February 12, 2011

Fish day!

We interrupt Goat Rope's regularly scheduled programming to announce that fish have finally returned to the creek in front of the house. For a good chunk of the year, that little creek, fed by two smaller ones, is home to a good number of minnows and crawdads.

In the late summer and early fall, as noted in this post from last September, the creek often goes dry. The dryness doesn't last too long but it takes the fish several months to come back. Last fall, we even scooped some out of the remaining puddles and put them in the pond where, if they didn't survive, they'd at least make a nice meal for a snapping turtle or two.

Every day after the autumn dry spell I make a point of checking the creek for fish, and have decreed Fish Day to be a holiday at Goat Rope Farm (here, for example is the official announcement from two years ago, when they didn't arrive until April). The little fellows officially arrived yesterday, on Feb. 11. Here's hoping they stay all year.

February 11, 2011

Of monsters, cyclopes and the rule of law

It is a truth universally acknowledged that monsters and other giant cannibalistic humanoids get low marks when it comes to playing nicely with others and obeying the rule of law.

This was noted as far back as The Odyssey. In Homer's epic, Odysseus describes the cyclopes thus:

They live without a council or assembly
or any rule of law, in hollow caves
among the mountain tops.

(Cyclopes, by the way, is the classical plural form for the word cyclops. It has the additional advantage of looking and sounding cooler than "cyclopses.")

The monsters in Beowulf, the theme here lately, by the way, are a bit tone deaf as well when it comes to legal refinements after Grendel starts raiding the mead hall of king Hrothgar of the Spear Danes and preying on any victim he can find. The poem laments at some length the monster's lack of interest in negotiations, treaties or paying for damages:

Sad lays were sung about the beset king,
the vicious raids and ravages of Grendel,
his long and unrelenting feud,
nothing but war; how he would never
parley or make peace with any Dane
nor stop his death-dealing nor pay the death-price.
No counsellor could ever expect
fair reparation from those rabid hands.
All were endangered; young and old
were hunted down by that dark death-shadow
who lurked and swooped in the long nights
on the misty moors; nobody knows
where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.

It strikes me as a bit amusing that the narrator of this supposedly barbaric poem seems genuinely surprised and disappointed that the monster didn't play by the rules.

UNEMPLOYMENT. Jobless claims last week look better than they have since mid 2008.

AN UNUSUAL ECONOMIC INDICATOR, the divorce rate, may also signal an improving economy. Strange to say, the number of divorces tends to go down in recessions (they are kind of expensive).

A GOOD CALL. West Virginia has a new superintendent of schools, one backed by myself and many others I know. Congratulations to Dr. Jorea Marple.



February 10, 2011

Snack time

The theme here lately is Beowulf, although there are also links and comments about current events. If you like this kind of thing, please click on earlier posts. I think it's about time for the monster to eat somebody.

Mead halls must have been interesting if not sanitary places in old North Sea raiding societies. They were generally big enough to hold a lord, his retainers, and any associated women. They were places of feasting, drinking, boasting, and listening to bards and were associated with comfort, fellowship and safety--a bright spot in a dark world.

At least some of the time, they were places of sleeping as well. Drink enough mead--not my favorite potable beverage by the way--and you'll doze off or pass out. It was just on such an occasion in the great mead hall Heorot that the monster Grendel makes his first raid. In Seamus Heaney's translation,

...he came upon them, a company of the best
asleep from their feasting, insensible to pain
and human sorrow. Suddenly then
the God-cursed brute was creating havoc
greedy and grim, he grabbed thirty men
from their resting places and rushed to his lair,
flushed up and inflamed from the raid,
blundering back with the butchered corpses.

I'd call that a major midnight snack. The raid was a major Nike stomp for Hrothgar, king of the Spear-Danes. Heorot was a monument to his success and vanity, but after a few raids, the hall was deserted. Another translation (by Howell D. Chickering, Jr.) puts it this way:

Then it was easy to find a few men
who [sought] rest elsewhere, at some distance,
slept in the outbuildings, once the full hate
of the mighty hall-server was truly told,
made clear as a beacon by signs too plain.
Whoever escaped kept further away.

I think I'd probably do the same.

THEN AND NOW. Here's a look at how income inequality has changed. Sneak preview: growth in incomes is concentrated at the top.

HEALTH CARE REFORM will strengthen the US economy in at least four ways, according to this blog post from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

URGENT FROG UPDATE here. Sneak preview: this one has teeth.

HOW DOES A FLEA FLEE? Not from the knee.


February 09, 2011

Hobby horses

It has long been noted that individuals and groups often have certain pet ideas or obsessions that they enjoy fiddling with and thinking about. In Lawrence Sterne's immortal Tristram Shandy, the author refers to these as hobby-horses:

...have not the wisest of men in all ages, not excepting Solomon himself, - have they not had their HOBBY HORSES; - their running horses, - their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums & their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets, - their maggots and their butterflies? - and so long as a man rides his HOBBY HORSE peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him, - pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?

The Anglo-Saxons, whose culture gave us Beowulf (the theme here lately, by the way) had some hobby horses of their own. They were especially fascinated with the biblical story of Cain and Abel. You may recall that the Beowulf poet states that the monsters Grendel, his mother, and a host of other nasty critters were descendants of the primal brother-murderer Cain.

