British athletes also exceeded expectations, and after years of grumbling over costs and inconvenience, the hosts seemed actually to enjoy themselves. The opening ceremonies touched all the right notes, celebrating a multicultural nation sufficiently confident in its virtues of cleverness, artistry and humor to resist trying to outdo the Beijing extravaganza four years ago. From Mary Poppins to Monty Python, from a sky-diving queen to Mr. Bean, it was a palpable hit.
There were, as always, those who let us down. Lance Armstrong, the supposedly superhuman cyclist stripped of seven Tour de France titles, humiliated by a meticulous official report that painted him a cheat and a bully. Revered general and CIA director David Petraeus, taken down by an affair with a fawning biographer. Former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, carted off to prison for 30-to-60 years for child sex abuse.
Internationally, there was no shortage of storms in 2012, though less in the way of resolution. Old enmities and grievances resurfaced in the Middle East, clouding the legacy of the 2011 Arab spring. The number of dead in the Syrian civil war passed 40,000. Israeli and Palestinian civilians suffered through another escalation of the conflict in Gaza.
In Libya, four Americans, including much-loved ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in an attack on the Benghazi consulate that became yet another point of bitter political dispute in Washington.
The European Union accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, but its grand experiment with a single currency teetered. Greeks rioted against austerity, and anti-immigrant groups harking back to the continent's fascist past drew energy from the despair. Spain, Portugal and Italy struggled to right themselves and offer a way forward to an emerging generation that has never tasted opportunity.
Beneath the biggest headlines there were stories where one might spot distant clouds on the horizon — clouds with the potential, at least, to gather into storms.
In February, Congress set in motion planning to open U.S. civilian airspace to unmanned aircraft by 2015. Will domestic drones make possible heretofore unimaginable conveniences, transform our economy and make us safer? Or, as some fear, will they usher in a "surveillance society" where prying eyes above compromise the privacy of every home and back yard?
In September, China unveiled its first aircraft carrier. Will it herald an arms race and future conflict? Or does it merely highlight the wide military gap between the United States and any rival? And will China's slowing economy prove a manageable correction, or the first rumblings of an economic and political earthquake?
In November, in the magnificent but seemingly cursed Great Lakes region of East Africa, refugees again streamed past bodies of the dead, fleeing into the mountains. The city of Goma, Congo, fell to a few hundred rebels, allegedly supported by next-door Rwanda, as United Nations peacekeepers stood by. Would this prove merely another flare-up in a beautiful but crowded and long-suffering corner of the world? Or was it the re-ignition of a conflict that — unbeknownst to much of the world — was the deadliest on earth since World War II, claiming more than 5 million lives during the late 1990s and early 2000s?
Yes, some clouds did part in 2012. But there remained no dearth of the grieving and the suffering, on whom "the sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch" — in the words of Shakespeare's famous take on tempests — and who anxiously awaited what the dawning light of 2013 would reveal.
Follow Justin Pope at http://www.twitter.com/JustinPopeAP