August 04, 2007


For first time visitors, this blog generally covers fairly serious topics during the week. Weekends are reserved for the commentaries of various animals in and around Goat Rope Farm.

This week we once again welcome our official film critic, Mr. Sandor Sege (pronounced Shandor Shegg-AY). By special request from a Goat Rope reader, he will discuss Harry Potter, beginning with the first film in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

We must remind readers that Mr. Sege suffered a head injury when he crashed into a wall whilst chasing a squeaky toy and as a result has sometimes been known to transpose the plots of the films he discusses. We are convinced, however, that his unique insights into the world of cinema more than compensate for this regrettable shortcoming.


OK, so Harry Potter is this orphan kid who lives in a closet, which is kind of like a crate. I don't like crates.

Anyhow, he finds out he's a wizard and goes away to wizard school but he isn't careful and gets a case of Hogwarts. I don't think I've ever had Hogwarts but sometimes I break out when I eat people leftovers. Doodus says maybe he got it from a toilet seat, but Moomus told Doodus he was a dork. She does that a lot.

But he gets better and he has this cable access TV show with his buddy Garth, who is also a wizard. But this Dark Lord guy tries to buy out their show. He was the one who killed Harry's parents too.

After they lose their TV show, Harry and Garth get a job in Wyoming taking care of sheep. I didn't really understand some of that stuff and it got kind of slow for a while until there's this big asteroid that's about to hit the earth and Harry and his buddies are supposed to go up there and blow it up.

So they try to get the band together again to save the orphanage and they plan on giving this big concert. Harry sings and Garth plays harmonica. Everything goes great till the prom when some mean guys dump pig's blood on Harry when he's all dressed up. Man, he loses it then!

He really messes the bad guys up in the chariot race...

The main symbolism in this movie is the sled with "Rosebud" written on it. It's like about innocence or something.


August 03, 2007


Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957), widely regarded as the founder of modern karate.

The theme of this week's Goat Rope is endurance, physical and otherwise. If this is your first visit, please click on the earlier entries. It is El Cabrero's thesis that making a practice of endurance activities can pay rich dividends in all aspects of life.

Although they might not be the first to come to mind, martial arts are another form of physical activity that stress endurance.

If you just watch the movies about it, you may get the idea that this kind of training involves having a wise teacher show you new and cool stuff. That may happen on rare occasions but the reality is much more prosaic. It's usually about doing the same basic things over and over and over again, often in the company of three old friends: boredom, fatigue, and pain.

Traditional martial arts training violates every rule of progressive pedagogy. The short version is "shut up and drill," at least most of the time. Old stories tell of students who spent years sweeping the training hall and cleaning toilets before anyone even spoke to them and then spending years more on one technique or kata (a prearranged series of techniques which can be performed solo but have practical applications).

Gichin Funakoshi, regarded as the founder of modern karate do and particularly the Shotokan style, describes the old days of training in Okinawa when karate was still an underground activity and he studied under master Yasutsune Azato:

Night after night, often in the backyard of the Azato house as the master looked on I would practice a kata ("formal exercise")time and again, week after week, sometimes month after month, until I had mastered it to my teacher's satisfaction. This constant repetition of a single kata was grueling, often exasperating and on occasion humiliating. More than once I had to lick the dust on the floor of the dojo or in the Azato backyard. But practice was strict, and I was never permitted to move on to another kata until Azato was convinced that I had satisfactorily understood the one I was working on...

Although considerably advanced in years, he always sat ramrod stiff on the balcony when we worked outside, wearing a hakama, with a dim lamp beside him. Quite often, through sheer exhaustion, I found myself unable to make out even the lamp.

After executing a kata, I would await his judgment. It was always terse. If he remained dissatisfied with my technique, he would murmur, "Do it again," or "A little more!" A little more, a little more, so often a little more, until the sweat poured and I was ready to drop: it was his way of telling me there was still something to be learned, to be mastered. Then, if he found my progress satisfactory, his verdict would be expressed in a single word, "Good!" That one word was his highest praise. Until I had heard it spoken several times, however, I would never dare ask him to begin teaching a new kata.

