Monday, December 8, 2008

Running of the Tumbleweeds!

It's a cold, windy, and dusty day here in Lubbock, Texas. Most people stay in their homes on nasty days like this one, but not me. I went out to film the west Texas treasures stirred awake by the winter wind: the tumbleweed! I took this video from the cab of my truck outside a car dealership just down the road from the house. I couldn't believe all the tumbleweeds that had collected on the west facing fence. For those of you who have never seen a tumbleweed, I hope you enjoy my little video.

After shooting the video I checked out the overrun fence for myself all the while taking pictures like a gawking tourist. I wasn't the only one outside taking pictures of these marvlous things, for right there next to me a woman shooting the action with her own digicam. I said "howdy" to her with a big smile and thought to myself, "I'm glad I'm not the only moron out here taking pictures of these things." She was so thrilled to see the tumbleweed mound, saying, "I'm from Houston and I've never seen a tumbleweed before. This is great!" I agreed, not having seen any tumbleweeds for almost 5 years myself.

We took turns taking pictures of each other standing in front of the tumbleweed pile. The picture below should give you some idea just how many tumbleweeds had blown from the fields.

The running of the tumbleweeds is just one of the many things I love about my native land: Texas.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thrifty Finds a Camera

I went to the thrift store for the first time since I've been back in Lubbock, and it was awesome! I love thrift stores, especially the ones that sell a bunch of random things people don't want anymore.

Thrift stores in Japan were anything but thrifty. Most of the ones I went into only sold used clothes, I mean "vintage" clothes, at astronomical prices. I once saw a worn out pair of Converse All-Stars selling for 8,000 yen ($80); the new ones: 4,000 yen ($40). Go figure.

But there I was, wandering the isles of the great American thrift store, trying on polyester sport coats and plaid breeches with no intentions of buying. I try on the most outlandish garments in sight attempting to try on the past; older fashions, a different way of life. Usually the old-times constrict and itch.

Finding nothing worth $5 on the racks I ventured into the rest of the store and looked at the unwanted artifacts of years past. White plastic TVs, plastic woodgrain VCRs, and mobile phones the size of footballs sent out their rescue cries. Other peices of the past just sat lifelessly on the shelf waiting for the dumpster to ease their rejection pains.

Walking slowly to consider each object, I stopped in front of purse sized, duck-vomit green leather case. I knew there was a camera inside, probably an old winder-upper. I never expected what I saw inside: a 1957 Keystone Capri K57 8mm Cinemaster II movie camera.

"Wow!," I thought, "This things gotta be worth more than the $9.99 tag." Along with the camera was the tattered original instruction manual and a mail in waranty postcard. The action on the reels still worked so I bought it. I'm sure 8mm film is next to impossible to get these days, but what the heck.

The camera has three Bausch & Lomb lenses to shoot through: a 9mm f/1.8 wide-angle, a 12.7mm f/1.8, and a 25mm f/1.8 telephoto. An exposer ring helps the user control the shot with 5 simple settings like, "hazy sun," "cloudy dull," and "bright sun" to name a few. In 1957 this camera must've been the bees knees.

With my new old movie camera in hand, all I have to do now is find some 8mm film (tough), a place to develop it (hard), and way to watch my movie (don't even know where to start). Sounds expensive but it's worth a shot, at least once. Maybe I should go back and buy a polyester jacket to complete the look.

If anyone has any information about purchasing or developing 8mm film I'd love to hear from you. Here's the wind-up... Action!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Sunflower Scandle

This past growing season my family raised a crop of sunflowers at our farm near Olton, Texas. The beautiful, and highly alergetic, flowers are more than just eye candy- they're a cashcrop. We grew the sunflowers mainly because sunflowers are a low-maintenance crop. Sunflowers, if I understand them correctly (though we never talked much), are in the weed family, and if there's one thing our dry dirt farm knows how to grow, it's weeds.

We contracted 130 acres of sunflowers to a panhandle company called High Plains Oil Seed at the to-good-to-be-true price of 28.95 cents per pound. After harvesting, our crop was valued around $14,000. We thought we had a hell of a deal, and so did a lot of other farmers, until...

High Plains Oil Seed didn't honor their contracts, leaving a lot of sunflower farmers penniless and faced with unpayable water, land, and fertilizer bills. Outraged, the farmers hired a laywer and threatened to sue High Plains Oil Seed for the contracted price. The company's response was the same as the farmers: we're broke. Not only was High Plains Oil Seed not willing to honor their contract of 28.95 cents/lb., they said the sunflowers would only be released from the worthless contract if the farmers did not sue. About this time the irrigation bill comes in the mail and my family is forced to take out a loan (against the farm land) to pay it.

Eventually High Plains Oil Seed released our sunflowers. The seeds are now sitting in a barn on the south side of Olton; and their current market value: 14.2 cents/lb., about $7,000; nowhere close to the originally contracted price.

It's hard being a farmer these days, just like it's always been. It's hard enough suffering nature's unpredictable whims and the high cost of diesel and electricity used to run equipment and sprinklers, without being financially crippled by a crooked company who doesn't honor their contracts. And if you think my family has it bad, imagine the farmer who contracted 1,000 acres with the High Plain Oil Seed comany- imagine the financial blackhole he's in.

The woes of small farmers continue to ring over the flat Texas plains, and sunflowers don't look so cute to me anymore.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Cold Air, Hot Engines

85 mph is freezing on a screaming motorcycle. But my god, it's awesome to roll the throttle and feel the beast surge forward faster and faster. The Virago could accelerate forever, pulling up its wheels and taking off with one sharp flick of my wrist. The engine blows and blasts fire like a contained volcano warming my thighs with its fire-breath. A Dragon that lets me believe I control its raw power.

Hands frozen. Tinseled chin-whiskers grow brittle and blow away as filings. Chapped lips crack out a insane smile; a hedonistic revel. Pure Being at 5000 revolutions per minute: outrunning the speed of life down a backroad. Raaaaeeeeiieooouuaaaaw-----

Grey Wolf and I burned down the road out of Lubbock and swung into a small canyon on the outskirts of Slaton, Texas. Down the winding asphalt into a canyon floor. The trees had shed their leaves as our spirits quickened. All is right in the jungle.

Grey Wolf and his '00 Yamaha 1100cc V-Star Classic

the Man on his '95 Yamaha 1100cc Virago

Friday, November 28, 2008

Learning What the Buddha Never Taught

Many of my favorite books are the ones I've bought at used bookstores and just tossed on the shelf without reading them for months or even years after purchase. I'll buy cheep books based upon nothing more than the coolness of the author's name; like Ngugi, author of Devil on the Cross; or because the book has a stellar cover; like all of the Vintage editions of Haruki Murakami's books; or because the book has a thought provoking title, like the one this post is about: Tim Ward's What the Buddha Never Taught.

I picked up What the Buddha Never Taught at Boulder's Red Letter Books (the best used bookstore in Colorado) almost 3 years ago. Here was a book about Buddhism I didn't own and it had the added bonus of being signed by the author for a fickle woman named "Anne." I slotted it on my shelf where it aged like a fine wine, for when I read it a few weeks ago I was astonished.

What the Buddha Never Taught is an entertaining travelogue about the author's stay in a Buddhist temple in Thailand. Like all good travel writing, the author is witty and deeply reflective as he records his temple stay. Ward writes as a questioning outsider living in a foreigner run Thai temple. His philosophical questions guide his own spiritual development as a practitioner while spurring the other monks to think about their own commitment.

While at the temple, Ward never receives any formal training in meditation or any words of spiritual development. He is simply told to "follow the rules" by the temple abbot: an ex-jazz guitar playing, Australian. Though Ward resents the abbot's lack of teaching, he slowly begins to find his own methods and motivations for meditation.

As you might guess, the monk hood of the temple is a motley assortment of international folk of all ages, each seeking something different from the Buddha and their own take on Buddhist practice. One thing Ward does extremely well is sum up the various personalities and idiosyncrasies of each of the monks he lives with. Of all the folk Ward lives with, he spends most of his time with Jim- a depressed American college student looking for release.

One of the most insightful chapters I ever read about Buddhism shows Ward and Jim sitting on a moonlit porch debating and dreading the consequences of enlightenment, namely, the death of the ego. That is a very scary idea to both men and me as well. When I finished reading that passage I realized that Buddhism isn't just about being compassionate and not killing things. No. The quest for enlightenment is an inward gauntlet that requires mountains of faith and relentless introspection than most people, including myself, are comfortable with. For the first time Ward helped me realize that Buddhism is a deeply serious philosophy, forcing its followers to explore their own souls before those very souls are snuffed-out with nirvana. This is lesson the Buddha never taught.

