Monday, December 30, 2013

And Then a Light Bulb Didn't Come On

Mack Hall, HSG

And Then a Light Bulb Didn’t Come On

The Christmas casualties have hardly been processed through triage in time for the next offensive, New Year’s.

The odd thing about New Year’s is that it probably isn’t. January 1st as the beginning of the year is a late Roman tradition honoring Julius Caesar and his reformed calendar as well as Janus, the pagan god of doors, gates, and beginnings. Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism recognize other dates, as does China. For Christians the new year begins with the first day of Advent, and the U.S. government recognizes a fiscal year that does not correspond to the calendar year.

These considerations mean little to the thousands who will lemming together in New York’s Times Square (undoubtedly the Center of the World) on what may or may not be new year’s to be patted, probed, interrogated, and inspected in anticipation of yet another semi-obligatory jollification followed by casualty lists on the next day’s news, surrounded by pictures of Chinese-front millionaires in Chinese-made camouflage and strange young women posing naked on cannonballs which perhaps were not made in China.

We won’t be reading our morning newspapers with the aid of light bulbs for much longer, since with the new year almost all light bulbs will be forbidden by edict in the land of the free. By order, our mandated light sources will be strange helical constructions filled with toxins. We have been instructed to believe that these Buck Rogers gadgets last many years longer than the beastly old global-warming light bulbs in spite of the demonstrated reality that they don’t. The brilliant excuse made after the glowing fact is that the new squiggly things will emit rays on the visual spectrum for longer if the base is down. So, foolish people that we are, we didn’t build our houses with the light fixtures on the floor. What were we thinking?

The old joke about this being President Bush’s fault doesn’t work here since (we must throw some light on the source of the light source) President Bush really did sign off on the people’s permitted illumination on December 19, 2007.

Some people, perhaps well-lit themselves, celebrate what might or might not be a new year by discharging firearms into the air. A real problem with this is the old law of gravity, which really isn’t a law, the fact that whatever goes up must come down: tennis balls, birds, arrows, airplanes, your retirement investments, and bullets. A bullet fired into the air begins to slow, and then to slowly slow, and then to stop. Following its brief pause to check out the scenery ‘way up in the sky, the bullet begins slowly falling back to earth. Then it begins to fall faster and faster, following the acceleration constant as taught in 6th grade. When that little bullet falls back to earth, its small weight is propelled so fast by gravity that it will with ease penetrate a human. One moment someone’s outside celebrating a new year that might or might not be new, an artificial date on an artificial calendar that exists with or without one’s celebration, and the next moment that someone is dead from someone else’s falling bullet. What fun.

This is why for years (however they are measured on this irregular spheroid wobbling around along an elliptical orbit) the New Orleans police have parked beneath highway overpasses at midnight. Indeed, the beginning of 2013 was marked by the astonishing news that no one in America’s Most European City was struck by a falling bullet for three years running (

Well, here’s a wish that your new year (if this is a new year) is happy in every way, that no bullets fall on you or your family, that your democratically-elected toilets flush, and that your democratically-elected squiggly lights emit enough light to permit you to read without being poisoned or irradiated.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Winter Dawn

For our Mothers on Christmas Eve

Mack Hall

For our Mothers on Christmas Eve

Beyond all other nights, on this strange Night,
A strangers’ star, a silent, seeking star,
Helps set the wreckage of our souls aright:
It leads us to a stable door ajar.

And we are not alone in peeking in:
An ox, an ass, a lamb, some shepherds, too -
Bright star without; a brighter Light within
We children see the Truth three Wise Men knew.

For we are children there in Bethlehem
Soft-shivering in that winter long ago
We watch and listen there, in star-light dim,
In cold Judea, in a soft, soft snow.

The Stable and the Star, yes, we believe:
Our mothers sing us there each Christmas Eve.

Christmas in the China Seas

Mack Hall

Christmas in the China Seas

In the run-up to Christmas, cult leaders Martha Stewart and Kim Jong Un have both reduced their staffs.