Funakoshi was a big believer in the value of tempering the body and spirit. In his master work, Karate Do Kyohan, he quoted the ancient Chinese sage Mencius (Mengzi, c. 4th cent. BC):

When Heaven is about to confer an important office upon a man, it first embitters his heart in its purpose; it causes him to exert his bones and sinews; it makes his body suffer hunger; it inflicts upon him want and poverty and confounds his undertakings. In this way it stimulates his will, steels his nature and thus makes him capable of accomplishing what he would otherwise be incapable of accomplishing.

So here's to the strenuous life. Within reason.

WV'S DELEGATION STANDS FOR CHILDREN. Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 225-204 to expand health insurance coverage for children with the CHAMP Act. I'm pleased to say that WV's entire delegation supported the measure. Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito was one of only five Republicans to support the bill. Here's more. Congratulations and thanks to all our representatives.

Yesterday, the Senate passed its version of the bill by a veto-proof 68-31. The Senate version increases funding by $35 B over several years, compared to $50 B in the House version. Reconciliation of the bills should be interesting.

A PAINFUL REMINDER. The Minneapolis bridge disaster is a reminder of the importance of investing in and maintaining infrastructure. This is from Joshua Holland via Alternet:

...skimping out on infrastructure investments in the name of a low tax burden is a triumph of ideology over commonsense, but it goes beyond that. Conservative philosophy stresses limited government, not bad government, and nothing can change the fact that the public sector remains the only way to organize collectively when there's no profit involved. So nobody seriously believes that the the hidden hand of capitalism is going to step in and inspect and repair bridges that are open to the public. When lawmakers don't fund that work, they know full well that it won't get done.

What's more, the evidence that infrastructure investments result in increased economic productivity is fairly conclusive; some studies have estimated that every dollar invested in public infrastructure yields 104 percent return through increases in productivity (PDF).


August 02, 2007


Caption: A good triathlete is something of an amphibian.

El Cabrero has been thinking about endurance in sport and life this week. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries.

When most people think about triathlons, they think about the Iron Man, a grueling race of truly epic proportions that began in Hawaii in the 1970s: a 2.4 mile swim, followed by 112 miles on a bike and topped off with a marathon run of 26.2 miles.

A Half Iron Man is the same, divided by two.

No, I can't say I've done either one and won't get there in this lifetime. But it would have been kind of cool.

(Such things are much better to have done than to actually do in the present tense.)

Most triathlons are a good bit shorter, thank God. The Olympic distance (it became an official event in 2000) is 1.5 meter swim, 24.8 bike, and 10K (6.2 mile) run. Shorter ones are called "sprints," although most are a far cry from sprinting.

In El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia, there's a nice one in Nicholas and Greenbrier counties that includes 1/2 mile in the icy waters of Summit Lake, 17 bike miles (mostly uphill) and a 10K at Cranberry Glades.

There's another one each year near Huntington at Beech Fork in Wayne County, which offers an Olympic distance and a "sprint" of 1/2 mile in the late, 24.8 miles on a bike and 3.1 on the hoof. That's the one I'm going to try Sunday.

Assuming one doesn't drown or have a bike wreck, triathlons of a reasonable distance (say Olympic or less) are actually easier on the body than long runs since you're not punishing yourself in the same way all the time.

My problem is that I swim only slightly better than a rock and have the kind of body that water apparently feels no obligation to hold up. My technique is only a little better than a dog paddle. Plus, swimming in a lake is a lot different than doing laps in a pool.

The one time I did an Olympic distance event, I could barely finish the mile in the deep dark waters of Beech Fork. The only thing that saved me was the fact that one of the rescue guys who followed us in a boat was on my fire department and I knew that if he fished me out I'd never hear the end of it.

I've tried one triathlon since having all the heart troubles and didn't finish. The waters of Summit Lake where cold and I couldn't seem to get enough air. Here's hoping for better luck Sunday. I figure if I make it out of the water, I'll be good to go.

MORE ON HIGHER ED. Here's a good editorial from the Bluefield Daily Telegraph about the need to boost WV's educational attainment and make it easier for adults to access higher education. Here's the punchline:

In light of the recent reports, West Virginia must review its programs that promote and assist high school and non-traditional students in getting a college education and, if need be, overhaul them.

