Bowled Over

February flies by, and not just because it’s a couple of days shorter than other months. Here in Arkansas the weather at the end of the month is worse than the beginning, marked by the Super Bowl on Sunday the 3rd. Like the other 49 states, prit’ near all of us watch the game, or at least had the set on while we went about our Sunday evening usuals.

First lady Betty Ford tosses football to President Gerald Ford at Bethesda Naval Hospital in October 1974, following her surgery for breast cancer.
First lady Betty Ford tosses football to President Gerald Ford at Bethesda Naval Hospital in October 1974, following her surgery for breast cancer.
Credit Ford Presidential Library

Like other households with no geographic interest in either Baltimore’s Ravens or San Francisco’s 49ers, we enjoyed the commercials as much the game. Super Bowl ads are the most expensive, so they are the most rigorously produced. We viewers try to figure out where the money went on the bad ones, and often marvel at the clever spots.

Many ads will be shown repeatedly until the next Super Bowl, as advertisers attempt to justify their marketing costs. Every year, though, some ads may not be rebroadcast, not because they’re ineffective or offensive but because they’re sponsored sermons, not product promotions, at least directly. For example, the most talked-about one from 2012 was Detroit’s Valentine from Chrysler, narrated by Clint Eastwood.

As this year’s game droned on — a good long fight, Ravens 34-31, including the electrical failure dimming the stands in the third quarter — a common commercial theme arose: The America That Once Was. The common message was, America Can Be That Way Again. The common sense comprised, Who Ya Foolin’?

No Monday morning quarterback — until Mad Men returns to AMC on Sunday nights in April — I hesitated columning about this. Then last week a stats-driven critique was published by a Michigan news media group. The article, “Ram’s ‘Farmer’ Super Bowl Ad Tops 2013 Ad Blitz; Three Auto Brands Make List,” show the issue remained lively.

Three spots stood out.

I. Oprah Winfrey starred in another Super Bowl ad. She had played David Letterman’s foil for potato chips in 2007 then in 2010.

In a two-minute spot sponsored by Jeep (rather than selling Jeep vehicles), “Jeep: America Will Be Whole Again,” Winfrey spoke for military families who pray for their service member to come home soon, and healthy.

Of course they do, but America as a whole continues to stand as the world’s policeman, its Armed Forces having left Iraq, still in Afghanistan to return it to stability, and for 11 and a half years, fighting what can only be a perpetual War on Terrorism. Families may want their young back, but America — both right and left — wants them to stay out there, risking their lives in a hostile world.

II. For days after the ball game, Facebook glowed with links to Budweiser’s “Brotherhood” spot. That’s the one where the handsome horse farmer raises a Clydesdale in bucolic surroundings with no other livestock, and in seconds guides it onto a truck to join the beer company’s draft horse team. Months pass, and after a show in Chicago the horse runs down the famed Miracle Mile to nuzzle his first human dad.

That reunion recalled Brokeback Mountain, where a man says to the love of his life, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

Even grown-ups like me like fairy tales, but no child who’s over Santa Claus can think “Brotherhood” even remotely realistic.

Even as I marveled at the beauty of this minute novel — I just clicked on the ad and choked up again, dammit — I wondered at its point. It’s not quite a sermon but not selling beer either. The Clydesdale draft horses long have been the brewer’s mascot, on screen and displayed at state fairs and the like. That’s where I’ve seen them up close, absolutely wondrous, gigantic, proud creatures.

Budweiser and its advertising experts are propelling an aspect of the American mythos. This one may not hurt us, but it doesn’t move matters along, either.

The worry is how much people believe this story might be close to what they believe or hope to be the truth.

III. “Page 3,” as the late, great Paul Harvey would say. Tulsa-born Harvey (1918-2009) was an incredible radio commentator. Not a journalist, he delivered the news nationally on ABC Radio for decades, along with reading its commercials and interspersing calm, modest — in contrast to these Rush Limbaugh days — moments of politically conservative commentary. I grew up hearing him on Fort Smith’s old KFSA-AM.

