Saturday, June 29, 2013

Creepy Books

Mack Hall, HSG
29 June 2013

Creepy Books

Often a book is promoted as “a real page turner.”  This is curious, because books do not turn pages; their readers must do that for books, even with one of those little plastic boxes that light up and flicker the pages across a little screen.

Many novels are said to be stories of redemption.  But then, what story is not?  From the Bible through The Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, Robin Hood (and his merry persons of indeterminate gender and lifestyle choices), Huckleberry Finn, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, To Kill a Mockingbird, and beyond, almost all stories are about redemption.  Does this really need to be said?

Eat, Pray, Barf – As book titles and on picture frames and posters one often sees commands, always in three: Eat, Pray, Love; Live, Laugh, Love; and, oh, Eat, Love, Barf.  The truly reflective person considers the title and asks “Why the (Newark, New Jersey) should I?”  And why should anyone take instructions from a picture frame sold in a store called Dried Grasses ‘n’ Stuff Express Outlet?

In the Study Helps section of the book store the titles are all about how to pass acronymic tests – ACT, SAT, LSAT MCAT, MSAT, GED, and perhaps OMG.  One concludes that success in life is not predicated on knowing how to DO anything, but on passing an exam set by some state board.

Another book is said to be “gripping.”  What does the book grip?  Does one really want a book that might grip one at an unexpected moment?

And how about the ubiquitous “must read?”  Why must one read this book?  By what authority?  A polite request by the publisher is more appropriate for a free society than a command.

Some reviewers claim to have been “spellbound” by a book.  Must be Harry Potter and Yet Another Sequel with the Same Plot, eh? 

A book can be cutting edge, bold, daring, riveting, provocative, gritty, compelling, haunting, sweeping, unflinching (is a book ever flinching?), thought provoking, inspiring, rewarding, bedazzling, enlightening, engaging, haunting, engrossing, revealing, lyrical, nuanced, epic, accessible, Kafka-esque, beautifully wrought, poignant, timely, edge-of-your-seat,  passionate, dispassionate, exquisite, erudite, comprehensive, marvelous, glorious, profound, formidable, relevant, timely, and a fully realized tour de force roman a clef by a fresh new author when what the reader really wants to know is if the book features  gunfire, car chases, a body in the library, a hottie named Lola, and maybe a hooded Methodist minister with glittering red eyes and a dagger bearing ancient Sanskrit symbols on the bloodstained blade.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Patient, Heal Thyself?

Mack Hall, HSG

Patient, Heal Thyself?

Dr. Candice Chen, assistant research professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (how does she fit all that on her business card?) has made a study concluding that there aren’t enough physicians in primary care, especially in rural areas.

Who would have known?

Maybe Doctor Chen could give up research and move to a rural area and see patients.  That would help.

The headline of the UPI story reads “U.S. producing ‘abysmally low’ number of primary care doctors.”  The primary carelessness here is the false concept that primary care doctors are produced by the U.S.  They are not.  Primary care doctors produce themselves.  Young men and women choose – they are not assigned by the state - the noble calling of serving mankind as a physician (okay, it’s not as noble as being an RN, but it’s still pretty cool), and after university, medical school, and the layers of internships, residencies, and exams, are finally permitted to practice their art and science at about the time they develop grey hair and creaky joints.

Long before the middle-aged physician sees her first patient, she is burdened by enough debt to make even the most blasé Swiss banker take notice and dust off his amortization schedules.

Given that a physician might qualify for Medicare before she pays off her debts, why would she become a physician in the first place?  And if she does, should some GS-2 clerk be empowered to tell her where she is to practice?

We have all read narratives about how a surgeon bills $X cubed and squared for each hour of an operation, and have done the Gee! doctors-sure-do-get-paid-a-lot-thing.

But physicians aren’t paid a lot, especially general practitioners and double-especially general practitioners in rural areas.  The doctor saving your life made nothing for eight years of undergraduate school and medical school, and very little as an intern and as a resident.  Her need for food, clothing, and shelter did not take a hiatus for a decade, nor did the cancerous growth of debt.  The alternative to an accomplished surgeon would be having your appendectomy performed, as in the misbegotten Soviet Union, by a retired Red Army medic with a dirty scalpel in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other, assisted by Comrade Fyodor with ether through an old lend-lease rubber mask.    

