Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Remembrance of Death

The last summer leaves at last spinning silently down in the grey, misty, dying days of December often remind thoughtful men of their own mortality; the seriousness of the reminder is perhaps compromised by the awareness that human bodies falling from oak trees would hit the ground with loud thumps.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Patented Electrical Reading Machine & Moustache Waxer

Mack Hall

The Patented Electrical Reading Machine & Moustache Waxer

For Christmas long ago my parents gave me a boy’s book of Robin Hood, and Robin Hood stories read as well in adult life as in boyhood. If I ever lose this Christmas volume I can now call up Sherwood Forest on The Patented Electrical Reading Machine & Hoof Trimmer.

For Christmas this year my daughter gave me an e-reader, hereinafter referred to as the Noodle (the reviews imply that there is little to differ between the Nook and the Kindle), and the gadget appears to live up to its ads.

The Noodle is a little larger than a paperback and about as light. The machine displays a page at a time, and it really is as easy on the eyes as an ink-on-dead-tree page. The typeface can be made larger, and this is certainly a bonus for the optically-challenged among us.

The Noodle comes with a leaflet instead of an instruction book, and getting started is fairly easy. One must register the Noodle with its book chain sponsor, and generate the usual passwords and such, which is only a minor nuisance. Once this is accomplished, using the Noodle is quite easy.

At the foot of the screen is a menu which is relatively easy to navigate although the touch-screen controls are designed for small and nimble fingers. My first attempt to download a book was very slow, but that was on Christmas afternoon when everyone in America who found a Noodle under the tree was doing the same; early the next morning there was no delay at all.

To download a book one must be within what is termed a Wi-Fi hot spot, which is where people with computers gather together to ignore each other. However, since the book is stored within the electrical brain of the machine, one needn’t be near civilization at all in order to read it.

E-books are cheaper than dead-tree books, and the catalogue of new books is the same as one would find on display at the bookstore. Besides new books, though, the Noodle offers thousands of more obscure books (“many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore”) not otherwise available, and many of these are free. I downloaded some ten out-of-copyright books by G. K. Chesterton without any cost at all.

For my Noodle I bought a cover made of imitation Italian leather. I wish I had bought one made from a real Italian instead of an imitation Italian; the imitation leather is a bit greasy-finger-printy. However, it does hold the Noodle securely, making a drop less likely, and provides some padding. The cover also has convenient pockets inside.

Advantages of a Patented Electrical Reading Machine:

1. The electric brain stores hundreds and possibly thousands of books (an Agatha Christie takes up much less space than the Douay-Rheims Bible), which is very convenient for travel. Further, shelf space is at a premium even for the settled among us; our old friends need not be crowded out by new purchases.

2. E-books (to go with your e-dog and e-coffee, and e-chair) are cheaper than physical books.

3. You own the books. If the Patented Electrical Reading Machine is lost or stolen or eaten by the family dachshund, the replacement machine need only be re-coded in order to access your portable library.

4. Long battery life, days at least when disconnected from the Wi-Fi.

5. You can subscribe to e-editions numerous newspapers and magazines.

6. Walking around with a Noodle under your arm will make you look both scholarly and tech-y, sort of a cross between Tennyson and Steven Jobs.

Disadvantages of a Patented Electrical Reading Machine:

1. It is a gadget, and will eventually break.

2. It is not a real book; you can’t underline favorite passages or clever repartee, or makes notes on margins or the blank pages. I haven’t yet discovered a quick way of skipping around chapters or short stories, and you can’t work the daily crossword on it.

3. The communications channels are crowded, especially in the evenings, and there can be some delay in accessing and downloading.

4. The Noodle has to be recharged occasionally. You can’t carry spare batteries; everything’s internal. This could be a problem if you join Robin Hood’s men because there are no electrical outlets in Sherwood.

5. The 1984 factor: our successive governments centralize and gather power, and presume even to control electrons and an abstract concept call “airwaves.” Thus, electronic books are far more subject to censorship and destruction than physical ones. In a recent matter one company, learning that it didn’t own copyright permission to sell a certain book, simply made the book disappear from the electronic readers of people who had bought it. A hostile government or individual could just as easily make unwanted electronic books disappear so that Americans wouldn’t get uppity.

