August 09, 2008


(Note: the ongoing series on the Odyssey will resume Monday.)

If you were around my neck of the woods a few months ago, you would have heard something that sounded like the Mother Ship from the Crab Nebula hovering overhead. That would have been the sound of a bunch of horny cicadas who rolled into town like sailors on shore leave after a 17 year cruise.

I kind of liked it.

After an apparently zesty bout of Aphrodite's game, they passed on. It was over pretty quick. I hope it was worth it for them.

However, another crop is on the way. If you pay attention, you'll notice a lot of little new tree branches on the ground. Apparently, the little buggers lay eggs on these new growths and the cicadas-to-be bore their way in, causing the tip of the branch to break off and die. Once on the ground, they bore under and begin their 17 year underground apprenticeship.

I don't know if I'll be around to hear their sex-crazed singing next time around but it's good to know they'll be there.


August 08, 2008


The ancient Greek hero Theseus didn't take any bull from anybody. Here he is in a dust up with the minotaur.

Aside from news and links about current events, the theme at Goat Rope lately is Homer's The Odyssey. If this is your first visit, please click earlier posts. The series started Aug. 4.

Odysseus, the eponymous main character of the Odyssey, is one of many classical Greek heroes, although the word meant something different then than now. We tend to think of heroes as morally exemplary people who do good things. Think about the firefighters who died on 9/11.

For the ancient Greeks, a hero was someone who lived larger than life and whose deeds were remembered after their death. Many prominent heroes did as many or more bad things as good one. Oedipus, for example, was a hero. On the positive side, he solved the riddle of the Sphinx. But then there was that whole father killing/mother marrying/plague causing thing...

King Agamemnon in the Iliad was a hero--and a jerk who sacrificed his own daughter, caused a plague of his own, and enraged his best fighter Achilles at great cost to the Achaeans, as the Iliad recounts. Heracles and Theseus were heroes who did some good things, like killing the occasional monster, but some of their other deeds were not so nice.

Being a hero didn't save you from coming to a bad end, either. Jason of Golden Fleece fame had a miserable fate after dumping the witch Medea for a new model. Medea didn't go quietly, to say the least.

Still, Greek cities treasured the tombs of their local heroes and offered them sacrifices in the hopes that they would aid the home team when it needed it. There was a nice legend about the ghost of Theseus appearing at the battle of Marathon to help defend Athens from the Persian invasion.

The thing to remember is that Homer is not trying to prepare Sunday School lessons or political propaganda. He tells a story that shows the characters with warts and all. The message is not so much "be like them" as it is to learn from the story.

OH GOOD. Israel may be preparing to attack Iran. That should make everything just perfect.

GREEN DAY. Businesses are starting to get serious about sustainability, according to Newsweek.


GOT KAFKA? Here's a review of a biography of the world's most realistic writer. And I'm not just saying that because I woke up as a giant bug today.


August 07, 2008


The fearsome goddess, courtesy of wikipedia.

On the walls of the temple of the god Apollo at Delphi were carved the words "Meden agan" and "gnothi seauton"--Nothing in excess and Know thyself. As words of wisdom go, those are two of the best.

It was commonly held that excess (hubris) leads to destruction. (Good thing that doesn't happen any more, huh?). The "Know thyself" thing could be interpreted in lots of ways but the main idea was know that you are just a mortal, not a god.

A basic idea that runs through Greek mythology is that of nemesis, personified as a goddess of the same name that "gives what is due." When people are excessive, i.e. when they act as if they were gods, they have to pay the price. Although the goddess Nemesis doesn't have a speaking role in the Odyssey, the concept does.

Like Dylan said, "When you bite off more than you can chew/you've got to pay the penalty."

That was the case of the Greeks at Troy. After they finally gained access to the city they had besieged for 10 years, they committed a number of atrocities and excesses. Achilles' son Neoptolemos killed King Priam at his family altar. The child Astyanax, son of Hector and Andromache, is thrown from the city walls. According to some versions, Ajax the Lesser raped Cassandra, daughter of Priam, in the temple of Athena.

The gods were not amused.

For those reasons, the "victors" at Troy must pay a heavy price. Some, like King Agamemnon, will be slain when they reach home. Menelaus and Helen won't make it home for eight years. Ajax the Less will drown on the way home. Many others die on the way as well.

