Monday, May 26, 2008

A Sequence of Iambs for Graduation Night

Mack Hall

A Sequence of Iambs for Graduation Night

A few clumsy iambs are not enough
To thank you for the blessings you have been;
Poetic meter always cuts up rough,
Even when shaped by old, Keats-haunted men.

But please accept this poor attempt at praise
In gratitude for all your gifts of grace:
Your dreams made spring of rainy autumn days,
Sang summer to grey winter’s cold, bleak face.

But now that spring is really, truly here,
And summer waits impatiently for you,
This night closes your final childhood year:
Go build your lives with meaning, just and true.

The crowd awaits; adjust your cap just so --
And now it’s time; you really have to go.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Indiana Jones Wheezes Through

Mack Hall

When one thinks of high adventure one naturally thinks of Indiana with its menacing cornfields of death, gravity-defying flat lands, and the violent threats to civilized people posed by blood-crazed Amish street gangs.

No wonder Indiana Jones is such a hero to the future builders of empire among American boys.

Harrison Ford, still buff at 65, takes up his fedora, revolver, NRA membership, and kinky whip again in the new Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, this time against the Bolshies in the 1950s.

You remember the Bolsheviks, right? In the 1930s they were our best friends, and then from 1938-1940 they were Hitler’s best friends, and then from 1940-1945 they were our best friends again, and then they were not our best friends, and then they kinda-sorta were, and then President Reagan said “We’re not going to feed you people anymore” and made Bolshevism morph into the Green movement.

America’s relationships with Communism are as confusing and mutable as the revolving-door religions of England in the 16th century: “Are you Catholic? Or C of E?” “I dunno; who’s Queen this week?”

The Communist Party of Saint Petersburg (which was Saint Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, and, for the moment, Saint Petersburg again) has its collective panties in a twist about Indiana Jones, accusing him of anti-Communist sentiments.

And one can understand – those who invented death camps and genocide have feelings too, y’know?

If the series continues, the producers must adapt to changing times and the aging Harrison Ford. The humble scrivener of this piece has these plot-treatments ready for the next Indiana Jones movies:

Indiana Jones and the Hippie Punks of Doom

Indiana Jones and the Poisoned Polyester Bell-Bottoms

Indiana Jones Goes Disco

Indiana Jones and Saddamn Hussein’s Haunted Bi-Focals

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Walker

Indiana Jones and the Medication Error

Indiana Jones and the Soviet Mark II Wheelchair of Death

Indiana Jones and Senior Day at the Cafeteria

Indiana Jones, John McCain, and Rocky Get Cranky Together

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Lost Dentures

Indiana Jones and Miss Marple Lose Their Car in the Parking Lot

Indiana Jones Shoots at The Evil Swordsman – And Misses

At some point Harrison Ford will become the new Bub on the new My Three Sons, and the television ads will feature that three-pack-a-day-smoker’s-voice guy wheezing “Ashton Kutcher is Indiana Jones.”

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Kae and The Chancer

Mack Hall

The mystery of the Redemption of the world is…rooted in suffering, and this suffering in turn finds in the mystery of the Redemption its supreme and surest point of reference.

-- John Paul II

Chance’s few seasons ended in the springtime of his life, only a few weeks after his grandmother and dearest friend Kae was taken from him and from us in her high summer. The Chancer leaves to us his wheelchair and many happy, happy memories; he takes with him his unequalled collection of "Your momma is so fat…" jokes and our love.

Much of life is a mystery, and that’s okay; life, like the Rosary, is made up of meditations on mysteries, joyful and luminous and sorrowful and glorious. And there are deeper mysteries to Chance’s life – why was this brilliant, funny, brave kid limited to a wheelchair and a so-short life? But perhaps that is to question the reality that we were given Chance. We were given his brilliance and his great wit and his joyful sense of fun and his courage, and we must celebrate him and be grateful to God for him.