6. Maybe you don’t want to look like Tennyson or Steven Jobs.

There is an irony that the great books – and even the frivolous books – of free nations should be available only on contraptions made in a country that has never known an elected government and is at present a giant slave-labor camp. Robin Hood would not approve, but then, perhaps Liu Xiaobo is China’s archer of freedom, and maybe someday we can read about him on a Noodle made in a free country.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Among the Sandbags

Mack Hall

Christmas Among the Sandbags

An old Navy buddy telephoned me for Christmas, and we marched down memory grinder to long-ago days in San Diego.

Mike and I were in boot camp together for four months, real boot camp, not the Barbie-therapy thing for petting the misunderstood youths who stole your car, and then Hospital Corps ‘A’ School for another four or so months. On the day we graduated from ‘A’ school all of us new Corpsmen were loaded into three trailers and trucked to Camp Pendleton for a month of Field Medical Service School. Upon arrival we were given a jolly greeting by Sergeant Snyder, who had us sit in groups of four for a little comforting this-ain’t-no-S-word advice: he told us to look at the other three, and said that within a year one of the four would not be alive.

A civilian teacher never has to tell his students that their mortality rate by the end of next term will be 25%.

Most of us who later found ourselves up and down small rivers on small boats survived; far more of those who patrolled with the Marines died violently because men in Washington all clean and dry in white shirts and expensive suits thought the deaths of 19-year-olds was somehow a good idea.

They still do.

After Field Medical Service School, orders took Mike and me different ways, as orders do, but those intense months still inform our lives as nothing else could. One hears drivel about a stupid song or a stupid concert or a stupid celebrity “defining a generation,” but anyone so weak and so facile as to believe that deserves to be defined. During Woodstock a few of us on the other side of the world were also camped out in the woods and fields; our campout didn’t define us and we still refuse to be defined.

But this is a Christmas story, so let us put out the cigarettes and get to our feet: in our first Christmas in the Navy Mike and I and 97 other guys were still in ‘A’ School but were given the day off. We were all homesick, but there was nothing for it. Mike-the-Lutheran, Bill-the-Catholic, and I got up early, even though for once we didn’t have to – and that annoying, scratchy record of “Reveille” blasting through speakers on other mornings was happily silent for Christmas - and on a cool, misty morning walked down the hill and into town for early Mass at St. Joseph’s Cathedral.

And that was good, because not many of the guys in Viet-Nam would have had a Christmas morning service of any kind.

After Mass we found a hole-in-the-wall cafĂ©’ with cookery-steamy plate-glass windows and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast.

And that was good, because not any of the guys in Viet-Nam would have had fresh eggs and fresh milk on Christmas morning; a great many of them had to feast out of a can.

And then we walked for hours in Balboa Park – at $96 a month you find the free entertainment - and the mist blew out to sea and the sun came out.

And that was very good, because there was no fear of land mines buried in the grass in the park.

And because our expectations had been very low, that Christmas was a very happy one indeed. Christmas is where you find it.

And, anyway, my father spent the Christmas of 1944 in the snow outside Bastogne; San Diego was a much better deal.

This Christmas we pray – and we must really do so, not just say the words carelessly - for our young men and women in the desert. Some of them are Marines and Navy Corpsmen (the desert Corpsmen who survive will, again, come home to be told by the ill-informed how lucky they were to have been on a ship and away from the fighting). Some of America’s best will be close enough to an airfield to enjoy a real Christmas meal shipped in (if the lovers of peace out among the rocks don’t blow up the plane or helicopter); others will spoon mysterious glop from a can or pouch with a little sand, smoke, and gun oil for dressing, and maybe the downwind stench from the latrines to serve as the odor of sanctity.

Other postings and operations and ships around the world are a little safer than patrolling in the danger, dung, and dirt of Whosedumbideawasthisstan this Christmas, but those assignments are no less lonely for young soldiers away from home for the first time and for older soldiers away from home yet again. A 19-year-old from Minnesota standing the mid-watch won’t find Christmas in Fort Hood to be very Normal Rockwell-ish, and another 19-year-old posted to some air base on the Arctic Circle might not be able to spare a moment to appreciate the full Christmas moon while de-icing a jet about to launch. Other 19-year-olds deep inside an on-station submarine that won’t surface for three months can’t look at the moon or even listen to the radio.

But Christmas is where you find it, and we can expect that our innovative youth will somehow find a way of making the most of it, some by sharing their Christmas meal with children who are programmed to hate them. Certain events 2,000 years ago also began in a cold desert with two young people far away from home because of government orders, and that eventually worked out fine.

