Thursday, December 23, 2004

A post-solstice post

From Jared Sandberg's article "Dark Days of December Leave Many Workers Yearning to See Light," in yesterday's Wall Street Journal:

There's every reason to suspect that our ancestors were as bummed about the disappearance of the sun as we are. Countless sacred sights were designed to align with the solstices--think Stonehenge--and as many cultures performed solstice ceremonies. The driving anxiety behind them? Fear that the sun would never return, says Teresa Ruano, a Web consultant whose research led to a Web site on the solstice.

"Celebration, ritual, bright lights, big feasts--all of those things that have become part of our celebrations at this time of year were considered activities that were important to encourage the sun to come back," she says.

It's thus no surprise that Christmas is so twinkly and candle-lit. Yuletide, a Scandinavian holiday that predates Christmas as we know it, involved giving gifts to the sun god, Balder, who had fallen into darkness. Iranians observe Yalda, a holiday in which fires are burned to help the sun defeat darkness. Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, may have its roots in history, but it's awfully similar to India's Diwali, another festival of lights. Though it means a variety of things in different corners of India, one thing is common: The festival celebrates the renewal of life, which is certainly worth remembering at the time of year when everything is stone dead.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Words for those on the road

[Last words for English 3009, Myth and Culture]

The ancient Greek word for “truth,” alēthia, literally means “that which is not forgotten.” As you make your way down the road, don’t forget about where we’ve been this semester:

As you get older, remember Gilgamesh and the great truth that “There is no permanence.” That recognition will begin to add a poignant significance to countless parts of your life. (Just wait ’til you have children!)

When you lose someone to death, remember Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and recognize that the experience of human grief is much the same as it was 3500 years ago. Loss is no less painful now than then.

When you become caught up in the American pastime of needless consumption, remember Charles Foster Kane, whose life is ample evidence that the one who dies with the most toys doesn’t necessarily win.

When you’re overcome by rage, remember Achilles and the compassion and self-discipline that he’s able to draw upon in his treatment of Priam in Iliad 24. In other words, remember to be your best self and not lose that self in permanent anger.

When you feel put upon by all the responsibilities you have to other people, remember Hector and the way in which dedication to others can mean not losing your identity but finding it. And when you recognize that you need to do the right thing, even if (or especially if) it’s in a losing cause, remember Hector. That you won’t succeed isn’t a reason not to act. And when doing the right thing means sacrificing your own happiness and pleasure for something far more important, remember Rick and Ilsa and Victor.

When you’re headed toward a goal and find yourself surrounded by temptations and dangers, remember Odysseus, who finally perseveres and gets back to where he once belonged. I think this advice is useful for any college student, who has all sorts of possibilities competing for his or her attention. Don’t lose your life to the lotus, whatever form it might take—drugs, Playstation, chat rooms, television. Don’t listen to the song of the sirens (“You goin’ out tonight?”) when you know that you shouldn’t. And if you think you can listen and get away with it, as Odysseus does, remember that he’s a fictional character.

As you move away from your parents’ oikos and toward making one of your own, remember the importance of sharing with family and friends the pleasures of meals and conversation. Sharing food and drink and talk is one of the practices that make us human. (Isn’t it sad that we need television commercials to encourage us to eat together at the family table?)

When you’re around people who are really old (like grandparents), remember that they were once as young as you and that they probably have all sorts of interesting things to say to someone who’s willing to ask questions and listen. Don’t pass up the chance to talk (really talk) to people who will someday be around only in memory. (This piece of advice is loosely inspired by The Best Years of Our Lives and the fading away of the generation that fought World War II, and also by hearing a young adult grandchild at a memorial service speak of his regret about never getting around to calling his grandfather to have that sort of conversation.)

If you’re lucky enough to find someone who is homophrôn, remember Odysseus and Penelope. When you stay up late at night talking with that person, remember Odysseus and Penelope. And when you’ve been in a relationship for twenty years (or as Fred Derry says, “Twenty years!”), remember Odysseus and Penelope.

And when you find yourself, maybe twenty years from now, thinking of how life would be perfect if only you had a different husband or wife or partner or job or house or life, remember Odysseus’ choice to give up his fantasy world with Calypso for the commitments of the imperfect, real world. In other words, live in relation to those who are your real life, and not in relation to some fantasy of who or what is perfect. We live in a culture saturated with images of what for almost all of us is unattainable human beauty and perfection. Real life though is a lot more interesting.

And when you make mistakes, remember Eve and Adam. Live the consequences of your choices, and learn from them so that you can make better choices next time. Pretty simple, right? (Not!)

That’s enough to remember and do—enough for a lifetime, really. As you move toward the fulltime responsibility of making a living, don’t forget to make a life. A lifetime is so small—make yours count.