All life carries meaning, value, and dignity; Creation and the Incarnation infallibly prove this. We cannot know in this life to what extent each man and woman we meet is a gift of God, but there is purpose in every encounter. With Chance, you knew God had given you someone rare and wonderful. He made you laugh. He made you think. He made you reflect. He made you get out of the way of his high-speed wheelchair.

Anyone who knew Chance was blessed in the knowing. Chance made life fun. He was trapped in a wheelchair, and he hated that, and yet he made us laugh with his perfectly wheezy jokes. An old geezer English teacher of his acquaintance could hardly get through any presentation without being taught humility by The Chancer: "Geez, old man, blah, blah, blah; why don’t you go grade some papers or something?" or perhaps "You used to date Grendel, didn’t you?" and sometimes "Weren’t you and Fred Flintstone classmates?"

And all that was guy-code for "I love you."

I love you too, Chancer.

Wheelchairs possess no utility beyond this life; like all other possessions they are left to the pilgrims who follow. Chance runs now at last, as he always wanted, runs with his Kae, runs like the wind, the wind of an eternal golden morning in an eternal golden summer.

Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

The Class of 2008

Mack Hall

Children insist on growing up and going away. Their teachers are not happy about that. Really. Every year the old…um, venerable faculty see a hundred or so high school seniors off to the new world they will make for themselves as the old…um, seasoned citizens wave goodbye from the old-world dock of old age. Oh, sure, there are always one or two of whom one can sing "Thank God and Greyhound you’re gone," but the loss of most of them is very painful, very real, very acute, and very forever. And while the teachers taught them not to ever split infinitives (cough), which they immediately forget, the block form for business letters, which they usually remember, and the possible symbolism of Grendel in Beowulf, there are always lots of other little things one hopes they have learned along the way.
Here then, Class of 2008 are some disconnected factoids your old English teacher meant to tell you earlier in the year, before the month of May very cleverly sneaked up on all of us:

1. In October you will return for homecoming. You will find pretty much the same teachers, school, and friends you left behind. It will all seem very familiar at first. But you won’t be on the team or in the band; it isn’t about you anymore, and that will be oddly disturbing. The same school that once nagged you for tardiness and absenteeism will now require you to wear a visitor’s badge if you show up on a school day. By October of next year, most of the students in your old high school won’t know who you are -- or were. And they won't care. You'll just be old people.

2. Some day surprisingly soon you will hear shrieks of insolent laughter from your child’s room. You will find your child and her friends laughing at your yearbook pictures. You and your friends will be subject to scornful dismissal by a new, cooler-than-cool generation. You will feel very old.

3. Change the oil in your car more often than the manufacturer recommends.

4. Billy Graham attended a public school; Adolf Hitler attended a Christian school. Don’t obsess on labels.

5. You are not going to win the Texas lottery.

6. T-shirts are underwear.

7. You're a little bit too old for a MySpace. Time to grow up.

8. When posing for a photograph, never hold your hands folded in front of, um, a certain area of your anatomy. It makes you look funny, as if you just discovered that your zipper is undone.

9. Have you ever noticed that you never see "Matthew 6:5-6" on a sign or bumper sticker?

10. College is not high school.

11. Work is not high school. There is no such thing as an excused absence in adult life. The boss will not care about your special needs, sensitivities, artistic gifts, or traumatic childhood.

12. God made the world. We have the testimony of Genesis and of the Incarnation that all Creation is good. Never let anyone try to tell you that the world is evil.

13. Most people are good, and can be trusted. But the two-per-centers, like hemorrhoids, do tend to get your attention.

14. Listening to radio commentators with whom you already agree is not participating in our democracy. Until he was in his thirties, Rush Limbaugh never even registered to vote in any place he ever lived. You can do better than that.

15. Why should someone else have to raise your child?

16. Tattoos do have one useful purpose – they will help your relatives identify your body after you die of some weird disease that was on the needle. Oh, yeah, sure, the process is sterile – a tattoo parlor looks like a hospital, right?

