Sunday, June 28, 2009

"Scope for Imagination" -- Anne of Green Gables

Mack Hall

In anticipation of a brief visit to Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province, I was advised by several people to read L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.

Oh, sure, and maybe I should also play with Barbie and Ken dolls dressed as Tim Horton’s servers in order to acculturate.

In the event, I read Anne of Green Gables, and liked it. Sure, it’s a girlie book in much the same way that Tom Sawyer is a boyie book, but with far fewer real adventures and better character development.

Set in Prince Edward Island around 1900, Anne is the fictional story of a very talkative and imaginative eleven-year-old orphan girl accidentally adopted (they wanted a boy to help with the farm) by a stern old maid and her bachelor brother. The narrative shows Anne growing up from eleven to sixteen – in 1900 an eleven-year-old was a child; a sixteen-year-old was an adult. Adolescence, we often forget, is a recent sociological construct. As an eleven-year-old Anne is a dreamer, a maker of mistakes, and a true drama princess. As a sixteen-year-old Anne is a graduate of a one-year preparation program and a teacher. Montgomery’s characterization of Anne is brilliant; the child’s unbroken, page-long babblings mature seamlessly over the years into an eloquence seldom to be found in today’s world of thirty-somethings jibbering in neo-valley-speak.

The stern Presbyterian couple, Marilla and Matthew, quite set in their ways, find their lives much changed by the rambunctious, dreamy Anne. If a mistake can be made, Anne is sure to make it, despite her best intentions in all things, and home, school, church, and the little town of Avonlea are all given “scope for imagination” (Anne’s trademark phrase) repeatedly.

Since Marilla and Matthew are Presbyterians, Christmas is not observed. They give Anne a new dress before breakfast, uncomfortable even with this slight concession to the day, and then Anne goes off to school as usual.

The Acadians are barely mentioned at all; a neighboring family has a slow, stupid French housemaid, and one summer Matthew hires a slow, stupid French boy for help with the farm work. These caricatures are briefly noted and then disappear from the narrative. Montgomery barely mentions the French subculture because it was barely a part of her segregated world, or Anne’s. Even now a perusal of place names in the Maritimes in a general encyclopedia will often state, with no irony, that a given settlement began when the Acadians were expelled.

In the end, as Anne leaves at fifteen to be trained as a teacher, Marilla says “I just couldn’t help thinking of the little girl you used to be, Anne. I was wishing you could have stayed a little girl, even with all your queer ways…and I just got lonesome thinking it all over.”

Shy Matthew simply says to the stars on a summer night “She’s smart and pretty, and loving, too which is better than all the rest. She’s been a blessing to us…It was Providence, because the Almighty saw we needed her, I reckon.”

C. S. Lewis said that a children’s book that could not be enjoyed by an adult wasn’t worth anything as a children’s book. So it is with Anne of Green Gables. Women who read it as girls grow almost misty-eyed in their happy memories when Anne is mentioned. A surprising number of men have read it too. In Japan the Anne books are studied as literature; in Canada they are simply enjoyed. And enjoyment is the best use of literature, a good book read by a child under the trees of summer with no tiresome adult about to critique the book or the child.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Taxpayer! There's a Fly in my Soup!

Mack Hall

I was raised on a farm, a real farm, not a weekend play-farm, and fresh food around the seasons was always a part of my childhood. I didn’t appreciate it. Once upon a time I rejected something that was placed before me at the kitchen table: blackeyed peas, perhaps, or collard greens.

“Each your supper,” my father said, “there are children starving in China who would love to have those peas.”

I replied in the insolence of youth with “Well, they can have mine.”

I still feel the pain. There are just some things you don’t say about food to folks raised in the Depression.

Terry Nichols, one of Timothy McVeigh’s conspirators in the murder of 168 people, including children, is suing you and me because he doesn’t like the food placed before him in prison.