I highly recommend Tim Ward's What the Buddha Never Taught to anyone interested in Buddhism or Thailand. The book is a fine depiction of what Buddhist practice looks like in the real world. It is a finely crafted and fun book that effortlessly mixes profound spiritual insight with embarrasing cultural mishap. I wished the book kept on going, so I was thrilled when I learned that the book is first of three in Ward's "Nirvana Trilogy," where in each book he experiences life in each of the three schools of Buddhism. What the Buddha Never Taught is about Theravada Buddhism, the second and third books deal with Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhisms. I have those last two book slated for reading, though I haven't tossed them on the self yet.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Texas Tater BBQ: Treat for Your Mouth

Tonight's dinner was a rare feast of imaginative Texan cuisine. With Thanksgiving rapidly approaching, I present a sampling of my father's culinary genius to the Inside Outsider audience:

If you'd like to wrangle up this delicacy for yourself and loved ones this Thanksgiving, all you need is 3 simple ingredients:

1. Betty Crocker four cheese instant potatoes
2. Chopped beef BBQ from your local smokehouse (Lubbock's J&M BBQ is a fine choice)
3. BBQ sauce- the spicier the better;)

If I had to choose one meal to eat before my demise, I'd choose Tater-BBQ, and die with spicy four-cheese smile on my face and beef 'tween my teeth.
Should anyone out there actually try this dish I'd love to hear your comments!

Sunday, November 16, 2008


I'm walking through mist. Opaque clouds all around that absorb the colors of my clothing and captures the exhalations of thought. The brush lining the thin dirt path rise up meeting the fog that blankets the sparse forest with its thinning late autumn trees. Leaves fall slowly and without spin into the vapor that arrests their decent, claiming them as it does my concerns that feel so heavy, yet, float for a time then evaporate into the grey. There is little recognizable around me; little to recognize walking into uncertainty.

Feet move on their own, treading upon moist earth sprinkled with dew and spent leaves. Hands tucked into the pockets of a black field coat. Chin tucked slightly keeping the drizzle out of my eyes. I hear nothing except textured foot-stepping and the mist's soft static which disappears when listened for.

I walk onward; not forward. Memories caught up in the mist which surrounds every being in this place. How do I reclaim my memories from the mist? Can I reach out a grasping hand and take an invisible key from the ghost? I know I can't. So I continue to walk...and breathe.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Horses Under the Hood

The Lubbock Mustang and Corvette car club held a car show recently. It was a rare treat seeing so many well cared for high powered vehicles in one parking lot. My favorite cars at the show were the muscle cars. These long and low fat tired machines just made me want to jack the keys and smoke out of the lot.

The club organizers held the show to raise money for widow whose husband had been a member in the car club. Anyone could enter their car and money was raised by placing a can or bucket near each car. At the end of the show the car with the most money in its bucket wins the day. Now that's a full throttled way to help a widow in need.

Some family friends entered their cars in the show. At right is Rex's Corvette proudly wearing custom paint and wheels.
Rex's wife Jeanie also entered the show with her award winning "Small Wonder," a Volkswagon Bug with a forward trunk full trophies. The couple's cars balance their garage excellently: on the right rests a missle on wheels; on the left, a red toot-pooter.
The cars, most classic, some modern, and a few oddball, brought together a wide range of people of all age groups. The most refreshing sight at the show was watching a father explain to his young son the differences in each kind of car. He'd pull the wide eyed boy over to a car and say something like "You see how this car has the shiny metal here but this car doesn't. That's because this one's older than that one." The son studied his fathers words with scientific vigour. Then he'd peak into the cab and imagine himself driving a classic car that his grandfather probably raced down the street. Nothing brings generations of men together like classic cars and big engines.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Cattle Undone: Tour of a Panhandle Slaughterhouse

My father works at a feedlot in Olton, Texas where cattle are pinned and fed until they reach cut weight. Freegrazers made barred gluttons.

My uncle works at a slaughterhouse, or "meat packing plant," in Cactus, Texas where the same cattle are sliced apart then boxed.

Sad seeing the creatures confined to dirt pins. Stomach-churning seeing them disassembled.

The entire beef production industry is a cold efficient machine wherein the living animal becomes a stock of raw material efficiently and economically manufactured from beginning to end. I've described feedlot life in my post, Sell by the Pound; below I describe slaughterhouse death as I witnessed it.

Cattle are offloaded 18-wheelers into pins outside the plant. As the cattle are led into the plant a worker sprays the cattle with a hose to remove any feces that may contaminate the meat lying under their tough hides. The herd follows the herd.

The knocker is a pneumatic gun that fires a rod into the cow's skull. The knocker is also the position title of the man who wields the device. He is a highly paid worker and wears a helmet with a grated face mask attached to it, similar to a baseball catcher's mask. Should the cow go berserk the knocker is protected. He must lay the cow down on the first fire.

A quick thrust of air and a stone like knock issues. Soon the hole left by the rod spurts a bright red blood that winds down the features of the cow's face. Sometimes the blood pumps steadily from the hole; other times the blood erupts like a rosy geyser. However the blood releases, the cow slumps down a lifeless mass.

With the cow dispatched, a worker underneath the knocking cage wraps a chain around a rear ankle and connects the chain to a ceiling mounted track that hoists the mass into the air and moves it to the next station. A section of the track pulses with electricity that zaps away whatever life may still reside in the animal.

At the next station one worker makes a horizontal slice into the neck large enough for the next worker to insert his knife and severe the jugular. The second man's cut is the bloodiest of the whole operation. There is no way to adequately describe how blood surges and drains out of the animal; it looks like a sheet of water poured from a 10 gallon bucket, only it's not water but, hot blood that splashes to the concrete floor. The second man wears a rubber apron and elbow length rubber gloves, yet blood still stains his attire.

The rest of the operation is worse but I won't write of it. I won't write about the peeling of the hide, the severing of the head, or the slicing out of the tongue. Nor will I write about the sharp-toothed tools that cut easily through both flesh and bone. I've seen these things, and they are for others to see as well.

The front of the slaughterhouse is called the "hot side" because all the work done there takes place while the meat is still warm. When the mass is cleaned and sliced in half it is stored in a massive freezer for at least a day, killing any bacteria that may damage the product. At the feedlot I saw acres of cattle standing and eating; in the freezer I saw acres of flesh hanging in halves from the ceiling.

After freezing the pieces for a day or so they are all moved into the "cold side" of the slaughterhouse. It is called the "cold side" because all the processing is done in a cold environment to cold pieces of meat. On the cold side the chunk is chopped down to marketable pieces of meat, like T-bones, ribs, and chuck. Every piece of cold flesh is used with extremely little being wasted. Droves of workers in chain male make one slice all day long as endless slabs of meat move down the conveyor belt. The workers come from all around the world making the slaughterhouse an international workplace. Muslim women in head coverings work beside Latino men as they vacuum seal product for shipment. My uncle has learned standard greetings in many languages.

The slaughterhouse produces its own boxes and packages its own product in these boxes. It is a meat packing plant. The product is stored and dispensed when needed to grocery stores throughout the panhandle. An interesting operation from start to finish.

I feel privileged to have seen the death, separation, and packaging of cattle. Few people witness how beef is made. As I watched the knocker kill the cattle and the second man spill their blood, I wondered how these men could do such a violent job countless times an hour, day in and day out. But the more I thought about how repetitive the job was and how small a role each cut played in the entire drama, it dawned on me that it the workers too realized this fact. I suppose when you have a razor sharp knife or a pneumatic knocker in hand and are responsible for one precise cut every 15 seconds, you don't have much time or room for disposable, reflective thought. A worker can't step back and ponder the meaning of it all on the killing floor.

And it's not as if the workers are dismantling cattle one at a time. They're slicing and packaging thousands of cattle each day, like a professor reading a class full of 15 page essays at the end of a semester: each paper is special the student who wrote it, but after the tenth paper the professor's mind is numbed and she just wants to get through the stack.

Besides, the knocker is the only one in the whole works who sees the cow go from a living being to a dead one. Perhaps he's the only one who works with a "cow;" maybe all the rest of the workers, especially on the cold side, are just carving prime ribs or T-bones. Give me a knife and I'll cut a steak, but I'd never slay a cow.

