Monday, August 18, 2008

Scary China: Not So Scary After All

Okay, I admit it. I’ve seen the Chinese as formidable opponents ever since I went to college in Tokyo with a bunch of kids from Hong Kong and Taiwan. It wasn’t just that these guys and gals were smart. They were. But they had this competitive, entrepreneurial spirit that drove them to excel at everything they touched. These weren’t the Chairman Mao Chinese, mind you, but all last week in Beijing, I kept seeing the same darn thing: win, win, win. But I really got worried this morning when I read what the Chinese Olympic fans were saying when they lost.

According to this New York Times article, Liu Xiang was the first Chinese guy to win a track and field gold medal in the 110 hurdles in 2004. He had become a national hero, an icon, a demi-god. But before Liu could compete in 2008, he injured both his hamstring and his Achilles’ tendon. The Chinese response startled me.

“It is a very hard moment for all of us,” Sun [Liu’s coach] said.
Well, wait. It's not really about ALL of you, is it?

I’m very disappointed, very disappointed,” said Wang Jifei, a reporter with The Chengdu Economic Daily. “Liu Xiang is our, you know, national hero. But right now he has failed.”
Failed? I don’t think I’ve heard the word “failure” applied to an injured athlete before ... have I?

“Everybody has been waiting for such a long time. We hold very high expectations. But I think people understand,” said a fan.
Maybe I’m wrong, but to me that sounds a lot like, “I think people forgive.”

Another fan said, “What a regret. But he’s injured and that happens to everybody. An American got hurt, too. There must be something wrong with the track. Maybe it’s just unlucky.”
What, pray tell, does an American getting hurt have to do with this?

And, finally, this from an eight-year old. “I’m not mad at him … I’m sure he’ll recover very soon and grab another championship in the future.”
Well, what if he doesn't recover in the future? Will you be mad at him then?

I'm not getting this attitude at all. I simply don't understand the “collective” system that apparently characterizes current Chinese thinking to the point that an injured sports figure is owned by one and all.

Where’s the aroma (and magnificence) of individual achievement, of the lonely runner on the hill, doing it for him or herself against all odds (with no “collective” support)? That’s the story I want to hear. That's what thrills the American me. Instead, I conjure up images of the Chinese government scouring the hillside for the thousands out of 1.5 billion who have a gift, followed by the years of training camps that discard anyone who sniffs of possible failure along the way. Thrown away children. Shattered souls. Human wreckage. Everybody keeps talking about how Chinese athletes don’t smile. Why would they?

Do I exaggerate? I think not. How else could a single country have so dramatically increased their medal take (they already have 40 percent more medals in 2008 than in 2004 – forty percent!!) And it’s only been four years!

Unless we're dealing with a super human race (wait, the Germans already tried that...) some serious pushing has been going down. Only a ruthless “collective” push can explain this achievement, and the major collective disappointment in poor Liu Xiang illustrates it. The real wonder is that any athlete from the United States – let alone Romania or Jamaica -- can beat the entire Chinese government at any game. But there’s a saving grace…

I was getting very depressed until D. pointed me to an article a few days earlier [China Loves Its Soccer. Its Team? Don’t Ask]. Here’s something about Chinese sports I can relate to. Here’s a familiar human reaction, thank God, to losing at a sport when your team can’t seem to win no matter what. Apparently, Chinese soccer fans are not only rabid; they’re furious. So why is this good news? Because they are blaming the system -- the coaches, the players, the corruption, the whole stinking mess. How human, how divine!

It's money, money, money – decadence, decadence, decadence – that the Chinese are blaming for the soccer’s team’s failure (in other words, capitalism). Reportedly, the Chinese soccer team (members of which make beaucoup bucks, just like soccer players do everywhere else in the world) doesn’t care enough about winning, say the fans. They’re lazy and the system is corrupt. Big money is the problem, complain observers, with many players having been caught with drugs and prostitutes (hey, so what else is new?).

Bottomline: These Chinese super-humans are human after all. Gifted, competitive, smart, yes – but human. Get the enforcers out of the way, give ‘em a little compensation, toss 'em a little STUFF, and watch the Chinese lock-step falter. And that's a good thing.