And since Mr. Nichols is a federal prisoner (folks still tend to disapprove of murder), the working American must pay for the lawyers Mr. Nichols will use to sue the working American.

Mr. Nichols, who suffers a delicate digestive system and an acute sensitivity in regard to theological issues, maintains that the lack of whole grains and fresh food is causing him to sin against God.

Maybe Mr. Nichols finds sin in food grown with ammonium nitrate and delivered to the prison in a rented truck.

Perhaps the prison television has been showing the Food Network. God know what might happen if they start broadcasting Bridezillas.

If Mr. Nichols wants to be treated as if he were in daycare, he shouldn’t have blown up a daycare. After all, only licensed physicians are permitted to kill children, at some $10,000 a head.

Perhaps the lawsuit will be adjudicated at the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City.

There is no way of knowing how many American children starved to death in the Great Depression. Such really happened, and the survivors are reluctant to talk about it. Any American child in those terrible years would have been very happy to have Terry Nichols’ supper then; children in the Sudan would be very happy to have it today.

Because of Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, some thirty or forty children in Oklahoma City did not live to make whiny faces at the supper table at the risk of a good spanking.

If this matter comes to adjudication, the thoughtful, reflective, working American must hope that the thoughtful, reflective, working judge will listen carefully to sensitive Mr. Nichols’ petition, consider it carefully, look at Mr. Nichols, and say “No. Next case.”

Monday, June 22, 2009

"I Been"

Mack Hall

King Vidor’s Northwest Passage (1940) dramatizes an English guerilla campaign against Quebec during the Seven Years’ War. Although both sides claimed victory at Saint Francis / Sainte Francois in 1759, the long retreat of the Rangers under French pressure was a disaster.

At the end of the film the reconstituted Rangers are sent on another expedition, and as they march out of town the local taverner asks a stay-behind veteran of the Saint Francis raid, Hunk Marriner (Walter Brennan), "Ain’t you goin’?” Hunk replies laconically “I been,” and returns to his refreshing beverage.

For the past week the television viewers of the world have been watching two bits of drama: a great many of the citizens of Teheran protesting the outcome of an election they knew was rigged before going into it, and a great many citizens of other great cities of the world demanding that the U.N. (meaning 19-year-old Americans) be sent in to do something about it.

Nope. Not this time. Let the Chinese or the Swiss send their 19-year-olds to die in Iran if they wish.

Let us consider the losing side in the recent elections. No candidate stands for election in Iran without the approval of the mullets. Mir Hossein Mousavi ran for president as a tool of the mullets, and was bitterly disappointed when the votes – meaning the mullets – said that the current chief stooge, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, won by a Russian-style landslide. Mr. Mousavi then set off a week of rioting in Teheran, and although a number of young Iranians have been killed by the Revolutionary Guard, Mr. Mousavi is quite safe and will remain so. As with so many amateur dictators, he will demand that his followers fight to the last bullet and the last drop of blood, said demands probably to be made from a five-star hotel resort and golf course in France or the USA.

Iran doesn’t like us. Oh, boo-hoo. If not for British oil development in the 1940s Iran would be nothing more than a sort of Newark, New Jersey, only with more sand and less charm. Iranians under the Shah didn’t like us. Iranians under the Ayatollah Khomeini didn’t like us. Iranians under Ayatolla Khameni don’t like us. Whatever thug-ocracy in Teheran is to come won’t change anything much – and Iranians won’t like us. Iran will never be a democracy and will never be friendly.

In Paris, people demonstrating in the streets demand that the U.N. (meaning 19-year-old Americans) do something about Iran.

In New York, people demonstrating in the streets demand that the U.N. (meaning 19-year-old Americans) do something about Iran.

In Los Angeles, people demonstrating in the streets demand that the U.N. (meaning 19-year-old Americans) do something about Iran.

And a great many of those people demanding that the U.N. (meaning 19-year-old Americans) do something about Iran are Iranians.