In 1978, Harvey gave a speech titled “God Made a Farmer.” Two minutes of that talk were incorporated a sermon spot from Dodge Ram, accompanied by images of America’s heartland and its people. It celebrated the Emersonian/Jeffersonian farm. Even if you include area chicken houses operated under the strict management of Tyson Foods, it’s just not like that anymore.

While not generally a conservative, I have long admired Harvey. Years ago, Salon.com set out to mock him in a profile, but the article “The Finest Huckster Ever to Roam the Airwaves” came out subdued and respectful.

Recycling a dead guy can be unseemly. Harvey’s family obviously approved this; in fact, I think he would’ve loved it.

But the family farm, as Harvey described it 35 years ago was a storybook rarity then and even less common now. Agribusiness produces food — grains and produce, poultry and livestock, and fish — in America.

The United States needs a reliable and inexpensive food supply. Efficiency accomplishes this, and we have to applaud that.

The greed that funds the efficiency, that you have to watch out for.

Even the climate-change-neutralizing organic sustainable methods won’t fly economically unless they’re appealing to the conglomerates.

Dodge Ram pickup trucks will not get promoted by moving toward realism, but reading online the pride that friends and acquaintances felt over this again was worrisome. I researched data about modern agriculture to summarize for this column, when comic Will Ferrell’s Funny Or Die outfit produced a parody of this ad. This bit, “God Made a Factory Farmer,” also about two minutes long, contains what the facts that need attention.

Pathetically, instead of mimicking Harvey’s memorable baritone, it mocks it and his fans with a nasal sneer, apparently the voice of its creator Nick Wiger. Maybe when Wiger grows up, he’ll learn how to create enduring, effective satire.

I live in Arkansas, to a great extent because of its rural beauty. While you can’t fill in Super Bowl time-outs with documentaries, sugar-coating the issues of the day helps people forget about them. That leads to ignorance and bad decisions. How about them tomatoes?

Copyright 2013 Ben S. Pollock

As Good As It Goetz

The conversation began with me telling the handyman, who remembered I was some sort of writer, that I was going to report on Friday afternoon’s state legislators’ forum. Both social media and some news media noted that a likely topic would be the proposals to expand where concealed handguns could be carried, specifically colleges and houses of worship.

Time Magazine, April 8, 1985, click for details(Only he’s not quite a handyman. I’m covering his identity, but the fellow was someone hired to do some work at the house. Call him Handy.)

He asked me my opinion, on the campus bill. I hesitated, as that day I was a straight journalist disinclined to opine. But to draw him out, I said a law like that would “open a can of worms.”

That line is on the near side of neutral, yes, but it worked. We had an amiable discussion.

I was surprised he disagreed. Surely one could be quite the squirrel or deer hunter but still worry about the risk that guns might entail, even when carried under the jackets of licensed persons, in a setting such as the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville with its “10s of thousands of people from everywhere,” as I phrased it with a hope to provoke.

Well, Handy hunts rabbits not squirrel. He lives for the annual extended-family deer hunting trip that he’s gone on since a boy. Yes, he said, if he had a kid in college he’d want him packing.

(Actually, the bill presented in Little Rock would allow only faculty and staff with concealed-carry licenses to bring handguns to their universities and colleges, public and private. The bill this week has been amended to allow their trustees to choose whether to allow concealed carry.

(Want a permit? Complete a 5-8 hour training course, submit fingerprints and application, and await the background check. Oh, pay the state $147.25.)

Handy has shot guns since very young, and he’s comfortable with all kinds, handguns to shotguns and semiautomatics. As an adult he keeps them locked up back at the house with the ammunition separate.

He wanted me to know that the media have it wrong, that dealers at gun shows have to run background checks just the same as gun stores. He said it was just private sales at gun shows that don’t fall under the federal Brady law, and, “really, how could they check them?”

What happens, he said, is while regular people trade with one another, some dealers have their booths sectioned off as retail and “personal collection.” For items on the the former they run backgrounds and on the latter directly take the cash. Handy thinks that’s fine.

Handy is a big fan of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which “allows people fearing great harm to retaliate with deadly force,” as The New York Times summarized it in an article about George Zimmerman, who one year ago shot the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Handy wishes Arkansas had a similar law.

