Friday, July 28, 2006

Dog-Day Cicadas

When I was a kid I used to spend my summers searching for the abandoned cicada shells left around the huge oak tree in front of my grandma's house. Painting them with nail polish and marching them in the sand occupied my youth in the years before Star Wars and its subsequent action figures. I'd put them on my sisters and aunt to hear them squeal until eventually an adult would yell at me. It stopped being fun when one of the scratchy legs broke off and got in someone's eye.Cicada Meeting

Every summer in Texas I listen to the cicadas whine and whine; their electric buzzing drones during the hot dusk. When I walk out my backdoor, I always see several cicada shells on the stairs and steps. Today they were having a meeting, which they let me attend.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Moon and the Banana Tree

In the old days of Madagascar it is told that the Great Spirit created the heavens and the earth, the stars and the beasts, the seas and great desert. And he also created the banana tree. He gave to each of these beings their own particular lives as well as their specific deaths. Finally, he created people. But to encourage their own creativity and free will, he decided to let them choose how they would prefer to die. "Do you choose to die like the moon," asked the Most High, "or will you pick the death of the banana tree?"

The moon begins each month full and round. Slowly it wilts, disappearing every fourteen days. But in the night of the fifteenth day, it begins to give birth to itself yet again. From a slim sliver above the sea, it increases until it returns to its full strength.

But the lifespan of the banana tree is finite: it begins as a seed. With nourishment and sun, water and care, it grows throughout the years, giving birth to great fruit. Finally, the wind scatters its seeds, and a new generation arises from the death of that one banana tree.

The people considered the question posed to them by their Creator. To die like the moon means to always return to your own complete perfection; but the death of the banana tree is nourishment for those that come after. And besides, the moon is lonely up there in the night sky, always seeking its mate the sun and so far away from its friends the stars. The people decided on the death of the banana tree so they would have their children and their children's children to accompany them throughout this short life.

Which would you choose?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Which came first: the Jesus or the Pope?

This morning I returned my students' first exams. It amazes me still how lost the art of composing even the most simple of sentences is. I scolded them for "random acts of capitalization," and told them that, for the most part, I was "disappointed in their writing capabilities." I even made them name aloud some of the most basic and common rules of capitalization - much like I was required to do way back in fifth grade.

A huge component of my humanities course covers religion. And I always have at least one Jesus-freak. (I have decided that that name is much closer to the truth than the milder "fundamentalist" who knows nothing about the sheer shit they spout concerning their religious tradition. Can't have a fundamentalist that knows nothing about the fundamentals of their god!) When asked about when you capitalize "God," she replied, "When you're talking about the One True God." Instead of my usual smart-ass answer ("Who? Ahura Mazda?"), I, with my back still turned to her, corrected, "When you're referencing the god of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims." And I love how Jesus-freaks get a bit squirmy when I insist that their god's proper name is Yahweh, as if mentioning this angry desert god (and cheap Ahura Mazda-knockoff) is blasphemy incarnate. (It is, as far as I'm concerned ... but hey, I'm not the one worshipping him!)

One of the essay questions I sometimes ask is:
Both Christianity and Buddhism were originally attempts to reform earlier religions. What were those earlier religions, and who, in your opinion, did a better job at reformation?
My student who earned a whopping 27 points (out of a 100) wrote that Jesus attempted to reform Catholicism by changing their beliefs. Praise G-d from whom all ignorance flows.... For the opinion part, I accept pretty much anything as long as they somehow back it up with facts: "Jesus (and his followers) were better reformers because today Christians outnumber Buddhists" is always a good start. But then I always have to chime in: "Yeah, but Siddhartha's followers didn't go around burning non-Buddhists alive if they didn't convert." (One day, they will ask me not to mention religion when I teach humanities.)