Martha Stewart gave some 100 of her employees more time to spend with their families this holiday season by sacking them. Kim Jong Un will miss seeing his favorite uncle and political advisor at the festive board; Kim had the old man shot.

And their remaining followers all said “it’s a good thing™.” Or else.

Will Martha Stewart and Kim Jong Un’s surviving office staffs play Secret Santa this year?

What does the pudgy little dictator do for Christmas after he’s pruned his gift list by one relative? Perhaps he could buy one of those snuggie-blankie-thingies as advertised on the Orwellian telescreen and cuddle up with his good buddy Dennis Rodman while they watch It’s a Wonderful Life in the Communist translation, It’s a Miserable Death.

“Wow, Uncle Jang sure would enjoy the scene where Jimmy Stewart has Mr. Potter executed. Oh…wait…!”

“What’s up, man?” asks Dennis.

“Dang!” replies Kim Jong Un. “I just realized that I mixed up my death list with my gift list! I so hate it when that happens. Okay, so I’ve got a new Y-Box I don’t need. Can you use it?”

Martha might conjure up some chips and dips recycled from leftover snacks found in her former employees’ desks and garnished with bitter gall and a smile. Then she and the boys could pose at the gate to one of Dear Leader’s death camps for a look-at-us-ain’t-we-cute selfie complete with duck lips while all the generals clap desperately.

In North Korea, inadequate clapping is a neglect of social principle, and neglect of social principle is punishable by firing squad, having to hold still and wait for mortar rounds, or, on especially merry occasions, being eaten by hungry neighbors. The generals clap desperately.

On Christmas morning John Kerry, who says he was wounded three times in Viet-Nam, might swiftly boat up the river to join the party, with John Kerry Wounded Three Times in Viet-Nam™ tees (each featuring a patented glow-in-the-dark Purple Heart) for everyone. This will cause a row because Kim Jong Un’s gifts are Kim Jong Un™ tees, featuring Dear Leader Himself sporting a cool Che Guevera™ beret. At this point, Martha Stewart™ will quickly dial the USA to see if there’s a clause stipulating her cut on Kerry and Un tees in her many contracts with department stores. The generals clap desperately.

Following Christmas dinner, and the jolly throwing of the leftovers to the starving liberated people on the pointy ends of the bayonets, the party could take a cruise downriver to the several China Seas to fire missiles over Japan and watch the Chinese Navy and the United States Navy playing bumper-boats. The generals clap desperately.

You’re right – it’s not funny. How many young Americans home for Christmas will die before next Christmas in yet another undeclared war? Japan, China, Viet-Nam, Cambodia, Taiwan, South Korea, and North Korea take turns menacing each other and despising the American people who stand in lines to buy their junk. Our government appears to feel that 19-year-old Americans are disposable foreign aid that will somehow make other nations hold hands, get along, and approve of us.

One wonders if our generals are clapping desperately.


A Watching Star

Mack Hall, HSG

A Watching Star

On Christmas Eve in Bethlehem the Holy Family were put through a rough time, but they were spared moderns on MyMyMyFaceSpaceBook telling them how they got it all wrong: that science proves the Star could not have been there at that time, or that the Holy Family were cave-dwellers, or that someone’s misreading of this text or that inscription conclusively proves that, oh, a species of now-extinct giant hamsters, not oxen, were present.

Someone once said of a 2,000-year-old teaching “Well, maybe we’ve gotten it wrong for 2,000 years.”

How casually old stories and transcendent truths are tossed away.

No one has yet proposed that the shepherds weren’t present on that Night of all nights. They saw a Star and angels, not tweets or twerks, and in obedience to God, not to fashion, walked across the hills to see and to worship.

