain the existence of a sport like team handball.

The Olympic Sports Center Gymnasium is located in the heart of Beijing and it is where I got my first look at this awful and confusing spectacle. I am not one for alcohol fueled jingoism, but even I could see that this was a direct affront to anything that a genuine American might hold dear. The gym was a cacophony of low level meth dealers, Euro-trash go-go boys (the nylon sheen of their sky blue Addidas sweat suits a persistent reminder of the failure of Old Europe), and the bleary-eyed and bewildered families of those doomed to participate in this godforsaken mess.

I was fortunate enough to be seated, by formal invitation, next to Jacques Rogge, the current IOC President and an ardent team handball enthusiast. During an earlier interview we had nearly come to blows over what I perceived to be the sport's long term and catastrophically deforming effects upon western civilization, but his deep appreciation of my red Volvo functioned as a touchstone between us, and the residual tension was no match for his fine gifts of opium infused Tsingtao and two, startlingly well read, Thai hookers.

"You must know yourself to know this game," he said, caressing my shoulder in that effervescently gay manner that orthopedic surgeons from Belgium tend to have. "It is philosophy in motion."

Professional decorum combined with the Tsingtao, which by this time had cost me the use of my legs, to create a situation in which I had no choice but to sit through the Championship match between Slovenia and Portugal. Chan had warned me on several occasions about Rogge's tactics and their dire consequences but, as Hunter used to say: Buy the ticket, take the ride. And so here I was.

Team handball is an unfortunate combination of all of the worst aspects of basketball, lacrosse, modern dance, Canadian sketch comedy, and public drunkenness. Fourteen hideously unitarded players pirouette up and down a 20 by 40 meter court, in a jagged flash of tip-toeing and jazz hands, only to break into a gruff post-up style game that resembles nothing more than a prison strip search. Movement away from the ball is practically non-existent until an elfin figure appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and sashays toward the goal, whipping the ball behind his neck, past the startled goal keeper, and into the back of the net. This was followed by another fifty-nine minutes of precisely the same behavior; behavior that even Nathan Lane would deem superfluous. I sank deeply into my seat, massaged my lifeless legs, and pondered the implications of this unlikely sport.

Hanflugen, as it was originally called, arose in 1510 in the tiny hamlet of Laxcombe near modern Irkutsk. Initially conceived of as an initiation rite for Quaxtic monks, just prior to their entry into manhood through the Festival of Cats, it was adopted by the explorer Juan de Grijalava and brought to Mexico, where it thrived for many centuries. Today's "modern" team handball is clearly an offshoot of this rich Mexican heritage combined with the fluorescent subterranean homoeroticism of pre-war Europe. From there it was a straight shot to the farmlands of the Eastern Bloc and the impossible glory of the Olympics.

When the match was over, Rogge leaned over and angrily insisted that this sport means more to more people than penicillin. Maybe he is right. The next day at the hotel I came across a wildly optimistic report in which the website had this to say:

Whether you’ve been a Team Handball fan your entire life, or just discovered the sport flipping through channels yesterday, you’re soon going to have to come to grips with the stark reality that the Olympics are over and along with that fact, so is your opportunity to watch the sport on TV in the U.S-- at least in the immediate future.

I have to say that I am intrigued by the idea of countless people forced to deal with the stark reality of a team handball free fall schedule on Fox or the WB this season; of the many silent dinners endured by families trying to reconnect after the senseless devastation of Ireland's upset win over Lithuania; of the ennui that settles like a fog over the barren landscape of the true fan's immediate future. It is a sad and beautiful world.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Beijing Report: 08-10-08

It is hot. Hot. God it's hot. She lilts to the left and offers me a red blanket. Waterless beaches fill with angry children. Miniature suns streak across the horizon and pelt the sand into fine sizzling dust. Habanero clouds hang like humid night-orange fruit. Wait. Jesse James said that. I am not allowed. "Why isn't she?" I ask, as another door silently closes. My fingers grow embarrassed into her and around her neck choking the yellow from her eyes. She whispers a math equation. Three plus infinity equals.... No, it is a chemical problem. Heat and stupidity create an unstable, volatile mixture. Yes, yes. The water returns. And... with that... I am...


Or almost. Opium is a hell of a drug. I am awash in a thick sheet of sweat. The room seems to be entirely two-dimensional and my eyes are filled with cotton. Chan suddenly appears before me. He has a severely burned hotel towel wrapped around his waist. Using a barking noise combined with a type of epileptic semaphore he is trying to communicate with me.

-you were sleeping
-I was dreaming
-you didn't look too good
-it was something about a lizard
-we have to get out of here

We grab the tickets for the Equestrian Dressage and head for the Volvo.

The road to Sha Tin Stadium in Hong Kong is empty except for the free Tibet protestors, uniformed with Richard Gere masks and empty gerbil leashes, who pop up like mile markers along the 1000 mile corridor. Chan and I re-acclimate ourselves narcotically and spend the bulk of the trip in a smooth gurgling warmth. The Volvo, resistant at first, more than lives up to its reputation and we find ourselves at the city limits in record time.

