August 30, 2008


The pedigree of honey
Does not concern the bee;
A clover, any time, to him
Is aristocracy.--Emily Dickinson


August 29, 2008


Look but don't eat or you may not make it home. Some people think the lotus referred to in the Odyssey was the blue water-lily of the Nile. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

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

While the story has delighted listeners and readers for ages, it also deals with a current issue: the difficulties returning combat veterans face in trying to make the transition from war to civilian life. Lots of things have changed since then, but lots of things haven't.

At this point in the story, Odysseus in narrating his version of his journeys after the Trojan War to an audience of the peace loving Phaeacians, who will help him on his way home. Note: since Odysseus lies just about every time he speaks in this epic, he should be considered a very unreliable narrator.

As yesterday's post related, his first stop on the way home was a gratuitous raid on the Circones that ended badly and indicated that he is still in combat mode and not quite ready for peacetime life.

But that's not the only way to lose one's homecoming. After ten days in the stormy sea, Odysseus and his men arrive at the land of the Lotus Eaters. He sends out a party to scout among the natives, who represented a different kind of threat. The natives

had no notion of killing my companions, not at all,
they simply gave them the lotus to taste instead...
Any crewmen who ate the lotus, the honey-sweet fruit,
lost all desire to send a message back, much less return,
their only wish to linger there with the Lotus-eaters,
grazing on lotus, all memory of the journey home
dissolved forever.

In one of the rare moments in the Odyssey where its hero acts like a good leader, Odysseus forces his men back to the ship:

...I brought them back, back
to the hollow ships, and streaming tears--I forced them,
hauled them under the rowing benches, lashed them fast
and shouted out commands to my other, steady comrades:
'Quick, no time to lose, embark in the racing ships!'--
so none could eat the lotus, forget the voyage home.

It's not clear what kind of drug Homer had in mind here, but metaphorical lotus eating is a live and well today. Many people who have been through stressful and traumatic events--not just combat soldiers--find some equivalent of lotus to eat, smoke or drink.

The problem with lotus eating is that it's so addictive, you don't even have to have gone through an trauma to get hooked. We've got lots of different kinds of lotuses in our society. In fact, lotus eating of the modern pharmaceutical variety is a major cause of death in my state of West Virginia.

Looking back, I'm amazed at how many people I know or grew up fell under the influence, literally. It can cause you to lose you homecoming even if you never went away.

THROUGH THE ROOF. Here's another item on CEO pay.

SIFTING THROUGH THE RUBBLE of Census data, here's a snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute about how working families have lost ground since the 1990s.

ON CREDIT. Consumer outrage about abuses by credit card companies has led to proposals for new regulations.

FROM THE RIDICULOUS TO THE SUBLIME. There is new evidence in support of subliminal learning.


August 28, 2008


J.G. Trautmann's version of the fall of Troy, courtesy of wikipedia.

Welcome to Goat Rope's ongoing series on the Odyssey of Homer. You'll also find news and links about current events. If you like the classics, click on earlier posts.

As mentioned before, the Odyssey is in part about what it takes for someone who has spent years in warfare--ten in the case of Odysseus--to go home and be fully integrated into peacetime life. Then as now, lots of people never make it home and Odysseus himself is an example of how not to do it.

Imagine for a moment that you have spent that many at a war you didn't particularly want to participate in and it's finally over. Most people would probably picture themselves taking the shortest possible route back home.

Not our boy. When the wind blows his ships to Ismarus, he engages in a gratuitous raid on the Circones, a people who did nothing to provoke the attack. In his own words,

...There I sacked the city,
killed the men, but as for the wives and plunder,
that rich haul we dragged away from the place--
we shared it round so no one, not on my account,
would go deprived of his fair share of the spoils.

To put it mildly, he's stuck in combat mode and clearly not ready for a peaceful homecoming. Not surprisingly, the situation goes south from there. His men get drunk and disorderly:

there was too much wine to swill, too many sheep to slaughter

Soon other Circones rally to support the raided village and drive them off, after Odysseus' men suffer significant casualties.

