How the North Won

DATELINE MIRTHOLOGY — News item: The Fort Smith National Historic Site will host a reenactment of the Confederate occupation of Fort Smith from 1861-63 on Saturday. … Union soldiers abandoned the garrison at Fort Smith on April 23, 1861, leaving the fort open to Arkansas state troops. Union forces recaptured the fort in September 1863.

Pvt. B: Now what? How long have we been here?

Pvt. D: Feels like two years and a summer, but maybe just since Friday.

B: Got nothing to do, and it’s still hot, and there’s mosquitoes.

D: It’s just us Confederates and the townsfolk, and they’ve got their stores and taverns, and we’ve got sticky old decks of cards. The North must be occupied up or down a piece. They left, and really left us alone.

B: Want to play Army?

D: We did that. Go to Belle Point, you said. Let’s skip stones in the Arkansas River. Then we got conscripted.

B: But not before a few rounds of throwing the old Frisbee.

D: That was good. Too bad it you flicked it into the Poteau River.

B: Yeah. This fort’s dead. Let’s bike to the Mall.

Row Your Boat Ashore

I’m vacationing in Lebanon, using this time to get up to speed on Facebook. How’s Arkansas treating you? Let me know when you can. Bye, Michael”

This came last August. I had just joined Facebook as well. After seven months, I figured out a reply.

I delayed writing for two reasons. One, Michael, is because you always ask these questions. Anyone else, and the answer can be, “Arkansas has been great.” But at college you with that warm, interested gaze intended your questions to be considered thoughtfully with a superficial answer being almost an insult to you.

The other reason I realized this week was envy. Yes, one of the seven deadlies.

One of the great things about Facebook is its ability to find people. Michael was a good friend at Stanford from sophomore year through graduation, when we lost contact.

Michael is intensely brilliant and in college studied Portuguese so he could work at a multinational corporation in Brazil. I don’t know how far he got in that early plan, only that he now is a respected professor in Britain. I guess anyone would be impressed, not just me.

My first memory of him is of an early conversation with him asking, “Ben, what is it like to grow up in Arkansas?” and I replied that with no neutral basis of comparison, no reliable answer is possible. “I am not my own control group,” I said, which I’ve restated many times since, for other circumstances. Michael insisted, kindly and with no hint of patronizing, that he really wanted to know. I tried to tell him. In later visits we’d piece together more. He told me of Connecticut and well-to-do neighbors and how his father was a top executive at a major food corporation. I tried to describe Fort Smith, its school system, the variety of childhood friends, and how and where I flourished and flailed. He got as much of that as I did about him Back East. If he visualized (in hindsight) Sling Blade, then I imagined The Ice Storm.

Michael could talk about the potential of multinationals and I about reporting and editing at The Stanford Daily, and it was par. The envy would be that Michael really could land a job in Brazil while my chance for an entry-level job at The Washington Post was pretty laughable.

The thing about envy — and the other cardinals as well — is their possibility. For most of the 10 Commandments, effort is needed, say to murder or steal. For any of the Seven Deadlies all a person has to do is exist. You don’t envy things that are impossible, just the things you could do, at least theoretically. I could have angled for a career in high business, one with an exotic flair. That puts things in perspective: I would not want that life. But switching to business and finding internships and mentors in finance or management, yeah, could’ve.

The Seven Deadlies are not sins except when in excess. Every one drives us into being better people.

  • Envy: Fascination with what the other fellow has sharpens your own goals: What do you really want?
  • Greed: I must have fast Internet access, a cell phone and cable TV. There’s a lot of other things that’d be nice to own. Not even the “must’s” are needed, but any of which get me to work, almost on time, every day.
  • Wrath: Knowing what you dislike is just as important as naming what you like. Acting on it turns anger to useful energy. Letting wrath fester, well that is a sin.
  • Pride: Without gaining skills then acknowledging with some glee that yes you can, you won’t.
  • Gluttony: Why not finish the bag of chips? It’s a weekly treat, not a daily fix. The downside to satiety is boredom, not to mention debt.
  • Sloth: Know when to knock off for the night and that some days have more energy than others. The other six deadlies usually keep sloth from taking over.
  • Lust: Venturing out amid the beauty of the world gives one reasons to bathe and not slouch, to listen and not assume, to make the most of life with one’s mate.