It is more than gallons of blood spilling out of the cow, or perhaps I should say, the blood pouring from the cow's veins is more than liquid. Within the blood is the spirit of the animal. There is something extremely visceral and unsettling about watching the life-force of a great creature spill onto indifferent concrete. The initial movement from life to death, from breath and wandering eyes to de-animation and dead weight: the killing is disturbing to watch. But as I walked farther down the line I grew as indifferent the concrete. I didn't much enjoy witnessing the taking of life, but what disturbed me more was the mechanized dis-assembly line method with which the cutting was preformed. The cattle business is cold and efficient.

I think of the word "dehumanization," which means to remove essentially human qualities from a person. There should be a word like that to describe the shift in perception that occurs when a great beast of the field is viewed as raw material for packaging and consumption.

My uncle asked me a deep question as we stood watching the knocker struggle to make a clean shot on a fear stricken, bewildered cow; he asked me if I would file into stocks and sit still while someone positioned a device over my head waiting for the right moment to kill me? "Would you accept the fact that your time was up calmly, or would you struggle and fight to the end?" I told him I would fight to my very last; for out of all the thousands of cattle the knocker has laid down, I'd make damn sure he'd remember me.

Monday, October 27, 2008

An Honest Preface

The great literary critic and fellow blogger M. P. Johnsen once wrote a brilliant post about wimpy academic prefaces in "Preface Par Excellence," on his blog Causerie. In the post he derides the standard preface as follows:

The preface of nearly every "academic" work I've read in college and grad school contains some form of disclaimer. The author goes about thanking everyone who helped in the writing and research of the book and concludes by saying that any faults or errors in the book are attributable exclusively to the author. The disclaimer is a gesture of humility on the one hand, a way of saying that the brilliance of the text was the product of many but the faults [of] the product of one. But on the other it's an empty formality. Empty because it appears in every book without fail & because books of that sort have been read and proofread so often that there should be no errors at all. It's not very encouraging, after all, if someone begins a persuasive argument by saying, "Here's what I think. . . . if I'm wrong it's my own fault." Just think of the legal nightmares if litigators began their cases that way.

M. P. compares this standard, wimpy, preface with those written by the mustached German philosopher Nietzsche, who basically tells his audiance that if they don't understand his book it's because the reader didn't read it thoroughly enough, i.e. "ruminate" upon it, or, the reader failed to read and comprehend all of Nietzsche's previous works. Nietzsche wasn't about kissing babies and keeping friends; he was about vomitting truth and letting the reader sift through the spill.

I like M. P.'s arguement because it cuts through the mutual academic hand shaking that doesn't extend to the reader. I also like Nietzsche's approach to preface writing because he makes no appologies about his work and makes the reader stupidly guilty of any errors.

With that background, I recently read a preface that takes a little of both approaches. In Randolh B. Campbell's Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State, he writes the standard "thank you to all my colleauges..." preface but throws in a barb at the end, writing:

Finally, as is customary after acknowledging the help of others, I must admit that reamaining weaknesses and errors of omission or commission are my own fault. Why one of my friends did not catch them will always remain a mystery. (Just joking, guys.)

I wish Campbell would've omitted that last little "Just joking, guys," because I don't think he was joking. At least he shouldn't have been joking. I know the help of friends can't turn one's burlap manuscript into silk, but they should at least be able to blend it's patches.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Weezer, the Shout inside Your Head: or, Why Weezer Rocks!

I came to Weezer a little late for a man my age. I remember hearing all my junior high classmates raving about them and their first hit video "Buddy Holly," but I didn't care; Weezer was just an act back then.

About a year ago I fell in love with "Pinkerton," Weezer's second and greatest album. (pictured left) Every song on the album rocks so hard. The guitars are rough and the lyrics are simple on the surface and addictively catchy. Songs like "Tired of Sex," and "The Good Life" complement each other nicely; the former bemoans a full life of empty sex; the latter wonders when and how old age sat in.

Though all the songs on "Pinkerton" seriously rock, it's "El Scorcho" that takes the prize. Combining a resounding chant that loops in your head for hours with smashing drums and edgy guitars, the song speaks from the heart, and, most importantly, shouts out loud what every guy on Earth has thought to himself upon seeing his dream girl(s). And that's the amazing power of Weezer's songs quintessentially displayed in "El Scorcho:" the power to crystallize and shout out loud the things we fantasize about, the lines we wish could say to someone, and the feelings that we wrestle with when sleep won't come.

The chorus to "El Scorcho" is simple enough: "I'm a lot like you so please, hello, I'm here, I'm waiting. I think I'd be good for you, and you'd be good for me." Everyone who's ever had a crush on someone has thought those very words. The chorus speaks loudly and the song hammers home the point at 2:13 with: "How stupid is it, for all I know you want me to, but maybe you just don't know what to do, and maybe you're scared to say 'I'm fallin' for you'." I still think these things; these words make-up a universal daydream; these words address the perennial uncertainties that plague human relationships! Listen for yourself:

Along with "Pinkerton" I really enjoy the "Blue Album," mainly because at this stage in the game Weezer knew how to channel the thoughts echoing in our heads. With the "Green Album," and whatever else came after that (I don't care about the 'later weezer') the band lost more than their bassist, they lost touch with their own internal monologues- or at least didn't include it in songs. Maybe something inside Weezer's head fundamentally changed when they came to stardom. Maybe they lost the insecurities that made their music so special. Success changes people.

If my theory here is correct then I'm extremely pleased that Weezer's latest album, the "Red Album" bombed. What a disgraceful piece of work. I was listening to it on my iPod shuffle and thought I had downloaded the wrong album because I didn't have any cover art telling me "yes, the disgrace you're listening to is Weezer."

Even though 90% of the "Red Album" is extremely bad, the hit song "Pork and Beans" shines like a diamond in the rough. In "Pork in Beans" I hear the same magic at work that launched "El Scorcho." Back to their old selves, we hear Weezer yelling an anthem of freedom- or at least what they'd say if they had the guts:

"I'm gonna do the things that I wanna do, I ain't gotta thing to prove to you. I eat my candy with the pork and beans, excuse my manners if I make a scene. I ain't gonna wear the clothes that you like, I'm finally dandy with the me inside. One look in the mirror and I'm tickled pink, I don't give a hoot about what you think."

Now that's the Weezer that rocks! Weezer rocks because they shout out what we're all too afraid to say for ourselves. The music connects with our own fears, insecurities, and uncertainties and shouts them out into the open. When I sing along at the top of my lungs I'm actually shouting out my fears, insecurities, and uncertainties. It feels so good to yell all those thoughts out my head. It's a rush to say what you want how you want to, and Weezer helps makes this expression possible and supremely fun.
Sorry for the cruddy second video but all the real "Pork and Beans" video can't be embedded from YouTube. At least you can hear the song and read the lyrics.
Top: "Pinkerton" album cover features my favorite Japanese woodblock print (浮世栄) by Hiroshige (広重) called Kanbara (蒲原).

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Riding Giants in Thailand

Before leaving Japan my friend Calum and I took a week long trip to one of the most beautiful countries in the world: Thailand. While we spent most of our time in big Bangkok, on the third day of the trip we took a bus to Ayutthaya, the ancient capitol of Thailand which lies about an hour and a half up river from Bangkok. Ayutthaya is famous for its temples (wat in Thai) but for me Ayutthaya is all about riding the local giants; the ELEPHANTS!

Before leaving for Thailand I made the resolution, come hell or high water, to ride an elephant; even if I had to ride it bareback in the Thai jungles. Fortunately, for only 200 bhat ($6) a piece, anyone can ride an elephant outside Ayutthaya's most famous temple, Wat Mongkor Bopitr. I jumped at the chance, I mean, how often does a dude get to ride an elephant?

Riding that giant was a jostling dose of royalty. I can understand why the elephant is the vehicle of kings in many Asian countries; sitting atop the largest land mammal and looking down on the tiny people your giant could crush at will, fills one with a sense of raw power. And traffic accidents, forget about it- nobody wants to rumble with an 11 foot tall (3.4 m), 12,000 pound(5,400) elephant. Mark Twain summed up his elephant riding experience in a similar fashion, "I could easily learn to prefer an elephant to any other vehicle, partly because of the immunity from collisions."

As we tromped along the walking course I tried to talk with the driver but he didn't have much to say. He walked us quietly to the edge of a lake where we paused and looked out over shoe-string waves to an old temple on the far shore. The experience was priceless. In my opinion there's no better way on the planet to spend $6.

