Sunday, November 30, 2008

Encountering the Third World

Mack Hall

The week of Thanksgiving was one of horror, with televised images of terrorism, horror, panic, murder, and blood. And that was just the first few days of Christmas shopping in America.

Like The Religion of Peace-That-May-Not-be-Named, America is beginning to mark its holy days with body counts: one employee trampled to death (though not eaten) by shoppers in a big-box store in Long Island, New York, two dead by gunfire in a toy store in Palm Desert, California, and miscellaneous robberies in parking lots during the start of this festive season.

When the Long Island police closed the big-box store briefly to establish a crime scene for investigation, the murderers were angered that their shopping was interrupted. After a few hours the Arkansas-based chain, in their compassion for an employee murdered while on the job, reopened the store because, after all, this is The Christmas Season.

Perhaps a foreign newspaper will write something like this about us: The really frightening thing is that America, populated by such backward, irresponsible inhabitants, is a nuclear nation. Spain, France, England, Japan, and China have in turn tried to colonize America, but with little residual effect. Americans remain a simple people, easily amused by gifts of shiny but worthless trifles. They delight in adorning themselves as perpetual children; even among the elderly grown-up clothing is as little known as thrift and self-restraint. If such child-like primitives cannot be trusted not to kill each other over made-in-China baubles, how much danger might they be to civilized nations? One fears that the nuclear trigger is in reach of a text-messaging forty-something Yank wearing head-phones, sneakers, knee-pants, and a tee-shirt bearing the iconic message of America in the 21st century: “Whasssssssssssssssss-Upppppppppppppppp?”

President Bush has offered help to India because of the latest mass murders committed by what some are pleased to call youths, but perhaps India could help us first because of murders committed by Christmas shoppers. We point a patronizing finger at other dysfunctional cultures only at the risk of having an equally disapproving finger pointed back at our own.

Every year one reads how commercialized Christmas has become, but Christmas has not become commercialized at all: we have. And commercialization is fine in its place; the buying and selling of goods mean jobs and prosperity. Commerce is good, up until the point where shopping becomes not simply foolishness, like the silly woman who camps out in front of a store for days before a sale, but an act of terrorism.

We can do better.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Who Are You?

Mack Hall

The Duke of Norfolk: “What sort of foolery is this? Does the King visit you every day?”

Thomas More: “No, but I go to Vespers most days.”

-- A Man for All Seasons

What one really wants to see at Thanksgiving is the President whippin’ out a .22 and shooting the turkey (the strutting bird, not the strutting reporter) on the White House lawn instead of pardoning it.

Perhaps a new ritual could be initiated – a poor worker could be dragged out in front of the White House and forgiven this year’s confiscatory taxes.

Presidents seem to be required to waste their time on purely secular rituals that carry little relation to the ancient unities of faith and civilization: pardoning turkeys, doing something with Easter eggs, throwing out the first baseball, and worshipping the Superbowl.

The last thing we expect to see of a president in the 21st century is participation in a real ritual such as attending Vespers, making the Stations of the Cross, carrying the Gospels in a procession, standing as a happy witness at a baptism, or pardoning a human prisoner with a brotherly admonition to go and sin no more.

The religious rituals are thin enough now, and as a result the secular ones are increasingly bizarre. Make no mistake about it, humans will have rituals as surely as they will have stories, and if the genuine rituals and genuine stories are discarded they will be replaced with Hallmark ones or worse.

Recently several Texas cheerleaders were indicted for tying and blind-folding younger cheerleaders and then throwing them into a swimming pool, a situation that could well have led to deaths. This humiliation and endangerment were part of, yes, an initiation ritual.

Let us consider the facts. First, the older girls came ‘round in cars early in the morning – also known as the middle of the night – to take away the younger girls, purportedly to breakfast. Second, the older girls bound the girls with duct tape. Third, the older girls blind-folded the younger girls. Fourth, the older girls threw the younger girls into a swimming pool, bound and blindfolded.

And few people saw any harm in this. It’s a ritual; we’ve always done it; if you don’t let us lie to you and humiliate you and endanger you we won’t be your friends.

American soldiers are in federal prisons for doing far less to murderers who strap bombs to women and children.

