Sunday, September 26, 2010

Saturday Morning in the Bookstore

Mack Hall

Saturday Morning in the Bookstore

Why are there now so many books of lists of ten things we must do before we die? Why not nine, or eleven? And why should pay someone for a list of experiences he says you and I must fulfill before we shuffle off what Shakespeare is pleased to call this mortal coil? Will my life be meaningless if I don’t jump out of an airplane over Scotland, see a famous statue in a Buddhist temple in Bangladesh, eat fried snake in Singapore, bicycle through Kenya, visit some snaky island off Honduras, or flush a certain Czarist toilet in St. Petersburg?

The history magazines are mostly about war. One magazine I perused featured a photograph of a Nazi general about to be executed in Italy in December of 1945. He looks distressed. Perhaps his “Top Ten Things to Do Before I Die” list was incomplete: “#9 – murder more Italian and American prisoners.”

History magazines sometimes publish articles about what a nice lad General Rommel was, a worthy opponent and all that (stuff), and kind to kittens and children. No, it just won’t do. Rommel was a Nazi general. His career choice was to travel to other countries and then destroy them, killing lots of people while doing so. But then, hey, maybe he was just trying to find himself.

A Nazi connection sells books – any formula-plotted thriller will sell if a big ol’ swishtika adorns the cover. Such stories always begin on a dark, narrow, bleak, foggy, smells-of-cooking-cabbage, wartime London street where our hero (1) stumbles across a corpse bearing Secret Papers, and then (2) finds his way to an old building which discreetly houses a Special Branch of MI5, MI6, MI6 1/2,or MI7 which is more Special Branchy than any other Special Branch, and in which a mysterious Colonel Ponsonby-Snitt rules over a mysterious league of mysterious functionaries who hold the mysterious key – there’s always a key, real or metaphorical – which is going to win the war against jolly Rommel.

Zombies and vampires – I don’t get these genres at all. If someone wants blood, let him order a steak, rare. One reads in the news that some teens – obviously not the smart ones – are in imitation of vampire stories biting each other and swapping blood and, hence, bacteria and viruses. Were they not listening to parental teachings about basic hygiene and the myriads of blood-borne diseases? Well, no. Over in the magazine section one can find magazines devoted to tattoos and piercings. The book retailer could efficiently combine the books on zombies, vampires, tattoos, and piercings into one category: Disfigurement and Disease.

Books about the Tudors, especially Tudor queens and girlfriends, are still big. A nice side-effect is that readers also learn a little history.

Eat / Pray / Love / Drink / Vomit – How many women who work at the fast-food joint or at Big Box get to leave all behind and spend a year in Italy discovering themselves? Heck, most folks consider themselves lucky if they can take the kids to Disney once or twice before the little boogers grow up.

A recent fashion are books bearing covers of vapid-looking girls wearing yarmulkes with strings hanging down from them – one infers that these books, and they are Legion, are about a beautiful but misunderstood Hutterite / Amish / Mennonite girl who finds both Jesus and true love in a buggy while a modest church steeple and some perfect trees pose picturesquely in the background. But I sure wouldn’t know, and never will.

Detective stories – Agatha Christie is still the best. Hercule Poirot is my hero. Well, okay, him, John Wayne, Sergeant Schultz, and Bob Newhart.

Poetry – just keep moving; nothin’ to read here. That which now passes for poetry is pretty much me, me, me, my, my, my in content and free verse (which is a contradiction) in non-structure tricked out with the shabbiest sort of rhetorical bling. If the poet doesn’t dot the i he must be really cool, right? There is neither passion nor intellect nor aesthetics in contemporary poetry, only squalid self-pity flung like a temper-tantrum onto the page.

Westerns – the selection is smaller than it used to be. A current trend is to publish the books that were made into films, which is a great idea. Anyone who thinks John Wayne was one-dimensional has never seen The Searchers, John Ford’s brilliant examination of racism and redemption.

Harry Potter appears to be hiding, at least until the next movie comes out. The first book in the series was mildly interesting, but then the next forty or fifty were but the first book tiresomely recycled – cute kids scream at each other and then fight Him / He Who Must Not Be Named and then some minor character gets killed and then the cute kids reconcile with teary eyes and we learn about friendship being The Most Important Thing. Yawn.

Time for coffee.


Thursday, September 23, 2010


Guitars -- for those special fireside evenings when ordinary kindling just won't do.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

For a Football Player Dying Young

Mack Hall

In the Light

All of us must die; few of us are permitted to die while doing exactly what we should be doing.