The conventions of advertising tell us that Christmas is only about really nice houses in the middle of snowy landscapes, and that people riding about in horse-drawn sleighs visit each other while laden with Orwellian telescreens and bottles of liquids labeled champagne (of the sort aged in railway tank cars for days), while some holly and lights and impossibly happy children hang about looking enthusiastically merry. Everyone, by the script, is home for the holidays.

In reality, on Christmas Eve a great many people aren’t home to hang socks on fireplace mantles. Just like the hotelier who had no room, and the shepherds watching their sheep, caretakers and guardians are out and about beneath our lesser stars: if the power fails, linemen will be out and up high in the cold and storms making it work again. Police will be on patrol because crime, too, will be on patrol, and hospitals, fire departments, railways, communications, air traffic control, and all the other necessities of a complex civilization will operating because a nation can’t simply turn off the lights for the night. Young sailors, Marines, soldiers, and airmen posted from Frozenb*tt Air Force Base in North Dakota to some rocky pit in Afghanistan must be awake and doing.

They are all our watchers, making our Christmas safe, and may that eternal Star shine upon them always.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

How do You Solve a Problem Like Maria Critics?

Mack Hall, HSG

How do You Solve a Problem like Maria Critics?

Last week Carrie Underwood was told, over and over, that she isn’t John Wayne. Or was it someone else she was told she’s not?

NBC and the legal entity that holds the rights to the literary estates of Rodgers and Hammerstein recently staged and televised a live production of The Sound of Music. There is nothing surprising in this; TSOM was a big Broadway production fifty years ago, and continues to be a popular show performed by professionals and amateurs.

Most people, though, know the songs and story through the 1965 film version starring Julie Andrews, who isn’t Mary Martin, the first not-really-Maria. And for the devout faithful, the film is forever ossified as the only production of The Sound of Music there ever was, that there was no TSOM before and by all that’s holy in blue hair rinse there shall never be another.

Carrie Underwood is indeed not Julie Andrews (both of them probably know that), and Julie Andrews is not Mary Martin, and Mary Martin is not the real Maria, just as (we’re being almost algebraic here) Jude Law is not Kenneth Branagh, and Kenneth Branagh is not Laurence Olivier, and Laurence Olivier is not the real Henry V.

For those who live in a never-neverland where it is forever 1965, the cry is “Sede vacantes!” They want their Maria mummified and locked away in an emotional crypt. Their doomsday rule is that a cute Anglican girl from England is the sole anointed one to sing the role of a cute Catholic girl from Austria, and that a cute Baptist girl from Oklahoma is verboten.

Happily, Maria Von Trapp, Rodgers and Hammerstein, their heirs, and their successors have never seen it that way. People involved with the various productions have not always agreed with details, but none of ‘em wants to turn off the gold that flows from them thar hills in Austria. The yodeling will continue, and many young women will don Maria’s Dirndlgewand and sing about larks and hills while dancing on stages in New York and Peoria and at local high schools for a long, long time to come.

The first Maria, the real one, famously got on very well with the third Maria, Julie Andrews, who in her turn gave her imprimatur and nihil obstat to Carrie Underwood. And y’know, if Julie Andrews says you can sing, well, you can take that to the bank in dollars, euros, or do-re-mi.

In the event, Carrie Underwood was smashing. For three hours, live, with no possibility of re-takes, she was Maria, singing, dancing, and acting among the stage hills and the stage chateau and through numerous set, lighting, and costume changes. Her voice is indeed a little bit country, but then she is a country girl, as was the original Maria.

Not all the cast were as well chosen – what’s with the almost middle-aged Rolfe in those silly shorts? – but Mother Abbess and Baroness Schroeder are outstanding. Audra McDonald (Mother Abbess) studied at Juilliard and has a lengthy resume’ of solid accomplishments on stage and on the Orwellian telescreen. She projects wisdom and benevolence with great skill. Laura Benanti (Baroness) vamps, flirts, and slithers through her role as a predator, clearly enjoying herself immensely. McDonald and Benanti’s classically trained voices are a perfect counterpoint to Carrie Underwoods’ Great Plains voice, all of them making a series of delightful songs all the better.