If Michael and I were to talk now, we’d quickly learn of one another’s triumphs but also tragedies or just setbacks and shocks. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn he might have envied me then. What would he have fancied? I likely had more fun day in and out on campus than he, though we both were nerds.

How’s Arkansas treating me? Michael, it’s been great. Can’t speak for the future, but it has been what I thought I wanted and seemed to have needed. You should visit. It will be what you expect along with some unexpected disappointments but with many more features that will surprise you, with a touch of envy.

Your friend,

Free Blockheads

Copyright 2009 Ben S. Pollock

A newsmagazine commentary from a couple of weeks ago stopped me cold. I still think about it, in a similar way a comic panel from last year comes up, which has put me off Outback’s Bloomin’ Onions. These are like cloying old songs that once heard reverberate for days within the skull.

Speaking of skulls, let’s discuss blockheads, as considered by the venerable Samuel Johnson:

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

For a long time I fully agreed, only that it didn’t yet apply to me, making me a blockhead, a fool. Brick obviously has no money behind it. Or in front, either. I’ve been paid for writing only a few times per century. Oh, there’s been indirect compensation, writing a column a week while editing the other 35-39 hours. For putting up with such an arrangement, Dr. Johnson would kick people like me out of the coffee house. I wonder if that’s how pubs came to flourish, when the English coffee houses emptied for want of compensated scribes.

Noting someone named Francis Wilkinson agrees with Dr. Johnson does not raise the former to the latter. Earlier in March he wrote in The Week magazine more than 800 words what the good doctor accomplished in 10. I see Wilkinson’s point, and even though it is wrong, Continue reading

Charette Baby

The City of Fayetteville invites all of the public to participate in the Fayetteville Forward Summit. The summit will run from March 31 through April 4, 2009, and consists of a two day collaborative process.”

This email is being distributed, chain-mail like, to every civic group and church group (it even was sent to my synagogue, probably the latter category for them). I was trying to move the five days listed into the two days promised and got stymied. Checking the official Web site for Fayetteville Forward just made me more confused. Day One is three days long. Day Two therefore must be two days long. They may overlap.

Let’s all take time to study the schedule. When read a third time it makes sense. If you have time to comb through the bureaucratese — “the FF summit seeks to build on and connect previous work including City Plan 2025, the Eva Klein study, UACDC Light Continue reading

Irish-style Soda Bread

Traditional Irish soda bread consists just of flour, buttermilk, salt and baking soda. Americans added sugar, raisins and sometimes caraway seed. Soda bread gets stale in a day and crumbles when you try to slice it. The New York Times in March 2007 discussed this here , with an improved recipe here, which makes a single loaf of skillet-baked bread. It’s light on the oil and isn’t too sweet, either.

It makes one pan. But if you’re making a mess, why not two loaves and take one to work? So below is my modification: Continue reading

Blog, Column Contest Ends Sunday

The 2009 deadline of a long-running column-writing contest, now open to bloggers, is less than a week away. Entries for the seven categories of the annual contest of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists need to have a postmark — or time-stamp — of Sunday, March 15.

Five of the categories are traditional: humor and general-interest columns published in either large or small newspapers, with the fifth being for items or “dot-dot-dot” columns. This year the NSNC has broadened the online column category to pieces published on any Web site, not just those of newspapers. Blogs have been added for the seventh category. Sample columns must have been published or posted in 2008. Rules and the entry form can be downloaded here.

Not the usual Brick, eh? I’m just giving a shout-out to folks who might be interested. As a matter of fact, I have submitted a blog and a online-column entry and fees for both. I know I’ll get beat, but I want to lose to the best, and that’s possible only with millions and millions of competitors. Come get me.