The Dickens with Harry Potter

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

Wednesday, July 27, 2005. Three cheers for Harry Potter and his inventor. J.K. Rowling may well be this generation’s Dickens. I’m not saying she is a perfect novelist or storyteller, although yes I am implying Dickens can be difficult, especially140 years later. But enough about Chuck.

The Harry Potter series remains strong in its sixth book. The new one, the “Half-blood Prince,” does what they all have done so well: tells a series of connected stories (plot and several subplots) that enthrall their intended audience of children. Kids don’t read tedious material unless forced. We adults force ourselves all the time. (I don’t have to force myself to finish a Harry Potter book.)

Children know Rowling has it.

I compare her with Dickens because like him she writes specifically for our times, full of atmosphere with thoroughly drawn complex characters.

In the last book, we see through Harry’s eyes just how members of his parents generation once were his age and happy at times, struggling others. That is an important phase the young teenager with luck accomplishes. Of course lots of other things happen, too.

The current volume addresses the fear that modern terrorism has foisted on Western nations. Of course, the characters’ fear center’s around their villain, a dark wizard, not an extremist group. Yet Rowling creates the dread without the specifics of headlines and, more than that, through her you can feel the vague “gotcha” we all have come to expect just before we turn on CNN.

Her characters deal with fear and its ramifications, in the structure of the story lines. Yet that is not her point. It still is the story of Harry Potter growing up; Lots of things happen in the course of the year, fun, tests, friendship, melancholy.

Each book — most of which I have “read” while commuting in the car as unabridged, spoken-word CDs — also captures each year the children are going through, through buddies, rivals, and now that they’re 16 years old, growing maturity and also a bit of romance.

The best part is that Rowling is not teaching or preaching. She’s telling stories with no lessons at all, just the way novels should be, at any level.

If I choose to see her cleverness as something a child or teen could learn or model, that is me as an adult reader interpreting, not Rowling crafting. She is genuine. Well, isn’t anyone else as annoyed with contemporary parables and memoirs as me, where if you don’t “learn” something, you’re heaven-forbid wasting your time (or if it’s not true like memoirs supposedly are, then it’s therefore false and a waste of time)?

We shouldn’t be surprised if Rowling’s saga is popular a century from now. Her talent is classic. -30-

Can’t get no (Supreme Court action)

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

Thursday, July 21, 2005. When we say the president names a nominee who then gets the appointment following the advice and consent of the Senate, we mean everyone from the Cabinet and a few top Executive Branch positions to all the federal judges.

So far as those who work in the Executive Branch, we like to say that the president should pick his own team and the Senate grills these folks with that in mind. The Senate has by definition a harder edge when it, first by the Judiciary Committee, considers judges and justices. The members of the country’s judicial branch are independent of both Congress and the presidency.

So when it comes to President Bush’s selection of John Roberts, who is fairly young and only two years an appeals court judge at that, I bet I won’t like him much, especially as we learn about his conservative judicial philosophy. Now is a very good time for me to say this, as ignorant as I am so far about John Roberts. I hope the Senate confirms him quickly and without much headbanging on anyone’s part.

It’s Bush’s turn. He is going to name someone he believes in. When the Democrats manage to retake the office, they’ll get a chance, and opposing senators, not to mention lobbyists and grass-roots organizations, and commentators and video gasbags, will shout a lot then.

Also, I do hope Roberts is a judicial activist. That is such a loaded term yet both naive and ambiguous. The judiciary is fully a third of our government. They have to perform their lifetime appointments as they see fit. That is by being activists in their fashion, and thus independent of Congress, the president, special interests, the press and even Brick layers as myself.

If various judges do a tap dance on constitutional democracy, or if only a consistent majority of the Supreme Court worries a majority of us, then we vote in a new president who’ll gradually put in his sort of judicial activist. If it gets really bad, there’s always the impeachment process for individual judges and justices. Too bad, though, we save impeachment for the small stuff. -30-

Rent: Closer than the show

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

Monday, July 18, 2005. Some Rogers officials are getting nervous about the growth of apartments in their fair city. They are candid enough to worry aloud about any resulting increase in crime, not to mention increase in poorer people and lower surrounding property values.

If I were just to discuss apartments without these guys as motivation, I’d just worry about traffic. Here in mid-Fayetteville near campus so many apartment complexes are going up along already choked two-lane arteries I dread driving once they get finished.

I am not worried about crime being a direct result of increasing apartment tenants.

It wasn’t so long ago my wife and I rented. It may be in our future, too. You never know.

Everybody rents at some point in their lives, Rogers big shots. Not just the low lifes you want to live elsewhere.

If crime is rising, the cause isn’t renting versus owning, it’s simply growth.