Not dead yet

[Last words for English 2601, Backgrounds of Western Literature]

When an interviewer asked the poet David Shapiro to name his favorite living poet, he named Wallace Stevens. But Stevens is dead, the interviewer objected. Not to me, Shapiro replied.

It’s still fashionable (merely fashionable, not genuinely illuminating) to refer to the poets we’ve read (with the exception of Sappho) as “dead white men,” as if they were therefore irrelevant to our current understandings of human possibility and freedom. But it doesn’t take very much reflection to recognize that the truth is a lot more complicated. “White”? That’s a category that might say more about our painful American inheritance of the “color-line” (W.E.B. DuBois’ term) than about the writers we’ve read. “Men”? Sure, but what does that mean? Dismissing a work of the imagination on the basis of its maker’s gender seems downright totalitarian. Besides, as the poet Susan Howe has said, the poet is never merely a man or woman, the imagination never reducible to gender.

There’s a tremendous irony in seeing our world as somehow beyond the works of Homer and company. In truth, the world of these “dead white men” is in many ways our own. War is still the way that conflicts between states and peoples are too often settled. We still remember the dead by memorializing their names. We still experience the deep difficulties of returning home and becoming reconnected to people and a place. We still debate whether the penalty of death is or isn’t a form of justice. In our pursuit of desire we still make ourselves and others ridiculous. We still lie awake at night wondering about the ones we love, and we still delight in the miracle of children to carry life forward when we're gone. The continuities between past and present are numerous and specific. Thus the psychiatrist Jonathan Shay finds in Achilles and Odysseus patterns of trauma that help him understand the experiences of the Vietnam veterans with whom he works. Thus a recent production of Euripides’ Medea draws parallels between the dialogue of Medea and the chorus and the dialogue of guest and audience on trash talk-shows. (Like ancient Athenians, we seem to have a penchant for stories about women who have done what’s monstrous—killing their husbands and children, seducing their much-younger students.)

It doesn’t make me happy to draw these analogies, or to point out that we’re still living with patriarchy, slavery, and genocide. But it occurs to me that these ancient writers might be far more honest than we might like in acknowledging these realities. How many mainstream news organizations have shown the grief of mothers, wives, and sisters in war as fully as Homer has in the Iliad? How many have shown the horrors of war and genocide as Homer and Virgil have? (There’s genocide taking place in Sudan as I write these words: have you seen much about it on the news?) And in many ways, these ancient writers seem to be far ahead of us. Homer gives us a partnership of deep, mutual understanding in Odysseus and Penelope; Aristophanes gives us women who make a radical change in the affairs of state. Yet materials in use in federally-funded “abstinence-only” education programs tell young women not to give too many suggestions or too much advice to their boyfriends. Sappho’s “Look at him, just like a god,” was celebrated among the ancients as the poetic representation of the effects of love. How easy is it to imagine a poem of same-sex desire attaining that status in our culture? Who’s more modern than whom?

The ancient world was a complicated place. We’re still living in it, along with Homer, Virgil, Sappho, and all the poets we haven’t read (Hesiod, Horace, Catullus, and so on, all of whom are waiting for your attention). For those of you who will teach, I hope you’ll be able to return to some of these poets, even if you also have to teach novels about young adults who confront painful choices and go on to make self-empowering decisions in their lives. It’s entirely possible: a former student recently persuaded his high school to order several hundred copies of Lombardo’s Odyssey.

In the words of the poet Ted Berrigan, “Not dead yet.”

How to improve writing (no. 1 in a series)

Here's an excerpt from something in my mailbox, inviting employees to participate in a Sick Leave Bank:

The Sick Leave Bank commenced on January 1, 1999. Employee's eligible to participate in the Sick Leave Bank now have the opportunity to enroll or re-enroll in the program. The month of January is the open Enrollment Period for Sick Leave Bank participation.
Obvious changes: Take out commenced, which seems a little pretentious. Began is a good alternative. (I wonder whether anything really began on January 1, since the campus is closed on that day. Hmm.) And fix Employee's, a word that serves as a good example of why you cannot rely upon a spellchecker. It might not be possible to do much about all those capitalized nouns; they might be terms whose capitals are a matter of state bureaucracy. The urgent italics though can go. What's the difference between "eligible employees" and "employees eligible to participate"? Only an unnecessary sort of zeal, as if those who cannot participate are strictly forbidden to try.

This passage might be improved in more substantive ways by combining sentences and placing clear emphasis on what's most important. For instance,
During January 2005, eligible employees may enroll or re-enroll in the Sick Leave Bank. Since 1999, the Sick Leave Bank has helped faculty and staff who have exhausted their available leave time while facing catastrophic illness or injury.
Link » Other How to improve writing posts, via Pinboard


From a New York Times article on the difficulties of returning veterans:

The nation's hard-pressed health care system for veterans is facing a potential deluge of tens of thousands of soldiers returning from Iraq with serious mental health problems brought on by the stress and carnage of war, veterans' advocates and military doctors say.

