All posts by Ben

Americans Can’t Just Let It Snow

Loose Leaves, 1st run Tuesday 1 February 2000 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 2000 Donrey Media Group

How did you like that snow? Surprised by it? Surprised it lasted like it did? You shouldn’t be. Weather folks had it nailed all along, give or take half of a day.

For all the times we make fun of the TV meteorologists and the National Weather Service, not to mention the private forecast services, nobody admits how often right they are these days. When they are wrong, it’s usually only by a matter of hours.

Sometimes, weather-people are very wrong, but 90 or 75 percent chance of something falling does mean 10 or 25 percent of no precipitation. Odds like that would bankrupt race tracks and casinos in a week. Why didn’t we trust this?

You remember the winter storm. Forecasters said early in the week, with certainty, snow would fall heavily by Thursday afternoon. It might start as early as late Wednesday.

Snow began at 11 or so Thursday morning, and it came down heavily from the start. That’s a pretty accurate forecast. Plans by schools and businesses were set for Thursday when nothing fell by very late Wednesday.

Forecasters also said it would not warm up until Sunday and then only just above freezing.

The snow as predicted stayed on the ground, melting to slush in clear or lightly clouded skies, then refreezing in the night so as to snarl traffic to Saturday shopping and Sunday school. That was an accurate forecast, too.

Let’s open! Let’s close!

Oh, the poor, poor weatherman,
We love to mock all that he says.
We seek ever-greater acumen,
Then do what we want anyways.

Forecasters have radar, cell phones,
Satellites see what gravity prevents.
Nothing’s sure, on this make no bones,
But eighty percent should give sense.

Hundreds wrecked in the first six hour,
But thankfully no one was killed.
From sliders walkers had to cower,
Cars had to collide, then they chilled.

Up to thousands per fender-bender
Post-deduct’s, dents costly to fix. The
rest to your choice of tow trucker,
Pray premiums won’t rise for kicks.

Hospital crews thankfully on hand,
Yet they were not too often needed.
Clinics now keep banker’s hours, can
That be ’cause banks now over-seeded?

Woe are we who must commute by slide,
Paper carriers made the hills at times.
Thanks come to stores open with pride,
Close cafes for repast in pastimes.

We can stay home with our Internet,
For twenty a month we are all set.
Until ice snaps precious phone poles,
Then we’ll sled, build fires, drink cocoas.

Superintendents, supervisors,
Why’d you wait ’til noon to lock up?
Trust the TV, there’s no precedents,
Fear it’d cost test scores or markup?

Those who live in hurricane-land
Skeptics too so they teach us little.
At first siren some flee the sand,
The rest seen worse, stay noncommittal.

Our Cape Fear lies everywhere,
The place Fate stops to look around.
For once our snow and ice melts in air,
Floods and twisters will come aground.

Just timidly I trust newscasting,
Despite these claims of confidence.
I hate to feel like I am lying,
When I cancel some appointments.

We claim to want to know the future,
We pray for truth, we bet for sooth.
Science, history guide ever better,
Prophecy though sure we keep aloof.
Oh, the poor, poor weatherman,
We love to mock all that he says.
We seek ever-greater acumen,
Then do what we want anyways.

We’ll figure out, one of these days, that we Americans can take a day off for a good reason like a strong threat of snow and nothing bad will happen. We won’t go broke. Our children won’t suddenly turn ignorant.

Western European countries, with better-educated children and often higher standards of living and stronger business productivity, give employees months off every year with no concern.

We could learn from such economies. Or we could push ourselves, metaphorically, up very close to stoplights on icy roads, begging for a green light before the yo-yo behind the yo-yo behind us jumps the gun, and cracks all of our bumpers in a bucket brigade of snow.

-30-

Here’s Everything I Know So Far

Loose leaves, 1st run Tuesday 30 March 1999 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1999 Donrey Media Group

Want some advice? Most, but not all, of the lessons from Mom and Dad remain sound. Isolated quotations from articles or interviews still jump to mind. Bill Clinton’s Rules of Politics resonate years after I first read them. I’ve even come up with a few of my own that I’ve seen nowhere else.

Sharing new and old sayings is appropriate for a humor columnist in April Fool’s season. Just as serious drinkers stay home on New Year’s Eve, amateur pranksters should take their jollies in early spring while pro punsters should be figuratively sober for once. Hence, a serious column.

Dad’s five sayings stayed in my wallet for years. He gleaned them from his post-war generation. My father, may his memory be for a blessing, lived by them. As the 20th century ends and careers have overtaken both jobs and professions, all but No. 2 remain true.

  1. Luck is for the prepared.
  2. There is no limit to what you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.
  3. You don’t make this morning the friends you’ll need this afternoon.
  4. Your friends like to see you do well — but not too well.
  5. Just tell the truth. Then you don’t have to remember what you said.

Mom still likes to tell me:

  1. Don’t be a sheep.
  2. He who does not speak is not heard.
  3. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

In this time of constant, professional rumor-mongering, where there is smoke, there often is no fire, just dry ice. The victim of gossip must try vigorously to find and expose to air those carbon-dioxide cakes so they can evaporate to nothing.

