Uphold, or Hold Up, Standards

BLOOMINGTON, Ind., Sunday, July 11, 2010 — Indiana University feels bigger than my hometown’s University of Arkansas. Yep, 1,933 acres versus 345 acres. It has a journalism school not a department, a music school not a department. It is a handsome forested campus, full of sculptures (even a huge Calder) and fountains. Come October it must be something.

The 2010 conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists ended with the annual general membership meeting. It had the usual agenda — the executive director reviews numbers from the budget (holding the course), of members (only slightly down), of contest entries (up a bit) — plus committee reports and (drum roll) election of officers.

Views and details on the conference are linked at a special page in Columnists.com. No one probably will write up the business session. Still, the page is being updated as new blogs and columns come in, and will be archived indefinitely.

NSNC Oath of Office
NSNC Oath of Office, Sunday, July 11, 2010. Photo by Bonnie Squires

With no nominations from the floor, we elect a slate, conference chair, secretary, vice president and president. The last job on that list now is mine through summer 2012. I claimed all weekend that I’d vote for any write-in candidate, serious if they were, but none offered.

Now I start pleading for impeachment. The self-deprecation is getting old, but I did not seek this job. Helping the NSNC as a board member for five years has been a blast. But it has had a few resignations, due directly and indirectly to the Good Depression, so here I was Sunday, neither “acting” nor “interim” but letterhead-official.

What’s unexpected is how confident I feel.

The membership meeting aims for 90 minutes because people always start leaving for the airport, and President Samantha Bennett wrapped it up in 60, including a non-agenda discussion on the society’s advocacy role. I had ready an inaugural address, about what I said at the Thursday board meeting, but I scuttled that in favor of writing it up for the NSNC newsletter. I’ll post it as a Brick, too. But I did organize a mock Oath of Office, perhaps to join the Sitting Duck and Mystic Tie traditions.

NSNC Education Foundation Secretary Dave Lieber administered the oath. First lady Christy Pollock held an Ernie Pyle volume, on which I placed my left hand. In my right I hoisted a fountain pen. It was loaded.

I, (name), do soberly swear,
To advocate for the craft of columns, in the field of journalism,
To abide by the Code of Conduct of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists,
To represent the National Society of Newspaper Columnists as (title).
How great Art —
— Buchwald.
Thy Will —
— Rogers.
So help me, Erma and Ernie.


Compassion Works. So Does Anger

Grounds of Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center
Columnists tour Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, Ind. Photo by Christy Pollock

BLOOMINGTON, Ind., Saturday night, July 10, 2010 — The learnin’ part of the Saturday portion of the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists ended at noon, unless you’re a columnist (published or not). The usual field trip either can be written about or learned from. Lunch and and tour this time were both, a visit to the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center.

• • •

The hour “On Creativity” featured not a writer but a veteran jazz composer and musician, David Baker, chair of IU’s jazz studies department. He was right, the chops of creativity are about the same for any of us.

Baker has three rules, and they seem to come from the motivational world.

  1. From a late pastor, A.W. Tozer: “Time is a resource that is nonrenewable and nontransferable. You cannot store it, slow it up, hold it up, divide it up or give it up. You can’t hoard it up or save it for a rainy day — when it’s lost it’s unrecoverable. When you kill time, remember that it has no resurrection.”
  2. “Excellence is not an accident. It comes from hard work and vision.”
  3. A riddle: “I’m your constant companion,” and continues with good and bad traits, such as “I will push you onward or drag you down to failure.” and ends, “Who am I? I am habit.” Good advice from “author unknown,” but it’s office-poster copy.

Baker says he needs a deadline for composing. He finds word games helpful, he’s especially fond of anagrams, as they keep his mind sharp even musically. “Compose at a regular time. in a regular place, have all necessary materials at hand.” “I don’t get locked in any single element. Anagrams help in this. The goal is to state what you’re intending with the greatest possible economy. Anagrams help me see things from different angles, to find the best one, to find an unusual one.” “I’ve written over a thousand pieces; that’s not an overestimate. Some were awful and thank goodness have never been performed.”

Another good quote that Baker recited, and I didn’t catch its author, “Any music that is not heard live is doomed to extinction.”

Baker mentions he teaches a course on Duke Ellington. At the Q&A, I noted that Ellington and Pyle were contemporaries, coming into prominence in the 1930s, and ask how he makes Ellington relevant in 2010 to non-music majors and non-jazz fans, which we could use with Pyle, increasingly obscure with time.

“To teach Ellington, it helps to show what was contemporaneous with Ellington at the time. What we know and what is less known of those times. He didn’t live in isolation.”

• • •

The columnists couldn’t convene in Ernie Pyle’s home state and his home university without a panel on the renown newsman. Lauri Lebo is researching a book on Pyle’s life in the 1930s — before the World War II writing that engraved his name in history. Owen Johnson, an IU professor, is a longtime Pyle scholar. Moderating was longtime NSNC member Mike Harden.

