September 13, 2008

Weekend poetry sample

...With the dead
In their repose, the living in their mirth,
Who can reflect, unmoved, upon the round
Of smooth and solemnized complacencies,
By which, on Christian lands, from age to age
Profession mocks performance. Earth is sick,
And Heaven is weary, of the hollow words
Which States and Kingdoms utter when they talk
Of truth and justice. --William Wordsworth, excerpted from The Excursion


September 12, 2008


Circe, courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope these days is the Odyssey of Homer, but you will also find links and comments about current events. If you like this kind of thing, please click on earlier posts.

After many ordeals, Odysseus and his men have it pretty good on the island of Circe. As he put it:

...there we sat at ease,
day in, day out, till a year had run its course,
feasting on sides of meat and drafts of heady wine...
But then, when the year was through and the seasons wheeled by
and the months waned and the long days came round again,
my loyal comrades took me aside and prodded,
'Captain, this is madness!
High time you thought of your own home at last,
if it really is your fate to make it back alive
and reach your well-build house and native land.'

Circe is cool with all that (unlike the other nymph Calypso in a similar situation). She promises to help but warns him that he must undertake yet another journey if he is ever to make it home:

'Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, old campaigner,
stay no more in my house against your will.
But first another journey calls. You must travel down
to the House of Death and the awesome one, Persephone,
there to consult the ghost of Tiresias, seer of Thebes,
the great blind prophet whose mind remains unshaken.
Even in death--Persephone has given him wisdom,
everlasting vision to him and him alone..
the rest of the dead are empty, flitty shades.'

It will be a dangerous trip, beyond the confines of the know world. It sounds like the dead "lived" underground beyond the Mediterranean somewhere in the Atlantic, which the ancient Greeks considered to be the river Oceanus. Neither he nor his men are glad to hear the news. She gives him final instructions for his task and helps him on his way.

The way you know you've really arrived as a mythological hero, by the way, is to take a trip to the land of the dead. Odysseus will join the company of Orpheus, Heracles, and Theseus. In future years, Aeneas and Dante will make the trip as well.

Come to think of it, I guess we all will, one way or another.

AMERICAN HUNGER. Here's an item from AARP on the growing problem of hunger and food insecurity in the US.

OCCUPATIONS have their problems, as economist Joseph Stiglitz discusses in this op-ed on Iraq and Afghanistan.

THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT in helping the economy grow is discussed here.

PUT MONEY IN THY PURSE. Financial compatibility may be the key to a good marriage.


SPEAKING OF WHICH, if you feel like a theological workout, here's an interesting paper on the history of Christian views of warfare.


September 11, 2008

Men into pigs

Circe offers the cup in this painting by John William Waterhouse by way of wikipedia. Think before you drink!

The theme at Goat Rope lately is the Odyssey of Homer, along with links and comments about current events. If you like this kind of thing, please click on earlier posts.

After a serious losing streak of one disaster or danger after another, Odysseus and his men get a little bit of a break on the island Aeaea, home of the beautiful nymph Circe.

It gets off to a rocky start though, when she encounters a recon party sent from the ship. When they visit her house, she welcomes them and offers them a meal, while slipping them the proverbial Mickey:

She opened her gleaming doors at once and stepped forth,
inviting them all in, and in they went, all innocence...
She ushered them in to sit on high-backed chairs,
then she mixed them a potion--cheese, barley
and pale honey mulled in Pramnian wine--
but into the brew she stirred her wicked drugs
to wipe from their memories any thought of home.
Once they'd drained the bowls she filled, suddenly
she struck with her want, drove them into her pigsties,
all of them bristling into swine--with grunts,
snouts--even their bodies, yes, and only
the men's minds stayed steadfast as before.
So off they went to their pens, sobbing, squealing
as Circe flung them acorns, cornel nuts and mast,
common fodder for hogs that root and roll in mud.

No doubt many female readers of this story over the ages probably wouldn't consider this to be much of a feat...

One man, Eurylochus, escapes and warns Odysseus, who heads in with his sword. This time, he gets a little help. The god Hermes warns him to take the herb moly with him as an antidote to her spells. When she brandishes her wand, he is to threaten with his sword. When she offers to share her bed, he must make her swear by the River Styx--the sacred oath of the gods--that she will not hurt him and will turn his men back into humans.

That's pretty much the way it goes down. After that, she tells him,

'Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, man of action,
no more tears now, calm these tides of sorrow.
Well I know what pains you bore on the swarming sea,
what punishment you endured from hostile men on land.
But come now, eat your food and drink your wine
till the same courage fills your chests, now as then,
when you first set sail from native land, from rocky Ithaca
Now you are burnt-out husks, your spirits haggard, sere,
always brooding over your wanderings long and hard,
your hearts never lifting with any joy--
you suffered far too much.'

So begins a year of R&R: great food and wine, comfort and baths, not to mention daily dalliance with a goddess. Not a bad gig, all things considered.

Holy male fantasy, Batman!

This part of the story can be interpreted lots of ways. Peter Meineck, who has produced some excellent lectures on the classics for The Modern Scholar, suggests that at this point Odysseus needs to get in touch with the feminine after years of male violence. Staying for a year also means getting grounded and connected again to the cycle of the seasons.