As Jonathan Shay, author of Odysseus in America, puts it,

...Homer shows us the first way that combat soldiers lose their homecoming, having left the war zone physically--they may simply remain in combat mode, although not necessarily against the original enemy.

Shay knows whereof he speaks, having spent many years working with Vietnam combat veterans traumatized by their experiences. He has found both that the epics of Homer shed light on the experiences of veterans and vice versa. Some of the people he worked with, like Odysseus, have trouble turning off the switch.

While the military sometimes presents itself as a vast vocational school, the skills learned in prolonged combat--such as controlling fear, cunning, skill in using lethal force and weaponry, etc.--are very real and highly specialized--they just sometimes don't transfer well to civilian life.

He quotes the World War I veteran Willard Waller:

Most of the skills that soldiers acquire in their training for war are irrelevant to civilian life...The picture is one of men who struggle very hard to learn certain things and to acquire certain distinctions, and then find that with the end of the war these things completely lose their utility...Digging a fine fox-hole or throwing hand grenades with dexterity, they are entirely valueless...

The boss, who hired and fires him, writes recommendations for him, raises or lowers his pay, and otherwise disposes of his destiny is nothing but a soft civilian. The foreman thinks he is tough...While the veteran was risking his life for his country, the boss and the foremen were having an easy time of it...The veteran cannot help reflecting that a smash of a gun-butt, ore even a well-directed blow at the bridge of the nose...might easily dispose of such a man forever.

Shay gets the last word today:

Homer put first the pirate raid on Ismarus. I take this as a metaphor for all the ways a veteran may lose his homecoming by remaining in combat mode...Everyone knows that war can wreck the body, but repeatedly forget that it can wreck the soul as well. The sacrifice that citizens make when they serve their country's military is not simply the risk of death, dismemberment, disfigurement, and paralysis--as terrible as these realities are. They risk their peace of mind--please hear this familiar phrase, "peace of mind," fresh again in all its richness! They risk losing their capacity to participate in democratic process. They risk losing the sense that human virtues are still possible. These are psychological and moral injuries--war wounds--that are no less of a sacrifice than the sacrifice of the armless, or legless, or sightless veteran. One of my former patients, a combat medic in Vietnam, has said, "Just acknowledge the sacrifice!"

WITH MY MIND ON MY MONEY AND MY MONEY ON MY MIND, I might not play nicely with others. Here's an interesting item by Peter Singer on some recent experiments showing how money affects human interactions. Holy alienation, Batman!

WHAT THE CENSUS DATA DIDN'T SHOW. Here's an item from McClatchy about disturbing economic trends.

SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURS are trying to combin welle doing with doing good.

URGENT GIANT SQUID UPDATE. The largest one ever caught has been described by a scientist as "a giant, gelatinous blob."


August 27, 2008


Athena telling Diomedes to chill out. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

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

It is a fact of life that war has for thousands of years been a kind of entertainment, particularly for those not engaged in it at the time. This is also true when Odysseus finally makes it to his next-to-the-last stop on his lengthy journey home from the Trojan War.

He is hosted, pretty graciously, by the prosperous and peaceful Phaeacians. His hosts even offer games in his honor, although not those involving the fighting arts. As his host the ruler Alcinous put it,

We're hardly world-class boxers or wrestlers, I admit,
but we can race like the wind, we're champion sailors too,
and always dear to our hearts, the feast, the lyre and dance
and changes of fresh clothes, our warm baths and beds.

While they're not much for fighting, they love hearing about it. The blind bard Demodocus (see yesterday's post) enthralls his listeners, although his all-too-realistic songs of the Trojan War cause cause the battle-weary Odysseus to hide his face and cry.

As Jonathan Shay, author of Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, put it,

The gulf between Odysseus and his civilian hosts is visible in their drastically different responses to the songs of Demodocus. This bard is the genuine article--the Muse whispers the truth of the war at Troy in his ear when he composes his songs. His songs, narrative poems like the Iliad, reduce Odysseus to tears, which he tries to hide. Afterward he proclaims that Demodocus sings with the truth of someone who was there himself. The Phaeacian civilians love these epic poems of war...--along with the harper's dance music and his bedroom farces...It's all the same to them. It's all entertainment. But for Odysseus, the truth-filled stories of the Trojan War open the gates of grief.