Beyond the years of preparation, the surgeon must pay her debts, her office nurses, her office staff (who spend their days quarrying through slurry pits of bizarre insurance and government forms), her loot-and-pillage malpractice insurance notes, and her taxes based on this year’s billable hours and not on the previous twelve or so years of accumulating nothing financially except encumbrances.

Our hypothetical physician is constantly monitored, supervised, judged, and faulted by insurance companies and by state and federal entities.

An insurance clerk, private or government, sitting behind a computer screen in Mumbai or Newark, is no more qualified to second-guess a physician than the physician is qualified to critique the welder joining a critical seam along the pressure hull of a nuclear submarine.

And yet it is so.  When you receive the heart-stopping bill for heart surgery, most of that bill disappears to pay critics and overseers, private and public. 

This nation suffers a shortage of physicians because no one wishes to spend years in education and training while amassing debt in order to begin work in early middle age and to be faulted and bullied for being good at what she does.

Healing is a wonderful vocation, from the physician to the RN to the LVN to the NA to the imaging folks and surgical techs and EMTs and the strange people in the laboratory and pharmacists and the nice fellow who cleans up the bloody emergency room at 0-dark-hundred in the morning.  None of these health-care professionals is a product.  Each one bases her (or his) life on getting you well and back to your house.

To discuss physicians as products, as units to be plugged into place here and there as some ideologue demands, is a bizarre detachment from reality.  To punish physicians for being physicians is national suicide.


Gifts for Graduation

Mack Hall, HSG


May and June remain The Graduation Season featuring noisy assemblies in gymnasia or football fields wherein recordings of Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory,” which is about the British Empire, are miscued on electric gadgets made in China. In the meantime, the solemnity of graduation is marked with the sacred cowbell, the holy air horn, and the blessed vuvuzela.  This rite of passage, which, objectively, is not a rite at all, requires a gift.

Selecting a gift for the graduation speaker is easy – a one-minute egg-timer. 

Selecting a gift for the graduate is increasingly difficult. 

Once upon a time (when we were all poor but didn’t know it), a pen was an excellent choice as a gift for a graduate.  Pens were elegantly made and meant to last, and like a suit and a watch suggested that the bearer was going to escape following the plow or the cross-cut saw.

In East Texas there is no audible difference between “pen” and “pin,” and someone in need of a pen asks “Have you got an ink-pen?” and pronounces it “Have you got uh ink-pen?” 

Young people (and it’s their fault, right?) don’t know that some pens are aesthetically pleasing works of art and can be refilled; under-forties are familiar only with disposable, made-in-Indonesia ink-sticks which don’t work well or last long, on those rare occasions when the writer is not tippy-tapping on toxic plastic keys made in China.

Once upon a time (when we were all poor but we had love), a father took his graduating son to Mixson Brothers and bought him his first grown-up suit for graduation itself, and for job interviews, parties, weddings, baptisms, and funerals.  The play-clothes of boyhood were put aside; the young man began to dress as a young man.

But now that the Medicare generation creakily disport themselves in knee-pants, flip-flops, Grateful Dead tees, and Toronto Blue Jays ball caps, no thoughtful parent would ask young men and young women to dress as godawfully tacky as their grandparents.

Once upon a time (when a dollar was worth a dollar), a watch was a very useful graduation gift, because the man who needed a watch wasn’t following the position of the sun or the mill whistle as a schedule; he was doing better.  Watches now are historical artifacts like mill whistles, for the modern young man of affairs refers to his MePad for the time.

A Bible?  Well, which one?  Should the Old Testament follow the Alexandrian canon or the Palestinian canon?  Old King James?  Middle-aged King James?  New King James?  And who says?  Given the number of specialty renderings (there is even a C. S. Lewis Bible, in a translation that long post-dates his death), should the words of Glenn Beck and President Obama be printed in red?

Perhaps the safest graduation gift is a nice little check for $20.13.  The graduate can apply it to the purchase of his own pen, suit, watch, Bible, or life, and he will be very grateful to you.