Some odds and ends of aphorisms have stuck to me over the years.

  • “Don’t fall.” “Get up.” The favorite corrections of the Kirov Ballet school’s Alexander Pushkin, teacher of Mikhail Barishnikov.
  • “The ‘force’ is in you. Force yourself.” Harrison Ford.
  • “One should always leave the dinner table a little hungry.” Max Perkins, editor of novelists including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
  • “One is never drained by work but only by idleness. Lack of work is the most enervating thing in the world.” John Steinbeck.
  • “Only a very mediocre writer always writes at his best.” W. Somerset Maugham, about Dorothy Parker.
  • “If there’s no dancing there, it’s not my kind of revolution.” Emma Goldman.
  • “Happy people don’t need to have fun.” Jean Stafford.

My friend Meredith Oakley of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock had the statehouse beat for years and still covers it as a political columnist. When Clinton was governor he told her his personal guidelines. I read them in Oakley’s column a long time ago. She since has published them in her book On the Make: The Rise of Bill Clinton, (Regnery Publishing, 1994).

Bill Clinton’s Rules of Politics (reprinted with Meredith’s permission)

  1. Most people are for change in general, but against it in particular.
  2. Never tell anyone to go to hell unless you can make ’em go.
  3. Whenever someone tells you, “It’s nothing personal,” he’s about to stick it to you.
  4. Whenever it is possible for a person to shift the heat from himself to the governor, he’ll do it.
  5. Under enough pressure, most people — but not everybody — will stretch the truth on you.
  6. You’re most vulnerable in politics when you think you’re the least vulnerable.
  7. When you start enjoying something, it’s probably time to leave.
  8. Never look past the next election; it might be your last.
  9. There’s no such thing as enough money.
  10. Don’t drink in public. You might act like yourself.

Wonder if the president would change or add to these?

Having thought about them for ages I set seven original maxims to paper long ago, which I haven’t referred to since. I just found that leaf in a notebook. It’s dated June 6, 1991. Later that day, I met the woman I would marry.

  1. A man or woman who could be considered a scoundrel [having fluid morals] in one scope of activity often is a scoundrel [having fluid morals] in other areas.
  2. People who strongly believe in fate are not controlled by the heavens but by other people. Manipulators can smell them out like dogs sense fear in a pedestrian.
  3. People are as busy as they choose to be. (If she wanted to see you, she’d find a way.)
  4. People generally do the things they want to do and generally avoid doing the things they do not want to do. As for any thing in the gray middle, that thing generally will not be done, either. There are three shade of gray: (A) A wholly neutral or ambivalent opinion on this thing to do. (B) Partly want to do the thing and partly not want to do it. (C) Changing their mind several times over wanting to do the thing.
  5. Relationships move only forward or backward, grow or decay. Dating relationships that seem to be merely stable, or wavering, really are moving toward dissolution. Yet with vigilance, marital relations have a joyful stability.
  6. In a consensual yet submissive relationship between adults, the passive partner is in charge. Healthy partners exchange dominance in different parts of their lives. In unhealthy relations, the passive partner decides to leave, not the dominant one.
  7. A relationship may well be over when the standard question “How was your day?” suddenly is perceived as an invasion of privacy.

A few weeks after our marriage in 1993 I came up with an eighth rule.

8. Couples are most prone to argue, about anything, when they are tired or hungry.

So far, no one save for my wife has ever admitted the truth of No. 8.

-30-

The Heck with the Little Guy, Let’s Spend Time with Mr. Big

Loose Leaves column, 1st run Sunday 5 August 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

Wal-Mart has ruined me for others.

By its clout, it can buy in huge quantities and entice us by passing the savings on to us. As you and I know on our humdrum scale, the giant economy size often is cheaper.

Regular mom-and-pop or father-and-son stores, in fact entire downtowns across the country, say Wal-Mart is killing them.

They’re bankrupting themselves.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. chooses to do what human-sized shops once did: Back the products. There’s no back-talk, no suspicion on merchandise returns. Bringing that receipt makes matters smoother and faster (yes, the stores restrict returns on electronics, automotive and a very few other departments), but they flex to satisfy the customer. The customer is always right.

Wal-Mart makes lots more sales than refunds. It will make money. Kmart and Target make money with similar smiling return rules.

Dillard Department Stores makes money, too. Its refund policy is limited to 30 days, but they mean it. Last fall, the luggage sales clerk was understanding when I returned a suitcase bought two weeks earlier because pretend-packing showed it to be too big.

Lands’ End and similar large mail-order houses allow you to change your mind with efficiency. L.L. Bean exchanged my umbrella six months after I bought it when a wind gust broke it.

The neighborhood office supply of yore infamously overcharged. Its customers were guys using their companies’ money. Why be cost-conscious?