Growth, remember, you’re all for it. You call it progress, right? Apartments for the people who work in the Wal-Mart where you stop for milk on your way home from the $150 evening charity fundraiser.

Apartments also are for students and young people in their first jobs — your children? Apartments are for single parents — like that cousin of yours? Apartments are for retirees and widows ready to toss the hassle of a largely empty house — the one you grew up in? Yet neither you or your spouse, nor Mom or Dad, want to live under one roof at this point, your roof.

Apartments are for people whose custom mini-mansions near the club aren’t finished yet.

Single-family and multi-family housing need planning and also zoning. There are issues of traffic obviously, but also utility use.

Owners and managers of apartments need to take responsibility for all aspects of their properties, and laws and regulations help remind them of that. You city officials should be working on that. Small-town ordinances no longer apply for the metropolis you deliberately set in motion decades ago.

Fortunately, you guys who have been quoted in recent news reports likely are in the minority. Too, you may just be addressing the recent accounts of crime statistics and guessing at their causes without adequate reflection, not to mention kicks in the pants.

For a year I edited a paper serving three tiny towns north of Dallas, north of Plano, actually. One small apartment complex among them, where nearly all houses sat on no less than 1 acre. Residents liked to keep a horse or two on the property, yet be just 45 minutes from downtown Dallas. I stayed in my north-Dallas efficiency and commuted a half-hour, in light traffic since I was going the wrong way at the right times.

That complex was dumpy. I adopted my beloved late kitty B.C. from a guy who lived there in 1984. I was glad I didn’t live there. Some jobs require to live in your community, you know.

With an appropriate ratio of multi-family to single-family in any given community, some will be nicer and some scuzzier. Either. In the morning paper there’s a fatal stabbing. The photo shows it occurred outside a standalone house. -30-

How you get there

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

Friday, July 15, 2005. It would take some nerve to call myself an avid bicyclist. I pedal more than most, and a lot less than others. I biked for fun and for commuting as a teenager, even though I could borrow Mom’s Beetle almost whenever I wanted. I liked the exhilaration, and being different.

Getting around in and near the broad Stanford campus was practical only on a bike; cars were banned on most of it. Junior year I bought an ancient child’s push scooter at a junk shop and used that most of the term, 20 years ahead of the Razor fad.

Since becoming a grown-up, I’ve biked off and on: Rarely for recreation, rather to commute: The six years I both lived and worked in downtown Little Rock, and 18 months studying and teaching at the University in Fayetteville.

When I didn’t bike in Palo Alto, I took buses and as I approached San Francisco, the BART subway. In Little Rock, I kept a handful of bus tokens for when it was too icy to drive or bike.

On vacation, my wife and I often prefer public transportation, for efficiency (we don’t get lost), saving money (you rent a car to use it one hour out of 24 on certain kinds of trips) but mainly to see the sights — and the people.

She worked off and on for few months in London in 1999-2000. Where her co-workers took taxis, she took the Underground. Most of her commutes began or ended at the very two stations of the main 7/7 attacks, Aldgate and King’s Cross.

All this is a long way around to say definitively I am a fan of mass transit in every form as well as any alternative to cars, especially bicycles and feet.

So it sounds odd to call silly the serious proposals for light rail in Northwest Arkansas. But they are. Public transportation is inevitable. But we non-big-city Americans — most of us — don’t want any limit to freedom to come and go as we please.

Planners have to admit another fact, that no community or series of communities outside old metropolises are set up for rail or serious bus use. These work in old S.F. for the reason they don’t in new L.A.: density.

I usually pedaled to and from my first newspaper job, summer 1978 as a reporter at the Times Record in Fort Smith, which its then-editor Jack Moseley recalls anytime I run into him. (I also biked the summer before to KHBS-TV/KFPW-AM, where I reported.)

In my first week, I did a story on bicycle commuting, interviewing the head of the local bike club (who unintentionally taught me a lesson when he praised me, saying he’d seen my name on well-written articles, when I hadn’t published anything yet).

Then I talked to a city official, who said something to the effect of, “No one’s going to take bicycles or buses seriously until gas hits a dollar a gallon.”

We’re likely going to stay at more than double that price, yet there has been no serious drop in sales of gas-guzzling four-wheel-drive tulip-crushers. What will cause us to clamor for local government to do something? Five dollars a gallon? Ten?

Given where we live, where we work, and where we shop and play, our solution is going to be more buses on longer routes, lots of park-and-ride lots for them, for 24 hours a day seven days a week.

A track-bound people-mover goes far, but it can’t go wide. -30-

A block is not a brick

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

Wednesday, July 13, 2005. So what I do is just admit my fear. Look at this gap in time: days since the last Brick, feels like a month. Why? A lack of topics as well as a lack of opinions?


It was the feeling of a block. It came from the insight that as the number of reader “hits” on the Brick increase, the pressure to excel increases.