Iranians in exile don’t appear to be asking for weapons or assistance so that they can go back to Iran and do something.

Iranians in exile don’t appear to be requiring themselves to give up their jobs, their businesses, their comfy lifestyles to do anything about the country they fled; they appear to want Americans to fight and die and suffer for Iran.

And without a doubt the moment a pair of American boots touch the sacred soil of Iran (where suddenly every city will be a holy city), the wearer of those American boots will be charged with war crimes by some European (meaning Belgium) court with no clear mission except to keep itself in existence.

Isolationism has not been fashionable since the 1930s, when non-intervention allowed Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, and Stalin to parcel the world among themselves (let us never forget that the Communists and the Nazis were great pals well into World War II). Resolving that this should never happen again, the post-war world saw the Western nations involved in a confused and often contradictory series of intrusions into the affairs of other nations. To what extent these were successful cannot be known; in retrospect we can be sure that if the French and British had in good time suppressed Hitler’s occupation of Alsace and the Sudetenland, the French and British would have been judged by the world to be oppressors.

Except when the North Koreans are doing weird things with missiles and nukes, the South Koreans hate us. Same for the Japanese. Indonesia. Afghanistan. Iraq (the Iraqis and the U.N. begged the U.S. to intervene, remember?). Taiwan. Cuba. Serbia. Bosnia. The hopeless city of New Orleans.

No, maybe it’s time for the United States to practice a little healthy isolationism and give up letting other nations, who despise us anyway, kill our nineteen-year-olds and our economy. The United States, in endeavoring to do good, has wrecked itself. Switzerland, one of the most evil nations in the world, one which never met a bloody tyrant with whom it could not cut a profitable deal, has never made a point of helping any nation in need, and yet prospers.

Maybe it’s time for the United States to skip a campaign, telling those who demand much too much of us, “No, thanks. I been.”

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Buying a Wash Stand

This morning I had occasion to buy a "vanity" (nee' wash stand) at Lowe's in Jasper, and enjoyed talking with Kenneth, a happy geezer my age who has no business climbing ladders.

Anyway, he and I both wondered whether the vanity (does it preen before itself?) contained a sink, and Kenneth asked if it was okay if he opened the box.

Well, sure.

He explained that several days ago he had sold a lady a nice lamp, and she had asked him to open the box to make sure the lamp was like the picture and that all the parts were there. Everything was fine, and Kenneth closed the box and began to place it in the lady's shopping cart.

"Oh, no," she protested, "not that one; it's been opened."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Man Could Stand Up

Mack Hall

A Man Could Stand Up is the third novel in Ford Madox Ford’s World War I tetralogy, Parade’s End. The phrase “a man could stand up” is employed repeatedly as an allusion to life and death in the trenches, and with multiple meanings. In trench warfare to stand up is to die, and so the desire to stand up symbolizes a hope for an end to the war. At other times in the novel the phrase means doing that which is brave and right.

On Tuesday, 11 June 2009, a man named Stephen Johns stood up for civilization, for us. Opening the door as a kindness to an elderly man, the sorry ess of a bee responded to this courtesy by shooting Mr. Johns in the chest. He never had a chance.

Stephen Johns was a security guard for the Holocaust Museum in our nation’s capital. Contrary to the stereotype of the rent-a-cop, Mr. Johns was a trained professional and a certified peace officer. So were his two backups, who quickly and efficiently returned fire and saved the lives of uncounted innocents. The one life they could not save was that of their comrade.

Questions have been asked about the motives of the gutless murderer; more needful questions should be asked about the motives of Stephen Johns. Evil is as common as bitterweeds; a man who stands up for what is right rather less so.

So I would like to know more about Stephen Johns. At least two writers alluded to Mr. Johns as a “gentle giant,” an appellation which is as condescending as it is trite. They should not have written such drivel. Mr. Johns was a man, not a cliché.