Odysseus must wander and suffer for 10 years and go home to face much trouble. In the epic cycle, the characters frequently opine that the lucky ones fell in battle.

As you may have noticed, sometimes you lose when you win and vice versa.

The Odyssey is all about the perils of homecoming and the price of excess.

SPEAKING OF NEMESIS. Thomas Frank ponders the conservative crackup in his latest book. Here's a preview.

HEY NEMESIS, COULD YOU PUT THESE GUYS ON YOUR LIST? It looks like Wal-Mart's latest attempt to intimidate employees might have backfired a little. Not enough...

HUNGRY PLANET. Here's an item on possible responses to the global food crisis.

CLIMATE CHANGE SKEPTICISM is predictable but unaffordable, according to this item from the Boston Globe.

QUEEN OF THE STARS. Brian May, founder and guitar meister of the rock group Queen just published his Ph. D. thesis on astronomy. I hope it comes with a guitar solo. For that matter, we should name a galaxy for Freddie Mercury. A planet just isn't enough.


August 06, 2008


The rage of Achilles was the subject of The Iliad, an epic of kleos. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Aside from links and (occasionally snide) comments about current events, theme here lately is Homer's classic epic poem The Odyssey. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

The Iliad and the Odyssey, both attributed to the bard Homer, are the only two surviving epics about the Trojan War, a major theme of ancient Greek literature and legend. Most historians think that there really was a war between some Greeks and a city in Asia Minor (now Turkey) sometime around 1250 BC, although Homer's epics probably date from much later, probably the 8th century BC.

For that matter, nobody knows who Homer really was or whether the epics should be seen as the collective creation of generations of bards rather than a single individual, although many people incline to the latter view. One semi-serious joke says that the Iliad and Odyssey weren't written by Homer but by someone else with the same name.

Whatever can be said of all that, the Iliad and the Odyssey are two very different kinds of epics. The Iliad, which tells the story of the wrath of Achilles in the last year or so of the war, has been called an epic of kleos or the attempt to gain glory through valor in combat. The Odyssey is an epic of nostos or homecoming.

A word about both:

Kleos is often translated as glory, but it means more than that. Homer's characters had a pessimistic view of life after death. People in the underworld were shades of their former selves--jibbering bats, as one passage puts it. The only meaningful kind of immortality was to live and die in such a way as to be remembered in song and story after one's death. That was kleos.

Achilles in the Iliad is the perfect example of a hero motivated by kleos. He is given a choice between a long and peaceful but unremembered life or early death but lasting glory as a warrior. He chose the latter (although his ghost in the Odyssey regrets that decision).

Nostos (sorry for my horrible efforts at Greek) means homecoming, as in how a veteran of the Trojan War tries with or without success to go home and reintegrate into a peaceful community. It's about going from a state of war to a state of peace--if you're lucky. (Methinks it's also related to the word nostalgia.)

One of the challenges Odysseus faces in his homecoming is leaving kleos and the overwhelming desire for it behind.

But as many veterans and others have found, sometimes surviving war or other ordeals is sometimes less difficult than the homecoming. Many never quite make it home, whether home is considered literally or metaphorically. More on that tomorrow.

BOTTLE BATTLE. The movement against the environmental impact of and waste created by plastic water bottles is growing.

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT. A former white supremacist who broke with his past spoke in Charleston last night.

THE NOSE KNOWS all kinds of things. It helps you feel them too.

AW, HELL! Fewer Americans believe in it.


August 05, 2008


The world of the Odyssey, courtesy of wikipedia.

Note to first time visitors: Goat Rope is all about The Odyssey these days, although you'll also find links and comments about current events. The series started with yesterday's post.

Pardon El Cabrero's atrocious Greek, but one of the words Homer uses to describe Odysseus, hero of the Odyssey is something like polytropos, which means something like "many-turned." It fits pretty well.

Our hero is a man of many turns in more than one sense of the word. He is indeed widely traveled, having left his native Ithaca in the Ionian Sea to besiege Troy in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). After fighting there for 10 bitter years, he's only halfway done.

Due to his own royal screwups and the anger of the sea god Poseidon (note: try not to tick him off--he holds grudges), his homecoming is as dangerous and lengthy as the war itself. He's basically battered about from one end of the Mediterranean to the other and even visits the land of the dead.