When repetitive computer stress struck my neck a dozen years ago, I set out for ergonomic chairs for work and home. A downtown office supply, in Little Rock, had them starting at $150; its clerk groused how the manufacturer, a trusted old brand, just signed with Sam’s Wholesale Club. Thanks, buddy; see ya’. At Sam’s I bought two for about $85 each. An arm wouldn’t screw on right, and I exchanged it easily.

Last year, I found the perfect satchel for my iBook at bluelight.com. Its Internet policy allowed me to return purchases to any Kmart. That prevents having to fork out postage to mail something back. Yet this bag is ideal.

Weeks earlier, I went to a locally owned sporting goods store. The Macintosh iBook is a funny shape. The shopkeeper said I could buy two bags, take them home to try and bring back the one that was too small.

The next morning I returned. Where was the owner? Oh, he ran to the bank, I was told. He’ll be right back. We don’t take refunds. Oh, he said that? I’ve worked here six months, and they’ve never taught me how to run a credit-card credit; you’ll have to wait. I waited 45 minutes and was late to work.

With a week of use, I realized the case would not hold more than the laptop, except pens and a couple of cords and cables. The name-brand bag was inexpensive yet sturdy and hung comfortably on my shoulder. Maybe I could find another use for it rather than take the time and embarrassment of haggling over a return.

The well-padded tote now securely carries my alto, soprano and tenor recorders in their cases, along with book and sheet music an inch thick. Acoustic, not electric!

Why revive these grudges? Because the trend continues.

Four months ago I bought four tires at Sam’s. Week before last, one developed a 3-inch blister in the sidewall; a blowout was imminent. The Sam’s garage replaced it on pro-rated warranty, at 34 percent of the original price. Installed in less than an hour.

Last week, my car hit 60,000 miles. For such occasions I treat cars to service at a dealer. Besides all the usual components of this “major” tune-up, my owner’s manual calls for replacing the timing belt, which is costly.

Dealer A quoted me $300 and Dealer B $375. Both have good reputations, well, for dealer service departments, so the low bid won.

Two hours after it was dropped off, the guy at Dealer A phones to say that for my model the $300 standard tune-up should be $410. Plus an additional $400 for the belt replacement. I tell him to wait.

Would Dealer B have dealt me that? I called. There the belt would be $325 extra, which he, too, should have said when I first called with my model and year.

I had told both garages the year and model. Wouldn’t their computers or binder of estimates have spit back the particulars?

Well, $700 is better than $810. I reported my research to Dealer A’s service rep. He quickly agreed to match Dealer B.

Yet, if I wanted to haggle with dealers, I would have bought a whole damn car.

Wouldn’t you like to favor the “little” guy? So would I. But business is not charity. If they can’t be square, they deserve real competition.

Thank goodness there’s still 142 shopping days until Christmas.

-30-

Variety of Uniformity Informative

Immodest proposal for modest kids

Loose Leaves, 1st run Tuesday 12 October 1999 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1999 Donrey Media Group

DATELINE MIRTHOLOGY — It was dawn. Oscar Hapgood was in the park, as usual, foraging for breakfast, when Duff McDuff ran up to him, yelling, “Oscar, they want me to wear a uniform to school. Help!”

Oscar, an executive turned vagabond, wadded up a newspaper sheet and wiped the dew off a bench with it. “Elaborate, please, young friend.”

It seems Duff’s homeroom teacher told the class how the School Board decided to ban individuality, so far as apparel was concerned. Uniforms would solve education problems. This was so obvious that neither from-scratch scientific experiments nor surveys of test scores, criminal records and demographics were needed.

The board appointed a special committee of board members, parents, teachers and others.

“That’s good news,” said Oscar. “A standing committee would deliberate something like this for months. But an ad hoc committee means you don’t need to worry for at least a year.”

“Maybe, Oscar. But Teacher said our district probably will do this real soon because of the school shootings and drugs and stuff.

“Teacher said the uniform will be knit sport shirts and twill trousers. Or we can wear T-shirts with the school emblem. The shirts will be white or red. The pants will be blue or khaki. Khaki is tan, right? Girls can wear skirts. Same colors.”

Lastly, Duff said, only white or black athletic shoes, of any brand, are allowed.

Oscar wondered, with all those choices, where was the uniformity of the uniform?

Little Duff read Oscar Hapgood’s smirk. “It’s to give us freedom of choice.”

Duff said gangs inspired the uniform theory. Their members so enthusiastically wear blue or red that they maim or kill one another over infractions of their dress codes.

Parochial students, with more strict uniforms, seem to be smarter, study harder and are just more serious, Duff was told.

Church schools have above-average, average and below-average students, just like any school, Oscar replied. This fact relieved Duff considerably.

The school board also was worried about socioeconomic indicators. The teacher said less-fortunate parents don’t dress children as chicly as wealthier parents. Uniforms would de-emphasize materialistic status.

Yet, Duff noted, children are real sleepy in the morning; so, if all their clothes are alike, they can dress with their eyes closed.

“Oscar, you can help me,” Duff said. “Go to the committee’s public hearing tonight, OK?”

Duff ran off to school. Oscar pulled from his sack a soprano recorder and blew Handel and Hendrix riffs, while thinking what he could say.

