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Life And Death During The Olympic Games

The Beijing Olympics began at 8:00 p.m. on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008. Sacred numbers. (A baby in Seattle, born then, weighed eight pounds. And eight ounces? That wasn't reported.) I watched the stupendous razzle-dazzle at my brother-in-law's house on Savannah's Isle of Hope. No razzle-dazzle here, just the Skidaway River shining through the oaks and Spanish moss, and alongside which strolled solitary walkers, joggers, mothers wheeling baby carriages, and well-fed drivers of golf carts, a moving frieze against the beautiful, after-storm sky.

On the Beijing spectacle of spectacles, thousands of synchronized dancers, acrobats, and gymnasts gyrated on enormous digitalized scrolls. They whirled around a translucent blue ball, then gave way to gorgeous fireworks and a flying athlete who, aloft, ignited the scroll-shaped cauldron with the torch that had been carried--and booed--around the earth. The Olympics were open. A parade of athletes grouped by nationality and dressed by famous designers circled the great field; the last contingent was the Chinese. It was headed by the seven-foot basketball player, Yao Ming, who walked beside and later carried tiny Lin Hao, the nine-year-old Sichuan schoolboy who'd dug himself out of the earthquake-made rubble where 20 of his 30 classmates had died and then gone back into it to dig out two of them. Asked why, he said it was his responsibility, he'd been a hall monitor. More than all the fireworks and athletes put together, little Lin Hao had innocently brought China back into the world community.

My wife, a student of Chinese and China, said that one of the crucial tenets of Chinese culture was "Responsibility for Others." The jewel in the crown.

Back home, a call came telling us that our friend, Ted Solotaroff, an exemplum of responsibility, had died on this afternoon of 08/08/08. The caller, his step-daughter, said he'd been peaceful, talking to his wife and another step-daughter when a thunder storm broke out. The noise must have startled something which broke what little was left of him.

Ted was part of a young University of Chicago literary group of the Fifties, the third dead these last 16 months. I called to tell the other survivor, Philip Roth, and we spoke about Ted who'd written, half a century ago, the first serious criticism of Roth's work.

Like Roth, Solotaroff did not finish graduate work at the university. Like Roth, he went on to New York. He had a job on the literary section of the New York Herald Tribune. Then he became an editor of Commentary and at Harper Collins. He edited New American Writing, which first published many outstanding writers and wrote fine reviews and essays for such publications as TLS and The New Republic. In his last years, he published his best work, two books of memoir. He was at work on the third when he died. In short, the exemplary career of a responsible citizen of the Republic of Letters or--to give the title of his collection of essays--the "literary community."

On Saturday, August 9, another jewel in the crown of international decency died in Houston after cardiac surgery. Mahmoud Darwish was the leading poet of Palestine, and his life will be celebrated by three days of national mourning. He spoke and wrote about the attempt to expel his Palestinian brothers from history, but also wrote, "I will continue to humanise even the enemy... The first teacher who taught me Hebrew was a Jew. The first love affair in my life was with a Jewish girl. The first judge who sent me to prison was a Jewish woman. So from the beginning, I didn't see Jews as devils or angels but as human beings." Several of his poems are to Jewish lovers. "These poems take the side of love not war." Lin Hao, Ted Solotaroff, Mahmoud Darwish. These jewels in the human crown shine more and more brightly as brutality, greed, and meanness erupt in Ossetia, Darfur, Zimbabwe, and a hundred other pits of ugliness on the human map.

--Richard Stern

Richard Stern is a novelist and emeritus professor of English at the University of Chicago.