August 23, 2008


The Goat Rope series on the Odyssey of Homer resumes Monday. Meanwhile, here is William Blake's The Divine Image:

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
All pray in their distress,
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
Is God our Father dear;
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
Is man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face;
And Love, the human form divine;
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine:
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew.
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.


August 22, 2008


Frederick Leighton's painting of Nausicaa, princess of the Phaeacians and rescuer of Odysseus, courtesy of wikipedia.

The Goat Rope series on the Odyssey of Homer and what it has to offer today continues. If you like classics, please click on earlier posts. You'll also find news and comments about current events.

Imagine that you're a middle aged man who has been shipwrecked and lost at sea for days and that you've washed up on the shore of a strange place. You look and feel like hell and you have to introduce yourself to a beautiful young girl and gain her help without scaring the daylights out of her.

One other thing: you're totally naked.

That would be a job for someone known for strategy and cunning (Greek metis). Somebody like Odysseus.

After he left Calypso's island, everything goes OK...for a while. But then the grudge-holding sea god Poseidon gets wind that his old enemy is at afloat again and destroys his raft. (In one of his more famous adventures, Odysseus blinded the cyclops Polyphemus, Poseidon's son.) He finally makes it to the island of Scheria more dead than alive. When he returns to consciousness he asks himself

"Man of misery, whose land have I lit on now?
What are they here--violent, savage, lawless?
or friendly to strangers, god-fearing men?..."

Nudged by Athena, the beautiful Nausicaa and her maids are washing clothes near the shore. She is about 14 years old--ripe for marriage by ancient Greek standards. He grabs a tree branch to cover his private parts and approaches the girls. All run but Nausicaa.

This is a dangerous moment for everyone. She is no doubt wary of sexual assault, just as he is wary of provoking the islanders whose help he needs. He comes up with a pretty good trick:

When in doubt, ask a woman if she is a goddess.

Keeping a respectful distance, he says

"Here I am at your mercy, princess--
are you a goddess or a mortal? If one of the gods
who rule the skies up there, you're Artemis to the life,
the daughter of mighty Zeus--I see her now--just look
at your build, your bearing, your lithe flowing grace...
But if you're one of the mortals living here on earth,
three times blest are your father, your queenly mother,
three times over your brothers too. How often their hearts
must warm with joy to see you striding into the dances--
such a bloom of beauty..."

You gotta admit it, he's pretty slick. Comparing her to Artemis was an especially reassuring touch since that powerful goddess was a perpetual virgin whom no mortal man would dare to pursue.

His words did the trick. He gained the help of Nausicaa. She will introduce him to her parents, who will offer excellent hospitality (xenia) and send him home to Ithaca at last.

More to come.

THE SENSIBLE CENTER. A poll by the Drum Major Institute of self-identified middle class Americans finds strong bi-partisan support for universal health care, the Employee Free Choice Act, paid sick days, and more.

DOING WITHOUT HEALTH CARE is a reality for many working families as costs rise.

THE THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE. Here's an amusing item on things women do to make themselves attractive to men. I'm eagerly awaiting the other side of the story.

BLOGGING AND HEALTH. From the Boston Globe, here's an article about how blogging has become part of the treatment for some cancer patients.


August 21, 2008


The god Hermes gives Calypso the bad news. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope these days is the Odyssey of Homer, but you'll also find links and comments about current events. If you like that kind of thing, please click on earlier posts. The series started Aug. 4.

Odysseus doesn't really enter the story in his own right until Book 5 of the epic and he's in a strange situation. Imagine having everything most people think they want--and still being miserable.

For seven years, Odysseus, having lost all his 600+ men on the way from Troy, has been marooned on the island of the beautiful goddess Calypso. It's sun, sea, sand, sex with a beautiful partner and good food and wine every day. One other thing--she's even willing to give him immortality and freedom from further aging so he can keep doing that forever.

I know lots of people who would kill for a gig like that...

In spite of all that, Odysseus stands at the edge of the sea every day, weeping for his home. Thanks to the intervention of the goddess Athena, Zeus sends the messenger god Hermes to Calypso to tell her she needs to let him go. She doesn't take it very well:

..."Hard hearted
you are, you gods! You unrivaled lords of jealousy--
scandalized when goddesses sleep with mortals...
So now at last you train your spite on me
for keeping a mortal man beside me. The man I saved,
riding astride his keel-board, all alone, when Zeus
with one hurl of a white-hot bolt had crushed
his racing warship down the wine-dark sea...
And I welcomed him warmly, cherished him, even vowed
to make the man immortal, ageless, all his days...
But since there is no way for another god to thwart
the will of storming Zeus and make it come to nothing,
let the man go--if the Almighty insists, commands--
and destroy himself on the barren salt sea!"