An Army study shows that about one in six soldiers in Iraq report symptoms of major depression, serious anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, a proportion that some experts believe could eventually climb to one in three, the rate ultimately found in Vietnam veterans. Because about one million American troops have served so far in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Pentagon figures, some experts predict that the number eventually requiring mental health treatment could exceed 100,000.
Reading this article, I was reminded at many points of Jonathan Shay's book Odysseus in America, which details numerous parallels between Odysseus' story and the stories of Vietnam veterans.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004


From USA Today:

An error at the recently completed Illinois World War II Memorial is carved in stone. The Oak Ridge Cemetery memorial lists major battles, including the Burma campaign. However, it's spelled Berma in the $1.5 million memorial. Committee members expect the correction to be made this spring.
And now back to grading.

Monday, December 13, 2004




Misspellings seen on the walls of the men's rooms in a university building.

(Now it's back to grading.)

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Explorer alternatives

From an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Worried about persistent security flaws in Microsoft's Internet Explorer, officials at the Pennsylvania State University system have taken the unusual step of recommending that students, professors, and staff members stop using the popular Web browser.

"The threats are real, and alternatives exist," the university said in an announcement posted on its Web site this week.
The most obvious alternatives are Firefox (free) and Opera (free with a banner ad, $39 without, and worth it!). Opera is my favorite browser. Both browsers are much faster and much more secure than Internet Explorer. And both allow tabbed browsing, with multiple pages within one program window, another advantage over Internet Explorer.

Saturday, December 11, 2004


From a piece by Nicholas D. Kristof in today's New York Times:

We might recall what happened to ancient Athens, perhaps the greatest flowering of civilization. In just three generations, one small city--by today's standards, anyway--nurtured democracy, became a superpower and produced some of the greatest artists, writers, philosophers and historians the world has ever known.

Yet Athens became too full of itself. It forgot to apply its humanity beyond its own borders, it bullied its neighbors, and it scoffed at the rising anti-Athenianism. To outsiders, it came to epitomize not democracy, but arrogance. The great humanists of the ancient world could be bafflingly inhumane abroad, as at Melos, the My Lai of its day.

Athens's overweening military intervention abroad antagonized and alarmed its neighbors, eventually leading to its defeat in the Peloponnesian War. It's not so much that Athens was defeated--it betrayed its own wonderful values, alienated its neighbors and destroyed itself.

Thursday, December 9, 2004

Hothouse parenting

It's bad enough that today's children are raised in a psychological hothouse where they are overmonitored and oversheltered. But that hothouse no longer has geographical or temporal boundaries. For that you can thank the cell phone. Even in college--or perhaps especially at college--students are typically in contact with their parents several times a day, reporting every flicker of experience. One long-distance call overheard on a recent cross-campus walk: "Hi, Mom. I just got an ice-cream cone; can you believe they put sprinkles on the bottom as well as on top?"
From an article in Psychology Today on "hothouse parenting." This piece reminded me of conversations with students whose roommates get wake-up calls from their parents every morning.

Monday, December 6, 2004

Business writing

i need help i am writing a essay on writing i work for this company and my boss want me to help improve the workers writing skills

hI KATHY i am sending u the assignmnet again. i had sent you the assignment earlier but i didnt get a respond. If u get this assgnment could u please respond . thanking u for ur cooperation.

I wanted to let everyone know that when Jim and I are sending out e-mails (example- who is to be picking up parcels) I am wanting for who ever the e-mail goes to to respond back to the e-mail. Its important that Jim and I knows that the person, intended, had read the e-mail. This gives an acknowledgment that the task is being completed. I am asking for a simple little 2 sec. Note that says "ok", "I got it", or Alright."
Real-world business e-mails, from a New York Times article on writing (and efforts to improve writing) in the business world.

Lost and Found

My friend Chris Cougill mentioned today, which reminded me that I meant to include a link to it here. Anyone who is fascinated by the mysteries of the found fragment (as with Sappho's poetry), will find Found interesting.

Wal-Mart and cultural mores

Some good examples of what we talk about when we talk about cultural mores, from an article in the New York Times on Wal-Mart's expansion into other countries:

[A]n early miss was Indonesia, where Wal-Mart began trying to build a business in 1996. Indonesians turned up their noses at the brightly lighted, highly organized stores . . . and because no haggling was permitted, considered them overpriced. A year later, Wal-Mart packed up and left.