Equestrian Dressage is commonly regarded as the most civilized event at the Olympics, using terms like "Airs above the ground" and "Baroque", and it hits a strong 8.7 on the Fitzfield-Klein Gay Meter. From the videos I researched it appears to be a sport predicated on the idea of getting your horse to behave well at a tea party. This takes years of training and involves many esoteric techniques. Controversy has surrounded this event ever since the Foundational Uniform Codifying Knights of Equestrian Dressage, the sport's governing body, instituted the practice of 'cosseting', or the sewing shut of a horse's anus in an effort to prevent virulent discharge, in 1989. PETA was involved and the sport's Olympic status was in peril but Ingrid Newkirk was plied with bourbon and coupons for Black Angus and here we are.

Chan and I made our way to participant's table, where the brightest lights of this proud event were gathered, and sat down. Isabell Werth, of the troubled German squad (steroids, white slavery), mistook Chan for a Japanese dignitary and presented him with a gold plated marmot. The table was laid out with expensive champagnes and inedible cheeses. Debbie McDonald, Dressage's elder stateswoman and a notorious drunk, was doing her best to live up to her legendary reputation, but the rest of the table was in fine spirits.

In an uncommonly refined move, the participants had decided to forgo the actual events and to determine the winners by means of a brisk and heart felt conversation. Steffen Peters opened with a comment on the beauty of the sylvan landscape, but was shrewdly cut off by Courtney King-Dye's observation that the Chinese were no longer using infant girls as currency. The Austrians mounted an attack but accidentally broke into song and were disqualified.

It seemed all but settled when, out of nowhere, Canada's Eric Lamaze blurted out something about Nietzche's use of irony in his critique of Kant's idealism. It was a tremendously risky maneuver; a less gifted rider had tried a similar approach in 1996 and subsequently lost three fingers on his left hand. But after twenty minutes of back and forth it was decided. Canada would win its first equestrian gold.

I am not one for emotional outbursts, but I am not ashamed to admit that I misted over as the strains of Oh Canada reached their resounding conclusion. Chan and I thanked them for the marmot and for their courageous performances and made our way back to the Volvo.

Tomorrow would be another day, and another event (team handball), but today belonged to those champions who put their lives on the line to make horses behave more like people. And to them I dedicate these immortal lines from The Horses Prayer:

Examine my teeth when I do not eat; I may have an ulcerated tooth, and that, you know, is very painful.

Very painful, indeed.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Beijing Report: 08-09-08

The first thing you notice when you enter Beijing is the startling number of large, clean, empty streets. It's as though your grandmother bought several hundred miles of beautiful sofa, and then proceeded to cover it in plastic and glare at you when you had any ideas about sitting down. The second thing you notice is the smog that hangs over these streets like an unfortunate brown-green comforter that she knitted herself, even though her hands are in terrific pain and her grandson never seems to call, and that she's just waiting for you to fail to adore. And so I won't. I have loftier ambitions. I'm here for the 2008 Olympic Games; and fuck her sofa anyway.

I am staying at the Hotel Kunlun on the Tian' Anmen; a seven hundred room tower of glass, angles, and discipline, that should give me easy access to all of the most important events. After checking in I am assigned a militant dwarf named Chan who will, apparently, guide me through the labyrinth that is modern urban China. Chan has what I can only describe as a French accent when he speaks English, all throat and phlegm and anger, and an insatiable hunger for opium that might prove useful should things go badly.

He also has a bright red Volvo 240 wagon that we pile into as we head off for the Beijing University of Technology Gymnasium and the cruel world of Olympic Badminton. The gigantic steel gym is awash in indirect light and smells faintly of sweat and mango. Malaysia's best hope for its first ever Olympic gold medal, world No.2 badminton player Lee Chong Wei, is eyeballing me from the moment I enter the gym. Her orange and brown sweat suit is severe and uncompromising. Unwashed children massage her thighs and ply her with Chicklets gum. Her racket rests softly beside her chair.

The Chinese have long abandoned the practice of public cat burning, but you wouldn't know it from the ugly demeanor of the audience in the gym tonight. Uniformed men with megaphones march trough the aisles shouting the most horrible, I'm assured by Chan, sexual epithets at any passerby who doesn't visibly appreciate the rigors of the game. The lights grow dim and, amidst the angry shouting, two androgynous multi-colored badmintoners are wheeled out onto the pit. An elderly woman of indeterminate race shatters a crystal pumpkin and the game begins.

What appears to be series of feline shrieks is followed by the tossing of the shuttlecock and an audible groan from the audience. Chinese rock music careens throughout the gym and Chan is noticeably shaken. After seventy-two minutes of flashing lights and epileptic frenzy, the girl/boy in orange is carted from the arena and a national anthem of some kind is blasted through the PA system. Muscular Korean women weep uncontrollably.

Chan grabs me by the arm and hurries me into his, still idling, Volvo. "There are so many events," he implores me. And from the manic look in his eyes, I see that he is speaking from his heart. Well, I'll be here two weeks. The key, as it almost always is, is adequate pacing. On the way back to the hotel, I compose myself and prepare for tomorrow and the giddy heights of equestrian dressage.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Influence, Plagiarism, and the All-Too-Human

For P.K. & J.K.