The Phaeacians aren't bad people. They just don't get it. Shay uses an example from the present to make his point:

Picture this scene: A Vietnam combat veteran goes to a family wedding some ten years after his service. (Odysseus is ten years out from Troy.) The band plays a Jimi Hendrix piece that reminds him of a dead friend, blindsiding him with emotion. He tries to conceal his tears, but a rich relative notices and says, "Why aren't you over that Vietnam stuff yet?..."

The song of Demodocus causes Odysseus to reveal himself and he finally begins to tell his own tale of the long way home. About which more tomorrow.

SPEAKING OF HOMER, here's an item on the evolutionary psychology of the Iliad and one on its use of humor.

POVERTY DAY. Yesterday the Census Bureau released information on poverty, income and health coverage for 2000. Here's some commentary by Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, along with a link to the Census data and here's an analysis of state data from the WV Center on Budget and Policy.

Short version of the data: poverty didn't change much. There was a small increase in median incomes and a small drop in the number of people without health coverage--BUT, and this is a big but--the numbers don't reflect the effects of the current recession. Also, if 2007 was the peak year of the economic expansion, the health care and poverty numbers are still worse than those of 2000.

AN ECONOMY FOR EVERYBODY? Three out of four Americans think the economy is getting worse. Here are some options for getting there.

MONKEY EMPATHY. Capuchin monkeys enjoy giving to other monkeys. Could it be the monastic influence?

URGENT NEANDERTHAL UPDATE. They might have been smarter than we thought.

MEDICAID. West Virginia's redesigned Medicaid program, called Mountain Health Choices, continues to be controversial. This Gazette article discusses a survey that showed most people in the program don't understand the two-tiered program, which offers a Basic and Enhanced set of benefits. Many people wind up in the basic program, which limits services and prescriptions, by default.


August 26, 2008


Homer and His Guide, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, courtesy of wikipedia. The guide, by the way, was a goat herder.

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

Back in the proverbial day, stories like the Odyssey weren't read, they were heard as the songs of traveling bards, probably performed over several evenings. There was no such thing as Netflix in Argos, after all.

The bards often traveled from place to place and sang for their supper, accompanying themselves with the lyre. Interesting etymological note: the word text as in story and textile as in clothing are related as both involve weaving, in the former case with words. My guess is that a bard's performance was more like a poetry recitation accompanied by plucks on the lyre rather than wailing and strumming.

In the Odyssey, which was originally sung by a bard, there is the character of the bard Demodocus, who sings a song within a song. (Nice try, Shakespeare with the Hamlet/play-within-a-play thing, but Homer got there first.) This gives us a chance to see what a live performance might have been like.

After nearly 10 years at war and another 10 in various jams, Odysseus has finally made it to the land of the Phaeacians, who have promised to take him home to Ithaca. In the meantime, they entertain him lavishly with feasts and games. Demodocus is part of the entertainment. Like the Homer of legend, he is blind. Here's his first appearance:

In came the herald now,
leading along the faithful bard the Muse adored
above all others, true, but her gifts were mixed
with good and evil both: she stripped him of sight
but gave the man the power of stirring, rapturous song.

After a decent meal and a drink of wine, Demodocus begins to sing of the war. He is so good that his songs of the Trojan War bring Odysseus to tears as the painful memories return and help to inspire him to reveal his true identity. (Note: Jonathan Shay suggests that the singer is himself a combat veteran, which is one reason why his song rings so true.)

Homer also gave his audience a hint of how a bard was to be treated. A bit later in the story,

...Odysseus carved a strip of loin,
rich and crisp with fat, from the white-tusked board
that still had much meat left, and called the herald over:
"Here, herald, take this choice cut to Demodocus
so he can eat his fill--with warm regards from a man who knows what suffering is...
From all who walk the earth our bards deserve
esteem and awe, for the Muse herself has taught them
paths of song. She loves the breed of harpers."

Nothing like a little self-promotion. And it's only right that those who sing for their supper should get some decent tips. Come to think of it, maybe bloggers of epic themes should too...

STOP THE PRESSES!!!! Stunning new research has found that most teens pick their noses. If we had only known this sooner...