I know the political script requires that I write “they,” but one graduate cannot be “they,” and “he” in context is gender-neutral, as it always has been.  Young people can be a bit rebellious, and you and I can hope and pray that they will always rebel at least a little against their political masters who try to bully them into following the Orwellian Newspeak illogic, both in syntax and in ideology, that one is many and many are one.




Mack Hall, HSG

Redecorating The Great Escape

The Great Escape is perhaps the best laddie film ever made, with strong plot, characterization, and setting, and no kissing. 

But wait until the remake.

The film might be said to divide into two parts; its octet is often quite humorous, but its sestet, which begins with the death of Piglet on the wire, shocks the viewer back into the reality of a WWII prisoner of war camp with its years-long deprivations, humiliations, and deadliness.

The Great Escape is based on Paul Brickhill’s book, a first-person narrative of the real events somewhat fictionalized for the film, especially in the presence at the climax of Americans, who had been transferred earlier, and the irrelevant and annoying motorcycle scenes.  The cold weather is ignored in the sunlit fictional stalag, and the near-starvation of both prisoners and their warders is only hinted at.

Even so, the film, made only twenty years after the events it depicts, approaches greatness.

What if the remake of The Great Escape is engineered by the same folks who make all those flipping house shows?  From the first interview in Oberst von Schmidt und Wesson’s office, the tone would be wholly different:

“Zis is a green camp,” says the Oberst.  “Ve haf incorporated all the latest technology to insure that prisoners do not pollute.  Und no motorcycles unless they are electric!”

In the first meeting of the escape committee, Group Captain Ramsey, Squadron Leader Bartlett, and others discuss the tunnels:

“Really, chaps, naming the tunnels Tom, Dick, and Harry is soooooo lacking in inclusiveness.  Those are all masculine English names.  We need to apply diversity to our tunnels.  I recommend that we rename them Tiffany, Demetrius, and Heather.”

“I’m not so concerned with their names as with their décor.  Tom – or Tiffany – begins under a stove used for heating and cooking, and yet the theme of stoveness is not continued through the tunnel.  A theme must be consistent, otherwise we’re talking about petite bourgeois hodge-podge.  To me, there is a jarring aesthetic disconnect that must be resolved, or the feng shui is simply all wrong.”

“But what do you think of my collection of amusing ceramic owls?  Don’t you think they give the office a certain retro-ironic elegance?”

“I just can’t do a thing with my room.  The holistic integrity is wholly lacking.  Now if I could move into 109 with its splendid view of the cesspool, my creative sparks would fly into new realms of neo-existentialist possibilities.”

“I must caution you that views of the cesspool are commanding six figures these days.  We must be realistic about the exchange rate of our prisoner chits.  This isn’t the Holy Roman Empire, you know.”

“Do you fellows like my escape outfit?  The suiting, by the well-known Grif of Hut 10, is redolent of Bond Street, and that’s fine as far as it goes, but I always say that the accessories pull everything together; indeed, the accessories are everything.”

“Well, if I’m going blind, how is it that I can see that a striped tie with a striped suit is a plebeian faux pas that only a jumped-up Marks & Spencer clerk would commit?”

At this point Oberst Schmidt und Wesson and the ferret Werner enter: “We hear rumors zat you gentlemen are planning to escape our happy little camp.”

“Escape, no; I think we should embrace the possibilities of New Socialist Realism and push the envelope of our minimalist functional wood milieu into brave new spheres of creative beingness, and, like stuff.”

“Ach!  You Englanders!  You may win the war but you will lose the peace.”

“Why is that, Herr Oberst?”

“Because you Englanders make a movie about a prisoner-of-war camp in which the camp commandant is the most likeable fellow!  Ze Russians will never take you seriously after this.”

(Cue closing credits and Elmer Bernstein’s score as freshly arranged by Amanda Bynes and Glenn Beck)


Knives on a Plane

Mack Hall, HSG

Knives on a Plane

1.   Pre-teens climbing over the seats and screaming  – they’re a problem.

2.   Brats (of all ages) who will not turn off their signal-spewing electronic devices at takeoff and landing – they’re a problem

3.   The fat slob whose rolls of blubber spill over into your seat and your life – he’s a problem.

4.   The lady next to you whose bare arm features a weeping, oozing, infected tattoo – she’s a problem.

5.   A suicidal Egyptian pilot with a messed-up home life – he’s a problem.

6.   That one mechanic who, while in a hurry and being glared at by his supervisor, doesn’t secure some hatch or bolt as he should – he’s a problem.  So’s his supervisor.