He's also a man of many turns in the sense of cleverness and stratagems. Even in the Iliad, he is known for his mastery of strategy (and even deviousness). He was, after all, the author of the idea of the wooden horse that brought down the city of Troy, which 10 years of hard fighting failed to do.

These are traits he also needs on his way home, although they can get him into trouble as well. Indeed, like many veterans of combat or other stressful situations, he has been in strategic/survival mode so long that it's hard for him to turn off the switch and function in any other way--even when he really should.

Even the meaning of his name is associated with pain and anger--it means something like "he who gives and receives pain," which fits for his loved ones as well as his enemies. Odysseus is a deeply damaged and flawed character. In fact, he comes off as a "stage villain" in later Greek tragedies such as Ajax and Philoctetes, which emphasizes the manipulative and smarmy aspects of his character.

As a soldier and survivor, he is damaged by what he has undergone. But as a military commander, he repeatedly failed his men--so much so that none of the more than 600 Ithacans who followed him to Troy survived.

Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who works with veterans and author of Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America, argues that the Odyssey can be seen as

a detailed allegory of many a real veteran's homecoming. Time and again Odysseus shows himself as a man who does not trust anyone, a man whose capacity for social trust has been destroyed. This is the central problem facing the most severely injured Vietnam veterans. Odysseus stands for the veterans, but as a deeply flawed military leader himself, he also stands for the destroyers of trust. Homer's Odysseus sheds light--not always flattering light--on today's veterans and today's military leaders.

I'd only add that his story sheds light on a whole lot more. Way more on The Odyssey to come. I ain't even warmed up yet.

THE ECONOMIC HEART OF THE MATTER. According to Robert Reich, it's inequality and the fact that wages haven't kept up with the cost of living. This item about low wage workers from the Washington Post is a good example of this. Ditto these items from McClatchy.

ON A SIMILAR NOTE, a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that the value of food stamps hasn't kept up with inflation. Most people who get food stamps come from working families.

THIS IS KIND OF COOL NEWS for a hot planet. Researchers at MIT have apparently made a major breakthrough in solar energy research which could have far reaching--and positive--ramifications.

BOREDOM IS THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL said Kierkegaard, but it also is central to learning and creativity.


August 04, 2008


Odysseus, courtesy of wikipedia.

"Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove--
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will--sing for our time too."

It's been a long time since El Cabrero went on an extended ancient Greek jag, but I can't resist any longer. Lately I have been revisiting Homer's epic poem The Odyssey and have been struck again by its power.

For nearly 3000 years, the saga of "long tried, noble Odysseus" and his ordeals has been a favorite for people of all ages. It has given us several words, including odyssey itself, mentor (a character who befriended Odysseus' son Telemachus while his father was away), siren, cyclops, calypso, and probably more.

It has inspired many other literary works and films, including Virgil's Aeneid, James Joyce's Ulysses, the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Charles Frazier's powerful Civil War novel Cold Mountain, and more. Odysseus has shown up in places like Dante's Divine Comedy and the poetry of Tennyson. The Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) even wrote an epic sequel. I'm sure I'm leaving out plenty of other examples of its enduring influence.

There are lots of reasons for its popularity. For one thing, it really is a great story as Odysseus suffers ordeal after ordeal on his way home from Troy. Although most of us haven't spent 10 years besieging a sacred city and finally sacking it, we can probably all identify with the desire to go home, i.e. to reach a place of peace, security, and safety. We probably don't run across too many cyclopes or cannibalistic giants or make pilgrimages to the Underworld, but everyone has problems and challenges that have to be overcome with courage and strategy.

Finally, the real subject matter of the Odyssey is an urgent issue today in America: how is it possible for veterans who have endured incredible hardships and survived the ravages of war make or miss their homecoming? As the Odyssey shows and the experience of generations of combat veterans shows, the challenges and dangers don't stop when the war ends.

Way more to come.

WAL-MART--EVERYDAY LOW ACTIONS. A certain retail giant is warning its employees that the world will come to an end if giant corporations don't continue to completely dominate everything, especially elections and labor law. Where's the thunderbolt of Zeus when you need it?

HOW LOW WILL IT GO? Here's the Economic Policy Institutes's latest take on the state of the recession.

UNSPORTSMANLIKE CONDUCT. Some US hospitals have taken to deporting sick or injured immigrants.

LET US CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN. Words of wisdom from Gazette columnist Perry Mann.