We know that Mr. Johns was 39, had a wife and a son, loved the Washington Redskins (hey, no one’s perfect), and was liked and respected by his co-workers.

I don't know much else about Stephen Johns, and I would like to. I want to know who his pals were, what jokes he made about his boss, who he ate lunch with, what books influenced him, if he sneaked a cigarette during his break, if he flirted with the receptionist, what kind of coffee he preferred, what kind of music he liked, and what his dreams were.

I know little more than this: Stephen Johns died while protecting other people and the truth of history. His death means that others will continue to live, to meditate upon evil and upon the good men who stand up to evil, and may God give us the grace to understand that. Mr. Johns lived and died in order to save the truth of history for all of us, a truth malevolent people deny. I doubt if he woke up the other morning imagining that he would die as a hero of civilization, but that is what happened, and we should honor his memory as an American hero.

A man could stand up. Stephen Johns did.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Dan Rather Wants Our Children

Mack Hall

Like Rasputin’s bloated corpse bobbing up among the ice floes of the Nevka River, Dan Rather has surfaced again.

On the occasion of his latest apparition he wants our children.

In an article syndicated by Hearst, Rather, the famous documents expert, coyly asks if it would not be in the best interests of unity that all young people be conscripted into the military or into some sort of vague “national service.”

Conscription. Press gangs. The draft. Forced labor. Hitler Youth. Young Pioneers. The concept that a human is completely at the disposal of the State is a European idea, not an American one. America has occasionally violated the spirit of its own Constitution and impressed people into the military: the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and, inexcusably, for some 28 years following 1945. Even so, during World War II the draft was more of a management tool than a bludgeon: “Wait your turn; we’ll tell you when we need you.”

But even in a national emergency, conscription is never a good idea.

Conscription is an unconstitutional wrong forced upon the young and the poor by the old and the rich. A child of Congress or of Wall Street is no more likely to be found in a recruit barracks than is a copy of The Federalist Papers.

But Dan Rather wants the government to herd our children and grandchildren into barracks and labor camps. For what reason? To sing Woody Guthrie songs or perhaps The Internationale before huge images of Ted Kennedy? To be required to chant Dear Leader’s recent assertion that America is now a Muslim nation? To dig canals by hand? To be posted to the streets of Chicago to hand out A.C.O.R.N. propaganda?

The toadious Dan Rather subscribes to a benign but incomplete concept of Old Army Buddies – that people of different backgrounds drafted into the Army got to know each other better, and so made a better America.

Well, maybe, but that’s a specious argument that could be made of concentration camps, too. If a stuffy Belgian banker and an ‘umble Dutch janitor share a good conversation together while breaking rocks for a road project, that conversation is not a good argument for the existence of concentration camps.

Am I comparing conscription to concentration camps? Yes, to a not-very-limited extent. When people are forcibly removed from their homes and occupations and put behind the wire into a situation of regimentation with a system of punishments for not adapting to the new order, they have been deprived of the whole basis of the Declaration of Independence, the God-given right of self-determination.

I know lots of fine young people who are off to the military this summer. We can be immensely proud of them because they choose to do so. Another young man of my acquaintance spent the first week after his high school graduation helping teach Vacation Bible School; after that he’s going to work until college in the autumn. Work is probably his choice, but then I know his mom and dad; they’re not into letting their kids loaf around as house guests. And yet another young man brought me my fast-cholesterol at the drive-in the other evening. Good for them. They don’t even know who Dan Rather is; I don’t expect that they would want him or any other old flatulent ideologue ordering them into the camps for the good of the State.

Our recent presidents have been doing a czar thing – energy czars, car czars, and now a salary czar. What next, a children’s-camp czar? We don’t want no stinking czars. We don’t want our children seized by the State, either.

If Dan Rather likes internment camps so much, let him build himself a barbed-wire fence, sentence himself behind it, stand himself to attention two or three times a day, and count himself.