“Uniforms are a grand idea,” Hapgood said to the standing-room-only school board room. “This has such genius that children already are wearing only three or four outfits already.

“The unofficial uniform is old-fashioned jeans or new-fashioned cargo pants for the trunk and T-shirts and flannels for the torso, for both boys and girls. Almost all wear athletic shoes now. Nearly everyone’s hair is too short. The dress codes that schools and districts already have can take care of any problems of taste, distraction or liability.”

“This is good preparation for adulthood. Hamburger joints have uniforms as do repair shops. Business suits are so similar they can be termed uniforms as well, for women and men.

“If change is needed in school, the fairest and most equal way to keep children from envy of any sort is for them to attend class naked.

“They won’t be able to conceal weapons that way, either.”

The special committee gasped, as one. The chairwoman glanced over to the security guard, who nodded his readiness, at her signal.

“This would have to start in all grades simultaneously,” Oscar continued. “This is the absolutely most effective way to teach children how they are all alike while all being different. Teachers should not dress for class, either. Of course for physical education, appropriate supporters and pads should be donned.

“Yes, a few perverts hang around school yards. They would be thwarted by the fact that children would go to school dressed then leave all their clothes in lockers. There’ll be robes and flip-flops in the halls to grab for fire and bomb drills.”

“Mr. Hapgood, your time is up,” the chairwoman said suddenly.

But a couple of the committee members started whispering. They thought Oscar made a good point and asked the chairwoman to let him finish.

“Thank you, good people,” Oscar said. “Now that my proposal got your attention, all I need to say is that you are wasting your time and everyone else’s. Children learn through every aspect of their lives how they are alike as well how they are different Why doesn’t this committee instead try to raise standards of education?”

The next speaker proposed hiring local seamstresses for hems and cuffs. The last speaker wanted the contract for bolts of his polyester-cotton cloth.

Oscar dropped by Duff’s house afterward. Duff had watched the speech on the cable government-access channel.

“Were you serious, Oscar? My tushie would freeze on a plastic chair six hours a day,” Duff McDuff said.

“I am only as serious as I have to be,” Oscar Hapgood said enigmatically.

-30-

Cloudy Public Image Has Primates Up in the Air

Mirthology column,
1st run Thursday 20 August 1992 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

By Ben S. Pollock

When things get so bad you have to hire a public relations expert — indeed, have to raise the money, a lot of it, to retain one — you indeed are desperate.

We apes — monkeys, primates, whatever you want to call us — are that frustrated.

Indeed, that is our problem: What you call us.

Each of us species has a specific identity, such as chimpanzee, orangutan or gorilla. And, from a personal point of view, there is lowland gorilla, highland gorilla and my breed, midland gorilla.

We midlands are an easygoing set, but we’ve had enough racism, sexism and, from you people, humanism. It’s humiliating.

If I hear “Gorilla My Dreams,” “monkey’s uncle” or “aping” somebody’s mannerism one more time, I’ll just beat my breast all afternoon. How much pummeling can one creature take?

We’re all up the same tree. That’s why we put out a call for a consultant.

The first appointment was free. She said I first should speak for myself, for ourselves, and get this off my chest, so to speak. If that doesn’t work, to use a political line, then she’ll start shooting the ads in five minutes.

So here is my piece: Humans should have the sensitivity to refer to each ape by species. Of course, any individuality referred to after that would be greatly appreciated.

We want you humans to get to know us personally, see how big our sign language vocabulary is, how we can fashion crude tools out of rocks.

Yet, I know you readers are busy hunting and gathering; we all are. So until we can get together for a hearty dinner of shoots and bugs, I will be content if you see me as a midland gorilla, not any old gorilla, not any old ape, not any old monkey and not any old primate.

Speaking of primate, we know some of you people have problems with that term, since it refers to the theory of evolution. It doesn’t jibe with how you believe humanity came into begin, separate from the animals in general and not descended from the ape family in particular.

Believe me, we feel the same way about you.

I don’t mean anything petty by that, but I know exactly what you mean. Just because I like most humans doesn’t mean that I relish being related to them, or some of the other subgroups.

I could tell you stories about some of my — our? — interspecies cousins. They are called lowland gorillas for a reason.

Our P.R. consultant has proceeded to customize her standard marketing campaign of newspaper advertisements and broadcast public service announcements. She’s cutting out the school packets and reducing our bill!

This is because you people already are doing a fine job with your offspring. Not only do biology textbooks give our common names but also our Latin species classifications. Then you quiz the students rigorously.

We could implant politically correct knowledge better ourselves.

One part of the campaign will be to encourage more visits to the zoo. Come see that we apes relate to each other exactly like people do, but with absolutely no shame.

Lastly, we intend to take some initiative and bring the zoo directly to you — your offices and your neighborhoods — a “zoomobile.”

We love barbecues. Have you ever grilled fruit on skewers on the patio smoker? Delicious, anytime of the year. Since it may be dessert for you and our main course, we’ll eat slowly.

The mobile zoo project does have its limits. It will leave the baboons on the other side of the zoo fence and moat.