Handy keeps a gun in the glove box of each of his two pickups. He doesn’t need to now, he supposed, but not too many years ago he ran a business where he had to take the day’s deposits to the bank every evening. He wanted to be ready should someone walk up to his truck and rob him. That never happened.

“Just let someone try to hold me up,” he said. He’s sure he’d be freed on self-defense, but could live honorably if he had to serve some time. (That’s how I interpreted his hints at getting into a “little trouble” as a teen.)

This didn’t bother me for the longest while. I felt comfortable with his philosophy. I’ve been close to men and women like him all my life.

But I kept thinking about it.

Robberies, muggings we used to call them, remain far more likely than a crazed psycho blasting through a classroom or professor’s office. Also way more likely are home invasions, break-ins we used to call them.

For decades we Americans have armed ourselves with pepper spray, knives, baseball bats, dangerous but less-so. Some of us have firearms at the ready. Quite a number, however, were taught to let the crime happen then remember details to tell police who then would do the job we taxpayers trained and hired them to do.

Reputable self-defense classes and traditional martial arts schools all teach students that Rule 1 is avoid trouble, 2 is flee and only if cornered fight.

But what we’ve been hearing for some time now is a far more aggressive defense: On the least provocation, attack. Mistakes are not a concern.

This is where expanding concealed-carry to churches and campuses fits in today’s discourse, despite a stunning lack of hard data that would show increasing armed civilians reduces the number of property and personal crimes. And that prowling posses can be proven to scare nutters into never leaving their rooms.

We do have serious numbers about gun casualties.

If we knew each other three decades ago, would Handy and I have talked about Bernard Goetz, who in 1981 felt threatened on a New York City subway and shot four young men? None died from their wounds.

This was a time of rather high crime, both personal and property incidents, and apparently of less readily available automatic weapons. Goetz was in prison eight months.

But the 21st century is seeing continued decreases in crime in these United States despite the money troubles and anxiety caused by the Good Depression.

What if Handy left a pair of pliers in my house? Knowing what I do now, would I run up to his truck as he leaves my driveway, wave my arms and tap on the pickup to get his attention?

I’d rather not.

Copyright 2013 Ben S. Pollock

Brick Endorses …

I don’t get this stuff about sports­man­ship. You play to win, don’t you? Say I’m play­ing short and Mother is on first and the bat­ter sin­gles to right. Mother comes fast around sec­ond with the win­ning run — Mother will have to go down. I’ll help her up, dust her off and say, ‘Mom, I’m sorry, but it was an acci­dent’ but she won’t of scored. Nobody asks how you hap­pened to lose. All they want to know is did you win. If I’m spit­ting at a crack in the wall for nick­els I still want to win. Any­body can come in sec­ond. Nice guys fin­ish last.”

— Util­ity infielder Leo Durocher, quoted in Non­con­for­mity by Nel­son Algren

Early voting in Arkansas ends in a few hours. But the big day still awaits, so enthusiastic endorsements are not a bit too late. Print this and bring it to the polls Tuesday.

If you’ve already voted, you need not read further: Don’t tax yourself.

“Tax yourself,” stated in the positive or the negative, need not be taken as a political endorsement.

Now that I’m free from the yoke of full-time employment, I’m concurrently free from the yoke of neutrality. I can endorse politicians for elective office.

First: Grassroots organizations rarely are. Follow the money, and if that’s not as obvious as, perhaps, the About page of their websites, assume their backers are professionals and therefore sneaky. Such groups, though, sometimes are good for the cause, region or country.

Second: They’re all politicians, especially those who campaign that they’re not. And to what point? Do you want leaders closer to the quaintness of self-taught artists or the confidence of college-educated physicians?

Third: Candidates whom supporters call nice, as a top attribute, need only be a hair nicer than their opponents. Is “nice” a sufficient qualification for someone to doggedly defend your interests?

After those appetizers, I’m itching to tell everyone how to vote, and how I’ve come to these brilliant conclusions. Those who don’t know me well may be surprised — I’ve got picks from both major parties. Also, I’ll be voting Green in one spot.