That’s odd, for me, because my pressure to excel always has been largely internal. I am my harshest critic. I would say toughest editor, too, but it is tough to spot the bad comma or awkward phrase I forgot to delete. When I finally do, or it’s pointed out by others, the harshest critic steps in.

But knowing more and more folks are dropping by is scary. This seems hypocritical. Why am I posting, why pay fees to a Web service except to be out there?

The morning’s KUAF-FM trivia quiz revealed a small minority people want to be the center of attention. I say, admit to want to be the focus. My guess is that nearly everyone craves it, but morals and humility stops it, as does shyness. Those don’t stop the desire.

I have lots to say and, I like to think, interesting ways of expressing those thoughts. Simultaneously, shyness and lots of subtler conflicting emotions creep in.

I would like to think all writers and artists have that to varying degrees, and the more successful ones overcome bashfulness or societal prohibitions.

A couple of years ago at a poetry reading on the Fayetteville campus, the well-known speaker asked the audience, “Who here is a writer?” I sure wasn’t going to raise my hand. I haven’t made much money writing. I haven’t written much, either, by some vague standard. Maybe I wasn’t good enough to be a writer yet.

But a favorite neighbor was sitting next to me. Her husband by any standard is a Writer, capitalized. She grabbed my arm and raised it for me.

“Well, aren’t you?” she said.

“I suppose so,” I replied, then held up my arm without her help.

What I am sometimes is mediocre, but, no writer is always at his best, Maugham more or less said.

When I review my essays I see I repeat myself, but most thinkers actually have just a few themes. All I’m doing is developing themes that keep on coming up because they are favorites, not necessarily deliberate choices, either.

By risking mediocrity and repeating anecdotes and opinions, one thing that comes up is originality.

I prefer my own thoughts, risking quality and novelty, to those of others. I don’t have it in me to deliberately copy or plagiarize.

The use of “deliberately” is deliberate. As a writer I read, listen and watch widely. My wife can tell you I don’t forget much. That stuff gets absorbed. Maybe I refine or refute it and it becomes by common standards original. Some concepts inevitably stick in me intact. Just as inevitably I will spit them out, forgetting their sources, thinking them unique.

That’s when editors come in handy, not to mention my ol’ harshest critic. -30-

Shhh: Fight Club

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

Sunday, July 10, 2005. A few days ago I finished “Fight Club,” by Chuck Palahniuk, and now have seen the DVD. I’ve been dancing around reading more of this extraordinary writer since he was interviewed on NPR, mocking their style more acutely than something on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” or any of several “Saturday Night Live” skits featuring Alec Baldwin’s small businessman Pete Schweaty.

I appreciate the strengths and flaws of his novel “Diary.” His essay collection, “Stranger than Fiction: True Stories,” is well done. Finally, there have been enough recent references to his debut novel “Fight Club,” that I began looking for it. (This is how I often choose books and old movies, when current articles refer to them.)

Funny thing. The book is always sold out. The library’s copies are lost. It’s almost always rented out at the video store, where six years after its 1999 release it remains on the top-dollar Top Renters’ shelves.

I special-ordered the 1996 book, finally, and checked the video aisle every time I was looking for something else. Finally the two-disc set was in.

Go online to Amazon or a general Google search for comments and analysis. I just wanted to note that “Fight Club” in both media likely will go down at the last great satire of the 20th century. This in a half-century of Orwell and Strangelove and Salinger, not to mention John Kennedy Toole and Charles Portis.

You can’t find it because it is that popular. The book I got had a new forward where Palahniuk considers how people have taken the book very seriously. Well, as long as it’s read and seen and people question materialism and modernity, even if they suffer bruises and question restaurant food, no one should complain.

Satire is not opposite-ville. Satire is taking a concept, an idea, then pushing it to its logical conclusion.

We can accept this, and some of us can appreciate the genre, because we know that life gets weird and people are strange, or vice versa. But the best satire can be appreciated on lower levels, that is to say, by taking it as straightforward.

Sure, desperate guys can find a hobby in self-destruction. There’s always been drinking, right? And wars large and miniature. Meanwhile, the straightforward story forces us who don’t see the satire to question plot, motives and characters. Which eventually can amount to the same thing, with luck.

That new introduction, titled “There Was a Book,” offers a peak behind the Wizard’s curtain in Oz. Palahniuk says all he did was gather anecdotes of friends in a writing circle, add a few what-ifs, and viola!

Fiction ain’t autobiography. “Fight Club” is not non-fiction. It’s just maddeningly realistic, both in print and film, even where the two diverge in just a little dialogue and plot points.

I plan to miss Palahniuk’s current novel because summaries and reviews indicate it’s not for me. But I bet I’ll like his next one. -30-