In a few weeks the Chief Justice of the United States will in a ritual swear in a new President, demonstrating once again that America changes governments without coups or putsches or mass executions of the losing side. The President will take an oath, a public oath, perhaps with his hand resting on a copy of the Bible. And that’s it. He won’t be blindfolded, he won’t be stripped naked, he won’t be bullied into drinking alcohol, he won’t be endangered by torture, and he won’t have to refer to bullies as his brothers.

Humans have a need to be accepted by other humans, and certainly the village grouch is to be pitied. But a human should also possess and good sense of self and a certain autonomy in matters of dignity and self-preservation.

If a group of people come to get you in the middle of the night, like the Venezuelan or Cuban secret police, they do not have your best interests at heart. If you have a choice, why go with them?

If someone blindfolds you, he is taking away your ability to see. Why?

If someone binds you, he is taking away your ability to move freely and your ability to defend yourself. Why?

If someone humiliates you so that you will be permitted to be his friend, well, why? Do you really want to be accepted by people suffering weird psycho-sexual hangups? Far, far better for such unhappy and inadequate people to disapprove of you!

As your old daddy told you, always remember who you are.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Poverty Professionals

Mack Hall

As the advertisers inflict The Christmas Season (formerly known as Advent) upon us with all the subtlety and elegance of a back-alley beating, let us pause in our mad mall struggles for made-in-China gimcrackery to reflect on Those Less Fortunate.

Sure, you want to give your kid a bicycle or a new coat for Christmas, but consider that instead you might give your child a life-long lesson in generosity by taking the money you would have spent on the bike or the coat and donating it to a destitute banker or community activist having to make do with a year-old Mercedes-Benz.

Even as you read this, perhaps an auto executive and a union boss are meditatively puffing on Havana cigars in a behind-two-layers-of-receptionists office, sadly wondering where their next skiing trip to Gstaad is going to come from.

Just look into their pained eyes (if you could get through security) and then try to tell yourself that your child’s Christmas is more important than theirs.

Of Christian charity you must also think of those men and women who mismanaged the pension fund you’ve paid into for the last thirty years. You would be selfish to think about your house note and how you will live in your old age when the fund is in such bad shape that you can afford to send pension managers to, oh, conferences in Las Vegas for only one week this year, instead of two.

How proud your child would be of you if you were to say, “Darling, we don’t need a turkey for Christmas. We can do without a tree and presents. Let us give our Christmas money to Those Less Fortunate who mislaid Mom and Dad’s pension so that those executives can hire better masseuses. We can celebrate more merrily on canned meat, knowing that our hard work all year is going to a good cause.”

And how happy we Americans are that our President has entered into the spirit of Enron-ish self-denial, hosting a meeting of world leaders to discuss the financial crisis over wine that cost only $300 a bottle. That’s the Battle of Britain spirit we need in hard times.

Carrying on in inspirational self denial, Bob Geldorf, famous for something-or-other, gave an anti-poverty speech in Melbourne, Australia last week, and modestly accepted only US$65,000 in fees and gifts for doing so. While we do not know exactly what Bob Mother Theresa Geldorf said about poverty, we are reasonably sure he is against it. And land mines. And stuff.

Auto executives, Fannie Mae Executives, Freddie Mac Executives, Amtrak executives, National Public Radio executives, community activists, Irish musicians, two wonderful political parties that truly care about The People – all will need our thoughts and prayers, and, yes, our love offerings this Christmas / Winter Fest / Jack Frostival.

“Federal bailouts bless us not-quite-every one!” cried Tiny Tim, MBA, as he hoisted a class of champagne on a government office balcony overlooking the poor trying to keep warm in the frozen streets below.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Benefits of Being a Boomer-Geezer

Mack Hall

The Benefits of Being a Boomer-Geezer

Boomers don’t make very good geezers. After all, growing old was not part of the plan. But, hey, fellow Boomer-Geezers, life at our age is not about the vitamins or the expando-waist slacks; it’s about the perqs! No, not the Social Security we paid in; that’s already been looted for the sake of Iraqis who hate us and the Doctor Phil leisure class who also hate us. The rewards for being silver- or no-haired are less tangible than mere food, clothing, and shelter; the rewards are, like, y’know, spiritual, and, like, existential.

Following is a modest list of benefits derived from being the sort of people we used to dismiss as uncool:

People don’t ask you to help with the heavy lifting. Indeed, if you are carrying something young people are likely to come over to you and offer to help. The exception to this is any big-box store in Beaumont where, if you look as if you might need help with something, the employees flee as if their lives are being threatened.

