Sunday, March 17, 2013

Oberlin College Sounds a Clarion Call for its Smelling Salts

Mack Hall

Oberlin College Sounds a Clarion Call for its Smelling Salts

Oberlin College in Ohio dates to the early 19th century.  Oberlin claims to be the first college to admit women and black men, though Middlebury College in Vermont says that honor belongs to them.  Certainly men and women from Oberlin helped save people from bondage during the slavery time, and some 1,000 Oberlin men, black and white, served during the Civil War, enabling their classmate Mary Jane Patterson to become the first African-American woman to earn a BA, in 1862.  At the turn of the 20th century missionaries from Oberlin, then a Presbyterian school, felt a call to witness in China, and many died there from persecution.

Oberlin has truly been a light unto the nations.

Sadly, Oberlin has recently suffered a series of racist graffiti incidents, vandalism, and physical assaults.  Apparently no one did anything about the enormities except feel bad. 

More recently, someone said that someone said that he or she had seen a Ku Klux Klansman, bedsheet in full sail, walking across campus around two in the morning.  However, there is no source or me-phone footage.  Local police report that other witnesses report that saw a pedestrian wearing a blanket, so someone needs to verify the whereabouts of Charlie Brown’s friend Linus.

Oberlin’s president, Marvin Krislov, stood to his tackle like a true Oberlin man – he canceled classes, saying "…let us be very clear, we stand united. We will not give into hate."

However, in canceling classes, Dr. Krislov, hereinafter referred to as Aunt Pittypat, did indeed give in to hate.  A few bipedal pimples with spray paint bullied him and an entire college into abandoning their vocations as scholars.  Instead of standing up for the freedom to learn, to live, to work, Oberlin spent a day feeling sorry for its collective self.

That’s not exactly the spirit of the Oberlin men who helped hold the union line in the cause of freedom.

With classes canceled out of fear last week, the men and women of Oberlin finally did something – they made signs, they staged a sit-in, and they organized tolerance sessions.

Oh, yeah, a sit-in – that’ll stop evil in its clawed tracks.  Hey, and signs.  Wow.

One student told a rally that “I’m feeling comfortable and supported.”  The content and the use of the passive voice says everything we need to know about a young adult who, given the rare opportunity to study civilization, explore ideas, develop concepts, write, dance, paint, compose music, and perhaps, like her Obie predecessors, help free oppressed peoples, could only bleat out in weakness: “I’m feeling comfortable and supported.”

Reports of reports report (finding anything solidly sourced about the problems at Oberlin is at present impossible) that two Oberlin students were allegedly / maybe / sort of arrested / detained as persons of interest / expelled from school, but if so, no one is saying why.

When Aunt Pittypat addressed the newsies at a press conference, his students reportedly yelled vulgarities at him, so maybe a culture of spoken obscenity already obtains at Oberlin, and only written obscenity is offensive to the young scholars.

In addition to sponsoring teach-ins, Oberlin has called in the Federal Bureau of Investigation to, well, investigate crudities scrawled on walls.  And if that’s not a worthy use of the FBI, then what is, eh?

The reader can follow the Oberlin community as they twitter and tweet at  Somehow one gets the idea that Oberlin College at present is the sort of place where people seriously read Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

Oberlin was once a moral and cultural light, a college of heroic young people who not only called for injustices to be righted, but hazarded their lives in doing so themselves.  Just now about all they seem to be capable of calling for is their smelling salts.


Goodbye, Miz Burres

Mack Hall, HSG

Goodbye, Miz Burres

Music teachers are even more essentially American than red brick schools, soda fountains on Main Street, Studebakers, baseball, and sidewalk cracks that must be carefully stepped over.  Without a Miss (or the East Texas variant, Miz) Burris or Bernice or Emma to play the piano for school assemblies, weddings, funerals, Sunday liturgies, and visits to the nursing home, America would lose some of her soul and much of her Soul.

After all, some adult once showed young Beverly Sills how to grace a high note and young Ivory Joe Hunter how to echo life on the keys of an old piano.