If officials are serious about improving the economic environment then educational opportunities and training for adults must become a top priority.

The Mountain State will never be truly “open for business” if we don’t have the qualified manpower to fill the ranks of incoming industry.

GIANT BUGS NOT AN OPTION TODAY. In case you were worrying about this, the current atmosphere of the earth would not support the huge flying insects that used to live here. You can scratch that off your list.


August 01, 2007


Caption: This is my pace.

Of all endurance events, the marathon is special to El Cabrero. Sacred even.

The event takes its name from the place of a battle between a huge force of invading Persians and a hastily assembled Athenian force in 490 BC.

According to Herodotus, Pheidippides was a professional runner who covered the distance between Athens and Sparta (around 150 miles) in two days in an effort to urge the Spartans to resist the invaders. Along the way, he had an encounter with the god Pan, who pledged friendship to the Athenians.

The Spartans were sympathetic, but for religious reasons could not send an army until the moon was full. So he had to slog back.

A much later legend has it that after the Athenians defeated the numerically superior Persian force, Pheidippides ran the 25+ miles back to Athens to deliver the news. As the story goes, he said something like, "Rejoice, we conquer" and fell dead.

(This is what happens when you overdo it.)

This story was the subject of a poem by Robert Browning. Here's a stanza:

Yes, he fought on the Marathon day:
So, when Persia was dust, all cried "To Akropolis...!
Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!
'Athens is saved, thank Pan,' go shout!" He flung down his shield,
Ran like fire once more: and the space 'twixt the Fennel-field
And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,
Till in he broke: "Rejoice, we conquer!" Like wine thro' clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died--the bliss!

Whether it happened or not, it's a good story. And the consequences of the eventual Greek triumph were really great. It permitted the full flowering of Greek science, art, literature, philosophy and democracy. They had plenty of shortcomings--but they also helped to give us the tools with which to criticize them.

When the great tragedian Aeschylus died, his grave marker said nothing about all the prizes he won for drama. Instead, it simply said

Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian, who perished in the wheat-bearing land of Gela; of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak, or the long-haired Persian who knows it well.

It was a big deal. No wonder that when the Olympic games were revived in 1896 they included a long run of 40 K (24.8) miles. Now the distance is 26.2.

Running a marathon is kind of a big deal too. Running for more than 25 miles isn't normal. Aside from the obvious, the body tends to run out of readily available fuel after about 20 miles. This is known among marathoners as "hitting the wall." Basically, you just have to gut it through the rest.

Training for one isn't as hard as it might seem. You don't need to run 100 or more miles a week. Three days of hard training, with an easy day between, are enough. One day should be a long run, culminating in one of at least 20 miles around 2 weeks before the race. Another day should include tempo runs, which start slow but include several faster segments.

The day that REALLY builds character is interval training, which often consists of a mile or two warmup followed by repeated hard 800 meter intervals with a brief jog between each. Six, eight, ten, twelve, whatever, striving to finish each in the same time. Pushing yourself over and over. I love it. I hate it. It hurts. It's awesome, even if your interval is a whole lot slower than anyone else's.

Then comes the race. I've done three. One good, one bad, and one ugly. The worst was when my knee blew out halfway through and I had to limp the last 13 miles.

(Note: the line between endurance and idiocy is fine and El Cabrero is not the best judge of where it starts and stops. With my corazon in the shape it's in, I may not have another one in me.)

But here's my best advice: run it one mile at a time and don't worry about who passes you or who you pass.

In the long run, we run against ourselves.

A STEP ON THE HIGH ROAD. This article from the AP stresses the need for making education affordable to more WV adults.

UHHH...THIS DOESN'T SOUND GOOD. The Department of Defense says it can't account for 190,000 firearms intended for Iraqi security forces, not to mention a comparable number of accessories such as helmets and body armor.

READ MORE, LIVE LONGER. I really think there's something to this. Here's a brief item about how better reading skills contributes to a longer life. Which is good, since it gives you more time to read.


July 31, 2007


Caption: Hummingbirds drink hard but they can go the distance.

We've all heard the cliche that sports build character, a thesis which is highly questionable in light of some of the doings of athletes. Still, I think there's something to be said for the discipline and hardship that come with training.