In Argentina and Brazil, an apparent ignorance of local preferences regarding cuts of beef alienated many potential customers . . . . And in Germany, shoppers gave a cold shoulder to the greeters that Wal-Mart uses to lend a friendly atmosphere to its sprawling American stores. "It was viewed as too friendly and disruptive, invading their space."
Another example of a cultural shift: Wal-Mart is permitting its employees in China to organize unions.

Saturday, December 4, 2004


Here's a powerful example of how crucial a word or two can be in the work of translation, from a review by Judith Shulevitz of Robert Alter's translation The Five Books of Moses, New York Times, October 17, 2004:

What Alter does with the Bible . . . is read it, with erudition and rigor and respect for the intelligence of the editor or editors who stitched it together, and--most thrillingly--with the keenest receptivity to its darker undertones.

In the case of the binding of Isaac, for instance, Alter not only accepts a previous translator's substitution of ''cleaver'' for the ''knife'' of the King James version but also changes ''slay'' (as in, ''Abraham took the knife to slay his son'') to ''slaughter.'' Moreover, in his notes he points out that although this particular Hebrew verb for ''bound'' (as in, ''Abraham bound Isaac his son'') occurs only this once in biblical Hebrew, making its meaning uncertain, we can nonetheless take a hint from the fact that when the word reappears in rabbinic Hebrew it refers specifically to the trussing up of animals. Alter's translation thus suggests a dimension of this eerie tale we would probably have overlooked: that of editorial comment. The biblical author, by using words more suited to butchery than ritual sacrifice, lets us know that he is as horrified as we at the brutality of the act that God has asked Abraham to commit.

Homer everywhere

From The End: Hamburg 1943, by Hans Erich Nossack, translated by Joel Agee, an eyewitness account of the firebombing of Hamburg:

A few airplanes caught fire and fell like meteors into the dark. . . . Where they crashed, the landscape lit up for minutes. Once the silhouette of a distant windmill stood out against one such white incandescence. There was no feeling of cruel satisfaction at the defeat of an enemy. I remember that on one such occasion some women on the roof of a neighbor's house clapped their hands, and how at the time I angrily thought of the words with which Odysseus forbade the old nurse to rejoice over the death of the Suitors: "Old woman, rejoice in silence; restrain yourself, and do not make any noise about it; it is an unholy thing to vaunt over dead men."
[The quotation is from Samuel Butler's prose translation.]

Friday, December 3, 2004

Sappho papyri

2601 students: Jon Meyer asked after class where it's possible to see surviving examples of Sappho's poems. Here is a link to one page from POxy (Oxyrhynchus Online), a website devoted to the Oxyrhynchus dumps. You can click to see each Sappho papyrus.

The home page for the site is here. A brief and highly visual history of Oxyrhynchus can be found here.

Alabama in the news

From an article in the Birmingham News:

An Alabama lawmaker who sought to ban gay marriages now wants to ban novels with gay characters from public libraries, including university libraries.

A bill by Rep. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale, would prohibit the use of public funds for "the purchase of textbooks or library materials that recognize or promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle." Allen said he filed the bill to protect children from the "homosexual agenda" . . . .

Allen said that if his bill passes, novels with gay protagonists and college textbooks that suggest homosexuality is natural would have to be removed from library shelves and destroyed.

"I guess we dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them," he said.

A spokesman for the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center called the bill censorship.

"It sounds like Nazi book burning to me," said SPLC spokesman Mark Potok.
Me too. And this story reminds me of what happens in Pleasantville, in which the book-burning scene is meant of course to evoke what the Nazis did.

The article goes on to add: "Allen pre-filed his bill in advance of the 2005 legislative session, which begins Feb. 1. If the bill became law, public school textbooks could not present homosexuality as a genetic trait and public libraries couldn't offer books with gay or bisexual characters." Goodbye Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Goodbye Achilles and Patroclus. Goodbye Sappho.

Thursday, December 2, 2004

Quiet please

From an article in today's Washington Post on materials used in federally funded abstinence-only programs:

Some course materials cited in Waxman's report present as scientific fact notions about a man's need for "admiration" and "sexual fulfillment" compared with a woman's need for "financial support." One book in the "Choosing Best" series tells the story of a knight who married a village maiden instead of the princess because the princess offered so many tips on slaying the local dragon. "Moral of the story," notes the popular text: "Occasional suggestions and assistance may be alright, but too much of it will lessen a man's confidence or even turn him away from his princess."
It sounds as though the author(s) of "Choosing Best" never read Lysistrata or Odyssey 19 (it's Penelope who gives Odysseus the crucial advantage of a long-range weapon by devising the test of the bow).

Time flies

If you need a reminder that time flies, look at this page. It may take a few seconds to load (if you can spare them).