Our Miz Burres died last week at the age of 102.  At 100 she was still giving private lessons at home.  In her 80s she was infinitely pleased to have her own childhood piano teacher, Miz Lexie / Aunt Lexie, sit in on her young students’ recitals.  And for decades before that she demonstrated infinite patience with schoolchildren, including a few inattentive oafs.

Like the wonderful old three-story school that reposed in pontifical majesty between First Methodist and First Baptist, perhaps in order to keep the peace between them, Miz Burres had always been there and would always be there.  A photograph of her with second-graders in 1955 and a photograph of her at a celebration of her happy century taken last year show exactly the same woman: elegant, white-haired, smiling, surrounded by adoring fans, including her last student. 

And that last student, still a schoolgirl, will in years to come teach other children how to play the piano, and will show them ways of patterning notes, saying, “This is how Miz Burres taught me…”  And so, yes, Miz Burres will always be there when little hearts and hands learn the keys and then grow up to celebrate civilization through music.

A young person of my acquaintance once visited Westminster Abbey, and in a cloister ambulatory now stepped out by sneakers rather than by monastic sandals, noted that she was looking down at the grave of her friend Muzio Clementi, who lived to the age of eighty despite having been married four times.  “Miz Burres taught me his sonatinas,” the young person said, “They’re fun to play.”

While driving to Miz Burres’ funeral, the same person, now a young woman, switched on the CD player and heard the prologue to Mozart’s Die Zauberflote, something else she learned to play from Miz Burres.

Much of what is good in life we all owe to each Miz Burres who blessed us in our youth.

Parade magazine is offering its first ever Music Educator Award of $10,000 to a music teacher working in an American school, kindergarten through university.  At you can nominate that special music teacher who so much influenced you.  There is surely in your life a Miz Burres who could use that money to buy some better instruments or some new sheet music for her children’s lessons.

Miz Burres never had children at home, but like James Hilton’s fictional Mr. Chips, and in very truth, she can say, and surely does from a happy, happy place in Heaven, “I thought I heard you saying it was a pity... pity I never had any children. But you're wrong. I have. Thousands of them. Thousands of them...”

Goodbye, Miz Burres.



Rough Draft

Mack Hall

17 February 2013

Mack Hall, HSG


When Cincinnatus in a desperate time
Was called to serve the undeserving state
Imperiled by the armies of the kings
And weakened by senatorial whisperings
Our conscript father laid aside the plough
Forswore retirement and his peaceful fields
Unwillingly took up the imperium
And journeyed thus to disharmonious Rome
To teach, to govern, and to sanctify
A people lost and drifting with the age
To hazard all in the forum of the world
Not for himself, not for brittle applause
Blown by the wind, noisy for a brief time
As when October’s leaves make temporal show
And then decay through winter’s cold demands
Nor for the silky smiles of ambassadors
The approval of jugglers and panderers
The cricket-voices of mummers and polls


But rather for the fuller at his cloth
The builder with his plans and rule and line
The seamstress working a wedding dress
The laughing child at play with her favorite doll
The sunburnt fisherman drawing his nets
The mother teaching her child his aves
The farmer treading the fruitful furrow
The humble priest offering holy rites
The parish tipstaff on his daily beat
The scrivener with his busy abacus
The chemist with his pots and potions and pills
The healer, whose pallid patients are her prayers
The artist, whose lines and colors delight
The barrister, pleading for true justice
The magister lettering inattentive youths
The woman whose shop displays good, homely needs
The sick man on his penitential bed
The young recruit on obscure weary watch
The wretched beggar who gives holy blessings

For these a Cincinnatus offered all
Repute, honor, perhaps his very life
And when, withered with age and cares of rule
Painfully unsure of step and sight and self
He wisely, humbly left the robes of office
In prayerful trust to the Will of God
And wearily wended to the Altar of beginnings
To give himself and his last days to us
Still serving, bidding for us with priestly heart
Let none he faithfully serves question his prayers
Or mock him with idle speculations
For flattering courtiers are as common as smiles
Painted upon false lips, hiding false desirings
And generals arise from time to time to draft
Houris to their beds and youths to their deaths
As do the successors of Simon Magus
Pirouetting in their temples to self
But Cincinnatus – O happy Cincinnatus
Whose memory is incense in the night
Or a candle in the holy darkness:
His Tenebrae is our continued blessing



