Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dirty Books

Mack Hall

I am a product of…endless books…books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books…in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder…books of all kinds…

-- C. S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy

The Congress of the United States, having passed laws to protect us from psychotic nail clippers and large, menacing bottles of shampoo is now banning children’s books for our own good. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), passed last August as a response to lead-based paints on Chinese toys (the North Pole has been outsourced to Shanghai), embraces in a B-movie death-hug all children’s books printed before 1985.

Inks produced before that magical year are said to contain lead, and thus are said to endanger children. Said. But said by whom?

Just how many hundreds of copies of Little House on the Prairie a child would have to eat in order to ingest a measurable amount of lead has not been determined, nor is that Congress’ problem. The burden is ours. Anyone – meaning you or me – who gives a child a book printed before 1985 is obligated by law to spend hundreds of dollars having that book tested for lead.

Mom or Grandma, under that law you can be prosecuted for passing on to your favorite rug-rat that untested, unregistered copy of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm you so enjoyed as a girl.

After all, every parent’s worst nightmare is of his child being pursued down a dark street by lead-intoxicated Scuffy the Tugboat.

Pops, giving the lads in your life your boyhood copies of Old Yeller and Rifles for Watie is verboten unless you pay a great deal of money to have them tested and approved by a benevolent government.

One wonders if this book-banning is an expression of backdoor censorship of old and now incorrect books. A solid American kid who reads Johnny Tremain might be a little more uppity about oppressive governments than some glassy-eyed serf malnourished on the weirdness of Captain Underpants.

So many books have never been reprinted, and exist only because old copies reside in home libraries, public libraries, and used bookstores. The destruction of these books by government edict would be as great a crime against civilization as the Taliban blowing up ancient cultural artifacts in Afghanistan. 2,000-year-old works of art aren’t in harmony with Islam, and 100-year-old children’s books might not be in harmony with powerful and relatively anonymous functionaries within our federal government.

Government controls the means of distribution of intellectual property through the licensing, regulation, and monitoring of radio, television, telephones, and the ‘net. A printed book, though, is a silent expression of freedom. Reading a printed book is an activity that cannot easily be monitored. A book on one’s own shelves cannot be rewritten by a government agency’s computer technicians overnight.

But a book is not completely safe – it can be lost, burned, stolen, or seized. Nor are you safe. Someone in our government has found a way to threaten your freedom to read not by crudely banning books outright but by promoting a bogus health issue: who but a cad could possibly be against safeguarding the safety of children? Thus the book is not demonized, but rather the possibility of content of lead in the type, and by extension he who owns the book. To expose a child to a book thus becomes a crime.

To tyrants, buying your child an old book full of stories of heroes is a criminal act. In truth, giving your child that book makes you a real hero yourself.

Just be careful to look over your shoulder.

“I mean they’ve erased our history and are rewriting what remains…whole zones of literature are now forbidden and are disappearing from libraries.”

-- Antun to Josip re Tito’s Yugoslavia in Michael O’Brien’s The Island of the World


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Cargo Cult

Mack Hall

A wise man of my acquaintance speaks the truest words I have ever heard about materialism: “It’s only stuff.”

My usual rejoinder is “I like my stuff!”

But he is right. As the anonymous author of “The Seafarer” said some 1500 years ago, the wealth of the world neither goes with us when we die nor does it remain. One’s car, pocketknife, fountain pen, watch, boat, tractor, Brickberry – all will eventually be sold, stolen, rusted, rotted, recycled, or simply lost in the passage of the centuries.

Even so, while one is here on earth a reasonable amount of stuff is good: a nice coat, a radio, plumbing, sensible shoes, a glass of iced tea, a bed, a roof, a good book.

Modern economies are based on the exchange of work, goods, and services, but right now all that seems to have slowed mightily. We are not selling enough hamburgers, insurance, and lawsuits these days.

Japan is in bad shape too, and Panasonic Corporation is demanding that all its employees help Panasonic by buying lots of Panasonic stuff with their paychecks. You make it, you buy it.

If all organizations followed Panasonic’s closed-loop scheme, here are the possibilities:

“Cowboys, ya done a good job in herdin’ these longhorns from Texas to Abilene, fightin’ drought, wolves, Apaches, rustlers, and that satanic bread truck near Waco. 3,000 head o’ cows, and ya got 2,500 through. Now buy them.”

“Hey, Fred, great work in rebuilding those three carburetors today. Now the company executives expect you to do your duty and buy these three carbs plus the one that Bob didn’t finish. At wholesale, natch.”

“Nurse Aide Smith, you are one good caregiver, a true Flo Nightingale. We appreciate you, and the patients appreciate you. In exchange for your paycheck we demand that you take two hundred used bedpans home to your family.”

“Spuds, you are a great short-order cook, and you’ve worked here at Awful House for years. Tell ya what – instead of paying you this week we’re gonna let you eat all you want of the customer leftovers, okay? Do it for the company that loves you so much.”

"Wanda Fay, you have been a great asset here at the newspaper for over twenty years, but we’re having some rough times and are going to have to let you go. We can't give you severance pay, so we’re going to let you have today’s entire press run of 150,000 copies of the newspaper you helped make great. Good bye, and good luck.”

“Corporal Steele, you saved Fort Spitcup from being overrun by wave after wave of screaming terrorists armed with AK47s, AK48s, and suicide underpants through your expert command of your platoon after Sergeant Ironguts was killed in action. In recognition of your bravery and professionalism, and in lieu of treatment or VA benefits for the arm you lost in combat, we’re going to give you all the dead bodies. A grateful nation thanks you.”

