February 19th, 2007


The Penelopiad

My grasp of Greek myths is tenuous, at best. So when someone like Margaret Atwood chooses to retell a tale in modern English, for modern minds, I learn!

This book is the story of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, not-so-stunning cousin of Helen. Atwood relies primarily on The Odyssey but also uses modern research on these myths to create the story from Penelope's point of view. Penelope is known as "the faithful wife", because she did not stray once during the 20 years her hubby was off wandering, first to fight the Trojan wars, then later to fight his way home again, encountering one challenge after another (or so he says). During the second ten years, Penelope is besieged by suitors, men not much older than her son, Telemachus, who come for her hand in marriage. They assume Odysseus is never coming home and they clearly want her riches. Thus they camp on her doorstep and eat her practically out of house and castle.

During this time she knows that she cannot alone get rid of them and that if she tells them to leave then at least one will choose to take her by force. So she tries various tricks. One is to weave a shroud for her father-in-law. She says that when she has finished the shroud she will choose her new mate. She weaves during the day, and with the help of twelve young maids she secretly unravels at night, so the shroud will never be finished. Thus the term "Penelope's web", referring to a thing that is never finished.

The real focus of this version of the myth is the death of the twelve maidens. When Odysseus returns, he and Telemachus, along with two servants, kill all the suitors - over a hundred of them - and then string up the twelve maidens because they had had sex with the suitors "without permission". Typically in those times, the master of the house gave permission to guests to use his servants, to rape them, but because there was no man of the house the maidens were taken without permission. And so they were found complicit with the suitors.

There is, of course, more of a backstory, and Atwood succeeds, I believe, in explaining these deaths better than the Odyssey does.

The book is short, readable, often funny. I zipped through it. It is part of a series of myths retold by modern authors. How inspired to ask Atwood to do this.

Morning in New York

Today opened cold. Twelve degrees, with warnings. Warnings that the wind-chill factor would reduce the apparent temp to zero. I bundled up, figuring we would take a very short walk this morning.

It didn't seem all that cold. Yes, my face felt brittley cold, but it has been like that anyway. I could use a scarf that I wrap around my mouth. I think I was layered sufficiently and the wind had not yet started, not here anyway.

As we turned the corner I saw that the recycling bags had still not been picked up. I have noticed that recycling pickups where I live in San Luis Obispo are not always consistent, and it appears that's true here in New York as well. Those bags have been out there for several days. Fortunately, they appear to contain clean enough material that stray dogs (where are the strays? I never see any) do not break into them. But they are a distraction for the pup I walk. They lean against the posts he might like to pee on and they offer items of interest that he wants to investigate.

We went around our favorite block (Floyd definitely has a preference) and as we turned the corner and headed down 81st Street I saw two people pulling luggage. I see people every day dragging luggage behind them and I wonder about it. Do they drag them to the subway or to the bus stop to avoid taxi fares? Are they tourist, business travelers, or maybe mostly New Yorkers? I am suspecting the latter, because New Yorkers know their way around, are used to the transportation systems, know when it's going to be a good time to get on the subway or bus, and I can imagine that many of them want to save money. 

Are they going to the Bahamas? No. They'd take a cab. How about Washington, Connecticut, or somewhere warm? Maybe.

There are many people who haul lots of things along the streets every day. It makes my arms ache just to look at them.

Reliance on "experts"

I am half-listening to Law & Order. In this episode one person is asked to take a polygraph exam. He says "I'll take a dozen polygraphs". It might be a good idea to take that many, with that many different polygraph technicians, actually.

The accuracy rate of polygraphs is high. But this accuracy depends as much on the examiner as on the equipment. A technician who develops inappropriate questions and reads the results badly may reach a result of "inconclusive", even a result of "deceptive", when the person may be telling the truth. I think we should be wary of any evaluation process that depends on the evaluator, that cannot be replicated by another examiner every time.

Similarly with psychological examiners. Some people consider psychology and psychiatry "junk science" and frankly, I am almost there, almost ready to join those ranks. Two different practitioners can come to totally different conclusions about the same person.

Why do we take these evaluations so seriously? We need to put them in context with other evidence and not give them too much weight.