Stage sets are usually minimalist because of the limitations of space and the desire to focus on characterization and plot. The producers of TSOM 13 took a chance and built a series of realistic and connecting sets that really challenged the actors’ blocking and the cameras’ movements, and made it work. The miniature hillside does look stagey -- because it’s a stage – but the scenes set in the solar or garden room of Von Trapp’s mansion are redolent of Maxfield Parrish, especially in the use of gold and blue in the lighting. These scenes of a dreamy, Pre-Raphaelite world contrast with the menacing progressivism of the Nazis.

This contrast is fulfilled in the festival scene with intrusive technology, such as the microphone, and the series of huge swastika hangings in primary colors almost overwhelming the Von Trapp family in subdued clothing as they sing truth to power. Earlier in the play Max Dettweiler repeatedly urged the family to move with the times, to adapt, to compromise, and now with the usurpation of state power by National Socialism they are commanded to. Singing “Edelweiss” with its images of nature and innocence is their act of defiance.

Carrie and company gave us a great production, and the old grouches in the balcony don’t possess a veto over excellence. The irony is that in a generation or so when a new group makes a new film or Orwellian telescreen, perhaps The Sound of Music 2063, critics then will fault the new Maria for not being Carrie Underwood.


Monday, December 2, 2013

The Pig Stand, Beaumont, Texas, 2007 (photograph)

The Sky to Moc Hoa

Mack Hall

The Sky to Moc Hoa

The sky to Moc Hoa is hazily blue,
Layered between Heaven and heat. The damp
Rots even the air with the menace of death.
The ground below, all green and holed, dies too;

It seems to gasp: You will not live, young lad,
You will not live to read your books or dream
About a little room, a fire, a pipe,
A chair, a pen, a dog, a truth-told poem
Flung courteously in manuscript pages
Upon a coffee-stained table, halo’d
In a 60-watt puddle of lamp-light.

You skinny, stupid kid. You will not live.

Then circling, and circling again, again,
Searching, perhaps, for festive rotting meals,
Down-spinning, fear-spinning onto Moc Hoa,
Palm trees, iron roofs, spinning in a dead sun,
Spinning up to a swing-ship spinning down.
A square of iron matting in a green marsh,
Hot, green, wet, fetid with old Samsara.

Gunboats diesel across the Van Co Tay,
Little green gunboats, red nylon mail sacks,
Engines, cheery yells, sloshing mud, heat, rot.
Mail sacks off, mail sacks on, men off, men on,
Dark blades beating against the heavy heat,
The door gunners, the pilot impatient.
All clear to lift, heads down, humans crouching
Ape-like against the grass, against the slime
In sweating, stinking, slinking, feral fear
As the dragon-blades roar and finally fly,
And the beaten grass and beaten men
Now stand again erect in gasping heat,
Some silent in a new and fearful world.

You will not live, young hero; you will die.
What then of Dostoyevsky and Chekhov?
What then of your Modern Library editions,
A dollar each at the Stars & Stripes store
Far away and long ago in DaNang,
All marked and underlined? What is the point?
What then of your notebook scribbled with words,
Your weak attempts at poetry? So sad,
So irrelevant in the nights of death.
The corpses on the gunboat decks won’t care,
Their flare-lit faces staring into smoke
At 0-Two-Damned Thirty in the morning –
Of what truth or beauty are your words to them?

You haven’t any words anyway;
They’re out of movies and books, all of them.
What truth can adventure-story words speak
To corpses with their eyes eaten away?

Write your used emotions onto a page;
You haven’t any emotions anyway;
They’re out of the past, all of them.
What truth can used emotions speak to death?

So sling your useless gear aboard the boat:
A seabag of utilities, clean socks,
Letters, a pocket knife, a Rosary,
Some underwear, some dreams, and lots of books.

