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uhPsEI really enjoyed the 31st Olympics…but then I have always really enjoyed the Olympics.  I was raised in rural America during the end of the Cold War and I love the United State of America with all my heart.  I remember the glow of pride when the Star-Spangled Banner would play as the gleaming American stood atop the podium while the glowering Russian looked up from the step below.  Not only was it great drama, but it was a bonding event as well. My family would watch the games together—and everyone else in the community would be following the international spectacle too. In the middle of the country, the Olympics reminded a sports-crazed community about different sorts of people who we didn’t see too often in rural Ohio. These days I live in heterogeneous libertine New York—plus I have been around and seen some things—but I still love America and I still feel exactly the same way about the Olympics. Indeed, perhaps the Olympics are even better now that they are untainted by Cold War posturing and now that my experience of the world is broader.

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Growing up, the sports which the neighbors loved were the big 3 professional sports: basketball, baseball, and, above all, American football.  These are large institutional sports with lots of expensive equipment and pettifogging rules. They seem to mostly benefit a bunch of state college administrators and arrogant millionaires.  As a child, I found them dull (although I later learned to enjoy them as a beer-swilling observer).

The Olympics however was a rare window to a much finer world of amazing sports!  There are sports of true martial prowess: archery, shooting, judo, and fencing.  There are sports with horses and sports with boats.  There are sports for rugged individualist and sports for teams.  All sorts of athletes of tremendously different sizes, shapes, and agility compete and their very different attributes are a source of collective strength. The little 1.3 meter (4 foot 6 inch) gymnast can do amazing things that the juggernaut 2 meter (6 foot 8 inch)  shotput thrower who weighs as much as a gnu cannot…and vice versa. The freak with a muscular noodle for a torso and huge flippery feet metamorphoses into a dolphin in the pool.  The slender diver morphs into a falcon.  It should go without saying that America’s athletes, like Americans, are from every different ethnic backgrounds and walk of life. That tremendous range is a huge advantage in the Olympics…not just because it gives the nation a pool of athletes with lots of different body types and strengths but because it provides people who have lots of different perspectives on hard work and success.

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The self-discipline of the athletes is evident not just in their chiseled bodies or lightning speed, but in the intensity of their expressions.  And, when they win, the champions typically don’t talk about their “yuge” victories but instead talk about minute differences of grip or stroke or technique …then maybe they enthuse about their families and loved ones. It is very refreshing in our age of PR blitzes and self aggrandizement.

We need to hold these memories in our heart this year, as politicians and effete taste-makers work hard to divide us.   The nation needs to remember our original motto:  “e pluribus unum”.

America needs to be work harder to be worthy of our hard-working young athletes. The Olympics remind us that we are all on the same team—the Christian fundamentalist divers, the Islamic swordswomen, the atheists, the city kids and country kids, the team players and the rugged individuals, black, white, Asian, Indian, Native American, gay, straight…everyone is so different but they are all working together to tally up all of those medals.

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Anyone who aspires to national leadership needs to recognize that, just as team USA needs little gymnasts and huge weight-lifters and all sorts of people in between, the real team USA– the nation itself–requires ever so many more different sorts of folks.  We need both the sharp-eyed riflemen from Kentucky and the shrewd-minded accountants from Montclair. We need Jews and Gentiles, Mormons and Taoists, black folks and white ones.  We need number people and word people and image people. We need people we don’t even know we need.  The people of the United States are heterogeneous but we stand beside each other through any crisis–structural, cyclical, or natural. We are not the “Fiscally Independent and Selfishly Aloof States of America”. Our name is much finer than that.

The Fortingall Yew

The Fortingall Yew

It’s 2015 and anything is possible these days, but Ferrebeekeeper was still surprised to see a stolid old friend showcased in the international media for changing gender!  A while ago (for us humans) I blogged about The Fortingall yew, which may be more than 5000 years old (and may also be Great Britain’s oldest living thing).  The Fortingall yew is a male and has been so for several millennia.  However, this year the ancient tree started to produce berries from a limb near its crown.  Yews tend to be male or female, though it is not entirely unheard of for male conifers to have a female branch.  Of course the Fortingall Yew predates Christianity (and possibly the pyramids)…and it has returned from the dead, so a bit of gender bending may not be so noteworthy considering its astonishing nature.  Hopefully the berries will be fertile, I would like the tree to have some known offspring (although probably most of the yews in Great Britain are already descendants if it has been around for so long).

The Fortingall Yew then and now: partying with Victorian dandies in 1822 on the left, and switching gender at present time on the right

The Fortingall Yew then and now: partying with Victorian dandies in 1822 on the left, and switching gender at present time on the right

Many of the stories and myths of Taoism center on the eight immortals, a group of ancient entities who mastered powerful magic to such an extent that they transcended mortality and rose to a state of near divinity.  Zhang Guo Lao, the eccentric elderly potions master, is one of the eight immortals (and we have seen what an odd figure he is), but some of the others are even more peculiar.  Probably the strangest member of the group is Lan Caihe, whose age and precise origin are unknown. In fact, the gender of Lan Caihe is unknown: S/he is sometimes depicted as a young girl or a cross-dressing boy or a strange genderless old person.

Lan Caihe is the patron saint of florists and minstrels (or maybe I should say “singing courtesans” since the musical lifestyle in classical China often bore some relation to the pleasure trade). His/her sacred emblem is the flower basket, a bamboo or wicker container born on a hoe-like handle filled with up with sacred flowers, herbs, and plants.  Lan Caihe is also sometimes shown holding castanets, playing a flute, or riding a crane.  Ambiguity and the reversal of expectations are trademarks of this immortal as is the power of unheeded prophecy.  In addition to not having a fixed gender, Lan Caihe dons heavy winter clothes in summer but strips down to a flimsy barely-there shift to sleep in snowbanks in the winter. Sometime s/he is portrayed within a melting snowbank transforming into steam from quasi-divine magic.

While some of the eight immortals have lengthy or complicated creation stories (involving magic items or a lifetime of study) Lan Caihe’s apotheosis to immortality was quick and random. While playing music, drinking heavily, and otherwise entertaining at a bar, Lan Caihe got up to go to the bathroom. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he/she flew up to heaven on a crane letting a single shoe fall down (in some versions of the tale various other dubious garments joined the shoe).  Despite having immense power and magic (and immortality), Lan Caihe is frequently portrayed dressed in a frayed blue dress and only one shoe, consorting with the lowest classes of society.  I can think of few figures from any mythology more evocative of the socially constructed nature of identity than this gender-ambiguous immortal.

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