You’ve seen how nasty they can be. Be grateful that you don’t have to live near them.

We great apes know better than to bring baboons around. It could very well soil the reputation we’re trying to build.

You just have to draw the line somewhere.

-30-

Copyright 1992 Ben S. Pollock

Assault with Deadly Pun Reflects on Gag Order as Juvenile

Loose Leaves, 1st published Sunday 11 June 2000 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben Pollock

Copyright 2000 Donrey Media Group

He was just a puppy. He didn’t mean to be mean.

“I can’t believe he actually broke skin, that he got a chunk of that police dog,” said a tabby cat, who worked for a tabloid.

Yet the frisky terrier, accidentally or not, drew a little blood when he nipped the mature German shepherd. In turn, the K-9 took a practiced bite out of that puppy’s hide he will never forget.

Puppy was 8 months old; isn’t that about 14 in human years?

The question for all the assembled pets and wildlife in the suburban yet rural subdivision was how to punish Puppy.

The court could order him shunned for a period of time or bit again, this time officially and under sanitary conditions.

The court could “go human” and pop his snout with a rolled-up newspaper. First the officers of the court would have to roll up a newspaper, bind it and then figure out how to pick it up and swing it.

The critters, however, were getting ahead of themselves.

Maybe that’s why the judge wanted to muzzle everybody.

First, they had to play fair. Guilt — or innocence — must be proved.

This was a formality. There were witnesses, many of whom were elders of the community.

The incident happened in a yard surrounded by a tall wooden privacy fence. Animals in other yards did not see it. They depended on cats to sit on the fence and screech out the events as they had occurred and now to report on the trial.

At least Puppy didn’t kill anything. That’s been happening a lot in other neighborhoods. Pups, kits and cubs have been getting way too frisky.

It’s the age we live in, thought many. It’s the Internet, reasoned others, but they were shushed by those who noted that when it came to computers they were all paws and claws. A few animals blamed an increase in fumes from gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles.

In an effort to be fair, the judge — who by the way happened to be a canary who escaped from her cage a couple of falls ago — announced a muzzle order on every creature.

A muzzle order is like a gag order, but muzzles work on snouts and beaks better than balling up a sock with which to gag a pet. Besides, dogs and cats tend to see sock knots as toys, not threats.

“I forbid the cats to tell the other animals what’s going on. You cats should not even show photographs. You’ve already named names so that cat’s out of the bag,” said Her Honor.

This is just a puppy, for heaven’s sake,” added Judge Canary.

“Oh, you want the catbird seat to yourself?” said Tabloid Tabby.

“Watch it, kitty, or I’ll find you in contempt.”

“We cats think you’re scared of messing up a case like this,” taunted Tab-Tab. “Back when you wanted this high perch, you promised openness, in both half-court and full-court rules.”

“Are you calling me yellow?” retorted the canary.

“Oh no,” said the cats, in unison.

The canary gaveled the trial open with her beak.

The shepherd testified first, explaining how he was the street’s alpha dog and kept all the creatures in line. This puppy usually was like the other babies, but. …

“He just popped up out of nowhere, bird-dogging me.”

“Sir, I’ve had enough of the fowl comments. They’re offensive to some of us and now are part of the muzzle order,” said Judge Canary. “I’m ready for a bird bath. Case adjourned until after I preen.”

The cats had a field day for lunch. They crept along the top of the wooden fence and told all the cats and dogs — as well as a rabbit and three turtles — what happened.

The muzzle order on photographs meant nothing. The felines had no digital cameras, and they could not work film.

The cats could, however, paint word-pictures. They described Puppy, his mommy and the schnauzer that must have been the sire.

The cats paid special attention to the judge, noting how her robe fit and how it clipped her wings.

Judge Canary returned, and she called Puppy. She yelled a second time and again. He was just a puppy. On the fourth call he ran up.

Puppy explained how all puppies play rough and usually the adults indulge them.

“I was teething, right?” said Puppy, wagging his tail.

The prosecutor, a ferret, objected. “This puppy’s canines grew in weeks ago, Your Honor. This was a malicious act.”

Puppy’s representative, also a ferret, noted how the wound was minor.

“Let’s wrap this up, you weasels,” said Judge Canary.

“We’re not quite weasels. We’re rather domestic, Your Honor, and surprisingly smart,” they said together. They proved their intelligence by immediately resting their cases.

Judge Canary ruled fairly and quickly, for this was no kangaroo court.

Puppy was guilty of course. The cats too were guilty, of all the mews that’s fit to print. The ferrets were guilty of burrowing in strips of newspaper. The police dog was guilty of following his training and instinct.

Judge Canary flitted off to a high branch. The view was better. Plus, she was out of range.

-30-

Chandra Levy Taken by White Slavers Hired by Crazed Politicians

Loose Leaves column, 1st run Sunday 15 July 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

It wasn’t even Friday the 13th yet, but the week wrecked me from the start. Somebody said something vaguely insulting. The home repair was delayed a few days, again. My computer crashed; what’s new. Got a chain-letter e-mail from somebody I thought knew better. Something healthy I cooked disagreed with me.