Another way of looking at it is to note that it doesn't take much for Odysseus to forget all about his homecoming and his wife and child who have been waiting about 11 years by now. As Jonathan Shay notes in Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, many of the veterans he worked with

went through periods during the first decade after returning form Vietnam when they apparently did seek the solace that Circe specifically offers in wine, good food, and great sex.

Often, however, fantasy and reality don't quite match and the result is disappointment and disillusionment:

A real-world woman, in America, meeting a haggard combat veteran, might have been as understanding as Circe, but unlike Circe had no staff of serving women, had to consider how to pay to keep up the household, had a life with her own family and friends apart from the veteran.

At any rate, it sure beats getting eaten by a cyclops...

SEVEN YEARS AGO. I don't know about you, Gentle Reader, but the anniversary of 9/11 reminds me of the victims but also makes me wonder where we'd be now if the US had pursued a wiser course in its wake.

JOBS VS ENVIRONMENT? Not really. Investing green technology and infrastructure could create 2 million jobs, according to a new report.

A NEW LOOK AT RELIGION. Here's an interesting take on religion based on a study by two anthropologists studying religious behavior and communication. Short version: it tends to promote social cooperation and childlike acceptance of validity claims.

STRESS. A Cambridge (UK) study found the West Virginians had the highest percentage of stressed out people in the nation.

DID YOU TAKE YOUR MORALITY PILL TODAY? A British psychiatrist has proposed the use of morality-enhancing medication.

DOGS AND CATS LIVING TOGETHER--MASS HYSTERIA. Israeli researchers have been studying how well cats and dogs get along when introduced in the same home. Each animal has a different set of body signals but some can learn to "read" the other's. I could have told y'all that.


September 10, 2008


A bad day in the harbor of the Laestrygonians. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

The Goat Rope Odyssey jag continues. If you like Greek mythology, please click on earlier posts. You will also find links and comments about current events.

After a series of disasters on their way home from the Trojan War (an ill-fated raid, drugged out Lotus Eaters, a nasty cyclops and a botched chance to make it home), Odysseus and his men finally wind up at what looks like a safe haven in the land of the Laestrygonians.

Between the botched pirate raid and the encounter with the Cyclops, Odysseus has already lost nearly 80 of his more than 600 men. Bad luck is partly to blame, but the actions of Odysseus himself are more of a factor.

It's about to get worse.

While most of the ships take shelter in the quiet harbor, Odysseus keeps his own ship outside and sends in a recon party. They wind up rousing a hornet's next of hungry giants:

Down from the cliffs they flung great rocks a man could hardly hoist
and a ghastly shattering din rose up from all the ships--
men in their death-cries, hulls smashed to splinters--
They speared the crews like fish
and whisked them home to make their grisly meal.

While his entire fleet is being destroyed, Odysseus cuts the cables and escapes:

I pulled the sword from beside my hip and hacked away
at the ropes that moored my blue-browed ship of war
and shouted rapid orders at my shipmates:
'Put your backs in the oars--now row or die!'
In terror of death they ripped the swells--all as one--
and what a joy as we darted out toward open sea,
clear of those beetling ship alone.
But the rest went down en masse. Our squadron sank.

Holy Douglas MacArthur leaving his men in the Philippines at the start of World War II, Batman!

(Personal note: according to family traditon, a distant cousin was in the Bataan Death March; he weighed well under 100 pounds when it was over.)

One really can't help raising questions about Odysseus' style of leadership. If he for some reason sensed the danger of the harbor, why did he let the men under his command go there? Now fewer than 50 remain. It amazing how quickly Odysseus rushes through this story of hundreds of exhausted men dying a miserable death.

Let's think about this. A multitude of ordinary soldiers dying as a result of the bad decisions of the people in charge, who are all too eager to change the subject. Golly, it's a good thing that doesn't happen anymore, huh?

ON A SIMILAR NOTE, the VA reported yesterday that veteran suicides hit an all time high in 2006:

In 2006, the last year for which records are available, figures show there were about 46 suicides per 100,000 male veterans ages 18-29 who use VA services. That compares with a trend of about 20 suicides per 100,000 men of that age who are not veterans, VA records show....

VA records show that 141 veterans who left the military after Sept. 11, 2001, committed suicide between 2002 and 2005. Then in 2006 alone, an additional 113 of the Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans killed themselves.

BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME? Several states are running out of money for unemployment benefits, even as jobless numbers climb.

MEGACHURCHES have been growing for years, but that may be starting to change.

SPACE CRITTERS! The tiny tardigrade, an eight legged invertebrate sometimes called a water bear, survived space travel without a suit. Check out the picture at the link. They're kinda cute.


September 09, 2008


Aeolus, keeper of the winds. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

The series on the Odyssey of Homer continues, along with links and comments on current events.

After several (largely self-inflicted) misadventures, it looks like Odysseus and his men are finally going to get a break. Aeolus, keeper of the winds, has given Odysseus a huge sack containing all the winds but the West Wind, which will blow him straight back to his home of Ithaca.