They reviewed Pyle’s life. Johnson has a solid biographical essay online. In the 1930s Pyle traveled the country with his wife and wrote columns on small-town America. The panelists had a fun word for these pieces, “vagabondage.” I have a book of these, and they recall CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt’s “On the Road.” But Kuralt died 13 years ago. That’s three generations of journalism majors Continue reading

Creatives, Columnists and Cunning

Ed Grisamore accepting Will Rogers Humanitarian Award
Ed Grisamore accepting Will Rogers Humanitarian Award at Oliver Winery, Ind. Photo by Christy Pollock

BLOOMINGTON, Ind., Friday, July 9, 2010 — “Get Schooled” was the columnists’ theme this year, our conference hosted at a university for the first time, Indiana. Appropriately, our informal welcome Thursday night was at one of the town’s oldest college hang-outs, Nick’s Pub.

The meat of a conference like this is made up of lectures and panel discussions, and this meet was one of the most abstract held by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. A few people were disappointed and I could see what they meant, but most loved it. Russell Frank of Penn State called it mind-expanding. For the first time, My Beloved attended nearly every session, because the schedule looked promising and it fulfilled that.

What was it? First, what it was not. There were neither one-hour how-to’s on writing and publishing or state-of-the-business/craft analyses, which are our norm. Bloomington’s Mike and Mardi Leonard instead found people to talk about creativity itself, with a couple of insightful tangents.

This and the next Brick are on the long side, but they’re not complete. More than ever this year, reportage and comment can be found at a special page at Columnists.com. The page is being updated as new blogs and columns come in, and will be archived indefinitely. It’s not just that every conferee got something a little different from the next fellow from the presentations, but also that the writing is fine.

• • •

Leading up to the conference every year, one program whets my appetite. This time it was “Choosing the Right Words,” with three published novelists who are former reporters or columnists.

Scott Russell Sanders, a novelist but mainly a memoirist. For him (and me) columns are essays: “Montaigne created the word essay, defined as a trial, an attempt, and it also survives in the word ‘assay.’ It looks for understanding that we don’t yet have,” he said.

Historical novelist James Alexander “Jim” Thom, participated with his wife in all conference events. Thom finds a famous moment to weave fictional pieces through: “The historical incident defines where I can go in my story, its boundaries.”

“We columnists — and I am a former columnist also — are the first historians of anything that happens,” Thom said. “Compare something present with something in the past. To get the reader’s attention, you have to connect [it] with the big picture.”

The celebrity role was played by Michael Koryta, whose latest novel, So Cold the River, has been well reviewed this summer. He cited storytelling techniques, the narrative toolbox, pointing out “the visual points of contrast: “All this [the tools of the novelist] can be helpful to columnists. Showing place, story and character in short fashion.”

“As long as the protagonist wants something, even just a cup of coffee, the audience will go along,” Continue reading

We’re No. 37. Yeah, School!

BLOOMINGTON, Ind., Wednesday, July 7, 2010 — It was a travel day, where I wouldn’t normally post anything, but some one-sheets in the airport terminal surprised me.

A college or visitors’ bureau — I forgot which and couldn’t find it again on the return to the airport on Monday, July 12 — mentioned it was No. 16 in the country for some best-of poll. In a poster, mention means boasting, else why would it be in the corridor welcoming you to the region?

Proud of 16th place?

Another placard, for West Baden Springs (Ind.) Hotel, proclaims it is ranked No. 15 as a destination hotel by Conde Nast Travel. Ooh, 15. Say I’ve got a couple or three thousand bucks to fly to then use the facilities of a resort spa. Wouldn’t I aim for one of the 14, probably hit a Top 10? (Caught my eye because we did stay there Sunday night the 11th. We were very happy with everything about the place, a top-shelf spa-resort whose staff are professional without being snooty, and my is that rare.)

Indiana Southeast University wants airport travelers to know it has the ninth best part-time MBA program.

These are bragging rights? I’ve never seen anything like that, not on highway billboards or news articles I edit.

Here’s a trick from Arkansas, which places often in two lists — among the most poor, most illiterate, most uninsured and the other list comprising the least wealthy, least literate and least sufficient medical insurance.

Round ’em off.

The resort hotel, if it were in my home state, would be in the top 15. Think of all the resorts around, and that’s high praise. The business school would shout it’s in the top 10. Colleges like being in the top 10.

On a scale of 1-1,000, Brick has a Technorati Authority of 110. No. 1 most weeks is Huffington Post with a TA of 921. If you poke around in there, most blogs have an authority of 1.

On the other hand, a town up the road, Rogers, is No. 10 on the CNN/Money list of 100 Best Places to Live. Doesn’t need an “in the top 10,” not when there’s thousands of similar cities considered. Doesn’t need fluffing at all.