There are no easy answers to the eternal why of death. We mourn those who die in the autumn of their lives; we mourn even more those who die in their springtime. Our intellects tell us that death is the natural progression of living; our hearts, in pain, tell us that the intellect’s understanding is inadequate.

Reggie Garrett, as young and proud as one of Beowulf’s warriors, sweat-stained in his West Orange-Stark uniform, died clean and honest and good. He threw a touchdown pass to a longtime friend, trotted off the field to the applause of his teammates, and died.

For the rest of their lives a few good men will speak a little, yes, of their own time on the field, but more often they will say, with great pride, “I played football with Reggie Garrett.”

For high school football is a clean game, clean and honest and good, a celebration of young manhood at the peak of strength and speed and skill. Football is played in the light, sometimes beneath God’s sun and sometimes under the electric lights which push the darkness away for the sake of a fair field for manly sport. Football is played by teams of youths of all sorts of backgrounds who have learned to live and work and play together. Football, always in the light, is happily antithetical to the dark broodings of a misanthrope lurking alone in a dark room hugging his dark resentments to himself in dark echoes of Grendel.

And no doubt there was some fat, cholesterol-sodden old poop in the bleachers popping off about how the pass and the catch could have been done better, but he is irrelevant. The only thing wrong with football is not football itself but with the flawless sideline quarterbacks who are oh, so quarterbackier than the young men who actually play the game.

Football is for the young athlete, not for the old critic.

Reggie did not die in the dark; he did not die watching television or idling on a street corner or doing something wrong or feeling sorry for himself. He died in the light, doing what was right, doing something he loved and doing it very well, glorious in his young manhood.

Reggie, an honor student, was to attend the University of Texas and study architecture. One imagines that the buildings he would have designed would have been filled with light.

“Eternal rest give unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.”


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Door Prizes at the Last Supper

Mack Hall

Door Prizes at the Last Supper

This year a church (let us call it St. Waycool’s) in a certain university town was pleased to begin the academic term by asking the students attending Mass to bring their cell ‘phones. The reason was not given because, according to the youth minister’s ‘blog, “the intrigue is half the fun.”

Oh, yeah, the Gospel and the Eucharist are Laff Riots. Perhaps what Jesus really says at every celebration of Holy Communion is “Do this in memory of Me – and bring your electronic toys.”

The goal was to coax students to register in the college parish. Now this part was good – the light bill must be paid and the roof repaired and the floors mopped, and all that costs money. People should support the church they attend appropriate to their means. Further, as the youth minister said, young people away from home for the first time have probably never thought of registering in a parish because, as with paying car notes, their parents did that.

All right, then, the homilist could have explained this and probably without a puppet ministry because, after all, the temporary parishioners are university students and can understand, like, y’know, thoughts and big words and stuff. And let the people say “existential.”

Sadly, some church functionaries appear to perceive any sort of outreach, even to university students and other adults, as a junior high experience.

After the homily and before the Eucharist the celebrant at each Mass had the participants whup out their cell ‘phones. Now, now, we mustn’t cling to the old ways, right? No doubt a parish priest in the early 19th century required his parishioners to take out their newest technology, the steel pen, and script their registrations then and there. And perhaps later in the century another priest asked the faithful to bring their wind-up gramophones to Mass. And then came the fruits of Vatican II: eight-track tapes, the Sony Walkman, and the Palm Pilot.

Anyway, at this point two functionaries at St. Waycool’s held up, smack in front of the altar and the crucifix (altar, crucifix – soooo last week), a large banner – what? No Power Point? – instructing the faithful how to report themselves to the parish authorities electronically.

The youth minister on his ‘blog proudly tapped out that this novelty “has never been tried in any other church.”

Wow! After 2,000 years the liturgy is at last enriched by lock-step text-messaging. All the saints and martyrs cry out with joy: “Can you hear me now? How many bars ya got?”

But wait – there’s more! Door prizes! If the faithful obediently texted during Mass and then obediently responded to an email on the following Tuesday they were automatically eligible for one of the following door prizes:

One Apple Ipod.
Five students got to lunch with the football coach.
Five students got to lunch with the basketball coach.
Twenty gift certificates.

Man, if only Padre Pio or Mother Theresa had been so cool!