7.   The lady in front of you who insists on leaning her seat back into your face – she’s a problem.  Especially if she’s got critters in her hair.

8.   The conspiracy of sick, twisted wretches who design airline seating – they’re a problem.

9.   The idiots who bring aboard live lobsters in boxes – they’re a problem.

10.The jerks who bring aboard huge duffel bags, garbage sacks full of who-knows-what, and miscellaneous cases, and spent a half-hour trying to jam them into the overheads – they’re a problem.

11.Airlines who let this happen – they’re a problem.

12.Airlines who carry all this impedimenta away FOR FREE to stow them in the baggage compartment – they’re a problem.

13.Airlines who charge the considerate passengers for checking their modest bags at the counter – they’re a problem.

14.Drunken, party-hearty frat boys – or are they Secret Service? - yelling obscenities to each other – they’re a problem.

15.Rude, snarly, slovenly Air Canada cabin attendants – they’re a problem.  Canadians really are the politest folks you’ll meet, and apparently they deal with their few anti-socials by exiling them to Air Canada.

16.Lung-choking-chemical-perfume lady – she’s a problem.

17.Terrorists – they’re a problem.

18.The 1½ inch Swiss Army Knife I bought at the gift shop in one of the most security-conscious airports in the world – that’s not a problem.




Mack Hall, HSG

H.V. Morton: A Traveller in Italy.  Dodd, Mead, New York, 1964.

“Cult” as a preface to any artistic expression is decades out of date as a metaphor; small groups of people who explore meanings and possibilities in certain films, books, paintings, or authors are decidedly not cultic in either  denotation or connotation. 

Patrick McGoohan’s television series The Prisoner, for instance, anticipates The Miz Grundy State, and its amusing 60s gadgetry of plastic cordless phones, lava lamps, and recessed lighting serve as an ultimately terrifying camouflage for the reality that people are constantly observed and occasionally executed / murdered among the faux Italianate gardens and architecture of The Village.

Post-war Italian cinema attracts the thoughtful – no obedient groupies here either - because of its brilliant use of limited resources in a conquered, occupied, and impoverished country.

A recent garage-sale purchase of H. V. Morton’s A Traveller in Italy led me to consider that curious writer and his curious career, and his rediscovery – not, please, the development of a cult - in this century.  Mr. Morton was a very popular journalist and travel writer whose sixty-year career peaked in the 1930s but continued into the 1970s.  He was present for the opening of King Tut’s tomb, and was deputed to cover the Atlantic conference between Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt off Newfoundland in 1942.

He is better known, though, for his chatty travel books.  A Traveller in Italy came late in his career, and does not possess the surprising depth of In the Steps of Saint Paul (Dodd, Mead, 1936), but is objectively good in itself as a witty, gossipy, well-detailed account of his ramblings in Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, and Umbria.  Consider this narrative of the arrival of a bus in a small town:

Ten o’clock is past bedtime in Poppi, and at that late hour a little group of people sometimes waits in the darkness for the last bus from Arezzo.  It can be heard some way off in the valley, as it gnashes its teeth and snorts along from Bibbiena,  then it growls menacingly and seems to pause and gather strength for its uphill putt to the town, where it arrives fuming.  It almost exactly fits some of the narrow streets, and as it comes to a stop with a belch of rage and draconian puffs of diesel oil, those inside, led by the village priest, stand up and, as if performing the same physical exercise, or some religious act, stretch their arms in unison and lift down suitcases, wicker-baskets, and brown paper parcels.  The priest is the first to descend, his steel spectacles gleaming, his shovel hat like a ruffled cat, a large parcel beneath his arm.  There is much kissing of children and cries of welcome; relative and friends, thank God, are safe within the walls of Poppi again! (534)

How many writers can make the arrival of a bus so interesting?  Mr. Morton is no perpetrator of the I, I, I, me, me, me, my feelings, my moods, my emotions, my reactions school of non-thought; he enacts Keats’ negative capability and gives us a moment in Italy, not an obsession with himself.