The elephant is a holy animal in many Asian cultures. In India, where Twain rode his giant, the most popular deity is Ganesha, a god with a human body and an elephant head helps people through troubles.

Elephants are also play an important role in Thai culture where they serve as the national animal and were once found on the Thailand's national flag. Everything elephants do has some special significance, especially breeding. After our elephant returned to the corral and we dismounted, I visited the nearby gift shop and bought an amazing elephant postcard which showed the sacred act of elephant coitus. With a scene so graphic, I'm glad it wasn't one of the sights I came across in friendly Thailand.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Winding Paths, Entangling Shadows

What is the role of the philosopher and to what goal is philosophy written? I ask myself these questions often as I have a graduate degree in philosophy and fancy myself of a philosophical disposition. After two plus years away from academic halls I ask these questions anew and now with an ethical searchlight: to what extent should one's philosophy influence the thinker's behavior and ideological affiliations? Perhaps I should arrive at a solution before writing here, but, in the words of the late French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, "We write at the boundary of knowledge; for if we wrote only that which were certain no one should ever write anything."

My struggle to answer these foundational questions makes me consider the life of the German thinker Martin Heidegger. His philosophical mind is powerful and thought provoking, yet I find the most intriguing questions are asked outside the bindings of his books. Heidegger's life forces me to ask my questions earnestly, and, in some respects, judgementally.

Martin Heidegger seen by many the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century. His 1927 release of Being and Time, shook the foundations of western philosophy, mainly because it questioned the very foundation of western philosophy by examining Being. Yes that is Being with a "big B." For many people, me included, Being isn't a topic I ponder in my daily life. But alas, Heidegger pondered the hell out of it and wrote a 488 page book detailing his thoughts.

The book is a gauntlet. Of all the books on my self I am proudest that I read the whole of it. A monster text and imposing, I waded through it at a snail's pace of 5 pages/hour; meaning I spent 100 hours with the book. With 4 days of my life scribbled on its pages you might begin to understand the attachment I have to the book.

Heidegger's mind was sharp as a Ginsu -no one, whether they agree or disagree with his work questions that. The questions Heidegger's shadow faces most often are those of an ideological nature, and for no small reason: Heidegger was a Nazi. -Did you say Nazi? -Sure did, call Dr. Jones.

Yes, Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party until the party was over. During the first year of his Nazi affiliation he was appointed rector of the University of Freiburg, an occasion historically marked by his speech praising National Socialism and its merits. About a year after resigning as rector of the university, Heidegger, in his 1935 work An Introduction to Metaphysics, praises National Socialism and it's "inner truth" writing:

The works that are being peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism but have nothing whatever to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement (namely the encounter between global technology and modern man)-have all been written by men fishing in the troubled waters of "values" and "totalities."

Heidegger was greatly interested in technology's effects on humanity, effects most egregiously witnessed in the concentration camps, where Heidegger writes in his piece The Danger:

Hundreds of thousands die in masses. Do they die? They come undone. They are disposed of. Do they die? They become part of the stock to supply the fabrication of corpses. Do they die? They are liquidated inconspicuously in extermination camps.

Using Heidegger's philosophy of death, I interpret Heidegger's seemingly cold words to mean that those dying in the camps are being stripped of the human being's right to a meaningful death. Death in Heidegger's thought is the moment we face ourselves at our most honestly and authentically, and should no one should be robbed of that moment of vision. He roughs this idea out in the following paragraph:

To die, however, means to carry death out in its essence. To be able to die, means to be capable of this commission. We are capable of it only if our essence inclines to the essence of death.

Whether one agrees with my sympathetic reading of Heidegger's questionable "Do they die?" section, one fact is clear: it was the Nazis who created the means to murder so many Jewish people in their camps, thanks in no small part to their technological twistedness. "Yes they did die Heidegger, and your own Nazi party is wholly responsible for the genocide."

With the Nazi party dismantled after WWII, Heidegger was banned from teaching in German universities due to his involvement. Heidegger never apologized or offered a retrospective justification for his membership in the Nazi party. He never slapped himself on the head and thought himself misguided for his affiliations; at least not publicly, and I doubt he did so in private either.

Can one separate Heidegger's Nazi ideology from his written philosophy? Sure. It's easy to read books out of their historical contexts --it happens with the bible all the time. It's even easier to forget that Heidegger was a Nazi because he makes so little reference to the ideology in his published work, philosophical or otherwise.

And how does an examination of Heidegger's life and work help me answer the questions above? What role should philosophers play in society and how should their work guide their conduct and ideological convictions?

Well, philosophers are societies' thinkers, that's about all their good at, and they should be good thinkers because that is their speciality. Joe the plumber unclogs drains, Neil the accountant balances the books, Norm the carpenter builds cabinets, and philosophers think, teach, and write books. Each is held to standards of quality and value.

While the majority of philosophers' work takes place in the classroom and in the mind, the goal should, in my thinking, always be to illuminate the world in which we live by inspiring a thirst for deeper meanings, fed by limitless curiosity. Philosophers should embody their convictions and write from those convictions. While everyone lives out of different values, the ultimate value of any philosophy need be one that draws its readers closer to attaining their human potential.

This goal of bringing people into their full humanity is the chief aim of philosophy and education. Of course when we talk of values today we enter a battleground with muddy footing. The questions which occupy philosophy are questions of values, and they are difficult questions. On what scales are philosophers weighed? How does one determine the value of thought and what is worth thinking? What is ultimate value of Value? Tricky questions inspired by my first questions; a deepening of the issue by an uncomfortable excavation of the heart. Heidegger himself acknowledges the difficulty of securing values by anchoring them to a center, and I conclude this difficult blog post with one his thoughts:

Even if a future philosopher should reach this center [of value]-- we of the present day can only work toward it-- he will not escape entanglement, but it will be a different entanglement. No one can jump over his own shadow.


Quotations: Line from Deleuze is from his introduction in Difference in Repitition (I can't provide more info because I seem to have left my copy in Japan. It's a tough book anyhow.) Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, translated by Ralph Manheim, (Yale 1959). Heidegger, The Danger, translated by Frank Seeburger, (from University of Denver in class discussion 2005). Final qoute from An Introduction of Metaphysics, ibid, brackets mine. Picture: Rodin's "The Thinker," the consumate image of the philosopher.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Motor Head

It's been a busy month for me. I did a huge trip through huge Texas; first to visit my cousins in the Austin area, then to visit my grand mother in the Dallas area, and, finally, I went back to Austin to pick up my newest and greatest treasure: my 1995, Yamaha 1100cc Virago. I found the bike on ebay and got a great deal on the beast, which remarkably only had 4,500 mile on it. I'm the third owner of this pristine motorcycle. The gentleman I bought the bike from said "this is a true motorcycle: it's a big motor with a gas tank and wheels strapped to it." I couldn't agree more. So, without further adeu, here she is:) I love this bike! It's my treasure. I can honestly state that burning 90 mph down the highway is the most fun I've ever had with my pants on (though I haven't ridden it naked yet)! I'll be posting more pictures of it on my Flickr page so check them out.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Check out my feedlot post below...

Hello readers, due to one of Blogger's many quirks, one of articles was ordered incorrectly. My latest article about my time at Cattlemen's Feedlot called Sell by the Pound is located below my Hesse article.

I began drafting the article on September 8th but just published it today. Blogger being what it is, published my article according to the date I started drafting it. So just scroll down, click on the link above, or click on the picture of Earl below to read my latest and most informative piece yet; it just might change your life.
But really, if you're relying on me to change your life I suggest you look elsewhere. You might try Safely Framed's photos or MP's Causerie. Thought I'd give a shout out to my bros;)


Japanhandle Justin

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Hermann Hesse and my wandering life

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) is one my favorite authors. I've had one his books in my hands every time I've faced a life-changing decision, which, in my relatively short and inexperienced life, has only been twice: once when deciding to go to Japan, and now as I decide a career path in America. Hermann Hesse's novels serve as bookends to my Japanese experience, and guideposts on journeys awaiting.

I first discovered Hesse in graduate school when I picked up his most famous work Siddhartha, the coming of age story of a young Indian searching for spiritual fulfillment during the time of the historical Buddha. The protagonist's spiritual wanderings away from the established religion and his sexual exploits, which Hesse writes so well, made Hesse an instant literary superstar and secular guru to the hippies during the 1960's counter-cultural movements following the book's translation and American release in 1951. As a wanderer of spiritual paths, I found Siddhartha a pleasure to read because of it's slow poetic sentences and delicate descriptions of a heart's desire.