Took the normal summer’s heat personally, too.

Bad weeks and bad days come up sometimes. They are just a collection of coincidences. Some coincidences start from the actions of other people, who may be superstitious.

Superstition seems to be increasing, despite the presence of not only more verifiable knowledge but knowledge that’s ever easier to find and understand. Yes, from the Internet.

Developed gossip is a form of superstition.

We smart people presume Internet information from legitimate companies and institutions to be more current and factual. We know to remain skeptical.

Some electronic information sell people can’t-live-withouts, troubling hoaxes or whole belief systems.

Friends and acquaintances you thought knew better e-mail you old-fashioned chain letters, asking you to relay them on to others for money or just luck. They send you inspiring anecdotes that history easily disproves, or horrible tales quickly found listed on sites that categorize contemporary, “urban” myths.

I could attribute the lousy week to cutting a couple of such chains.

Instead, I daydreamed of withdrawing $500 cash from an ATM then driving out, for about $300 worth of gasoline, junk food and cheap motels (and Wal-Mart for a change of underwear) then driving home in a week or a month on the remainder. This would clear my head of 40-something years of false notions, met goals and discharged hopes.

I fantasized I would decide to do this spontaneously one morning, leave the office that noon, calling my wife from a pay phone after crossing at least one state line. Let the office fire me for going AWOL. On my return I would take a sweaty but simple job at a bakery.

This is not just my fantasy. Thousands of U.S. adults go “missing” every year. Some return. Some never come back, having embarked on new lives. Very few are kidnapped or bludgeoned into the actually rather-rare amnesia.

Crime is decreasing, according to FBI statistics. People may be abandoning families for a breather or forever, but no epidemic of psychopaths exists, despite arresting images on TV or other screens.

This is, yes, enormously frightening, depressing and frustrating for the loved ones left behind. Nor are relatives and friends assured by a culture — not just the ratings-addled media — that thrives on gossip, paranoia and a drive for combining facts and coincidences into cohesive if false wholes — logic, common sense and knowledge of human behavior be damned.

Certainly I hope Chandra Levy cut and dyed her hair, hiding out to figure out the rest of her life, having merely run away from being a 24-year-old (three or six years of adulthood under her belt) Californian feeling stuck in a Washington federal internship, having fled a romantic or just sexual relationship with a married father of children her age.

That we have quit discussing the murder of the wife of actor Robert Blake — and tax cuts and campaign finance reform and summer boat safety — to focus on Levy and her ex-lover, an obscure US congressman from California’s fertile belly, and to gab about allegations of his other flings and associations, is pathetic.

What mythology, what common theory are we craving? Post-communist conspiracy? White slavery? Internet pornography-fueled anarchy?

Superstition, in a word?

Say you, a rational logical person, are driving along last Friday (the 13th!) and the hypothetical car up ahead is driven by a regular guy who still holds only a couple of superstitions, left from childhood.

The guy sees that a black cat just crossed the road ahead of him, so he slams on his brakes then swerves around to “avoid the path of a black cat.” You and the dope collide.

The superstitious guy simply made a bad call, never mind his reasons, which had an impact on you, and your car.

The people you tell this to at the office coffee urn turn superstitious (and you thought all their only superstition was to tally celebrity deaths, arguing if putting a musician in with two actors adds up to three). They say the black cat caused bad luck on both you and the other driver.

What can you do but return to the scene of the accident, walk to a nearby yard and take a photo of the hypothetical cat sitting on a shady porch, near its hypothetical owner?

He had a bad day, having almost lost his kitty. He thought about running away but didn’t because the cat needs him.

The cat has one white paw.

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Americans Save Time by Spending Money

Mirthology column, 1st run Thursday 2 April 1992 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1992 Ben S. Pollock

One of the most annoying things about the rest of the world suddenly agreeing with us Americans is guilt.

Just about everybody is freely electing presidents and legislators, and writing constitutions, just like we in the West. In economics, supply and demand has caught on, too.

So why do we Yanks give each other furtive glances when we learn yet another country is imitating us? We serve as an example, and look at whom we’ve been electing. Look at this season’s crop. Maybe it’s not that bad.

Capitalism is unnerving under the microscope as well. We still have to acknowledge it is the only economy that works on the long term and overall is the most fair. Yet the free market is different from democracy — they’re two different beasts.

If this is so, then why is our currency inscribed with republic slogans like “One of Many” or “The People Rule”? Shouldn’t our dollars remind us of the U.S. economic motto, “Let the Buyer Beware”?

On second thought, that would be disastrous. If people read and heed that wisdom, fewer coins would be exchanged. Then there’d be a recession.

Wait, we’re having harder times now without that motto jingling in our pockets. Maybe the solution is to combine mottoes, to “The Buyer Rules.”

On third thought, you couldn’t take that to the bank. There, the Benjamin Franklin rule is “A Penny Saved Is a Penny Earned.”