I don't remember if I've written about this before or not, but here's my twisted view of the Second Coming: Jesus returns to earth to copyright & patent his name so that so-called Christians cannot reference him unless he signs some licensing agreement with them. Jesus will finally take back his name (but not in vain, hee hee!). He'll still let me use the derogatory "Jesus-freak," I hope.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

State of Terror

A state of terror exists in the Middle East. It's name is Israel. If we believe that Israel "has a right to defend itself," then certainly we must also believe (if we are sensible people) that civilians have a right to defend themselves against state-terror.

I'm not sure I believe in the myth of self-defense, particularly when Israel boasts the most sophisticated military in the world (what with all their American-made and American paid-for weapons of mass destruction). They are fighting kidnappers and suicide bombers (not to mention the 300 or so Lebanese civilians who have already been murdered with a shining green light from the U.S. - and whose families certainly have a right to defend themselves at least insofar as Israel has a right to defend itself).

Ultimately I do know that there is no qualitative difference between non-state terror and state-sanctioned terror. I know that the blood of a Jew is no more valuable than the blood of an Arab (no matter how many op-eds to the contrary I may read in The New York Times). I know that asymmetrical retaliation only proves the rule that all things must ultimately balance.

Israeli author David Grossman, in his recent interview with Bill Moyers, confessed, "For me, as an Israeli, and as a Jew, I find a lot of symptoms of our behavior today, as a society, as a state, coded in the character of the Biblical Samson." I find this a useful lens through which to view the events from the past few days: although Samson does fulfill God's plan, he too ends up destroying himself, blinded, when he pulls down the temple of the Philistines.

Finally, last night's Tao Te Ching reading was Chapter 74:
If you do not fear death,
then how can it intimidate you?
If you aren't afraid of dying,
there is nothing you can not do.

Those who harm others
are like inexperienced boys
trying to take the place of a great lumberjack.
Trying to fill his shoes will only get them seriously hurt.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Yeah, that's right: I've been atypically irritable lately. I think it's definitely related to the heat wave. Being out all day - another "new" development since the summer term began - especially in the heat, is a contributing factor. I'm used to spending my days at home with my cats under the air conditioning. When I'm not taking classes or teaching, I sometimes go days without leaving my sensory deprivation-like (and I mean this in a good way) home. Spending hours every day driving to McKinney via Addison and back doesn't make the experience any better.

Usually I'm pretty good at clearing my mind and becoming balanced. All those yoga and meditation classes certainly have paid off. But the past two weeks, I've found it almost impossible to do the most basic and beneficial thing of all: relax. Is it too much coffee? Is it the 100+ temperatures? Is it the pollution/ozone? Stress from bad Dallas drivers? Less sleep? Less "mammal time" with the kitties? Just why is it I've become a cranky old bastard lately?

Is it due to my attempt to get through some of the required Heidegger texts on my own regarding his anti-aesthetic theory of aesthetics before the fall term begins? This afternoon I finally reached the end of "The Origin of the Work of Art" after three days. I averaged about 10 pages per hour. So, the origin of the work of art is art. And "art is by nature an origin." My "translation": the art of the work of art is art. What the fuck is that supposed to mean? Fuck Art! [But that's another story altogether....]

Perhaps it's due to my latest and most certainly mad crusade of trying to get copies of my student course evaluations from spring 2005. Several weeks ago I asked the departmental secretary for the copies and was told I would have to contact HR at the McKinney campus. Since I was going to be teaching there this summer term, I waited until I could just pop in their office and make my request. Yesterday before class, I did just that. HR gave me Peggy's email address; she is in charge of Student Records. Peggy rather tersely told me to contact the departmental dean, who told me to come by the office. And so the circle of life [read: circle of strife] continues. I probably pissed off the dean by drawing a diagram of what I've already been through followed by a handful of question marks in an email last night. Later, I sent very explicit and hyper-functional emails to Peggy ["Dear Peggy, I'm a bit unclear on your response: does this mean that you are not the person who can get me copies of my student course evaluations? Or is the proper procedure to contact the dean in order to get copies from you?"] and again to the departmental secretary. This morning I had lots of emails in my inbox: departmental secretary told me to contact HR again, Peggy told me that she indeed was the right person but that she needed authorization from the dean, and the dean's response amounted to, "My head is too far up my ass to see straight." [His actual response was, "I have no control over course evaluations in storage."] I didn't respond to any of them. I mean, after all, where the hell am I supposed to begin with telling so many people that they're fucking idiots?!?! And this is an academic institution!