Mr. Morton is a man of his time, not ours, and some of our contemporaries, perhaps obedient functionaries of The Miz Grundy State, have catalogued some of his less fortunate statements in order to judge him with an “Aha!” of ex post facto condemnation.  This is hardly fair, and, after all, who of us is comfortable with the reality that some of our giddier babblings are well-secured in a bunker in Idaho for use when wanted?  The fictional Hawkeye’s sexist behavior in the film version and early telly episodes of M*A*S*H (and what is with those tiresome asterisks?) would now be cause for court-martial, and John Wayne spanking Maureen O’Hara in McClintock! is decidedly cringe-worthy.

The reality is that Mr. Morton is never intentionally patronizing, unlike some of our modern travel writers whose constant theme is the sophomoric mockery of their fellow tourists and of folks met along the way (a rare exception is the gentlemanly Bill Bryson).  Earlier, even Goethe lapsed into this in his Italian Journey.  Mr. Morton does have fun, especially with English, German, and American tourists, but he does not make them – and thus, us - objects of cruel verbal sport.

A Traveller in Italy is nicely indexed in thirteen pages of useful detail, and the bibliography is a catalogue of travel writing, history, and biography.  

Mr. Morton’s books are found in used-book stores and as new printings on, and there are several online sites and articles (The Telegraph shows no mercy): (This is the excellent site of the H. V. Morton Society in England) (An example of a too-common sort of review which is too much about the author of the review)

Friday, June 14, 2013

Saint Garden Gnome

Mack Hall, HSG

St. Garden Gnome

An obscure barefoot friar in Italy
Long labored in the Perugian sun,
Heaped rocks upon rocks, and then other rocks,
Up to a wavery roof of broken tiles,
Repairing with his bleeding hands God’s church

Then better known – it wasn’t his fault – this friar,
With others in love with Lady Poverty,
In hope and penance trudged to far-off Rome
To offer there his modest Rule of life,
Repairing with his mindful words God’s Church

Along the delta of the steaming Nile
He waved away the worried pickets, crossed
Into the camp of the Saracens
Preaching Christ to merciful Al-Kamil,
Offering with a martyr’s heart God’s Faith

Saint Francis is depicted in fine art
In great museums and in modest homes -
And you can find him too, down at Wal-Mart,
Between the plastic frogs and concrete gnomes.

Oklahoma in the Spring

Mack Hall

Oklahoma in the Spring

A young mother cradles her broken child
Amid the fragments of her world, her soul.
Blood drips.  Rain-sodden insulation drips.
Stillness between storms.  The trees are all gone.
A dark Sargasso Sea of shattered wood,
Bricks, clothes, books, toys, rags, glass, papers, bodies.
In the gasping heat the rot begins now.
No houses.  No lights.  A helicopter
Floating valley boys with plastic boxes
Taking cruel pictures and O-My-Godding
For the telescreen (between soda ads).
And in fortresses of personal affronts
Keyboard commandos leap into inaction:

People who choose to live there deserve it.
We told you that global warming is true.
We didn’t have these things ‘til they kicked Jesus
Out of these here schools. And paddling, by God.
It’s Obama’s fault.  Or is it George Bush?
It’s the Republicans. Public schools. Gaia.
British Petroleum.  Coal.  SUVs.
Suburbs.  Not reading the Bible.  Comets.
You’re stupid. Well eff you back.  Eff you more.

While in the second lowering line of storms
A young mother cradles her broken child.


Mack Hall, HSG


Polwygles bathe in pools, primordial ponds,
As fingerlings in amniotic seas
That rise and fall through seasons, rain, and heat,
And breathe forth life into a springtime world.

Polwygles then in metamorphosis
Begin to bubble at the warm, sweet air,
Slow-swinging, flinging new and awkward legs
In lieu of childhood’s diminishing tail.

Polwygles rise to try their sticky toes
On land and leaves and stems, those unknown worlds,
Mysterious as a moonlit night in May,
There fully to be formed for yet more life,

And grown-up frogs are given the gift of song
To after-ask “O where do we belong?”