That’s what we were taught, back when banks would start up a youth account with a $1 deposit. The personable teller would give a child some board folders with notches in which to stick dimes and quarters. That’s back when saving wasn’t more complicated than a “passbook account” plus the occasional bonus toaster with a $200 deposit. Interest rates, compared to the inflation of the time, were negligible. A gimmicky incentive — like a bonus — was needed.

Later, certificates of deposit and money-market savings increased interest greatly, but then earning also fluctuated widely. The free casserole dishes were stopped.

Franklin’s motto changed to “A Penny Saved Is Two Pennies Earned in 15 Years at Your Bank, or 10 Years at My Bank.”

This line of reasoning may sound cynical, but I’m the innocent sort who’s pleasantly surprised — indeed grateful — for any amount of interest accrued. I’d better be pleased; earning are dropping through the floor these days. Any positive bank statement is welcome in my mailbox.

When the old-timers advised us to “Save for a Rainy Day,” they weren’t advocating mutual funds of NOW (Negotiated Order of Withdrawal) accounts, just that spending is the opposite of saving. If your don’t buy, you have more money. The cookie jar doesn’t bear interest, and it can crack, so the bank keeps your money as a public service.

So here’s a proposed motto for our times: “A Penny Saved is a Penny Not Spent.”

Who am I kidding? You? You know better than that. Me? I ought to have more sense by now.

How about this one, “A Penny Saved Today Is a Penny to Spend Tomorrow.” That’s honest. But time goes by so quickly now, today is tomorrow. If automated teller machines could give advice, that’s what they would say.

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Steam Rises between Rider’s Tub, Rub

 

Mirthology column, 1st run Thursday 18 June 1992 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1992 Ben S. Pollock

 

Dowel Jones the stick horse has been stabled at my house, the Bengalow, for some time now. He rode here from California some years ago, carrying my imaginary college roommate … but that’s another tale. Suffice it to say that Dowel had cabin fever and needed a long ride.

“It’ll clean your spark plugs,” I told the low-tech Dowel but was referring to my spoiled preference for cars with their stereos and air conditioning. I loaded my bags onto the hobby horse’s hardwood torso, mounted and headed to Hot Springs National Park.

“I’ve done almost everything in Spa City,” I told my broomstick companion as he trotted down the grassy highway shoulder as dawn began to overtake the night. “Watched the races, ate at the restaurants and climbed some hills, but always by motor and never visiting any spas. Let’s splurge on baths and massages. I’ll write it up for a column and write off the weekend.”

Dowel snorted.

“Dowel, want to check out the fillies at the Oaklawn track?” The toy pony showed his teeth at me. Anything but puns for he of the blue-and-white head and red-yarn mane.

By arriving at the bathhouse before it opened, 6:30 a.m., we got in without waiting. After paying about $25 a head, the clerk gave me a lock box for my valuables and strapped its key on my wrist. I went through the humans’ door and Dowel trotted under the sign “Animals and Miscellaneous.”

“Welcome, sir,” said a tall young man in white T-shirt and dungarees. “Here’s your dressing room. Take off your clothes then open the curtain, and I’ll have a sheet to wrap you in.”

The area looked like a locker room, except that it was clean and had no odor. Keeping in shape on my own has kept me out of such places since high school.

He led me through the “pack room” to one of seven tubs along the wall, each separated by a marble partition. He filled the tub while monitoring its temperature, 100 degrees. He took my sheet, and I sat down slowly: The heat took some getting used to.

He briefly swabbed down my limbs with a washcloth, turned on the whirlpool and left for 20 minutes, giving me time to think.

Not that many years ago, such mineral therapy was believed therapeutic for many ailments. Now it’s a luxury.

Only a few decades ago, water did not run in virtually every residence. Public baths and showers were commonplace.

Men didn’t often shave at home with safety razors, either. They visited the barber several times a week for his straight blade and leather strop. When was the last time you trusted somebody putting a knife to your throat?

Men and women visited the baths, putting themselves in the hands of smiling attendants when most vulnerable, buck naked. Is it any wonder that Jews in Nazi-dominated Europe naively queued up for showers in what they thought were labor camps after long train rides in old cattle cars?

The water whooshed around my legs.

On the other hand, we moderns have gained virtually complete privacy, but with it anonymity and distrust. We’re safer that way, but we have to work at loving those outside our families, congregations or neighborhoods.

The attendant startled me. It was time to get vaporized. Next to each tub was a metal box the size of a booth shower. It had a horizontal hinged partition halfway up with a hole for the head and a stool beneath.

I sat on the towel-covered seat and decided against the “head-out,” five minute steam treatment in favor of two minutes with my head inside the sweltering cube. My sinuses could use the cleaning.

Knowing I had only 120 seconds is what kept claustrophobia at bay, but not, somehow, boredom. Neck-stretching exercises passed the time. The steam burned my hands or feet if I moved them.

From there the attendant draped me in a fresh white sheet and led me to the nearest of the nine white tables in the middle of the pack room. He wrapped a steaming-hot moist towel around my neck as I lay on the cushioned vinyl, then tucked the sheet tightly around me.