Though Siddhartha is Hesse's most well known work, my favorite of Hesse's books is the brilliantly written and highly emotional Narcissus and Goldmund (English ed. 1968). Revolving around the relationship between the two title characters, Narcissus and Goldmund, the story follows the lives of these two men (though Goldmund receives most of the attention) as they develop intellectually, artistically, and spiritually.

The story begins at a Catholic monastery in Medieval Germany where Narcissus and Goldmund first meet. Common for the period, parents sent their young boys to monasteries for an education and to get them out of the house. Narcissus has been at the monastery for some time before Goldmund is dropped off there by his father. Goldmund is placed under the care of Narcissus, a straight-laced, studious young man who excels in Latin and aspires to become an abbot. Goldmund, on the other hand, is a starry-eyed youth who views rules more as guidelines. Hesse describes them both so:

Narcissus was dark and spare; Goldmund, a radiant youth. Narcissus was analytical, a thinker; Goldmund, a dreamer with the soul of a child. But something they had in common bridged these contrasts; both were refined; both were different from the others because of obvious gifts and signs; both bore the special mark of fate. (17)

From the very beginning of the novel, Hesse sets the two boys as friendly opposites and, sooner than later, Goldmund leaves the monastery after catching sight of a beautiful gal while fetching herbs in the field. If you think Bond girls are hot, wait 'till you come across one of Hesse's, they'll make your blood boil; Goldmund's sure did as the girl fetched his twig and berries. After this first of Goldmund's sexual encounters, he knows he's not cut out for life as a monk and he hits the road.

While on the road Goldmund experiences a dash of everything Bob Dylan sings about in "A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall." He sleeps in peoples' hay and sometimes rolls in it with the women. He is taken in by various families, creating quiet sanctuaries where he can catch his breath- at least until the women take it away. He picks up travel companions, some good and others bad. He wanders through the decimation left in the Black Plague's wake. At last Goldmund takes up a trade and works as an apprentice where he refines his artistic vision, a vision that he's been chasing his entire life.

Though the story is primarily about Goldmund, Hesse uses both him and Narcissus to illustrate two ways of life; the life of the priest, and that of the artist. Hesse defines these lifestyles by contrasting the two characters lives, each representing a side of the classical, age-old dichotomy between law and love, order and chaos, piety and passion. Some literary critics, drawing on Hesse's admiration of Nietzsche, describe the book as Hesse's novelization of the Nietzschian concepts of the Apollonian (from Apollo, Greek god of order) and the Dionysian (from Dionysus, Greek god of wine and dance), with Narcissus embodying the former, and Goldmund the latter. I'm inclined to follow this analysis though it does lack a little imagination.

As I mentioned above, I read Narcissus and Goldmund during a transitional period in life when a big decision needed making. I was finishing up my M.A. at Iliff School of Theology, and had to choose between staying in America and continuing my education by going for my doctorate, or flying off to Japan, a place completely unknown to me, to start a life I couldn't even imagine. Do I stay in the monastery, the ivory palace of the academy, or, do I cut to the fields and explore another country and another part of myself? I chose to live the unexpected life and leave the tower just as Goldmund did. Like Goldmund I encountered many sights, beautiful people, and, at times, depression during long cold winters. Hesse helped me make my decisions, and I wonder if he would've made the same one. I'd like to think he would've.

When I arrived in Denver after two years of living in Japan, I stayed at my friend Jeremiah's apartment and, while perusing his book collection, came across one of Hesse's novels I had heard about but never read, Beneath the Wheel (English ed. 1968). I just finished reading the book last night and feel that this novel will impact my very near future as I decide upon career paths. The novel's message comes more as warning than inspiration.

Beneath the Wheel, like Narcissus and Goldmund, is a bildungsroman, or a growing up story. (After reading most of Hesse's novels, easily 2/3rds of them are bildungroman.) The main character of the novel is gifted young Hans Geibenrath who lives in small town Germany. Hans starts off as a quiet teacher's pet who excels in Latin and Classical Greek. He loves to pull a reed and fish alone at the river with his sparce free time, i.e. when he isn't learning New Testament Greek with the liberal pastor or studying for his state examination. Hans is a fragile little genius and the pride of his small town.

The story kicks into gear after Hans aces his state examination and is sent to the academy with a bunch of other boys from all over Germany. While at the academy he continues to blow his teachers away with his knowledge and learning ability. However, after meeting his first and only friend at the academy, the imaginative poet Hermann Heilner (notice the HH), Hans's grades begin to fall as Heilner's rebelliousness rubs off on him. After Heilner is brought in after running away from the academy he is expelled, an act which drives the coffin nail on Hans remaining interest in school. With his best and only friend expelled, Hans goes from bad to worse, both in terms of his effort and his health. His headaches intensify and occasionally cause him to faint. Han's is sent back home for health reasons and never returns to the academy.

Back home he is considered a failure. The same schoolmaster and pastor who once praised him now have no time for him. Instead of idling away at home, Hans takes up a trade, mechanics, and begins working in a metal shop filing cogs off a metal wheel. The rest of the story came as quite a shock to me and I won't retell it here. It is tragic.

Just as Narcissus and Goldmund, represent two ways of life, letters and spirit, we find the same relationship between Hans and Heilner, only with drastically different outcomes. Where Hesse focuses on the wandering man in N&G, in Beneath the Wheel he examines the strait-lacer, Hans, who is disowned by the same society that once promised his dreams. The novel is often interpreted as Hesse's attack on the elitist, overly academic, soul-draining German education system which he went through as a student, at least until one school expelled him. I can go with this interpretation is it well grounded (see last page), but the book struck me in a different way for a different reason.

I always end up seeing myself in all of Hesse's protagonists; it feels good. His characters always have a special irresistible spark to them. They are all men of genius and usually full of common sense as well- and that's rare. I enjoyed seeing myself as Goldmund, traveling around, getting in adventures like Cane on Kung-Fu, hell, the end of N&G brought tears to my eyes and left me an emotional train wreck for a week. But it's not so much fun walking in Hans's shoes. Here's a fellow on the decline. He comes back from the highest academic halls to walk the muddy streets of the guilds. From translating Hebrew to filing metal off a wheel. He comes home depressed and his ultimately tragic fate is left intentionally vague by Hesse.

Well I'm a bit like Hans now. I'm back from an amazing experience in Japan- I left a success thankfully!- but I'm back in a small town without much going for me at the moment. From the heights back down to earth. From doing a decent job in an exotic foreign land, to possibly doing mundane work to earn a paycheck back in Lubbock. Like the classically trained Hans grinding a wheel; the same wheel I don't want to fall beneath.

Beneath the Wheel served as warning sign to me. There's nothing wrong in finding some work to make a living; the struggle is keeping one's passions and talents alive under the grind of a job that fate, or perhaps an innate self-affirmation, has not designed. And that is my current struggle; to locate a career path that works toward my ultimate goals of happiness while keeping me happy and satisfied in the process. The lesson learned from Hans is not let yourself sink too low into an unsurfacable melancholy: the wheel can only crush those who do not pick themselves up.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Sell by the Pound: Observations from a Feedlot

For one week in mid August I worked at Cattlemen's Feedlot just outside Olton, Texas. Every morning Dad and I pulled into the office at 6:45am, punched the clock, and went our separate ways to do our separate jobs; he to work the books, me to weigh the trucks, three of which were already waiting for the scale to open at 7. The sun hadn't even finished waking up yet; neither had I.

When I say trucks I'm talking about big-rigs, 18 wheelers, each hauling just over 25 tons of corn, wet distillers grain WGD, and supplements- all the ingredients that get mixed together to make over a million pounds of feed the cattle eat each day. These trucks pull onto Cattlemen's scales everyday to replenish the mills storage hoppers so the cow can keep putting on the pounds.

My job was simple: when the trucks pull onto the scale I print the trucks weight- minus the driver- and give the driver a ticket which they will give to the mill operator for inspection purposes. This first weight is the truck's gross weight, its loaded weight.

When the truck finishes unloading the driver will pull back onto the scale and I'll print the truck's tare weight- again minus the driver. The tare weight is the weight of the truck minus the product. Subtracting the truck's tare weight from the gross weight gives me the load weight. The driver then comes to my little window I prop up with a piece of PVC pipe, and returns the mill ticket I gave 'em earlier. If the driver was hauling corn he'll also give me Ziplock bag filled with a sample from his load. I put a copy of his ticket in the bag and save it for lab boys to analyze. With all the forms finished I'll send the truckers on their way, giving them an adios as they leave. And that's the job. It's quick, easy, and stress free; of course my first day even these simple processes seemed a bit overwhelming.