“Polliwog” is an anapest (../); the amphibrachic foot (./.) (yes, I had to look that up) of the Middle English “polwygle” (I had to look that up too) worked better for my purposes, and permitted me to show off.  That “amphibrachic” is in its first two syllables close to “amphibian” is probably an accident.


Pomona at Play

Mack Hall, HSG

Pomona at Play

Pomona dances ‘mong the apple trees
Light-footed through the glowing amber light;
At dusk, kissed by the last rain-drops, the breeze
Begins to sigh, and falls, to sleep the night.

And then pale Cynthia, in silver crowned,
Rises to breathe upon each leaf and flower
Her sacred mists, softly and softly around,
And blesses dreams through many a silent hour.

Bold Helios will wake the sleeping east
And laugh away the magic of the dark;
He sets out daylight as a merry feast
And measures out his work with compass and arc

But later, them, for sweet Pomona’s play
Now celebrates the golden end of day.

After Pentecost

Mack Hall, HSG
After Pentecost

O happy, sunlit Ordinary Time,
Well-ordered weeks and days of worship quiet:
The banners of the seasons are stored away
And golden days now pass like mysteries
That flow from lips as soft whispers of love.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

From the Litany of the Recusants

Mack Hall, HSG

From the Litany of the Recusants

From our sins                                    libera nos, Domine
From the state registry of our sins     libera nos, Domine
From the subtle lens                          libera nos, Domine
From the hidden microphone             libera nos, Domine
From the smiling informant               libera nos, Domine
From the caring whisperer                 libera nos, Domine
From the concerned observer             libera nos, Domine
From the information gatherer           libera nos, Domine
From the technician                           libera nos, Domine
From the grief counselor                    libera nos, Domine
From the resume’ builder                   libera nos, Domine
From the committee that wants only
          what’s best for us                     libera nos, Domine
From the executive session                 libera nos, Domine
From state-licensed compassion         libera nos, Domine
From sensitivity training                     libera nos, Domine
From inclusiveness                             libera nos, Domine
From free zones                                  libera nos, Domine
From the acronyms                             libera nos, Domine

O Lord, in Your infinite mercy, grant that we will never be persons of interest, and that we will never be noticed.  Protect us from fame, guard us from reputation, and save us from the fires of progress; in the end, lead us to Heaven in spite of our many failings and the good intentions of those who want to serve and protect us.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

German Food in Baytown, Texas: The Little Bavarian

A young friend introduced me to The Little Bavarian, a little German restaurant and deli at 407 W. Baker Road, Suite V, Baytown, Texas 77521, across the road from Ross Sterling High School

The Little Bavarian is a great little hole-in-the-wall place in a strip mall, featuring a good, solid German menu.  Don't look for a veggie plate or any obscure vegetables; this is the real stuff.

The Little Bavarian also features a neat selection of German food and chocolate.  

281 420 2244

A Brief Review of Tolkien's THE FALL OF ARTHUR

The Fall of Arthur.  J.R.R. Tolkien.  Ed. Christopher Tolkien.  Houghton Mifflin, Boston and New York.  2013.

This book contains the text of Tolkien’s unfinished The Fall of Arthur in four cantos and part of a fifth, running to about forty pages of Anglo-Saxon meter and mostly in modern English garnished with a few charming archaisms. 

The poem is delightful, and will appeal to Hobbit-istas and to those who enjoy Beowulf, “The Seafarer” and other Anglo-Saxon poems in translations that keep the A/S form with its four-beat line, alliteration, and kennings, and Arthurian tales and topics.

The rest of the book, over 170 pages, consists of detailed essays in what-is-this-about detail by Christopher Tolkien, and a singularly unhelpful appendix not explaining Old English verse.  Tolkien minor never uses one word when he can throw in ten, and the (to me) strained connections between the poem and Middle-Earth are obscure; this material is for the true Hobbit-ista.

The Fall of Arthur, the poem, is really good, and I will re-read it and mark the more of the allusions and obscure words far more than I did in my first, hasty reading.  A clearer and much briefer explanation of Anglo-Saxon verse for those, like me, who did not pay attention in high school senior English would have been useful, and the turbid essays and the Hobbitry could have left out, resulting in a smaller, more pocketable vade mecum (cf. Everyman’s Pocket Poet series).