Mock of the Mockingbird

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

“[Russ A. Charif, a research biologist at Cornell Lab of Ornithology,] said after his talk that the ‘kent’ sounds alone were not conclusive because scientists could not completely rule out a blue jay mimicking the sound of an ivory bill. …” — The New York Times, Aug. 25, 2005.

Yeah, right. I’ve read this story in a few different spots — my Democrat-Gazette flew (pun intended) a correspondent to California to cover this section of the American Ornithologists’ Union meeting — yet no reporter asked follow-up questions. Such as:

From where did the (apparently unsighted) blue jay pick up the “kent” call of the last-seen-70-years-ago ivory-billed woodpecker? Q.E.D., or do I have to put in all the missing steps? Sheesh, peckerwoods, as we used to say in Fort Smith.

Mimics are long gone from the late-night TV variety show so maybe we’re not used to thinking about it. (Leno, Letterman et al aren’t truly talk shows; “variety show” is nicer than “shill show” as essentially all their guests appear only to promote their latest what-evers.) Whither Rich Little and Frank Gorshin? Rich doesn’t get the big stages in Vegas any more, and Frank’s dead. The answer is where are the actors with unique voices? No movie or TV (live) actor (or actress) under 50 has a discernible voice, this side of Sarah Vowell and Holly Hunter or maybe Christian Slater and Adam Sandler.

You pick up the phone and Reese Witherspoon is making a prank call, “Hi, this is Lindsay Lohan”; you wouldn’t know the difference.

And you, you pick up the phone and Brad Pitt is on the horn as a practical joke, “Hi, this is Johnny Depp.” You couldn’t tell one from the other just on the phone — and, ladies, don’t say either will do.

Blue jays picked up the sound of the ivory bill that differentiates it from pileateds — from a loudspeaker in the rowboat of the Cornell boys? No, they carried only recording equipment — and insect repellent. -30-

Short-term (newspaper) memory

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

Sunday, Aug. 21, 2005. Saturday, in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas the local column of my old Little Rock colleague Doug Thompson (an earnest journalist, sardonic in conversation) wrote glibly and at times carelessly of Wehco Media purchasing from Community Publishers the assets of the Benton County Daily Record, Northwest Arkansas Times and nearby weekly newspapers. It made me wish that this business decision not drop into the infantile name-calling seen after the Arkansas Gazette ceased in 1991. That persists in the same way some conservatives still take pokes at Bill Clinton years after he left office. It’s ironic, given that the left does the newspaper-bashing in this state.

The executive editor of the Northwest Arkansas Times, Greg Harton (whom I’ve enjoyed knowing as a solid and witty journalist for five years) today writes a positive analysis. Greg emphasizes that the publisher, Walter Hussman Jr., told us in person Friday that all the papers would remain independent, and that he has been a man of his word.

My Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Northwest Edition abundantly covers regional news and regularly beams in on certain local issues, but it does not cover the day-to-day of the area’s four major cities and the nearby towns as closely as the Daily Record of Bentonville and Times of Fayetteville, with which it was in a partnership five years, until last week.

By its structure, history and intent, no edition of the Demzette can be local outside of Little Rock. Being distributed along with the Daily Record in the north and the Times in the south has been an obviously successful choice. The debt is paid in full, Hussman said.

The Northwest Demzette naked looks and feels like the “Little Rock paper” to regular readers, judging by the ones who’ve discussed this. (People in stores or lobbies find out you’re “with the paper,” no matter which one, and they start in on you. It’s not like you ever have to look for a party conversation topic: “Your paper” is heaved at you like a medicine ball.)

While it has a full quota of state-government news and a balance of news from elsewhere in the state, this edition has little Little Rock news. It feels, however, like the Capital Newspaper both to the casual reader and the longtime Ozarks subscriber. Why, it’s in the first name, Arkansas.