There's not a lot of interaction between me and the truckers. Often times the trucks are lined up waiting to unload so they can go back and haul some more. I did get a chance to meet some the truckers and share a few pleasantries with them. I'd never talked to truckers before, and by and large they're a hard workin' breed. One of my favorites was Larry, a wirery dude in his 40's with a handlebar mustache. Larry hauls corn, and I'd see him about two or three times a day. Larry makes his runs with his little son who's probably about 8 or so, and was out of school on summer break. Instead of daycare, Larry just loads him up in truck with him. The boy gives me the corn sample on his way out. Larry was one of my favorite truckers and I'm glad I got to chat with him three minutes at a time as he gave me corn samples. He delivers a lot of corn for the feedlot, and it takes a lot of corn to feed the campers.
Cattlemen's Feedlot is one of the areas biggest feedlots. The whole operation sits on a half section of land. That's 320 acres, which is 13,939,200 square feet, roughly the size of 242 football fields. On this piece of land sits the base, where the trucks are weighed and the all the bookkeeping is done; the mill, a massive structure webbed in a maze of pipes and hoppers where the feed is made, and, last but not least, the cattle, about 37,000 of 'em. Although the cattle are the most obvious and smelliest part of the operation, the mill is where all the action takes place.

The mill looms large over the whole feedyard. It's the highest point in Lamb county. It's towers are so tall in fact, cell phone companies put their antennas on top of it. I was given a tour of the mill by Earl Ford, head mill operator and general fix it man. He's also a Harley rider, and like most Harley riders, wears a Harley shirt everyday of the week. My biggest question for Earl was how does all the product I'm weighing go from the truck to the cows stomachs? The answer was not simple.

After the corn trucks are weighed they pull into the receiving bay and position the load over grated openings in the floor. Before the load drops, the mill hand will collect a sample of the load and take it in for inspection. A scoop of corn is poured into a sifter, a brass machine that spins the corn at high speed, thus separating the foreign matter- pieces of stalk and what not- from the kernels. This sifting is done three times to make sure all the foreign matter is spun out of the corn. The tester will then calculate the percentage of the foreign matter to corn. If the foreign matter to corn percentage is too high, the load is rejected and the corn truck is sent back to where it came from. If the percentage falls within acceptable limits, the truck driver is given the go ahead to dump his corn. Along with assessing this percentage, the mill worker will crush and bake some to the corn at high temp to assess the moisture levels of the corn. If any of these measurements don't meet government regulated specs, the corn is rejected. These sample checks are just a small piece of the product analysis process. Every ingredient that goes into the feed, and subsequently into the cows, and ultimately into our bodies, is thoroughly tested and must meet strict government imposed guidelines.

Once the corn is dropped into the bay floor, oggers feed the corn up one the tall pipes and into the cylindrical storage hoppers. From the hoppers, the corn is fed inside the mill to the first stage of prep: the flakers. From a smaller hopper the corn falls into the flakers where it is chipped and flattened by the roller spinning inside (seen left). The rollers are serrated steal drums whose surface is rough like a metal file. The corn must be flaked so the cows can eat it. The roller room resounds with a loud din and smells like a big bag of Fritos; a welcome change from the sweet smell of money outside. When the rollers finish flaking the corn, it spits it out underneath into an air tube that suctions the corn up and out to the mixing bay.

From the mixing bay, a dude in a front-end loader begins shoveling all the ingredients into a mixing hopper equipped with a large ogger; kinda like mixing ingredients for a cake on a massive scale- instead of a teaspoon of sugar it's a bucket full of flaked corn. The mixing bay is a tight space and the fella driving the front-end loader maneuvers the machine with a sniper's accuracy. He scoops from the piles of corn, wet distillers grain, and chopped hay that amass in the holding bays.

Mixing the feed is the most critical operation within the mill. Computers help ensure the correct proportions of ingredients are added and will shut down if the batch isn't prepared properly. The control panel looks like something Spock used to fiddle with and attests to Earl's invaluable feedlot knowledge. While the loader adds the hard materials to the mix, the computer squirts in the vitamin finisher and other supplements completing the feed. With that, so far as I somewhat comprehend it, the feed is complete and loaded into a truck that delivers it to cattle for to chomp on.

There's much more to making feed than I covered here but that's about all I could understand. At every step of the way there's quality control checks- starting before the corn leaves my trucks and ending when the computer gives it final approval. The whole process of making feed starts about 2am and finishes around 4 each afternoon. Once the mill has done its job it's up to the cattle to EAT IT UP.
And here's the moo-cows, all 37,000+ of 'em, lookin' up with their longing eyes hoping for a bite to eat. All these cattle started off chewing grass at a ranch somewhere until they put on around 5 to 600 pounds, then their owners will send 'em off to the feedlot to feed on the hot stuff.

Now you've probably never seen cows out grazing in a corn field, and for good reason: cows stomachs aren't built to handle corn. The difficulty lies in their second stomachs inability to ruminate corn like it does grass. In order to ease the new cows transition to a corn based feed, supplements are added to mix, and, in the beginning, chopped hay as well. This first type of feed with the hay additive is called the "starter ration." As the cows put on weight and their stomachs adjust to a corn based feed, they are moved up the ration scale and when they reach second ration are weaned off hay entirely. A heavy cow, say one weighing upwards of 1,000 pounds, eats the "hot ration," the highest level of ration specially blended for optimal weight gain. Those skinny cows that arrived at the feedlot weighing a mere 500 pounds will more than double their weight in under a year eating feedlot chow.

The cows' only job is to eat- and the more they eat the better. To help the cows pack on the pounds quickly, each cow is injected with a growth hormone as soon they step off the truck. Then the cows are separated into steers (males) and heifers (females) so the feedlot doesn't turn into a massive bovine orgy. Some of the steers however will still want to sew some wild oats and look to their pinned in brothers for release. These steers are known as "bullers" and they're bad for business because they get the pin moving and can injure each other. Remember, a good money making cow just eats, relaxes, and lets the pounds roll on- kinda like a sumo wrestler. The bullers on the other hand cause too much commotion and are separated into their own pins by the cowboys.

That's right, cowboys. The feedlot employs a group of cowboys to ride the pins and check on the cattle. The cowboys' job is weed out the bullers and, most importantly, identify sick or injured cattle. When they find a cow in trouble they radio the feedlot doctor to come and check things out. Unfortunately, when you pin up 37,000 plus cows, some of them are going to have problems.

Cows with medical conditions are tended to by the doctor in a separate area, though some cows will never recover. Cattlemen's Feedlot loses an average of two cows per day, a strikingly low number considering. When compared to other feedlots, Cattleman's losses are actually very low, meaning they take rather good care of the cattle in their charge.

Dead cattle are taken off in the "dead truck." Of the 30 plus trucks I weighed each day, I always hated weighing the "dead truck." After loading up the cattle the driver will pull in for weighing, only instead of a bag of corn passing through the window, he'd hand me a couple of ear tags no longer in service. I'd record the weight and not look forward to seeing him the next day.

For cows who are injured, with just a broken leg or something, anyone can walk in and buy the injured cow, its weight setting the cost. My dad will sometimes split the price of an injured cow and send it off the butcher for steaks and chili meat, and soup bones for the dogs.

Of course the whole goal of the operation is sell the cows off at a good ripe weight around 1,200 pounds. When the cows sell the feedlot and the cattlemen make their money. The feedlot makes money by housing and feeding the cattle; the cattlemen make money when their big fat cows sell. Cattle prices are set by the pound and the cattle market, just like any other market, can be unpredictable.

Once the cattle are sold the feedlot's job is complete. New green cattle are brought in regularly just as big fat ones are sold, and the cycle continues. From the feedlot cattle are sent to the slaughterhouse and eventually end up on America's dinner tables or packaged in fast food wrappers. I have no first hand experience of how the cattle are slaughtered, only what I've read in books. My uncle works at a slaughterhouse farther north in the Texas panhandle, so maybe someday I'll have a post about the aftermath.

I learned volumes about the cattle industry in my one short week at the feedlot. I met a variety of interesting people who are passionate about cattle and beef. Though feedlots take a lot of bashing for their quick mass production of beef, I was surprised by all the checks and balances in the system. Raising cattle is a business, and like all businesses there are ethical and professional standards, not to mention governmental standards, regulating the industry.