A great book like the DIVINA COMMEDIA is not the isolated or random caprice of an individual; many men and many generations built toward it.

Borges is talking about Dante. Dante, for God's sake! One of the undisputed heavyweight champions of the Western Canon. And he is basically repeating what artists have known for quite some time: Artistic creation does not take place in a vacuum, free from influence or contingency. Everybody's dirty little fingerprints are all over everybody else's mirror. And if you read, and understand, Harold Bloom, this isn't a chronological one way street; modern authors influence how we apprehend past authors just as profoundly as the past authors influence the modern. This makes it incredibly difficult to determine the primacy and authority of a given piece, to find the methods for locating and defining originality.

The factors that go into creating a work of art are invariably as mysterious to the creator as they are the viewer. I've read plenty of books about the writing process by plenty of authors who seem to have one common theme; bewilderment at the vital point of explanation. The smarter ones seem to revel in their influences while the less secure seem more likely to get drunk and stab their wives. And, amazingly, the author's knowledge of these things, or lack thereof, has very little to do with the quality of their actual work; the two are simply unrelated.

At the same time we don't let everything pass as original. Kaavya Viswanathan of Harvard wrote a book (I'll omit the details since her name already took me fifteen minutes to type) that was publicly derided as an instance of overt plagiarism. The evidence was strong and the fallout predictable. Many examples from her book were paralleled, in the press, with near duplicate passages from another; Ms. V could not be reached for comment; e-mails went unread; movies deals fell through; the faculty room at Harvard was heavily re-stocked with Johnny Walker Blue.

An after school special is surely in the works.

Mother: Kathy, did you write this book?
Kathy: I did Mom. I swear.
Mother: You know I'll love you even if you didn't.
Kathy: Why do lies hurt so much?

And stoned teenagers everywhere will once again get a big laugh on an otherwise dull Tuesday afternoon.

There are many other examples of outright aesthetic theft. Vanilla Ice lifting the signature bass line from David Bowie's Pressure and then attempting to stutter his way through a denial (I never heard of that song), an explanation (I listen to the radio a lot, maybe it just got in my head), a lie (my part doesn't really sound like his, it's more def), and a non sequitur (word to your mother), before finally admitting that he was full of shit and scampering back to the mean streets of suburban Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Hell, John Fogerty has actually been sued for plagiarizing himself; no small feat, even in a litigation addled and stupefied America. The case was not laughed out of court as one might hope but went on for years before the artist was finally acquitted. Fogerty had to go through his creative process in great, and humiliating, detail before a legal proceeding that was not comprised of our greatest aestheticians and who consequently could have no way of determining the legitimacy of Fogerty's description. Zappa wept.

In all fairness, it may be impossible to tell, in many cases, whether someone is stealing, referencing, adoring, satirizing, or unconsciously adopting the work of another. There is good reason for this. The human brain has evolved into a remarkable pattern interpreter; remarkable, but not perfect. We see patterns everywhere, even where there are none. This can be helpful, as when we notice that the beautiful furry animal by the river has a predilection for human flesh. But it can also contribute to our ongoing and idiotic fascination with things like astrology, numerology, and God.

It also gives critics (everyone interacting with a work of art is a critic, consciously or otherwise) impetus to find signs of plagiarism in the works of artists that they are ambivalent about. This can be problematic, especially in situations where the accuser has some institutional leverage over over the accused. That is when common human motives (envy, narrowness, dislike, or the simple desire to save one's ass) can have disastrous results.

It is a murky business. Vonnegut openly claimed to have stolen from everybody he read. Likewise Twain. Harold Bloom has made himself into a cottage industry with books like The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading. And these are Big Minds eating at the grown up table; how can a typical high school teacher, with a head full of platitudes and thwarted ambition, be expected to navigate such treacherous waters? Well, he can't.

Christopher Hitchens points this very tendency out in his essay In Defense of Plagiarism. He gives many obvious examples of literary theft ( G. Harrison/Chiffons; A.L. Webber/Puccini, etc) and even a less well known, but devastating, charge against Eliot and the Wasteland. But his main theme is captured in a quote by de Quincy and Hitchen's response to it.

"It is undeniable, that thousands of feeble writers are constantly at work, who subsist by plagiarism, more or less covert. It is equally undeniable ... that thousands of feeble critics subsist by detecting plagiarisms as imitations, real or supposed."

Just as writers should beware of joining the first category, so readers should not be too eager to enlist in the second.

Ecclesiastes says that there is nothing new under the sun. Still, part of what is good about human beings is that we pretend that there is. We thrill to an original voice, or at least the potential for one. And if artists politely deferred to their intractable connection with everything that came before, then we would be left with nothing.

The remainder of the Borges quote from above seems a good place to end.

To investigate its precursors is not to subject oneself to the miserable drudgery of legal or detective work; it is to examine the movements, probings, adventures, glimmers, and premonitions of the human spirit.