One of the researchers made this priceless remark:

"Some people poke their nose into other people's business. I made it my business to poke my business into other people's noses."

THROUGH THE ROOF. The Christian Science Monitor takes a look at CEO pay.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, the August 25 print issue of Business Week noted that an average S&P 500 CEO would only have had to work three hours in 2007 to "earn" what a minimum wage full time worker would have earned in a year.

HAPPY UP, Y'ALL. Here's another item on the predominantly Buddhist nation of Bhutan's efforts to increase gross national happiness.


August 25, 2008


Rubens' painting of "Jupiter and Mercurius in the house of Philemon and Baucis," by way of wikipedia.

Welcome to Goat Rope's ongoing series on the Odyssey of Homer. Each weekday post contains a nugget from that great epic that has delighted people of all ages from ancient times. You'll also find links and comments about current events.

A central theme of both the Iliad and the Odyssey is the that of xenia or hospitality, a sacred obligation in parts of the ancient Mediterranean world. In those days, travel was dangerous and there was an acute shortage of Holiday Inns. It was a custom that a traveler could approach a house--generally but not always one of similar social status to the traveler--and ask for a meal and a place to sleep.

The host had a sacred obligation to wash, feed and shelter the guest and to take care of basic needs before asking any questions. The guest was to respect the host, take what was given and not abuse the privilege or outstay one's welcome. Often, hosts and guests exchanged gifts and retained a special bond.

It was a little risky and scary to take a complete stranger in, just as it was weird to put yourself at the mercy of a stranger if you were the traveler. For this reason, the custom acquired a divine sanction. One of Zeus' main titles was Zeus Xenios, or god of travelers and he was said to punish those who abused hosts or guests.

The ambiguity of the situation can be seen in the differing meanings of the word xenos: host, guest, stranger, alien, friend. You can see a little of this in English with the similarity between the words "host" and "hostility."

Abuse of xenia was the cause of the whole Trojan war. The Trojan prince Paris abducted Menelaus' wife Helen when he was a guest in the latter's home. Since all Greek leaders had sworn to uphold the marriage, the stage was set for war when King Priam of Troy allowed the couple to enter the city.

The obligations of xenia could also prevent people from fighting. At one point in the Iliad, the Greek Diomedes and the Trojan Glaucus decide not to fight when they realized that their fathers had been xenoi or guest-friends. They exchange armor instead (with Diomedes getting the better deal).

The Odyssey is all xenia all the time as Telemachus travels in search of his father and Odysseus bounces from island to island. There are very good examples of xenia in the story, such as the hospitality shown by Nestor and Menelaus to Telemachus and that of the Phaeacians to Odysseus. There are also examples of very bad xenia--like the cyclops who liked to eat his "guests" or the suitors of Penelope who abused their status as guests and devoured the wealth that belonged to the family of Odysseus. At one point, Odysseus, disguised as a beggar is abused by the suitors in his own home.

As in the Bible, sometimes divine beings would come disguised as guests--and woe to those who mistreated them. (For that matter, the story of Lot and Sodom in Genesis is really about the abuse of hospitality, not homosexuality.) The importance of hospitality is echoed in the New Testament epistle Hebrews (13:2), where it is said that

Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.

So just remember, if you want to stay on Zeus's good side, don't devour your guests or run away with the significant others of your host.

Is this a useful blog or what?

MY BAD. Those Gentle Readers who subscribe to Goat Rope via email may have gotten a mistaken post Sunday night. El Cabrero hit the wrong button and published an unfinished draft intended for later this week by mistake.

TOWARDS A GREEN ECONOMY. Here's something about what it may look like.

SOCIAL SECURITY may or may not be wearing a bull's eye again soon, but this memo from the Economic Policy Institute counters fear mongering about it.

POVERTY DAY. On Tuesday, the government will release the latest numbers on poverty, incomes and health insurance coverage. Here's a brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities on what to look for.

MALE ANIMALS TEND TO BE SHOWOFFS to a far greater extent than females, with various kinds of wild displays. My guess is that you have already noticed this. Recent research in biology may have found a genetic mechanism that opened the way for all that strutting around.