But even with Zeus on your side, it's dangerous to hook up with an immortal--and even more dangerous to break up with one. When she tells Odysseus that she's willing to help him leave if he really wants to, he is characteristically cautious, making her swear by the River Styx that she isn't tricking him.

Then he has the delicate task of letting her down easily. One thing you don't want to say to a goddess is "You're OK but I like another woman better"--even if she's your wife. In a masterpiece of tact, he explains

"Ah great goddess,"
worldly Odysseus answered, "don't be angry with me,
please. All that you say is true, how well I know.
Look at my wise Penelope. She falls far short of you,
your beauty, stature. She is mortal after all
and you, you never age or die...
Nevertheless I long--I pine, all my days--
to travel home and see the dawn of my return,
And if a god wreck me yet again on the wine-dark sea,
I can bear that too, with a spirit to endure.
Much have I suffered, labored long and hard by now
in the waves and wars. Add this to the total--
bring the trial on!"

He may have been the inventor of the classic "It's not you, it's me" line. At any rate, she helps him on his way.

More tomorrow.

THE BIG ECONOMIC SQUEEZE is working its way up the income chain.

WATER, WATER (NOT) EVERYWHERE. Here's an item on the links between global water and food problems.

ONE GENDER GAP that is closing is the math gap between boys and girls.

MEDICAID. West Virginia's redesigned version of Medicaid took another hit in a study by Families USA.


August 20, 2008


Just one look/that's all it took. In this ancient vase, Menelaus is stopped from killing his unfaithful wife Helen by one look at her beauty. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

The Goat Rope Odyssey series continues. If you like the classics, please click on earlier posts. You'll also find news and comments about current events.

When you're in a bad way, sometimes you feel better if at least you have a plan to try something. When things are bad for Odysseus' son Telemachus--his mother's suitors are devouring his substance and threatening his life while his father is apparently dead--the goddess Athena gives him a boost. She inspires him to take a sea voyage to visit his father's comrades at Troy to seek for news.

He receives great hospitality but not much news from Nestor, king of Pylos. He then proceeds to visit Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his wife Helen, who was a major cause of the whole Trojan War. Menelaus tells of an encounter with the minor sea god Proteus who told him that Odysseus was still alive. The most interesting part of the story, though, is that of the very troubled marriage of Menelaus and Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.

Back in the proverbial day, all the leading men of Greece courted her and swore to uphold the marriage when Menelaus prevailed. But when the Trojan prince Paris visited Sparta, he abducted Helen, not altogether unwillingly, and took her to Troy. This wasn't just bad manners--it was sacrilege, a terrible violation of xenia, the sacred guest/host relationship. According to the myth, this was what led the Greeks to invade Troy and fight there for 10 long years.

Paris is killed towards the end of the war. When the city is finally taken, Menelaus nearly kills Helen but is overwhelmed by her beauty and brings her back to Sparta where they try to get back to normal.

Now every marriage has issues, but this one is way over the top. There's not just infidelity, there's also a war that brought disaster on thousands of people on both sides. How do they deal with all those bad memories and recriminations? The answer is...drugs.

Then Zeus's daughter Helen thought of something else.
Into the mixing-bowl from which they drank their wine
she slipped a drug, heart's-ease, dissolving anger,
magic to make us all forget our pains...
No one who drank it deeply, mulled in wine,
could let a tear roll down his cheeks that day,
not even if his mother should die, his father die,
not even if right before his eyes some enemy brought down
a brother or darling son with a sharp bronze blade...

(There have been times when El Cabrero wouldn't have refused a swig of that mix.)

Then as now, people who have gone through war and other traumas often seek to dull the pain through self medication. It's probably not the best way of dealing with such things. In fact, as Jonathan Shay points out in his discussion of the Odyssey, it often causes people to miss or lose their homecoming.

But with a couple like that, what are you going to do?

DOES ANYBODY ELSE SEE A TINY BIT OF IRONY IN THIS STATEMENT by Condoleezza Rice about how invading another country can make a bad impression?

The behavior of Russia in this most recent crisis is isolating Russia from the principles of cooperation among nations of the communities of states when you start invading small neighbors, bombing civilian infrastructure, going into villages and wreaked havoc and wanton destruction of this infrastructure [emphasis added] .

HUNGRY PLANET, AGAIN. Here's another take on the global food crisis.

NOT A GOOD SIGN of the health of the economy, here's the latest on a key economic indicator.

A LITTLE GOOD NEWS about environmental innovations can be found here.

THE MIRROR STAGE. Magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror. Discuss.


August 19, 2008


The Vatican Penelope, courtesy of wikipedia.

The Odyssey of Homer is about something lots of people are thinking about and living with today: what does it take for someone who has been away at war to make the transition to "peaceful" civilian life.