17. Your class ranking is little more than a seating chart for graduation, reflecting your performance in a sometimes artificial and often passive situation for the last four years. Your future is up to you.

18. Knowing how to repair things gives you power and autonomy. You will amaze yourself with what you can do with duct-tape, a set of screwdrivers, a set of wrenches, a hammer, and a pair of Vise-grip pliers.

19. Movies are made by committees of thousands of people. Sometimes they get it right. Books are usually written by one person. Sometimes he or she gets it wrong. But there are lots more good books than there are good movies.

20. Put the 'phone down. Grasp the steering wheel firmly with both hands. Stay alive.

21. Save the planet? Reform the establishment? Stop meanies from beating harp seals to death? Get a job first.

22. Time to wear the big-boy pants.

23. Some people are Democrats because they believe the Democratic Party is best at protecting the rights of the individual. Other people are Democrats because they are part of the Socialist / Communist continuum and believe that government is a weapon to bludgeon people into obedience. Some people are Republicans because they believe the Republican Party is best at protecting the rights of the individual. Other people are Republicans because they have Fascist tendencies and believe that government is a weapon to bludgeon people into obedience. Hiding out in the woods and refusing to participate is not a logical option.

24. Everyone tells cheerleader jokes, but cheerleaders are among the most successful people in adult life. The ability to accept discipline, the hard work, the physical demands, the aesthetics, the teamwork, and the refusal to die of embarrassment while one’s mother screams abuse at the cheerleader sponsor do pay off in life.

25. You are the "they." You are the adult. You are the government. You are the Church. You are the public school system. You decide what movies will be watched (if not made). You decide what will be on the television screen in your home. Your life is your own – don’t become one of the sheep.

26. Giving back to the community begins now. Do something as an act of service to humanity -- join the volunteer fire department, teach Sunday school, clean up the city park one hour a week, assist at the nursing home. However, if you find that more evenings and weekends are spent at these activities instead of raising your family, learn to say no to extra demands.

27. Don’t bore people with sad stories about your horrible childhood. No one ever lived a Leave It To Beaver or Cosby existence. And besides, you might have been the problem. Get over it.

28. The shouting, abusive, 1-900-Send-Money TV preacher with the bouffant hairdo strutting about on the low-prole stage set while beating on a Bible and yelling is not going to come to the house in the middle of the night when your child is dying, you don’t have a job, and you don’t know where to turn. Your pastor – Chaucer’s Parsoun -- may not be cool, may not be a clever speaker, may not sport a Rolex watch, and may not have a really bad wig, but he’s here for you. Support your local congregation. Oh, and never say to anyone "We missed you in church last Sunday," because that’s really saying I was in church, and you weren’t, so nanny-nanny-boo-boo," and where does that imperial "we" come from anyway? God has not appointed you to be His attendance officer.

29. If you insist on taking your shirt off in public, shave your armpit hair. Or braid it. Or something.

30. Don’t wear a shirt that says "(bleep) Civilization" to a job interview.

31. When someone asks for a love offering, offer him your love and watch his reaction. He doesn’t want a love offering; he wants money. Sloppy language is used to manipulate people. Call things by their proper names, and hang on to your wallet.

32. Stop eating out of bags and boxes, and learn how to use a knife and fork.

33. The groom’s role at a wedding is decorative rather than functional. Stand where the women tell you to stand, do what the women tell you to do, say what the women tell you to say, and nobody will get hurt.

34. Couples who write their own wedding vows probably have other embarrassing tendencies. The sixties are over.

35. When you find yourself facing a dinner setting with more than two forks, don’t panic; no one else knows quite what to do with three forks either. No one’s watching anyway, so just enjoy the meal.

36. What is the truth? Is it something you want to believe? Something repeated over and over until you come to believe it in spite of your own experience?

37. This just in: Green is sooooooooooo yesterday.

38. A great secret to success in a job or in life is simply to show up.

39. No one ever agrees on where commas go. If someone shows you a grammar book dictating the use of commas one way, you can find another grammar book to contradict it.