We simply cannot have human beings jumping over hurdles with puffy Achilles. That’s the work of machines. And we definitely can't have collective thinking, because then we don't have individual responsibility. Besides, it's just not any fun.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Never Mind the Girl; The Brain Can't Take It

This article in The New York Times gives a small idea how maddeningly complex the brain is. And -- as much as we love to hate "the pharmaceuticals" -- without this kind of research (albeit motivated by return on investment), probably we wouldn't be making any progress at all in understanding brain dysfunction.

Meanwhile, as we crawl out of the Dark Ages in our perspective on mental illness, the number and nature of disorders seem to be evolving much faster than we are, along with an explosion of brand new "crazies." Is it possible we'll discover that
none of us humans has evolved sufficiently to cope with life in the 21st Century? Is one or another brain drug in everybody's [not so distant] future? With the planet's increasing shift to multiple choice disorder, dizzying speed, repetitious tasking, sedentarianism, vast hours of frenetic sensory input, chemically-laced food, poor diet generally, pervasive social pressures, and fear of absolutely, positively everything -- maybe our brains simply can't keep up. Maybe the world we live in -- the world we've created -- is causing our various receptors to go haywire.

I asked several friends what they thought. One brilliant friend with a profound metaphysical bent, suggested that our growing mental problems are the result of poor nutrition. A second friend noted other environmental factors, saying, "I'm not sure what I would add to your list (it's pretty exhaustive!) other than a lack of sleep. As a society, I don't think we get enough sleep -- and isn't that recent research about breast cancer and light exposure at night interesting? I think (at least I hope) that we'll start to figure out that so much about the way we live is unhealthy, particularly the processed, chemical-laced foods."

Another friend -- a psychiatric nurse -- said, "Your premise is that modern life is causing an explosion in mental dysfunction of all kinds, by (indirectly) causing brain chemicals to go haywire. And your list of factors contributing to the problem is convincing and right on..... but still I hesitate. I'm not quite sure why." She went on to note that schizophrenia has "been around for centuries." She observed that though autisim seems to be on the rise, she suspects it occurs during fetal development. Eating disorders, she notes, are "a result of society's conflicting values... a modern life dilemma." She concludes, "When we talk about mental health, I'm concerned about what we're teaching young folks, without even being aware that we're teaching. I'm talking about violence as a form of entertainment. It's scary to me..... the way movies, TV, and video games glorify violence, and often allow the perpetrator to walk away without consequences."

In a terse one sentence response, a male friend agreed that life is making us crazy, but -- perhaps in concert with the posited nature of men to rush to solution -- mainly wondered "What can we do?"

A gifted eco-writer friend observed, "I see [the Internet] as an admirable idea gone wrong: technology intended to connect the world for noble purposes, hijacked by the less lofty masses for trivial, superficial pursuits. Media, once designed, again, to inform, educate and connect the world, now hijacked by commercial aims for pure profit. Corporate values that have severed the relationship between business and workers, favoring shareholders and thus, productivity and efficiency over everything else, leaving 'human resources' in cubicle mazes with mindless tasks to accomplish. To my mind, a particular type of person has gained control of our culture, and the rest of us are at their mercy."

A friend with two young children and a deep commitment to God, wrote, " ... we are on sensory overload on so many levels. Remember the axiom about early to bed and early to rise? And remember when food was wholesome and no one said you shouldn't eat it because it had too many carbs or too much fat or too many artificial whatevers? Remember when neighbors would help and talk to one another? Yes, we are overstimulated, but somehow underutilized as human beings. Where is the intimate connection? If a creative soul cries out for a 'stop the world moment,' we medicate them. Why can't they cope? Why can't they keep up? We are all racing but where are we going?"

Finally, one friend shared this: "With prozac, I gain weight, shop, and eat like a crazy woman. Add the Wellbutrin and the shopping and eating normalize. If that isn't a perfect testament to mind over matter I don't know what is. I believe our heads are hardwired-- and these drugs just normalize us, while sapping us of our sexual urges and creativity. If anything, the days of the Van Goghs and Hemmingways are done, replaced by well medicated intelligent beings who no longer suffer "needlessly". Needlessly being kind of a debatable word.

It's worth talking about, to be sure.

And, now for a *great* listen: "The Girl Can't Take It." Click HERE]