This has always been an issue after major wars, but it rose in public awareness after Vietnam and is once again front and center. Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, a student of classics who works with traumatized Vietnam veterans, has written two illuminating books on the subject: Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America. Shay sees in the story of Odysseus many parallels with the trials of returning veterans--in fact, the hero of the epic may be seen as an example of how not to do it.

(An alternate reading would suggest that Odysseus needed to go through all these things in order to be re-integrated into society.)

While the parts of the story that stick most in popular imagination are the monsters and adventures encountered on the way home, the epic is also about the cost of war on the home front, about parents, spouses and children left behind and about the corrosive effect of war on social norms and customs. His son Telemachus grows up fatherless in a patriarchal society and is menaced by his mother's insolent suitors who devour his household resources and threaten his life.

Odysseus' faithful wife Penelope is under enormous pressure to remarry as Telemachus' adulthood nears. Her husband is presumed long dead and the society in which she lived had no place for independent unmarried women who were not elderly or caring for children.

Penelope's young suitors are lawless and arrogant in pressuring her to wed and violating all the laws of hospitality. Perhaps one reason why they don't know how to act is because so many older and presumably wiser men have long since gone to Troy, never to return.

(To inject a little modern reality here, this is actually something documented in population research. As economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote in Common Wealth: Economics for A Crowded Planet, "a youth bulge significantly raises the likelihood of civil conflict, presumably by raising the ratio of those who would engage in violence relative to those who would mediate disputes."

The older folks have their sorrows too. Odysseus' mother Anticleia died of grief over her son's failure to return. His father Laertes has retired to a rural farm where he grieves and labors in solitude. The war has also changed the lives of servants who remain behind.

Even when loved ones finally are reunited in the story, they usually weep uncontrollably at first, mourning lost time that can never be regained.

Monsters and all, the Odyssey is a pretty realistic tale.

SLOW FOOD. Here's an item on sustainable eating.

CHEATING IN SCHOOL. Of the many sins of which El Cabrero may be guilty, cheating in school isn't one of them, although I was more than willing to slack. Nowadays it seems to be much more common. A new study looks at students who don't cheat.

DOG DAYS. Here are some reflections on summer's end.

WHICH CAME FIRST for humans--words or numbers?


August 18, 2008


The Goat Rope Odyssey cruise continues, along with the usual links and comments about current events. If you like mythology, click on earlier posts.

Aristotle said that every story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. That's true of Homer's Odyssey, although it's not told in a chronological way. It begins near the end, shortly before Odysseus' long-delayed homecoming after 10 years of fighting at Troy and 10 more years of wandering and getting stuck.

Here's a skeletal outline for now:

The goddess Athena asks her father Zeus to give Odysseus a break and help him go home. He's been stuck on the island of the goddess Calypso for seven years. It doesn't sound like a bad gig: sun, sand, surf, and sex with a goddess (most of whom were considered to be hot), yet he cries every day out of homesickness. Zeus agrees to cut him some slack.

The story then cuts to the Old Home Place at Ithaca. Things are bad. Swarms of suitors are swarming around his wife, the faithful Penelope. Most people think her husband is dead and she is under great pressure to marry. The suitors are insolent, bullying his son Telemachus and eating the family out of house and home.

Athena then goes to Ithaca to give Telemachus a boost and suggest a plan of action that gives him something positive to do and gets him out of harm's way for a while. He visits the homes Odysseus's' old comrades Menelaus and Nestor seeking news of his father and gaining a good repute.

We don't get to the main character until book 5, when the god Hermes (see last week) visits the island of Calypso and tells her she needs to let him go and help him on his way. Odysseus sails off with her help but is shipwrecked by the sea god Poseidon, who holds a grudge for Odysseus' blinding of his son Polyphemus the cyclops.

Eventually he makes it to the land of the Phaeacians, where he receives hospitality and eventually reveals himself. It's there that we hear from the man himself the well known stories of the cyclops, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis and the other disasters that befell him on his way home.

(There's a lot of irony in this story. One example is the fact that Odysseus is a totally unreliable narrator who has a great deal of trouble telling the truth. Was he or wasn't he?)

The Phaeacians deliver him safely to Ithaca where after many ruses he and Telemachus open a major can of smackdown on the suitors and he is reunited with Penelope. The carnage is severe but the gods again intervene to make peace.

Next time: greatest hits.

KNOW NOTHINGS. Has ignorance become a badge of honor?

ORWELL AND STRAUSS. A philosophy of fear underlies much of current politics.

LEAVING WAR TO THE PRIVATE SECTOR. Here's a good editorial from the Gazette.

TOUGH QUESTIONS ABOUT QUESTIONINGS. Psychologists are debating whether assisting in military interrogations is a violation of professional ethis.

DOING GOOD AND DOING WELL. Socially responsible investment funds are catching on.