And board yourself. Try not to fall, to drown,
To be a floating, bloating, eyeless face.
Not yet. Think of your books, your words. Look up:
The sky to Moc Hoa is hazily blue.


1. Moc Hoa, pronounced Mock Wah -- a town on the Vam Co Tay River near the border with Cambodia.

2. “Young lad” or “lad” – employed sarcastically of recruits by chief petty officers.

3. “Young hero” – employed sarcastically of recruits by chief petty officers and of Navy Corpsman in Field Medical Service School by Marine sergeant-instructors.

4. Utilities – heavy, olive-drab, 1950s style Marine Corps battle-dress issued to Navy personnel on their way to Viet-Nam. Too darned hot. I had to scrounge lighter clothing from which the blood never completely washed out.

5. Samsara – in some Eastern religions, Samsara is the ocean of birth and death.

6. Gunboats – here, PBRs, or Patrol Boat, River. The history and characteristics of this excellent craft and its use in river warfare are well documented.

Let's Put the Friday Back into Black Friday

Mack Hall, HSG

Let’s Put the Friday Back into Black Friday

Two figures scrambled through the smoke and rubble under fire, and tumbled into a shell hole for cover.

“Whew!” exclaimed the younger one, wiping her brow and reloading her fifty shades-of-blue-death eye shadow. “That was close. But Mother, isn’t ‘door-buster’ a metaphor?”

“I won’t hear un-American talk like that!” exclaimed the older, wiping the blood from her credit card. “When Giganto-Mart advertises a door-buster sale, then by all that’s holy in the sales papers we’re gonna bust the door.”

“You didn’t have to take down that poor clerk. You hit him with his own walker, after all.”

“Oh, well, he’ll just have to accept the holiday merriment. Casualty lists are part of the fun of Black Friday. Besides, he was between me and the 20% discount sale on Orwellian telescreens.”

“But what about the old woman you ran down in the parking lot?”

“Dear, you’re missing the plot – it’s all about the 20% discount. Hey, What Would Darwin Do? I’m sure the old gal was glad to go. She lived a happy life. She needed to clear the way for a new generation of shoppers.”

“Is that what happened to my father? Darwinianism?”

“Ah, your father. Now there was a total guy. Never worked unless he needed a bottle or a fix between checks. Beaten to death for his sleeping bag on a cold night outside a Giganto-Mart. But he died happy – he was the first in line that October for a 20% discount sale, and got his picture on television chanting our national anthems, ‘Woo, woo!’ and ‘20% off!’ His life had meaning because he was shown on television waiting passively in front of a Giganto-Mart. That’s what keeps America great.”

“Mother, didn’t the ancients call this season something different?”

“There were several seasons, in fact. The two Christian holy days of All Saints and All souls were dismissed in favor of something called Halloween. That was when everyone began demanding free stuff. Then there was the ancient Christian season of Advent, which was renamed The Christmas Season. The original Christmas lasted from midnight on December 24th until January 6th, the Epiphany, but all that was jammed together as New Year’s.”

“I’ll gaggle it on my Dumbphone after I check my, my, my MeMeMeSpace for meaningless comments in order to validate my meaningless life.”

“Most of that old stuff is gone, and in our progressive age The Holiday Season is from the Back-to-School Salesmas in June to the holy Spring Salesmas in February. The anchor holidays are Pre-Black Friday, which some old people still call All Saints and All Souls, the two weeks of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Buystuffmas, New Year’s Salesmas, and Easter Bunny Salesmas.”

“So our seasons and our lives are predicated on losing sleep, waiting in lines, and pushing around other people in order to buy more of the same made-in-China stuff we already have? That’s our gift to civilization? All because advertising and our culture tell us we are defined by how much toxic plastic debris we acquire?”

“At a 20% discount, child, at a 20& discount. Remember those sacred words, and remember to stand stall and chant them proudly: Woo, woo! 20% discount!”

“Lock and load, Mama, lock and load.”