Especially endurance events, which seem to me to be a good metaphor for life. Most people need (or should have) some kind of training before they run 15 or more miles or do a long mixed event, especially if they want to avoid injury and finish before everybody goes home.

That generally means an extended period of solitary training, an apprenticeship in pain. I do believe that picking a difficult goal, focusing on it, sticking with it, and putting in the time and effort pays dividends to those who do it.

This is even or especially true if it's something you are not and never will be particularly good at (sorry about the preposition thing).

In the Japanese Zen tradition, the jolt or boost that comes from concentration is called joriki. As Zen master Hakuun Yasutani explained it in the context of meditation practice, joriki is

the power or strength which arises when the mind has been unified and brought to one-pointedness in zazen concentration. This is more than the ability to concentrate in the usual sense of the word. It is a dynamic power which, once, mobilized, enables us even in the most sudden and unexpected situations to act instantly, without pausing to collect our wits, and in a manner wholly appropriate to the circumstances.

In the context of ordinary life, the jolt or joriki that comes from endurance events is the tenacity to keep going even when it's hard and it hurts. As Woody Allen once said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." Over and over.

Here's the other side of it. I've often known people who said they wanted to accomplish certain things, whether it's something physical or something like learning a language or a new skill, but they never get there. Either they never start or, more often, they don't have the literal or metaphorical stamina to keep at it.

In other words, they've never made a practice of interval training.

The results can be even sadder if life is approached as a sprint and if strenuous effort ends with the passing of youth. Barring the unforeseen, life is a long run, not a 100 yard dash.

WE HAVE A WINNER... One would imagine that the competition for the title of "World's Worst Poet" would be fierce indeed, but we may have a winner. This is from the AP:

The land that gave the world Robert Burns also has the dubious honor of producing the "world's worst poet." Now fans of the hapless William McGonagall are campaigning to put him in the pantheon of Scottish literary greats.

The late 19th century poet's work is so bad he carried an umbrella with him at all times as protection from the barrage of rotten tomatoes he faced wherever he recited.

DARK AS A DUNGEON. Here's the latest on the fight for mine safety at the federal level.

THAT UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY... In case you are running short on speculations about the possiblity of immortality, click here.

WHO'S IN CHARGE, ANYWAY? According to the latest research, it may be the unconscious.


July 30, 2007


Caption: The swimming is the hardest part.

In a little less than a week, El Cabrero is going to try something stupid. You may well ask, so what else is new? Let me be more specific.

Next Sunday, I'm planning on trying to finish a triathlon, a questionable action under any circumstances, with a (literally) broken heart. How broken? Let me put it this way: when I read an article about Dick Cheney a while back, I learned his heart (or functional equivalent) had an ejection fraction of 35%, which is 5% better than mine.

One of the symptoms for my condition is "sudden cardiac death," which sounds like it could be serious under certain conditions. Earlier this year, I got a shock box installed, which may come in handy when cars need a jump start.

If I had a different heart, I'd use it, but as Donald Rumsfeld, mad poet of destruction, once said, "You have to go to war with the army you've got."

The fact that I wound up with this condition shows that the universe has a sense of humor. I've always been physically active, haven't smoked in years, am not obese, and only drink as much alcohol as is absolutely necessary.

In the three years before I had bypass surgery in 2004, I'd done two marathons, three triathlons, three Charleston Distance Runs (15 milers), two half-marathons, and several smaller races.

Like Dylan said, "They'll stone you when you're trying to be so good."

Paradoxically, though, finding out my heart was almost totally blocked made me feel a lot better. I kept wondering why I was getting slower and slower. The news did wonders for my self esteem. After all, anyone can finish an endurance event with a functioning heart, but it takes a real man (or an idiot) to do it with a crappy one.

NEW NOTES. One blog that is always thought provoking is Jim Lewis' Notes from Under the Fig Tree. Here's the latest.

OTHER VOICES. An interesting development over the last year or so has been the emergence of evangelical voices that have broken with the religious right on issues such as poverty and climate change. This latest example is even more surprising.

STICKING TO THE RELIGION THEME, here's an op-ed on the subject from yesterday's Sunday Gazette-Mail by Perry Mann in which he suggests that churches should do more to deal with the problems of this world.