Clearly the filter through which Christians perceive history must be upgraded because of the epiphany of electronic gadgetry:

The Magi followed their GPS devices (“Recalculating…”), not the Star.
St. Paul lost his signal on the road to Damascus.
“Suffer the little children to come unto me – after they register.”
St. Thomas More was beheaded for claiming his cell ‘phone signal was clearer than King Henry’s.
The Disciples in the photoshopped DaVinci’s Last Supper don’t hear Jesus because they’re all yakking into their cell ‘phones.
St. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for listening to The Voices through a tin cricket in her ear.
The Great Schism of 1170 was due to a rift between Cingular and AT&T users.
Moses received the Commandments via voicemail.
Jesus said to Peter, “If you love Me, tweet My sheep.”
The Centurion at the Crucifixion cried out, “Truly this was the Son of Verizon!”

At St. WayCool’s on that unhappy Sunday there was surely a faithful remnant of young men and women who bravely and stubbornly kept their cell ‘phones pocketed or pursed, and refused to desecrate the liturgy with this mummery. They won’t receive a gift certificate to Kitchen, Bed, Outhouse ‘N’ Stuff, but they won’t need it. They’ve got much, much more.


The Green Martyrdom

One wonders if any martyr tortured to death ever cried as loudly as does a certain bishop who does not receive the veneration and money he feels are his due.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

"I'm learning shoemaking..."

"I'm learning shoemaking and poetry, all at the same time."

-- David in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Random Acts of Thinkfulness

Mack Hall

Random Acts of Thinkfulness

A great mystery of our time – are American children too fat, or are they starving? One reads an outraged writer’s thesis, complete with statistics, that American children are fat, and so their school cafeterias must be beaten into obedience. But then another writer, with equal anger and another catalogue of stats, declares with the authority of Mount Sinai that American children are starving, and again the school cafeteria (it’s always the school cafeteria’s fault) must be remade in the commentator’s image.


In the past few weeks y’r ‘umble scrivener re-read Plato’s Phaedo (which is not Fido), Apologia, Crito, and Symposium. The real philosophical question is why the Athenian state didn’t off Socrates long before.


Doctors. So many doctors. No, not M.D.s; we need more of them: I refer to all the other folks who are now doctors of this and that occupation which needed not doctors before. Will it soon be a matter that everyone is a doctor? Heck, I had trouble finishing high school. And now all the reverends are becoming doctors, too, and I have read of one fellow who is a Reverend Doctor Master Bishop. I sure wish I were that enlightened.


One still hears of those who want to make the world a better place. What if the world doesn’t want to be re-made? And isn’t it rather judgmental for some tweeter to find the world lacking without first having gotten a job?


I watched a young fellow decant from a city bus while obediently wearing the complete dress code as dictated to him by popular culture: bulbous plasticky shoes, those awful kneepants, billowing fake athletic shirt, and a backward baseball cap with an ironed-flat brim. In his hand he bore a cell ‘phone, and his head was festooned with wiring so he could receive his instructions.

He fled the immediate area of the bus with a practiced insouciance but also with some speed, for despite all his ornamental cool, the unhappy and decidedly uncool fact remained: he had arrived by city bus, and desperately did not want to be seen doing so.


Electronic books – the appeal is there, especially while traveling. You can carry your business reading, your travel books, and your Hercule Poirot novel, plus hundreds of other books, all within one little plastic case. Also, you own the books you buy for downloading. When your little machine breaks, as it will, you can buy another one and get all your books back.

Still, it’s a gadget, a successor to the cassette tape, the VCR, and the Polaroid. It’s not actually a book, and you can’t recharge it with a kerosene lamp during a hurricane. You can’t use your pen to argue with the writer, and your grandchildren won’t turn the same pages you did and delight in your marginalia.


Several Saturdays ago two rival demagogues (Webster’s New Collegiate, demagogue – “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power”), as jealous of each other as the final two beauties competing for the crown of Miss Watermelon Festival, hosted rival body-counts in the nation’s capital.

Demagogues are free to gogue, and people living under the protection of the Constitution are free to lemming-up in doe-eyed adoration of the latest Dear Leader, but why would they want to?

When the competing golden-calf sessions were over, the two groups happened to encounter each other on the fringes (no pun). The folks involved apparently greeted each other courteously and wished each other well, demonstrating much more dignity than their masters. And, truly, Americans are much better off without masters.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Plato and His Perhaps Imaginary Friend Socrates

In the past few weeks I have re-read Apologia, Crito, Phaedo, and The Symposium. I marvel that the Athenian state did not possess the good sense to poison Socrates earlier.