However. As I was drafting brilliant sentences over the past week, especially about two races, a nested question squirted out: Why would I tell the world how I think on the various elections / what impact up or down from such a public account happens to me personally / what impact on the ballots would my conclusion have?

DiamondBrands Greenlight™ Strike Anywhere Kitchen MatchesMy giving personal political opinions won’t help or hurt me at this point. Friends and family will still care for me as much as they ever do. The hirers of current and former journalists (whatever I am) see what Google already spews of and about me. Most of my stuff of recent years has been contained in my strike-anywhere Brick. The free-range blog helps in some instances and works against my interests in others. I wouldn’t take a word of Brick back, even those morsels that I don’t feel as strongly about anymore, or at best find incautious. Maybe I’ve changed my mind with some; doubt it. That I like some candidates over others matters less than my milking humor (or mere ruminations) from other sacred cows. So why endorse?

My powers of persuasion are minimal, as are those of most essaysts. Let’s face it, online dandies, we entertain. At best we provoke.

The larger voices have little impact, too. For all of the publicity in the last two weeks of prominent newspapers making their presidential endorsements, these are long known to have little impact. Here is a list of such pronouncements. Check them against the winner Wednesday.

Some free time in these last few weeks, however has been spent reading the impassioned opinions of other columnists. Actually, I skim them. The ones that I read through are the thoughtful analyses, like John Avlon‘s, even-handed yet strong.

For me to have made a thorough review of the contested circuit judge seat or the guys running for mayor, satisfying my requirements as my own exacting editor, would’ve required resources and drive, plus the optimism that what I think matters.

For me, election endorsements come to mere ego. Don’t get me wrong: I love ego or pride or vanity — it and the other six deadly sins get your virtuous butt out of bed every morning.

As for my three points at the top, for heavens sake, they come down to: Vote as if you’re hiring someone. Can they do the job or not? That includes a president and the staff they’ll likely bring — it has little to do with if you favor their pronouncements.

Still, I itch to say something personal. Anyone who wants to know how I’m voting, call me for a coffee.

The wisest words may come from this 10-minute video from the raja of sagacity, Robert Benchley:

Armistice Daze

While watching a local 9/11 commemoration Tuesday, a curious thought came to me, “What day was Osama bin Laden killed?” Did anyone in the audience know?

I didn’t know, myself.

When the Al-Qaida leader met his fusillade of bullets is the smaller query. The larger one is, Why does America obsess over its setbacks or defeats or, at best, beginnings, more than victories or culminations?

As a career daily journalist, I know firsthand the grief thrown from readers if coverage of Pearl Harbor Day is deemed insufficient.

You know, Dec. 7. Not to mention, 1941.

Victory in Europe and Victory in Japan days no longer are marked on most calendars. Still, most newspapers with their aging readerships have a photo or brief article with those, 67 years later. May 13 for the former and Aug. 14 the latter. My progressive community has a solemn annual ceremony for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, earlier in August.

Armistice or Veterans Day could be the exception proving the rule. World War I concluded then, perhaps aided by its mnemonic: 11th hour, 11th month, 11th day. Here, the beginning of WWI, either the shooting of the archduke or the U.S. entry into the action, are lost to most of us, without an excursion into the Wikipedia.

Civil War — When did the generals meet at the Appomattox Courthouse? Maybe its spot on calendars is missing because it was a victory only for part of the country.

The War of Independence. We celebrate July Fourth, which was no tragedy. Indeed, the Revolution began well before the signers gathered in the hall in Philadelphia (Concord, some 14 months earlier). But when was Yorktown, when the British surrendered? Hurrah hurray! Oct. 19, 1781. Or the new Congress ratifying the Treaty of Paris in 1784. (“Senators, this clause mocks our new republic! Strike it and send the parchment back to London, at once on your fastest schooner! Hurry. We’ll reconvene in eight months.”)

So here sits Pearl Harbor, the devastating surprise attack on thousands in Hawaii. And there stood until Sept. 11, 2001, the World Trade Center towers, a side of the Pentagon and a smooth field in Pennsylvania.

It’s not an official holiday, but familiar to most is Nov. 22, as in 1963.