Jack Kerouac in Houston

Mack Hall, HSG

Jack Kerouac in Houston

In Houston I saw a man in a shiny metal helmet featuring two antennae (the helmet, not the man) blocking traffic and waving his arms madly while screaming.  Perhaps he was trying to hitch a ride to his home planet.  If he continues that sort of thing in the street he will soon find his way to another world under the wheels of a Mercedes-Benz with a tastefully discreet University of Texas Alumnus sticker.

Before an excellent lunch at Kenny & Ziggy’s New York (it’s really in Houston, but, well, you know) Delicatessen, 2327 Post Oak Boulevard, 77056,, the daughter-person took me to Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet Street, 77005, 

Located in a retro-1960s building in a charming neighborhood, Brazos Bookstore is a Texas cultural treasure.  Associated with the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, the Academy of American Poets, the American Institute of Architects, Rice University, the Baker Institute, the Houston Public Library, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and a number of local publishers and literary magazines, Brazos Bookstore is an independent agora for readers and writers, and swears no obedience to polls, fashions, top-ten lists, marketing gnomes, or the alligator-shoe boys.

The store is well-lit and features comfortable chairs and a large table for spreading out a folio, a map, a picture, a newspaper, a manifesto, or a magazine.  The various genres are categorized clearly, and the staff are helpful and cheerful.  Alas that there is no coffee machine or cat, but towards the back an orange stripe on the floor leads you on an Alice-in-Wonderland journey through a workroom to the minimalist but clean and wheelchair-accessible euphemism with framed art and a neat length of iron I-beam angling from the floor to the ceiling.

Brazos Bookstore nurtures young Tejano, Texian, and Texan writers, yes, but you will also find John Keats and Evelyn Waugh.  As with any good book store, the staff will order “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” for you, which keeps your credit card information off the snooping and thieving magic electric box of wondrous misinformation and obedience.

A panel of announcements keeps one current with literary, artistic, and musical events, and perhaps it all sounds a little self-consciously artsy, but we must ask ourselves if we as workers and builders and waiters and cowboys are going to celebrate the First Nations, Spanish, Mexican, German, African, Czech, English, Lebanese, Jewish, Swedish, Danish, French, Chinese, and other cultures that Hegelize into our look-out-world-here-we-are Texas culture/s, or are we going to slump into isolated corners passively obeying the mother-ship lights and noises from magic electric boxes of wondrous misinformation and obedience?

As the country-and-western song says, if you’re going to play in Texas, ya gotta have a fiddle in the band.  A flute will do too.  Or your book or poem, your painting, your sculpture, your backyard fence that is your sculpture, or that functional and aesthetically-pleasing iron I-beam that keeps the building from falling down on the night-shift welder and the aging adjunct faculty dude considering the nature of iambs and their relevance in contemporary poetry.

So what’s your fiddle, eh?

But back to the announcements:  Orange Show Monument (I don’t know what that is) at 2401 Munger Street in Houston is hosting a Kerouac Fest on the 9th of March from three to ten.  For most of us, three to ten means three in the afternoon until ten at night, but with Kerouac-istas one can never be quite sure.

 The occasion features a film screening, a poetry showcase (I don’t know if that’s a metaphor or if cabinetry is part of the evening), poetry buskers (one fears that this might involve English Morris Dancers leaping about with copies of Shelley and Byron strapped to their legs with cords hand woven by Huguenot descendants in The Fens), a panel discussion (be still, my heart), a twitter by Exquisite Corpse (or not), readings, live jazz (as opposed to dead jazz), something about Domy Books, and a chance to exchange Kerouacan bon mots with Oscar Pena, Salvador Macias, Chris Wise, The Free Radicals, DJ Black Slacks, Michael Hoerman, Dr. Chuck Taylor, Dr. Chris Carmona, Kelly Ann Ellis, and Josh Hayes.