This afternoon I received a very nice email from someone in HR: "So sorry for the misunderstanding about your student evaluation records. I will get a hold of your records from Peggy and get them to you. The records you want are at this point housed at the records center. Are you wanting to just review the records, or get copies of them to take? Do you want to pick them up when they're ready, or have me mail them to your home?" The path of least resistance is always the best path to travel down. Maybe all this frustration lately was just to remind me of this one simple lesson.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Idealism at Its Finest

Despite having my 8:00am class cancelled Friday afternoon, I've enjoyed meeting with my 10:10am Intro. to Humanities students this week--all seven of them. It's nice to get paid no matter how many students actually enroll. It certainly makes up for the times I had to teach sections with more than thirty students ... grading more than 30 exams and reading more than 30 essays is hardly ever worth the pay. The drive to McKinney has proven a useful time to listen to my Pimsleur Russian CDs: I've been getting through a lesson each morning.

Today in class I covered six cultures: Mesopotamian, Egyptian, early Greek (Mycenaean), Hittite, Persian/Zoroastrian, and Taoism (early Chinese). Tomorrow I hit the highlights of 5th century BC/BCE Greek culture. It's in this class that I show a dramatized version of Plato's Allegory of the Cave from the 1970s, complete with bedsheet toga and dazzling lights atop the mountain of enlightenment. The "modern" dance of the shadow-casters/psychedelic beasties always makes me feel a bit spooked. I'd like to teach a section of this course in Amsterdam just once, so that my students and I could get totally baked at the coffeeshop before watching this video. The colors and lights are so be-dazzling!

It was just shortly before I began teaching this course that I fell in love with late Bronze Age and early Mesopotamian cultures, so I've been adding new lessons almost every semester about the Hittites, or the Sumerians, or the Babylonians. I'm still reserving pre-Islamic Persia as a possible topic for my dissertation, if I finally decide not to write about continental philosophy ... I haven't figured out a way to write about both. Plus, I just like the idea of petitioning my graduate school to accept cuneiform as my foreign language. (Yes, I've already downloaded the Old Persian cuneiform font for MS Word several months ago....) Ah! graduate school ... and all the useless knowledge at your fingertips. I'm sure someday I'll miss it, but right now (only 6 more weeks before the fall term begins) I'm only looking forward to being done.

Saturday, July 8, 2006


A Recent Conversation:
Shayne: Whatcha doing?
Skajlab: Watchin' the game.
Shayne: The Crying Game?
Apparently I am not someone known for watching sports. That's because I hate most sports. Remember, I grew up as a "sensitive" boy in Texas: high school gym class did it to me. But every four years I do sit down in front of my television and watch the World Cup. It's something I started when I lived in Japan in 1998. I even have favorite teams and players. Tomorrow I'll be rooting for Italy.

Since I don't subscribe to ESPN, it's been a hoot watching the matches on Channel 23 Univision in Spanish. Finding a live local broadcast in English has proven unpossible. But that's okay with me: I watched half of the 1998 games in Japanese and the other half in Spanish (when I was home for summer break), and the few matches I caught in 2002 were in Polish because I was living in Warsaw at the time. Besides, the Spanish announcer is better than the latest American Idol winner when it comes to holding the note for his 5-minute "¡G - o - o - o - o - o - o - o - o - l!" Hell, I don't even have to watch the entire game: I can just turn it on with the sound barely audible and wait until I hear his perfect-pitch E-flat announcing that one of the teams scored. They always replay the play anyway.

My own personal ¡Gol! is to be living in a completely new country watching the 2010 World Cup in some other language I barely understand.