When my barber harangues about local politics, he will quote something from “my paper,” “local paper” or “city paper.” I say, noting its name, “You mean the Fayetteville Morning News,” the zoned TMN since September 2000. He cusses and says, “No, the Times.” He does not dislike TMN, but the Times faithfully covers his city. He and others will acknowledge the Demzette’s comprehensive area-to-world coverage, if sometimes chagrined by its conservative editorials on national affairs.

The telling independence of the editorial pages of the two local dailies encourages the vastly different mass personalities of Benton and Washington counties, and they do have them. The Times’ editorials read like Fayetteville: liberal, environmentally attuned yet growth-oriented (naturally at times contradictory). Bentonville’s unsigned opinion page endorses multinational corporate (read Wal-Mart) rationales at the same time citing small-town morals, while occasionally surprising me with its sensitive progressiveness.

Where are the junior high sports scores and the school lunch menus but the little local papers? Besides, neither the Demzette nor Daily Record — nor the milquetoast Morning News — would run a three-page feature as the Times did today on the local drag queen scene, with 13 color photos in the print edition. The three would have different reasons.

For the Demzette to encompass all of this in its Northwest Edition would be among other things expensive, when the separate infrastructures have been right there all along.

I bet Hussman’s promise is good. -30-

Unintentional humor

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

Friday, Aug. 19, 2005: The latest innovation in Internet advertising is a boon to humor columnists.

Maybe it’s not the absolute newest improvement but now widespread is a customization factor: You open a newspaper Web site’s article on, for example, gardening, and a couple of ads on the same page will be from companies in landscaping or mail-order bulbs.

The boon for wits is irony. James Lileks up in Minneapolis wrote in his newspaper column last week about drip coffee makers, inventing their evolution to being drippy messes no matter what innovations. Below the copy are two ads for coffee makers. If the retailers only knew.

Jon Carroll of San Francisco just wrote about modern funerals comprising mostly upbeat eulogies. His take was he wants people to miss him, not celebrate his memory when he goes — wailing would be nice, to him, in this soft but effective satire. One ad on this column is a shopping spot for condolence gifts, and the other offers lessons in dealing with grief.

I haven’t researched this thoroughly, but when you click onto a plane crash story, do Orbitz and Travelocity pop up?

OK. No plane crash stories on the S.F. Chron’s sfgate.com. But the slaying of a 90-year-old monk in Europe brought an ad on how to buy a list of area sex offenders. (This had nothing to do with that.)

An article about joint Russian-Chinese military exercises brought up an ad on dating Russian women and another on where to buy Chinese military equipment (!?).

Back to Lileks’ Star-Tribune: Its Northwest-union negotiations did bring up an Expedia ad on good fares from that airline. Its article on Israel closing Gaza settlements brings an ad that says “Order Israeli food online.”

You can’t make this stuff up. Maybe humor columnists can’t improve on it. -30-

Introduction or transition?

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2005. News item: Not now. “News item” is a decades-old method to prepare the reader for an essay or column, especially a humorous one, whose subject, or just an allusion used in it, may be borderline obscure. If it truly is obscure, we wouldn’t use it, would we? We writers, you see, are trying not to be patronizing, as in, “You idiot, if you had a decent education, just through high school even, and remembered a third of it, and you skim a newspaper a few times a week or see a newscast all the way through (OK to “mute” the commercials), you’d already know X, and I the writer wouldn’t risk killing the joke just to lead you by the hand through it.”

Online yesterday I saw an editorial cartoon about the unveiling of Watergate’s Deep Throat, in which the figure “Narcissus” is mentioned in a bubble of dialogue. Who these days recalls Narcissus. Some smart people I know, middle-aged and younger, wouldn’t remember. The more connected of those folks would try to figure it out: “narcissistic … oh, Narcissus must the root from Latin or something.” That’s good enough. It’s still striking that a working cartoonist today would make the reference when so many of us creators or our editors avoid mythological or classical references.