Feedlots may be the bain of some people's existences, but they are a central piece of a complex economic matrix. Because corn is the key ingredient in the feed, the feedlot purchases massive amounts it which helps support "small town farmers," like the ones farming around Olton, Texas, that liberals are always standing up for but rarely if ever meet. Then of course there's all that shit lying around that's gotta go somewhere. Cattlemen's outsources that job to a local fertilizer maker who cleans the pins in exchange for the shit to go in his product.

Whether you agree with feedlot practices or not, and I have my reservations about the operation, they are good for business. The beef coming out of feedlots may not be as healthy as a granola bar, but it does meet governmental standards. In the end it's up to us consumers to decide what we put in our bodies, but we already knew that.

My time at the feedlot, though short, was one massive learning experience. At the end of my week at Cattlemen's Feedlot, Roy the boss approached me:

-Well Justin, what do ya think about the feedlot business?
-I know I don't wanta make a livin' out of it. The hours are terrible.


For a great article about meat production from birth to dinner plate, check of Michael Pollan's New York Times article Power Steer.

All photos by me, Justin Burrus.

Friday, September 5, 2008

GTOh My God, You're Here!

While shopping at a closeout book sale the other day I came across an amazing sight: my favorite manga series from Japan, GTO, selling in the bargin bin for only $2 an issue! GTO is the mind-blowing manga whose title character Eikichi Onizuka, teaches the roughest and baddest 3rd graders at Holy Forest Academy, a fictional junior high school located in Tokyo. The students in Mr. Onizuka's class are vile to the extreme and show no mercy when it comes to bulling the teachers, causing one teacher to commit suicide and driving another teacher insane. But while these students are nasty, they're about to meet a new kind of teacher who doesn't care for traditional forms of discipline and smokes in the classroom; in short they're about to meet GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka!

Manga, for those who don't know, simply refers to a Japanese comic book. In America the term can also denote an art style characterized by more edgy and oftentimes noseless figures with big eyes and hair, i.e. Dragon Ball and Yugioh. The style stands in sharp relief to American style comic book art which aims more for realistic proportions and detailed anatomical bulging muscles, like Superman and Batman. Yet in Japan, manga just means comics because, quite simply, there's no other drawing styles to compete with it.

Although I've been a regular fan of American comics since I was in middle school, during my two years in Japan I never really got into the manga scene. GTO is the only manga series that's ever interested me, mainly because I can both empathize with and look up to Onizuka. He's just a normal dude devoid of super powers (powers really aren't required to catch the reader's attention, but character development is, take note America) facing a group of heathens who make him wish he could zap them all down with heat vision. What he does have though is a black belt in karate, a kick-ass crotch rocket, and a killer German suplex. He uses all these tools to defuse heinous classroom eruptions and after school attacks.

The majority of my time in Japan was spent inside Japanese junior high schools teaching on the JET Program. Most of the students were well behaved, some were superstars, and others may already be in prison. The fact is, Japanese junior high school students aren't much different from their American counterparts. Most early teens worry about the same things and tell the same dirty jokes no matter where they live. I think there is a western image of Japanese students all being straight-laced, robot designers in the making. This image is more fiction than fact, and unfortunately, when confronted with those troublesome students, there is no way to react in Onizuka fashion and keep one's job. When I read GTO I tried to learn from what he did. How he was creative and genuine before he was physical and snide.

And speaking of reading GTO, I always read from the bilingual editions I occasionally came across in Japan's massive manga stores. The bilingual Japanese/English edition is shown on the left while the American all English version is on the right. I never picked up any of the Japanese editions because my Japanese wasn't, and still isn't, good enough to follow along. The bilingual edition was great for learning Japanese and my students really got a kick out of thumbing through it and seeing a major part of their culture being translated for the rest of the world.

Here's a sample of a bilingual page from GTO vol. 3. To set up the scene for you, Onizuka just a had an after school run-in with Kunio, his most troublesome student, at a video arcade. After demolishing Kunio during the non-violent arcade challenge, Kunio handcuffs Onizuka to a Buddha statue and makes a break for it. Onizuka, using his karate muscles breaks the Buddha and chases Kunio down an alley before Kunio's mother breaks up the commotion (I don't know why she's there). Well, needless to say, Kunio's mom is a looker, and Onizuka wants to see more.
In the scene all three of them, Mom, Kunio, and Onizuka are eating at a restaurant. The page on the right shows you exactly what Onizuka is thinking about. English is placed in the speech balloons and Japanese surrounds the frame. It's a really great approach to selling manga and a fun way for both Japanese and English speakers to study languages.

I loved reading GTO in Japan. Unfortunately I was only able to find the first three issues of the series in the bilingual editions so I kept reading them over and over. When I left Japan I thought I was leaving Onizuka behind with me. But at that book sale my world was rocked. Seeing GTO in that manga bin put a big ol' Texas grin on my face. I didn't think Onizuka would appeal to an American audience, but I'm extremely glad he did. The closeout bin only had volumes 16-19 so I've got a big gap in my collection; but at least I know my collection will survive across the Pacific, though I do miss the Japanese translation. Who knows, if there's enough interest in GTO stateside maybe they'll air the translated Japanese TV series and keep the Great Teacher Onizuka kicking ass on the boob tube as well.

Stateside, GTO is published by TokyoPop and carries a 16+ age warning on it for sexually sugestive themes and a lot of rough language. The bilingual edition is published by Kodansha in JapanI highly recommend it to all educators, and to everyone else looking to step into the world of manga but worry about finding strange un-dead Japanese zombies with blasting powers. At base, GTO is the story of an unlikely teacher making a big impact on a troubled class written off by the rest of the school and society. Check it out.
If you didn't check out the link to the GTO TV series above, click here to watch segments of the show on YouTube. You're sure to love it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

GTT II: Enchanted Circles in my Mind

Northern New Mexico is an enchanted place, and while the locals will tell you the whole state is enchanted- goes the state motto: New Mexico, Land of Enchantment- I think most of the enchantment lies on a 84 mile (135km), 2 lane route called the "Enchanted Circle." The Circle is listed as a New Mexico "scenic byway" because of its amazing views of Wheeler Peak (the state's highest point), the vast cacti spotted desert, and the diamond blue Eagle Nest lake. I love these sights and I'm glad I can see them all easily from my truck on a 2 hour day trip.

After my folks came and picked me up in Denver, we head down I-25 into New Mexico and spent a few relaxing nights in Angel Fire, a ski town on the south east end of the route. During our stay we took the obligatory trip around the Circle, driving clockwise around the route. Though I'd gone round the route plenty of times in the past, it finally dawned on me that the Circle is about more than majestic natural wonders: the Circle is a seer's crystal ball containing the entire New Mexican universe- from unchanged Indian dwellings to museums honoring Indian killers, i.e. Kit Carson's house; there's the impoverished Mexican, white, and Indian folk living in shitty trailer houses across the way from high class ski resorts nestled in the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains, and don't forget the long-haired, turquoise sportin' hippy artists selling blurry digital pictures in the town square, or the burly, chainsaw-wielding mountain men deforesting the hillside in order to carve depressed looking bears and goofy lookin' gunfighters out of timber, now toss in a some middle-aged biker dudes sweatin' their asses off in leather, add a dash of dying-breed cowboy, and lastly but certainly not leastly, throw in whole shitload of Texan tourists peeing their pants in excitement because after 8 hours of bash-your-brains-against-the-steeringwheel-driving they're finally in the mountains, breathing mountain air, and paying way too much for shoddy t-shirts- yep, the Enchanted Circle magically circumnavigates everything that is New Mexico, both geographically and culturally, so if New Mexico's got it you'll find it in the Circle. Now that's one hellova nice scenic byway for you.

So what did my family and I do whilst touring the Enchanted Circle? Well, we stayed at a hotel/ski resort called the Legends and ate great Chinese food in Angel Fire. From our base in Angel Fire we headin' clockwise into Taos and visited the eclectic town square before stopping by the "hecho in Mexico," southwestern store on the east side of 64 as you head out of town. We saw piles of Indian blankets and old-school furniture (painted so at any rate).
Then there were the ceramic chili peppers dangling from the front porch ceiling. It all looks cheap as hell- unfortunately the prices aren't- but it takes great pictures! Not satisfied with buying a t-shirt like the rest of the Texas tourists, ol' dad upped the stakes and bought 'em a poncho, and not just any poncho, but the biggest damn one on the premises. An elephant could wear this thing, leaving the newly clad Poncho Neily looking like a gringo in a blanket. What you don't see under that eagle curtain is dad's 44 magnum 6 shooter, so you best quit laughin'.