I couldn’t move. I had to trust a stranger while soaking the shroud in sweat, thinking about lost values and almost-forgotten vulnerabilities.

Twenty minutes later he led me to a too-brief, cooling shower. From there I got yet another fresh white sheet and headed for the “cooling room” and its six white vinyl tables under four slow-moving ceiling fans.

After 10 minutes a heavy-set gray-haired man called to me from the rubdown room. He used warm, scentless lotion from unlabeled squirt bottles, washing off excess with rubbing alcohol as he finished a side or limb.

The massage was anticlimactic, having expected to have been left in a floating state the rest of the day. Yet I have to admit that I had no aches for the next three days.

I got to the deposit-box counter before Dowel, fetched my wallet and headed back to show my gratitude to the attendant with two dollars and three for the masseur.

Dowel was waiting for me at the outer door.

“Five dollars seemed about right to tip,” I said to the horse. “What did you give yours?”

“Splinters,” he whinnied.

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9-1-1, a National Call to Emergency, and We’re Low on Gas

Loose Leaves column, 1st published Sunday 16 September 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

TUESDAY — Here it is, 2 p.m. Gas-station shenanigans hold up everything.

Earlier today, I was wrapping up some family business in Fort Smith, and after lunch was driving along and saw that outside a couple of filling stations were two-block lines of vehicles for gasoline. What is this, 1979, the Tehran Embassy takeover and the threat of dollar gas?

It made sense with the morning’s continental terrorism. What’s it mean? War? Attacks eventually here in Middle America? Loss of our conveniences?

I phoned a newsroom colleague. He said reported rumors of shortages were found to be unfounded. That was not convincing people against precautions. He had topped off his own tank.

He warned that some stations hiked their prices, either to make a quick buck or to slow sales in case refineries fell short later, though they had plenty of crude on this awful Tuesday. We agreed that if I found a convenience store with a short line to go for it but otherwise not to sweat it.

If there is to be a shortage, what will waiting hours in line buy today: An extra week of cruising? When we’re out, we’ll be out.

What’s an hour and maybe a five-buck overcharge compared to that cloud over Manhattan? Mundane.

The first stations on the road to Springdale all have lines; some are $1.58 or $1.69 as before, but some post $2 a gallon or more. The Fayetteville area surely will be the same.

I exit at little Mountainburg for a station a couple of miles from Interstate 540, closer to old U.S. 71.

The C-store has up to four cars at each pump; none has to idle along the road. I spot a pump with no line, just one car about to be fueled.

What’s taking that car so long? I can’t believe I just did what I always avoid doing in groceries and banks. The shortest line always takes the longest. Now, I am pinned and cannot move. Look at the driver. A little older than me, she’s fussing and fidgeting. These are credit-card-accepting pumps. This new to her? The least she could do is shrug, acknowledge me. Must be a Yankee. Doesn’t she know which end and which side of the credit card to stick in? If she doesn’t figure that out soon, I’m going to, I’m going to, well, I’m going to honk my horn. She could ask the clerk for help. Her face is blank. National Public Radio now is giving details about the Pentagon hit and the crash near Shanksville, Pa. That woman looks about grimly and focuses on nothing. I look around. Everyone looks serious. Hey, this is one gorgeous day. Late summer’s first hint of a clear fall afternoon where air conditioning finally is superfluous. Two guys in a car on the right are talking. By the gestures, it looks like one is asking the other if he wants anything inside. They’re muscular, with contemporary shaved heads. He’s going in. Glad I’m not in that line. This day, get your gas and leave, buddy. He’s back, already, with bottles of Mountain Dew. My leader just started to pump fuel into a nondescript, not-too-old sedan. It must hold a hundred gallons, and she must have the pump set at “eyedropper.” Doesn’t she need to be somewhere, too? This is to be a day we’re all going to remember, “9-1-1 — the nation’s call to emergency.” Will our memories be of sitting just outside a gas station canopy waiting to funnel in overpriced petroleum that’s cheaper than anywhere else in the world?

She’s done!

It’s tough, but I manage to smile at her, be neighborly like the Southern boy I am. She just drives off, looking only toward the road.

Why am I so mad? I never get like this. Almost never.

Sheesh, gas now is 50 cents higher. Might as well buy some. I’ve waited this long.

The pump display orders me to insert my credit card again. The diagram next to the read-out shows the card should go in the other way, unlike all other pumps, surely. I should have looked. Now I’m mad at myself.

With receipt in hand — for just seven gallons — I return to the freeway. The anger dissipates. That happens quickly when anger’s unfocused, unorganized: Mad at my fellow customers. At the store. At how predictable this is. At how unpredictable the hijackings are. At how that’s left all of us feeling.

We could guess our formal and personal response to Iraq invading Kuwait. This just started, though. It is so different from everything.

Should we laser the anger, train and hone it into soldiering? That’s going to be needed.

What about the anger that propelled people smart and fearless enough to learn to fly commercial aircraft around obstacles, above the din of screaming passengers, squarely into buildings? What’s their problem?

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