If on a road trip you suggest that you might need to visit the euphemism soon, the driver locks up the brakes at the next gas station. No one wants to trifle with a geezer’s digestive system or urinary tract.

Senior citizens’ breakfast specials at the truck stop.

Wearing a coat and tie to church is permissible as one of those cute Old People things. Given the dress code this decade, an under-forty wearing a tie would probably be denied Communion.

Middle-aged people with grey hair call you “sir.” This is a much better deal than when you were 19 and considered it a good day if your drill instructor called you nothing worse than “*&^%ing plant life.”

Bucket lists are fashionable now: “100 Books to Read Before You Die,” “100 More Diets at Which to Fail Before You Die,” 100 Shopping Malls Selling the Same Made-in-China Junk to Visit Before You Die,” and so on. Well, I have a reverse bucket list, things I never have to do again. At the top of my No, No, and Heck No list is A Christmas Carol. Never again. There was never a child more annoying than Tiny Tim. I hope his little crutch breaks. Really.

Registering for military conscription – checked that off long ago.

Handing the keys to your grown-up child and enjoying the ride. This is more fun than you thought.

The History Channel is often the home movies of events you lived through.

No one expects you to stop whatever it is you’re doing and help fix a computer.

Although you gave up smoking years ago, your pulse races during old movies when the hero lights the heroine’s cigarette. And your pulse races because of the cigarette.

Velcro sneakers rock, dudes!

Jack Palance was right when he said that growing old is not for sissies. The adventure continues, though, and it’s still a challenge and it's still great fun. As Ed said on Northern Exposure, “You want to wake up every morning to see what happens next.”

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Who's Up for 2012?

Mack Hall

Who’s Up for 2012?

After a honeymoon for the President-elect lasting a seemingly eternal ten minutes, the 2012 presidential campaign finally began this morning. Hopefuls of both parties donned their traditional plaid work shirts and convened at Ethel’s Coffee Shop in Cowflop, New Hampshire.

“The President-elect has been the President-elect for ten minutes, my fellow Americans, TEN (pause) LONG (pause) MINUTES! Are you happier now than you were ten minutes ago!?” cried Senator Heather Ok’eB’e McChang, who got her start in Helena, Montana’s rough north side, as she raised a clenched fist into the air, her Rolex glinting in the reflection of Ethel’s made-in-China fluorescent lights.

“Order up,” called Tony the cook as he lit another Lucky Strike cigarette. “I’d be happier if it didn’t take Loreen and her arthritic hip ten minutes to refill the customers’ coffee.”

Senator Manfred Pantsy of the east side of San Francisco asked four moose-hunters in Booth 4 “Are you tired of the failed policies of the last ten minutes!?" as he fondled his Ralph Lauren designer deer rifle.

“I need change! Change! I need change over here!” Loreen at the cash register called to Ethel as she cracked open a fresh roll of state quarters.

Senator Ibrahim Call-Me-Brian Abdullah from the 51st state, Iraq, gasped in exhaustion: “Our campaign has come so far in the last ten minutes. We’ve been on the road from one end of the great city of Cowflop to the other on the Talk-Talk-Talk Express with our (yawn) fresh new ideas.”

“I could use some fresh coffee ovah heah,” said Earl, who used to work at Home Deep Pot but got fired for actually helping customers.

Senator Cleophas Okra of Louisiana asked rhetorically if the fish-canning plant down the coast still offered good jobs for Americans. Did anyone in Cowflop still make a traditional American living canning fish?

“Yes, we can! Yes, we can!” replied a number of immigrant workers in Booth Five.

“I am not George Bush,” said Senator Okra.

“Who’s George Bush?” asked some university students who had spent the day before registering new voters three and four times each.

“The status quo in Washington wants to keep things the way they are!” exclaimed Senator McChang. “The President-Elect has almost been President for fifteen minutes now. He is only two months away from being sworn into office, and he hasn’t done anything for the working man yet! Can we afford fifteen more minutes of this almost-administration?”

“Ya wanna move along, honey?” asked Ethel. “Ya’s been in this booth for an hour and I can’t afford ya for fifteen more minutes when I got payin’ customers waitin’.”

And in a corner booth, wearing false beards while on their way to Canada for the fishing, George Bush and Dick Cheney enjoyed a good laugh.