Memorial Day honors the fallen of all wars, marked soon after the end of the Civil War. Appomattox by the way was April 9, 1865, Lincoln being shot five days later.

Britain has essentially no public holidays directly concerning wars or attacks. Canada only honors Armistice Day, as Remembrance Day. Mexico honors a few victories and some declarations; Cinco de Mayo is a victory day. Hurrah, hurray.

There seem to be no specific, widely known days marking any part of the War of 1812 and the Spanish-American War; Korea and Vietnam; and Iraq I, Iraq II or Afghanistan.

What causes the U.S.A.’s obsession with Sept. 11 and Dec. 7? These were days of humiliation and horror.

For the latter, victory came following years of risky effort. For the former and the two wars it spurred, there is no victory in George II’s Iraq War II, which we’ve been told has ended. The decade-long military effort in Afghanistan — whose goal was to hunt Al-Qaida leaders more often than not in Pakistan — is scheduled to end in 2014.

Soccer’s World Cup also is scheduled for 2014. Gooooooal !!!

I have no conclusion to this American compulsion, other than a hunch we collectively feel just a bit guilty over our long-lived good fortune, to have made democracy thrive.

Answering my own question: May 2, 2011. I won’t remember that date but always will recall the hour and where I was: Around 10:30 p.m. Central at the Fayetteville Town Center, for a concert of hometown star Lucinda Williams. She had just concluded, and the crowd was waiting for her encore. Stage lights stayed up, but the band took forever to return.

Lucinda stood at her mike to announce the news. Knowing it sounded like a joke or a rumor, she then explained musicians and crew were backstage and watched on TV President Barack Obama’s announcement of bin Laden’s slaying.

Then they chose the ideal encore:

Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” rocked harder and faster than here:

Column Copyright 2012 Ben S. Pollock Jr.

Johnny Be Good, Or Not

Although it’s been a couple of weeks, my mind turns back, about midnight on the weeknights since, to the PBS biography of comedian Johnny Carson. That two-hour documentary had everything — we viewers learned a lot about an American cultural icon — but for me it went two steps too far.

Watch Johnny Carson: King of Late Night on PBS. See more from American Masters.

(At the above window, you can see this program. It’s two hours long. Maybe over the weekend or sometime?)

Of course I watched it, having been fascinated since childhood with this kind of variety show.

The lesser wayward move was seeing way too many minutes on Carson’s relationship with his mother, Ruth. This is a decent Protestant, Midwestern family. For our hero, being born in 1925, the embedded memories of his childhood span the hardest years of the Great Depression.

The mom gave and took away — probably no different from parents at the time or even now — gave him a book that explained how to perform basic card tricks and other elementary magic. She obviously allowed him to perform in the area while a teenager. Yet for the rest of her long life she consistently would not be the one to give him a swell head. She saw him grow famous, in other words, and if a monologue fell flat, she told him — when he asked.

This documentary all but states Mother and her negativity weighted him down. It very well might have, but not so much as to make him fail. Lots of mothers have treated their eventually successful sons far worse. Lots of adults with either kinder and crueler mothers suffer humdrum lives, for an infinity of reasons.

Failing a Freudian or Oedipal explanation, the filmmaker moves to his second theory.

The Carson biography’s narrator (actor Kevin Spacey) even voiced that step, the words of the filmmaker, Peter Jones — the point of his work was to find Carson’s “Rosebud.” Through years of research, Jones says, he wanted to find the totem that motivated this television giant. (For Charles Foster Kane, in Orson Welles’ movie,  Citizen Kane, Rosebud was the brand of a sled the child Kane loved.)

For Johnny?

Jones points to that book of card tricks, showing it to us as a still photo, repeatedly.

He says the book was the key of Carson’s success, both literally as it provided the basis of his neighborhood shows as a teen and figuratively as the singular kindness of his mother.

Maybe may not, and so what? This pocket of the country, within years of Carson’s birth, also provided Henry Fonda and Marlon Brando — and Dick Cavett. Rosebud simply could’ve been some key minerals in the waters of Nebraska and Iowa. Or inhaling the particulates from the Dust Bowl in formative years. No Rosebud can explain the thousands of others born in the Plains who lived far less glamorous lives.