Goodies bought, it was off to the Gorge. The Gorge is just one of the places where the Rio Grande river cuts a scar into the New Mexican earth. This gorge is deep, hence the name, and is extremely difficult to photograph well.

Thank goodness I had my tripod (thanks CJ) with me so I could get this great shot of the fam in front of a terribly shadowed Rio Grande Gorge. *Future note: take pictures of gorges at high noon or not at all.

I got some of the greatest shots of my life at the Taos Pueblo Cemetery. We were gonna check out the tourist destination made famous in part by Ansel Adams's photography, but our wallets decided against it because of the $10/person entry fee plus an additional $5/camera fee. Too much for a family of 3 with a camera, so I just snapped some shots from the free parking area.

I'm sure we missed some amazing sights inside the place, but I'm extremely pleased with the way this photo of the cemetery, bell tower, and Wheeler Peak came out.

Making our way into the northern part of the Circle we made a soft right in Questa (a place not good for much but buying liquor after Der Martt closes) and cruised on into the small, one-street town of Red River. Red River is one of the most charming places on earth. Full of all things touristy, the town is home to a small ski resort, a few bars and steakhouses- one of which, Texas Red's, was the absolute, hands down best place to eat a steak before the place mysteriously burned down a few years ago only to re-open in a renovated gas station. Now the place sucks a fatty, making you feel like an idiot for paying $15 to eat a thunker steak inside a gas station. Come on Red. Texans love Red River more than any other stop on the circle because it is tourist t-shirt central. Fortunately Poncho Neily was driving so we passed the t-shirt shop but that didn't keep us from stopping at the chainsaw art shop.

Forget the great artists and mediums of the past; the chainsaw is the new paintbrush, and tree trunk the new canvas. This 5'5" (165cm) carved cowboy will run you $5oo, and you better have a pick-up and three corn-feds with you to help get it home.

The little swinging bear makes much more economical sense. He's cutest carved critter I've ever spied and seeing that flag behind him just gets me all fuzzy inside. Buy this little fella, give him a home. My mom bought my uncle Butch a bear that stands about knee high (my knee, not her's), and with a big ol' smile on his face holds a sign saying, "Go Away Asshole" in its cutely shaped paws. Just kiddin', the sign really doesn't say asshole.

Bear and poncho in tow we had gotten what we'd came for and it was time to head back east to Texas. We broke the circle by taking the road up the bald hill behind Eagle Nest, where I took a stormy shot of Eagle Nest lake, one the "proper" enchanted wonders.(I really like this shot and look forward to taking in again now that I have a UV Polarizing filter to sort out those blown heavenly highlights up top.) A little bit down the down the windy road that follows the Cimmaron river (best fly-fishin' river flowin') east out of the Circle, we stopped for a photo-op in front of the huge and steep cliffs known as the Pallisades.The Palisade are a big attraction evidenced by the big pull-off area and the marker in front of them. These cliffs are sight to behold for the flatlander, especially for the kiddies making their first trip into the mountains.

I took tons of photos along the way and began struggling with nature shots. The New Mexican skies are a blessing to any photographer as they transform any mundane object into a dramatic subject. I didn't remember there being so much sky in Japan; I suppose the Japanese traded it for high rises and power lines. With the big New Mexican skies wrapped safely in the globe of the Enchanted Circle, we pushed out east, making our way into the Texas panhandle; a story for the next and final installment of GTT-Gone to Texas.


To see more of my photos just click here to visit my flickr page.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

GTT I: 3 Friends and his Baby

My good friend Jeremiah picked me up from the airport and let me crash at his place for a few days until the folks came up to get me. Hangin' out with J is always a pleasure and after a year without him it was double. J is the best listener in the world which makes us a good pair because I'd tell my whole life story to a fence post if I thought it laugh at the funny parts. I just walk around talkin' and J gives me a smile and a "yeah man, I know what you mean." We're yin and yang, near opposites except for our love of comic books, the 80's blockbuster "Major Leauge," and our shared histories with fundamentalist Christians, and, apparently, that's more than enough to keep people best of friends for years.
On my second day in Denver, J and I took the new "Light Rail" train from the University of Denver into downtown to take in the sights and eat some Arby's roast beefs. While downtown we took advantage of 16th Street's "Free Ride" eco-friendly bus to get up and down the avenue. At the end of the line and a block north sits Union Station, the city's landmark train station originally built in 1881. It's quite a sight, although it's unfortunate us Americans don't have many opportunities to travel by train anymore.
Union Station is located in LoDo (Lower Dowtown), that's where Denverites go to drink and eat at expensive joints. The district is expensive but it's one of the few place in Denver's smoggy urban sprawl that gives a glimpse into Denver's rich history as a frontier town. The old buildings really make you feel classy as you stroll beside them wearing a Batman t-shirt. After cruising around LoDo and visiting The Tattered Cover, one of my favorite bookshops, we headed on back to the Universtiy of Denver to take some pictures of its picturesque campus before meeting up with more old grad school buds.

The University is Denver is one nice campus. Just about every building is plated in gold leaf or clad in cheap Mexican copper. Of course it's the students' tuition paying for all that architectural bling, but so long as they can take classes in these secular cathedrals of learning then everyone's happy; everyone with a hefty scholarship or rich parents at least.

Here's what I talking about: to the left is the clock tower that's connected to the gym and fitness center. To the right is the domed Center of Tourism and Hotel Management, and behind some new copper monstrosity. Fortunately for me, none of my borrowed grad school tution went to DU, no, it all went to Iliff School of Theology which allowed me take one class per quarter at DU under their much cheaper tuition banner. I learned how to doubt god and wrastle my inner demons (whether I had 'em or not) at Iliff, at DU I learned everything I don't understand about philosophy and matters of the soul while taking classes with good lookin' rich girls;)

I still had a few friends to meet in Denver so J and I went up to Kit's place and shot the shit for a bit on the porch. I do love chattin' on porches. If I were a business man I'd stoically do all my business in a plastic chair on concrete with a view.

Kit's a really smart fella who's passionate about social justice, football, chess, and free food. When I was in graduate school I played a couple hours of chess everyday. It really hindered our studies but we didn't care. We talked about complex global affairs like Latin American dictators, Bush, the seemingly violent core of Christianity, and spring time DU girls in short skirts. Rrrrr! I loved playing chess with Kit because I couldn't lose, really, the dude cannot seem to win a chess match. He either looses or stalemates! You'd think he goes out of his way to not win. I didn't care much though, chess isn't all about winning or not loosing when your sitting in front of the Rocky Mountains with a good pal shootin' the shit and pushin' the pieces.

That night J, Kit, and I met up with Marc-Paul, his wife Melissa, and their new adorable sweet little 8 month old littlin' Evelyn. What a great family those three make. Marc-Paul is a genius who has read every book I've ever thought of reading. He teaches GED classes at his father's inner-city parish to at-risk and in-trouble high schoolers. Every now and then he'll slip in a little Foucault and assign 'em a little Ayn Rand to read. Him and Melissa married during my first year in Japan and created Evelyn in my second. It's crazy introducing yourself to your buds little girl who's wearing her green peas (which are all organic and super duper sweet; I know cause Marc-Paul let me try some bright green goo). Hell, I'm not even married, and childern, at my age, well that's just loco.

But talk about one interesting family, they won't let Evelyn watch the TV. In her whole 8 months of birthed life that bright blue eyed little girl has only seen about 6 minutes of TV. Now how bout that. There's a genius in the making here, and when she changes the world or wins the Nobel Prize I'll be able to say that I ate a bit of her all organic green peas when she couldn't even stand on her own two feet- assuming I'm still alive then. My god, I'm already sounding like an old fart.


Photos: top left, J before the Denver's skyline taken just west of LoDo. top right, J with his guitar. Jeremiah is an awesome guitarist who writes and sales his own music. He's played a few gigs where he showcases his soothing sounds. Next, Denver's Union Station in LoDo. Under that, me on a street corner in LoDo across from Union Station, photo and borrowed Batman shirt provided by J. Next at left, DU's workout center's gold-leafed clock tower, come on. right, more copper buildings. Next, Kit on his front porch at the Iliff student appartments. He just got out of the shower. Lastly, Marc-Paul, Melissa, and Evelyn, the happy family.