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;)

Peace,

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.

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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.
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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.