You can order a ticket in advance for $10 at, or you can buy one at the door / gateway / portal to an alternative universe for $15.

I left Houston without seeing Helmet-Guy again.  I wish him happiness.  I hope he drops the helmet of endless and self-destructive introspection, reads a little Kerouac, and learns to play a fiddle of some sort.


Is This Seat Saved?

Mack Hall, HSG

Is This Seat Saved?

As Abraham was called to leave his home,
To serve one God in haunted emptiness
Where errant spirits misguided pilgrims’ steps
Into those thickets that entangled lost souls


As Brother Francis, barefoot in the wild,
With rock and prayer rebuilt long-fallen shrines
When they had crumbled into weed-choked ruins
Where wolves gnawed on the bones of civilization


An old man riding in a city bus,
Wearing spectacles and a cheap wristwatch,
Has come to see us through the wilderness,
And enkindle for us the Easter fire

Sunday, March 3, 2013

From My Cold, Dead Paws


Mack Hall

From My Cold, Dead Paws

Last week a police dog discharged a firearm into a house on Crescent Street in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

At around two in the morning the police were in cold pursuit (cold, because of the snow) of three perfectly innocent young men on their way home from Bible study.  At some point the driver stopped the car so that one of other theologians could bury his pistol Bible in a snow bank. 

The police put an end to scripture study and set a specially trained dog, Ivan, to search the snow bank.  Ivan found the Bible pistol and, to everyone’s surprise, discharged it into a nearby house.  That’s a pretty good accomplishment for a critter without an opposable thumb.

Ivan.  That’s a Russian name.  What does this tell us about Soviet moles, not to mention dogs, in the Lawrence Police Department, sniffing out secrets and the ham sandwich Corporal Bronski brought for his lunch?

Among the charges filed on the humans were possession of a stolen firearm, which was also an unregistered firearm, which was also a firearm whose serial number had been filed off (that won’t work, future James Bonds; the cops have ways of making the serial numbers talk), and for shooting at some folks earlier in the night, probably because of a spirited dispute over sanctification versus justification. 

Ivan-the-Dog wasn’t arrested or even ticketed, which seems terribly species-est in favor of quadrupeds.  Quadrupeds get off but bipeds don’t.  What kind of Massachusetts justice is this, hah?  Yeah, tell me something, Massachusetts.  It’s time for bipeds to occupy Lawrence and stand up (on two legs) for our rights!

When the Lawrence Police refer to a bullpup, they really mean a bullpup.

Is Ivan a candidate for the Westminster Dog Show or the Winchester Gun Show?

The perceptive reader can tell where all this is going: when beagles are outlawed, only outlaws will have beagles.

Ted Kennedy’s car has killed more people than your Chihuahua.  Come to think of it, Kennedys flying airplanes have killed more people than your Chihuahua. 

Dog control is careful aim at a fire hydrant.

When a cop is minutes away, miniature French poodles count.

The west wasn’t won with a registered rat terrier.

Collar criminals, not Rin-Tin-Tin.

The SS, when not partying down, might in a panic put the White House on lockdown: (Buzz / click) “All units, we have a suspicious-looking subject with a suspicious-looking Pomeranian on foot near the south gate…”

Imagine the old, grizzled, non-nonsense sergeant on the rifle range: “This, you ****y-looking bunch of *****s, is yer shoulder-held, semi- or fully-automatic, gas-operated dachshund.  Its muzzle velocity is about twenty snuffles a minute…”

The court case against the three young, um, scholars ought to be interesting.  After all, proving that one of them fired the weapon earlier is going to be a matter of testimony and laboratory examination; there are no witnesses.  As for the Ivan-the-police-dog, a number of bipeds (but are bipeds quite trustworthy?) saw him shoot the gun on that wild night in Lawrence.  Wow!  In this trial the fur will really fly.

Fur.  Fly.  Get it?

Didn’t want it, huh?