This PBS program didn’t need the props, neither the fixation on what Mother Ruth did or didn’t do (unless she acted or spoke to extremes, which Jones would’ve pounced on if they happened), nor the hunt for a singular childhood relic.

Nor is Carson’s book of card tricks. More important was his sense of accomplishment perfecting sleight of hand at home then the appreciation he got in those early performances.

I mean, do you have a totem from which your adulthood’s path flows? Do I?

Wait, I do. The Orange Stick, which I’ve written about. From personal experience, it’s an important childhood relic, but it’s no Rosebud.

The documentary did not need mom awe of humility or the magic manual, was diminished by them.

Johnny Carson: King of Late Night is a case where members of a general audience, not just a PBS audience, could’ve figured out what made Johnny Carson tick, with a logical amount of minutes spent on Mother and a tick of a scene to describe the magic manual.

As a fellow creative, here’s a suggestion: Jones needed a theme with which to organize his research then to edit the interviews and other filmed bits. That’s normal in building an object of words or images. But that theme can be dropped before presented to an audience, if the work can hold together. This one can: A man who needs no introduction, late night funny man Johnny Carson — got me to the screen — and chronological order will keep our attention fine, especially with the key clips and frank interviews.

There must be some never-ending loop where entertainment consumers get lazier and entertainment producers increasingly rely on the obvious.

In the mail yesterday the June 4&11, 2012, edition of The New Yorker arrived, “The Science Fiction Issue.” The table of contents lists new short stories by Sam Lipsyte, Jonathan Lethem, Jennifer Egan and Junot Diaz. The table has a subsection titled “Sci-Fi,” with six acclaimed authors from Ray Bradbury to Margaret Atwood. This magazine unlike most these days has no editor’s letter at the front to explain or promote itself.

These “Sci-Fi” pieces are not explained; the reader has to turn to any of them to see it’s a autobiographical essay about the genre, from childhood reading to a writerly self-analysis.

Actually, you have to read two of them to see the relationship, to understand how all six came to be included.

Nothing is spelled out. The reader gets to discover the pattern and figure out the explanation.

Refreshing.

Who’d’ve-Thunks

Copyright 2012 Ben S. Pollock

I knew what to expect of The Artist, a “silent” film, meaning no talking, though it did have sound effects and music (and beforehand, ironically, the loudest-volume trailers since those running with Avatar).

Still, the teenage box office cashier warned My Beloved and me, while giving me $7 change for a twenty, “You know, right, there’s no talking in this one, don’t you? And it’s black-and-white. I’m supposed to tell you that.” The reminder was an order by her management, who’d heard the reports of movie goes demanding refunds over the lack of dialogue.

She did not know if anything like that had happened at the Malco Razorback in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

About two-thirds of the way through The Artist, only 100 minutes long, I saw a youngish man and a youngish woman walk out of the movie (they weren’t together). I wanted to hiss, “Punks! Does grabbing that half-hour mean that much to you, compared to junk I know you sit through?”

I liked The Artist a lot. Liked Tree of Life a lot. Enthralled by Hugo. There was The Descendants, liked that a lot, too. These are among the current Oscar Best Picture nominees that I saw.

MB and I went to these movies on the basis of critical acclaim. Hitting the parking lot, before we starting talking them through, I’d wonder each time, is this one Best Picture quality by my lights?

What qualifies as a great movie for me? I treasure quality. But that translates to competence — if every piece of the movie — script, direction, acting, appropriate music, appropriate effects — is spot-on, well, isn’t that their job?

Superlative for me means that the movie has had a profound impact on me. Two standards: First, it expanded my outlook or philosophy. The second standard is lower but still can make a movie great: Do certain scenes or even images meld into my mind immediately or later?

Let’s call those Who’d’ve-thunk? moments. Great movies like Sophie’s Choice and Apocalypse Now have maybe 10 of those moments each, minimum. Those two movies also hit my upper standard as well, outlook-changing / personal philosophy enhancing. But the lesser movie Cotton Club has enough of Who’d’ve-thunks to make my Great Movie list (among others: its Gwynne-Hoskins watch scene and Gregory Hines gun-riddled Continue reading