It should have been a slam dunk. Unfortunately, our hero, like many people who have been traumatized, doesn't trust anybody. He doesn't explain the nature of the gift to his men and he doesn't trust them to be able to steer the ships. He insists on doing it all, without taking any breaks:

Nine whole days we sailed, nine nights, nonstop.
On the tenth our own land hove into sight at last--
we were so close we could see men tending fires.
But now an enticing sleep came on me, bone-weary
from working the vessel's sheet myself, no letup,
never trusting the ropes to any other mate,
the faster to journey back to native land.

His men start to grumble to themselves about the mysterious gift from Aeolus. They are jealous, thinking that he has been given special gifts and declined to share them with his troops. They decide to take a peek:

A fatal plan, but it won my shipmates over.
They loosed the sack and all the winds burst out
and a sudden squall struck and swept us back to sea,
wailing, in tears, far from our own native land.
And I woke up with a start, my spirit churning--
should I leap over the side and drown at once
or grin and bear it, stay among the living?

Helpless and embarrassed, he heads back to Aeolus, hoping for another break. Not this time. Aeolus sends him away in disgust:

'Away from my island--fast--most cursed man alive!
It's a crime to host a man or speed him on his way
when the blessed deathless gods despise him so.
Crawling back like this--
it proves the immortals hate you! Out--get out!'

Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who works with Vietnam veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress problems, finds this story similar to those told by some of his patients who were offered a break such as a great job by a "big man" on returning.

Unfortunately, some of them lost valuable opportunities offered by well meaning benefactors by treating an ordinary job as a "combat mission," working day and night without sleeping, not trusting co-workers to do the job right, and not giving them the information they need to help him do the job. When they failed, they had to go back like Odysseus to ask for one more chance--sometimes with the same results.

But there's a universal theme here as well. Think about how many times in life we almost got things right, almost made it to some desired state, only to have things fall apart when the end seemed to be in sight,leaving us feeling, like Odysseus, to be despised by the gods.

I hate it when that happens.

SPEAKING OF BLOWING IT, scientists are concerned that the permafrost covering parts of the northern hemisphere contains huge amounts of carbon. If this thaws as a result of climate change, they'd release even more into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change even more.

UNDOING THE DAMAGE. A recent issue of Mother Jones magazine has a series of articles on cleaning up the mess that will be left behind by the Bush administration.

MASSEYGATE MAKES THE NY TIMES (AGAIN). Here's an editorial from the Sunday New York Times about Massey Energy's relationship with the WV Supreme Court.

PLENTY OF SCHOOLS LEFT BEHIND. An example of the recent failure to invest in infrastructure and public goods is the declining investment in public school facilities.

NATURE OR NURTURE? This is an interesting article on scientific studies of gender differences.


September 08, 2008


Aeolus, keeper of the winds, courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope lately has been the Odyssey of Homer, along with links and comments about current events. It is a story that has delighted people of all ages for thousands of years. It also deals with a vital theme in America today, i.e. how is it possible to re-integrate survivors of war into normal "peaceful" society.

It's flawed hero Odysseus, after all, has spent 10 years fighting at Troy--but he's so damaged by that experience that it takes him another 10 years to make it home. He can even be seen as a negative example of how not to do it.

Coming home in the broad sense of reaching a state or place of safety and security isn't easy for anyone, but it can be even harder for those who have undergone trauma. As we've seen so far in this series, Odysseus has come close to losing his homecoming several times.

One danger was staying in combat mode after the war was over, as happened in the raid on the Circoneans. Another danger is losing oneself in drugs that dull the pain but can make one forget the struggle to get home, represented in the story by the Lotus Eaters. The story of the cyclops (see last week) showed the dangers of reckless adventure seeking and of provoking dangerous conflicts that could easily have been avoided.

At this point, Odysseus and his remaining men are due for a break and they get one. Sort of. They visit the floating island of Aeolus, the keeper of the winds. There they were feasted and treated with great hospitality or xenia. Odysseus is given a gift that could take him easily and quickly home. As he describes it,

He [Aeolus] gave me a sack, the skin of a full-grown ox,
binding inside the winds that howl from every quarter,
for Zeus had made that king the master of all the winds,
with power to calm them down or rouse them as he pleased.
Aeolus stowed the sack inside my holds, lashed so fast
with a burnished silver cord
not even a slight puff could slip past that knot.
Yet he set the West Wind free to blow us on our way
and waft our squadron home.

It sounds like he's home free, doesn't' it? Too bad it didn't work out that way. More on that tomorrow.

FANNIE AND FREDDIE. Here's an item on the housing bailout and what it may mean for the economy.

OH GOOD. The ice around the Arctic has melted to a greater extent than at any time in at least half a century. Scientists view this as another sign of global climate change. Meanwhile, the glaciers in the Pyrenees may be gone within 50 years. Nothing wrong here--move along!

FACTS AND STATS about the state of the union for working people can be found here.

ADDING IT UP. Here's an op-ed from the Charleston Sunday Gazette-Mail by yours truly about what the latest Census report on income, poverty and health coverage showed about the US and WV. Short version: it wasn't all bad news, but things look rocky now.