40. Most people do not look good in baseball caps.

41. There is no such thing as a non-denominational worship service.

42. You will always be your parents’ child. You may become a doctor, lawyer, banker, or, God help you, president, but your mother will still ask you if you’ve had enough to eat and remind you to take your jacket in case the night turns cold. And parents are a constant surprise -- they always have new knowledge you need to acquire.

43. Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is all the English grammar and usage book you’ll ever need. If more people understood that and had a library card, every English teacher in America would be an ex-English teacher standing in line at the Wal-Mart employment office. Keep it a secret, okay?

44. From now on the menus should be in words, not pictures.

45. According to some vaguely named family institute or some such, raising a child to the age of eighteen costs the family $153,000 and a few odd cents. The taxpayers of this state spend about $5,000 per year on each student. Thus, a great many people have pooled their resources and spent about $213,000 on you since you were born. They did not do this in order for you to sit around complaining about how unfair life is. Do something.

46. There was never a powerful secret society variously known as The Preps, The Rich Kids, or The Popular Kids, just as there are no unmarked U.N. helicopters. But if you ask me, those guys who play chess need watching; I hear that the pawns are reporting all your movements to The 666 Beast computer in Belgium via computer chips in your school i.d. card.

47. Thank you notes: write ’em. It shows class. You don’t have to pay big money for pre-printed notes; buy notepaper with pictures (hunting scenes for the guys; flowers for the girls) on the outside and nothing on the inside. You can write; you’re a high school graduate, remember?

48. Babies cry. That’s not a crime. However, in public places, other people do have a right to hear a sermon or attend a movie without prolonged yowling. You may feel awkward about getting up and quietly taking the infant outside; you shouldn’t. When you discreetly carry your crying baby away for a few minutes to attend to its needs, other people are grateful to you for respecting both them and your child, and are pleased that the child has such great parents.

49. The school award you should have received: For Compassion. While I must confess that I was happy to see some of you on a daily basis because that way I was sure my tires would be safe, there was never one single instance of any of you taking any advantage or being unkind in any way to those who were emotionally or physically vulnerable. Indeed, most of you took the extra step in being very protective of the very special young people who are blended into the student population. There is no nicely-framed award for that compassion, not here, anyway, but even now there is one with your name on it on the walls of a mansion which, we are assured, awaits each of us, in a house with many mansions. God never asked you to be theologically correct; He asked you to be compassionate, and you were. Keep the kindness within you always.

50. Take a long, lingering look at your classmates during graduation. You’ll never see all of them ever again. In ten years many of you will be happy and honorable. Others will have failed life, and at only 28 will be sad, tired, bitter old men and women with no hope. Given that you all went to the same cinder-block school with the same blinky fluorescent lights, suffered the same old boring teachers, drove along the same dusty roads, and grew up in the same fading little town, what will have made the difference?

Well, Class of 2008, it’s time to let go. Thanks for everything: for the pictures and paper balls and pizza and pep rallies and recitals and concerts and games, for your thoughts and essays, for your laughter and jokes, for usually paying attention to roll call ("Focus, class... focus...focus...focus..."), for really thinking about Macbeth and Becket and Beowulf, and those wonderful pilgrims (who, of course, are us) forever journeying to Canterbury, for doing those business letters and resumes’ over and over until YOU were proud of them, for wrestling with iambic pentameter, for all the love you gave everyone around you every day. Take all those good things with you in your adventures through life.

And whether we shall meet again I know not.
Therefore our everlasting farewell take:
For ever, and for ever, farewell...

--Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, IV.iii.115-117

Sunday, May 11, 2008

"But I'm a College Graduate!"

Mack Hall

This is an old wheeze; this version is from the ‘blog Happy Catholic:

A young man hired by a supermarket reported for his first day of work. The manager greeted him with a warm handshake and a smile, gave him a broom, and said, “Your first job will be to sweep out the store. Work from the front to the back.”

“But I’m a college graduate,” the young man replied indignantly.