Over the weekend, in the Brick below, I faced a comparable dilemma: Do I spell out the “If a tree falls” rhetorical question, or assume that most or some of the Brick’s readers are familiar with it.

I worked myself over on this. It’s why some months I lay few Bricks, deciding how much to include, knowing full well that I either deflate a punch line (if it’s any good in the first place), or just anger readers who do know better.

I just sent out a freelance piece on the ivory-billed woodpecker. We’re all familiar with that around here because the scientifically confirmed sighting of the once-thought-extinct creature occurred in another part of Arkansas. Articles have appeared nationwide; The New York Times has run a good number over the summer. But the subject is obscure, details about this saga more vague. My “News item” ran almost 200 words. Those nine sentences are just a fifth of the essay, but “news item” prefaces in the S.J. Perelman style run only a paragraph. I sent in the piece, thinking that an editor would know better than me the audience’s overall knowledge and could whack it to size in seconds. More likely, an editor would reject my piece for the opener.

My decision in the Aug. 13 Brick was to include the original “tree falls” reference. The reason was that my twist on it did not follow the original closely so it might be missed by the casual or hurried reader. That’s right, no Mirthology/Loose Leaflet/Brick reader is stupid. We’re just distracted. -30-

Go, Hogs, Quickly

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

Saturday, Aug. 13, 2005: News item: The Razorback football team of the University of Arkansas is ending a decades-old tradition of open practice. Starting this summer, the sessions will be closed to the public in general and the press in particular.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to observe it, has the tree really fallen?

If football players work out and no reporters are allowed in to see them, will the Razorbacks be in any shape come fall? -30-

Eek! A Thing

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2005: It’s only taken three decades to admit I’m a Westerner. That is, I began reading about Eastern religions in my pre-teen years. (It was the late 1960s and the Beatles were into the Maharishi, all reported in Time, Life and the Arkansas Gazette, received at the house.) My wife of late has been reading about Asia and its religions and cultures so I’ve been remembering my earlier and later conclusions.

None of those is crisp enough for writing as yet.

Still, last midnight in my bathroom after work, the main cat Tiki came to visit but ran out. Gentle Tiki is a former stray and is scared of no humans and precious little else. I looked around and behind the toilet was a filling Terminex insect monitor. This is a generic “Roach Motel” that we’re using for camelback crickets, which have invaded the lower level of our house, Shady Hill.

Besides dead crickets, I quickly saw a large mass. At first it looked like a large garden slug (which are dark gray here in the Ozarks). What would that be doing in the house?

Then it blinked.

Slugs don’t do that.

It looked like a stubby, baby snake. Maybe it had gone after a cricket, through the crawlspace, and got itself stuck in the glue on the cardboard. Its head was free but that was it, and barely alive.

My options seemed minimal. Kill it in mercy, but how? Just put it in the outside garbage can, but that seemed more heartless. Pull it off the trap and injure it further? Cruel. I decided to put the trap and the critter in the grass near the carport door. Maybe that would spur it to pull itself out, damaging itself less than my heavy fingers, or even to be mercifully eaten by a possum or bird. Plus, I worried it was not a harmless garden snake and it would bite me.

This morning I looked first thing. Indeed the animal had pulled about three-quarters of its six-inch body out — but it was still and its mouth hung open. No fangs. Plus two forelegs were out of the glue: Not a snake but a lizard of some sort. I looked again and the mouth had shut though the eyes were vacant.

With two twigs I rocked its body out of the trap. It fell onto last fall’s leaves. I poured a little water from a nearby bucket on it. That might revive it. It went halfway under a brown oak leaf. I turned to get another scoop of water and found the lizard had disappeared. Victory!

Who knows if its little legs would work well enough to give it something of a life, or if they were broken in its struggle, followed by my giant-like intervention. Have a good life, little guy. But couldn’t you have turned around and thanked me?

That impulse is why I must resign myself to being an incorrigible Occidental. A pious Oriental Buddhist would have gone on living life, and helping other creatures as he or she came across them. -30-