“Employees of the sewage plant: as you know, the city is having a cash-flow problem…”

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Stimulus Package

Mack Hall

The financial depression is getting so bad that day and night I see poor people on three-wheelers fleeing poverty in terror along my road. Yep, rattle-trap old three-wheelers all day long, with mattresses and chickens and Grandma piled on, headed to California.

But I’m okay; I got my stimulus packages, two of ‘em, the other day: DTV Digital a Convertidor Analogico, Hecho en China. Someday I will thrill my grandchildren with yarns about the Not-So-Great Depression: “Boy, we was so pore we had only two television sets, and they was analog at that! Thank God for the federal government who came to our rescue with two Convertido Analogicos! I just don’t think we would have made it through the terrible winter of ‘08-’09 without ‘em.”

Rosie the Riveter will be updated to Rosie the DTV Digital a Convertidor Analogico Hecho en China Installer. The iconic poster will show Rosie flexing her cell ‘phone and crying “My boss is a sexist meanie!”

Installing a DTV Digital a Convertidor Analogico Hecho en China will soon be a WPA job, with four supervisors watching one installer do the work.

Standing along the streets the newly unemployed will hold up signs that read “Will Install Your DTV Digital a Convertidor Analogico Hecho en China For Food.”

As hospitals wrecked by Hurricane Ike finally have to close forever, patients dying in the weedy parking lots will each be comforted by a brand-new DTV Digital a Convertidor Analogico Hecho en China.

As the economy collapses, once-respectable women will stand on street corners smoking cigarettes and whispering, “Hey, mister, want a good DTV Digital a Convertidor Analogico Hecho en China tonight?”

An Olympic gold medallist will be photographed smoking something grassy through a DTV Digital a Convertidor Analogico Hecho en China.

Women with serious pyschosexual issues will take off their clothes to protest global warming caused by the use of DTV Digital a Convertidor Analogico Hecho en Chinas.

The Pentagon will pay $4,000 for each DTV Digital a Convertidor Analogico Hecho en China.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will demand a DTV Digital a Convertidor Analogico Hecho en China for each of her offices and houses, and a gold-plated one for her government jet.

Members of The Bright Light Free Will Foursquare Three-and-a-Half Gospels Missionary Temple Fellowship of The Something-or-Other under the The Reverend Doctor Brother Bishop Billy will gather on rooftops at midnight on Ground Squirrel Day trying to receive messages from the Mother Ship on their DTV Digital a Convertidor Analogico Hecho en Chinas.

Congress will subpoena tobacco executives to grill them about why teenagers are smoking DTV Digital a Convertidor Analogico Hecho en Chinas.

Old people will yarn that “In my day we didn’t need a DTV Digital a Convertidor Analogico Hecho en China; we sat around watching rocks, and by golly we were glad to have an extra rock for Christmas. We didn’t have DTV Digital a Convertidor Analogico Hecho en Chinas, but we had love, and if we didn’t have love my ol’ daddy’d take a razor strap to my heinie and I grew up just fine, so you know what you kids can do with your fancy DTV Digital a Convertidor Analogico Hecho en Chinas that you think you got to have.”

In the Khyber Pass an outnumbered, outgunned American patrol, surrounded by extremist Methodists, will radio its last, defiant message: “Send us more DTV Digital a Convertidor Analogico Hecho en Chinas!”

War? Depression? Hurricanes? Homelessness? Foreclosures? Unemployment? Republicans lurking under the bed? Stand tall, America; with our DTV Digital a Convertidor Analogico Hecho en Chinas we can tackle anything!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Irrelevant -- a Poem

Mack Hall


For Tod

How wonderful to be irrelevant:
An old car rusting in sere autumn weeds,
An unheard voice no longer pertinent,
A silent solitary bidding his beads.

In youth one roams the glades with Robin Hood,
Sails dream-ships far beyond the classroom wall,
Dances with fairies in a moonlit wood,
Gives homage to our King in Arthur’s hall.

A man, alas, drags Dante’s darksome dreams
Through corridors haunted with smoke and mist,
Where truth is bought and sold by mad regimes,
And lies are given a sly, sensitive twist.

But, oh! Peace! To be nothing at the end,
Nunc dimittis, thou happiest of men!

100 Things to Ignore Before You Die

Mack Hall

A recent visit to the book store reveals that there are only about two kinds of books for sale just now: those with pictures of the President on the cover and those telling you of 100 movies, songs, places, meals, adventures you must see, hear, visit, eat, or experience before you die.

Just what death has to do with any given 100 experience eludes the thoughtful person. You see Plan Nine From Outer Space because you want to laugh at a cheesy film with pie plates doubling as flying saucers, not because your physician has given you a thumbs-down. You listen to Wagner because of some atavistic impulse to listen to people yelling at each other in German with Nibelungsomethings beating on kettledrums in the background. You eat a taco because you’re hungry. You jump out of an airplane because against all logic you really, really feel that some cloth and a few lengths of string will keep you from terminal planet-hugging.

Life should be lived on one’s own terms, as far as is possible (God seems to have His own plans in the matter), not on some other human’s schedule. Perhaps part of the scheme is not doing all that other people tell you. Following are some things that can well be ignored in living a meaningful life:

1. Numerology, horoscopes, and global warming
2. Art that must be explained
3. Poetry that doesn’t scan
4. Bottled water
5. Batman movies
6. Coffee with adjectives
7. National Public Radio on Saturday morning
8. That quiet young man who collects Nazi memorabilia
9. Activists
10. 1968
11. Fat-free potato chips
12. Newark, New Jersey
13. Wedding receptions
14. Golf-as-life metaphors
15. Meeting
16. Movie remakes
17. Afghanistan
18. Margarine
19. Eateries that serve margarine
20. Holding hands with total strangers in church
21. Cell ‘phones
22. Sea salt
23. Air Canada
24. Belgium
25. Lists!