“Oh, I’m sorry, son. I didn’t know that,” said the manager. “Here, give me the broom - I’ll show you how.”

This is the season when schools turn ‘em loose, the “’em” being graduates of high school or university. The camera-hogs often appear minimally articulate; the ambitious ones probably left early for job interviews.

With degrees in interpretive-kinesio-psychology, piercings and tattoos from Mama Bluto’s downtown, and cellphones-to-the-ear by Verizon, like, you know, totally, dog-dude, the graduates are eager to change the world, save the planet, and make a difference.

Sure, okay, fine, but let’s not forget the story of King Alfred letting the bread burn. There is a time to plan the salvation of the nation and a time to watch the bread baking and make sure it isn’t ruined.

This is not to deny the world of ideas, quite the opposite, actually. If a man learns electricity he can use his knowledge to help install MRI machines or to electrify the perimeters of death camps. Ideas, critical thinking, and value systems help him decide what to do with the electricity.

Work, as in cobbling shoes or welding pipe or roofing a house, is pretty much discredited at present. Even a casual glance at popular entertainment indicates that the only careers at present are law enforcement (with much careless discharging of firearms), detective work (in shiny laboratories with unlimited budgets), or vaguely hanging around luxurious offices not doing much except anticipating a laugh-track. In the 1950s good ol’ Charlie Brown was very proud of his father the barber, but he would now expect ol’ dad to be a cool CIS dude.

The presidential candidates may spat with each other on talk shows, but they are in sweet accord on this: people who actually work with their hands are but a background of unwashed commoners to the candidates’ mighty passions of ambition. We are faced with the prospect of being ruled by law school graduates who have never held real jobs and never wondered how they are going to feed the kids, and who yet think they are victims of oppression.

Is not the purpose of a university to teach its graduates how to think better than that?

In sum, the story of the college graduate and the broom (we are not speaking of Hillary’s mode of transportation) may be a layered comment on the pretensions of college graduates, but more than that it may be an observation on the inadequate perceptions of reality in those who would presume to rule us.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Well-Trained Americans

Mack Hall

Amtrak, first cousin to FEMA, wants Americans to come down to the railway station on May 10th and celebrate National Train Day.

The problem is that for almost all of America there are no trains and no railway stations.

Amtrak’s own web site is surprisingly frank about the Amtrak passenger station in Beaumont, Texas:

2555 West Cedar StreetBeaumont, TX 77704

Station Services

No Station Hours.

No Ticket Office Hours

No Quik-Trak Hours

No Checked Baggage Hours

No Help With Baggage

And that is because Amtrak’s station in Beaumont is a concrete slab in a weedy field, with not even a FEMA trailer for shelter. On Saturday Amtrak is going to spend over two million dollars on celebrating itself, so we’ll all want to get to the Beaumont Amtrak Slab early and bring lawn chairs.

We all know a couple of fellows with a pickup and some tools who for a few thousand dollars and maybe a case of beer could put up a pretty decent shelter with an air-conditioner and some electric lights. Amtrak’s Sunset Limited (it is a beautiful train) speeds through Beaumont six times a week, three trains from New Orleans to Los Angeles and three trains the other way. To order a ticket you have to access Amtrak on your computer, and to catch the train you must ask a brave friend, preferably armed, to drive you out to a dark desolation at the end of an obscure street and wait with you.

Amtrak station service is non-existent, but surely someone will open the train door for you.

According to Amtrak, “Services on the Sunset Limited include Superliner Sleeping and Dining Car accommodations and spectacular views from the renowned Sightseer Lounge Car.”

That’s rather like Ford selling a car by advertising a good view of New Mexico through the windshield as one of the features.

May 10th was selected as National Train Day because on this date in 1869 a golden spike joining the final rails was driven there, completing the first transcontinental rail service in the USA. The final irony is that there is no rail service to Promontory Point, Utah. There’s not much passenger service anywhere in America, and on Saturday Amtrak is going to spend $2.2 million of your tax dollars to celebrate that.