God bless our sailors, Marines, soldiers, Coast Guard, and airmen everywhere this Christmas.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Advent Rosary

Advent Rosary

Dark Advent is a silent waiting time
When autumn chills into pale, year-end days
And joy seems smothered by hard-frosting rime:
Cold is the debt that spring to winter pays

The seasons link to seasons in a chain,
The chain of being that links, also, our souls,
Seasons and souls, not always without pain:
Summer’s wild lightning falls and thunder rolls.

Linked to us too, rose by mystical rose,
This holy Advent is Our Lady’s Grace
To us who wait in exile sad; she knows
Where souls and seasons sing, the Night, the Place.

Seasons and souls, linked to days dreary-dim:
Follow them with roses to Bethlehem

Mack Hall
Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 2010

Sunday, December 5, 2010

False Grit: The Remake of True Grit

Mack Hall

False Grit

True Grit has been remade, and we true-as-blue-steel John Wayne fans are as apoplectic as Yosemite Sam on a bad-moustache day. Does a composer remake Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg? Does an artist remake Gainsborough’s Blue Boy? Does a photographer remake Ansel Adams’ Moonrise? Does a writer remake Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty?”

No, no, and (Newark, New Jersey) no.

A contemporary businessman remaking a great film is no more an artist than a child with a paint-by-numbers set. The child, at least, can plead youth and innocence and delight in messing up the living-room floor. The adult cannot plead innocence; he is no artist but rather a moral and aesthetic dwarf attempting to delude the customers that he is a reincarnation of Hal Wallis, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway, or Michael Curtiz.

Given the cliches’ of contemporary movies we know some of the ways this revisionist pastiche of True Grit will be constructed:

1. Interior shots will be sepia-toned and will feature harsh shadows and window light streaming through dust. The convention now is that the insides of houses and offices and courtrooms in the past were all dusty and sepia-toned. Dusty sepia interiors are like, y’know, artsy, and, like, existential, and, like, stuff.

2. The screen will be polluted with the agony of computer graphics instead of honest filmmaking.

3. At some point someone will perform a slo-mo Ninja whirly-through-the-air thing.

4. If Chin Le is in the remake he will not be referred to as a “Chinaman” and will not be a fussy landlord and owner of a general store but rather a stereotypical sage mystic who spends much of the time being spiritual and working on his PhD.

5. Judge Walker will probably be a woman wearing a red power blazer.

What might the looters remake next?

Mary Queen of Scots with Miley Cyrus as Mary and Justin Bieber as Bothwell.

A Man for All Seasons with Mel Gibson as St. Thomas More. During the protracted execution scene the saint’s head falls in slo-slo-mo with lots and lots of blood sloshing everywhere. Julian Assange is the sniveling, treacherous Common Man. More’s daughter Margaret finds peace and harmony in a Zen Buddhist temple with a guru named Shawn while working on her PhD.

Casablanca starring Woody Allen as Rick and Lindsay Lohan as Ilsa. Stone Cold Steve Austin is Major Strasse. Sam (RuPaul) is a sage mystic who spends much of the time being spiritual and working on his PhD.

The Great Escape – the commandant is played by a George Bush impersonator who says “Zis iss a new camp, y’all.” Werner the Ferret is working on his PhD.

The Sound of Music with Oprah Winfrey as Maria. Maria shuffles the seven children off to perpetual daycare, has herself ordained a wymynpriest by Master Bishop Phil, and become a wise spiritual mother working on her PhD. Children’s scenes directed by Roman Polanski.

Becket – Sean Penn is Henry II and Alec Baldwin is Thomas Becket. Al Gore has a cameo as the King of France.

In Which We Serve – The crew of HMS Torin discard all class differences, form a sailors’ soviet, issue a manifesto about global warming, shoot the captain, and flee to Leningrad, where Stalin (charming newcomer Helen Thomas in her breakout role) gives them all medals. Shorty was working on his PhD but gave it up because that would have made him a class enemy.

The 39th Parallel – Villainous Republicans flee across Canada after their global-warming nuclear submarine, the USS EvilBush, on a secret mission to steal all of Canada’s fresh water, is sunk by Rosie O’Donnell flying the long-hidden Avro Arrow.

Lassie Come Home, starring Michael Vick.

Oh, Hollywood, “in what unhappy landscape of disaster did you lose your way?” (Thomas Merton)