They weren't the only ones who found fratricide interesting. The theme of enemy brothers shows up in all kinds of myths and legends, including the story of Romulus and Remus and the sons of Oedipus. But the story of Cain had its special place. What was up with that?

For starters, the North Sea raiding societies, including Danes, Norse, Swedes, and the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons, were prone to killing and feuding. War was very common, but so too were fights that could break out at any time in a culture of honor. Just as many fights today take place in bars, so then boasting and insults in the mead halls could easily lead to killing. And, then as now, one good killing seems to call for another, with revenge killings and feuds.

They did devise one way to put an end to the cycle of violence, i.e. by paying the weregild or man price to the dead man's survivors. That worked fine as long as the killing took place between people of different families. BUT, when a man killed his brother, there was no way to atone; one could not pay oneself. Hence people who killed their brothers were seen as especially cursed. They probably felt this way even before their conversion to Christianity, but when they finally did, they found special resonance in the Cain story.

This theme also shows up in Beowulf when the hero has an unpleasant exchange with Unferth, who challenges Beowulf's courage. Beowulf dismisses him, saying

...you were a man-slayer, killed your brothers,
closest kinsmen, for which you must suffer
damnation in hell, clever though you are.

Today's take home message: if you have a brother, try not to kill him.

THE LATEST SCAPEGOATS on the right are public employees.

SPEAKING OF SCAPEGOATS, here's Frances Fox Piven, a frequent target of Glenn Beck's conspiracy theories, speaking for herself. In Glennbeckistan, Piven, who has written extensively about poverty and poor people's movements with Richard Cloward, is believed to be a mastermind of revolution. She has been the target of many death threats as a result.


TEEN'S BEST FRIEND. Here's another story about how dogs are good exercise equipment, in this case for teens.


February 08, 2011

A fiend out of hell

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

I've been blogging on this subject for a while now but am just getting around to the cool parts, i.e. the monsters. You may recall there are three in all, Grendel, a kind of humanoid man eating giant; his unnamed mother, who was if anything nastier than her son; and a dragon. Grendel first appears after Hrothgar, king of the Spear Danes, builds Heorot, his grand mead hall. All that nightly carousing by drunken proto-Vikings gets on Grendel's last nerve.

Things were going just fine for Hrothgar and his drunken buddies, but trouble was waiting in the wings. Here's a passage from Seamus Heaney's translation:

So times were pleasant for the people there
until finally one, a fiend out of hell,
began to work his evil in the world.
Grendel was the name of this grim demon
haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain's clan, whom the creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until He gave them their reward.

The Anglo-Saxons had a real thing about the story of Cain, and found in it an explanation and origin for all kinds of nasty creatures that inhabit northern European folklore. More on that tomorrow.

REJECTING THE FRAME. Economist Dean Baker takes on one of his favorite targets here.

AMERICAN WORKERS. Does American business need them any more?

HEALTH CARE REFORM. What will the US Supreme Court do when it lands in the docket?

OH GOOD. Meat eating machines and furniture are here.

THIS IS YOUR BRAIN on walking.

BACK TO MONSTERS. Here's an interesting if lengthy New Yorker profile of filmmaker, author and monster fan Guillermo del Toro.


February 07, 2011

Dealing with monsters

Say what you want about human conflict, but literature would be a lot duller--or maybe even non-existent--without it. I remember a high school English class when a teacher explained that pretty much all of it had to do with conflict, either between characters, between characters and nature, or within characters. There might be some exceptions in this post-modern age, but he had a point

Imagine, for example, how dull Beowulf might have been if the creatures in it were expert at resolving conflict. In the epic, the monster Grendel is bothered by the noise of king Hrothgar's mead hall, where he and his boys revel all night:

Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man's beginnings.

Eventually, he starts eating people there. Imagine instead this scenario instead:

GRENDEL: Sorry to bother you, Hrothgar, but I've been having a little trouble sleeping since you built your mead hall. I know that this is very important for you but would appreciate it if you could keep the noise level down a bit. The thing is, I have a tendency to eat a bunch of people when I get upset and I'd rather that not happen.

HROTHGAR: Gee, Grendel, I never thought about that. We always have such a great time drinking, feasting and listening to the bard that I never thought this could bother anybody. But you have to understand that someone in my position has to have a place like that to give gifts and keep my boys happy--otherwise they wouldn't fight for me when I needed it.

GRENDEL: I totally appreciate that. Maybe we could agree that you guys could revel for a while but try keeping it down after, say, midnight. And since you've recently converted to Catholicism, maybe you could try something like bingo when it gets late.

HROTHGAR: Bingo...I never thought of that. How about we try this for a few weeks and see how it works: we'll tone it down after midnight and will even cut you in some livestock every now and then if you'll refrain from eating my guys.

GRENDEL: Deal. Thanks! See you around.

That just doesn't do it for me.

DUMBING DOWN. Here's Leonard Pitts on our falling away from science.

SWORDS TO PLOWS. Literally. This story is about an effort to help combat veterans from the current wars to try their hand at organic farming.

FOOD, FLOODS AND CLIMATE discussed here.