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 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.

Lama-palooza III: Simple Not Simplistic

UNI mandala destruction
Mandala destruction at UNI on May 19, 2010. Photo by Christy Pollock

Copyright 2010 Ben S. Pollock

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — The appearances in Iowa of the exiled spiritual and political leader of China-controlled Tibet, the 14th Dalai Lama, had a successive feel: first a closed reception for a few dozen donors on Monday, May 17, a panel discussion the next morning, then finally a solo turn that afternoon. One wanted His Holiness to hit it out of the park, but knew he’d likely further develop thoughts he’d begun earlier, yet the overall memory is one of satisfaction. Any disappointment would disappear as days melded and faded, much like a bright mandala brushed into a heap of now pastel sand.

This wasn’t summer camp, a spiritual retreat or a rock festival despite similarities. The man in the burgundy and goldenrod robes simply agreed to a couple of speeches in a state he’d not visited before. [Aspects previously covered in Lama-palooza I and Lama-palooza II.]

The title of the Dalai Lama’s keynote address,”The Power of Education,” indicated more a starting point for broad considerations rather than a subject, and indeed was the practiced ramble of an extraordinary mind.

First, before the 2 p.m. start, the University of Northern Iowa Wind Symphony played. As a recorder and low brass player, I’m a sucker for bands, and the group had it a little rough. The spring semester was over by a week or so yet they hung around for this. They were playing before an audience of 5,000 in the basketball arena (the lofty acoustics of such are frustrating, too) settled noisily into the bleachers.

The UNI president, Benjamin J. Allen, opened. He presented His Holiness an honorary doctorate. The academic collar-shawl kept slipping off the Venerable’s shoulders.

Next, the band, accompanied by several choruses, including a children’s chorale, performed Joy, composed for the visit by UNI music professor Jonathan Schwabe, a setting of a Buddhist verse. It’s sung in English, and the translation also was in the program. It advises joy, peace, health, trust. It’s a handsome piece performed with quiet passion. Hearing Joy again would be a pleasure; maybe a podcast was made. Schwabe presented the Dalai Lama with the handwritten original score; in return he received a khata white silk scarf and a blessing.

Leaving the arena later, MB and I found ourselves walking near a French horn player Continue reading

Lama-palooza II: Paneling

The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama speaking in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on May 18, 2010. His Holiness is wearing an Indiana University visor, from a previous speech. Photo by Ben Pollock.

Copyright 2010 Ben S. Pollock

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — On this sunny late-spring morning, two lines stretch a couple of blocks from the gym. Between them was a rainbow of vendor tents, selling books, beads and other Tibetan items. All in the queues already have tickets, for reserved seats. We’re going through airplane-like security, four walk-throughs inside each of two sets of doors, to see the morning session of the Dalai Lama’s first visit to this state, the first minutes of which will be spent with the provost teaching him it’s Iy-Oh-Wah smoothly, not his phonetic guesses that make the crowd laugh.

The scans and searches couldn’t go more professionally. We’re some 4,000 seekers: curiosity-, spiritual- or my kind, in-between. The McLeod Center is the basketball field house, not as big as Bud Walton Arena at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, yet year in year out this decade, the University of Northern Iowa seems to have a stronger team.

There’s little doubt the Dalai Lama can fill the Walton next May (20,000 seats in a game configuration so maybe 15,000 for a speech). UNI sold out its afternoon session, 5,000 tickets. Every public appearance of His Holiness attracts Americans from hundreds of miles away. If there’s any softness in attendance it’s because his earlier appearances this tour were a few hours away: Madison, Wis., and Bloomington, Ind.

My notes from the morning’s panel discussion are decent enough to write an article, but the local press handled that just fine, the Register and the Courier. UNI’s Public Relations/Marketing crew snapped nice stills. Following are jots: I’m a visiting Arkie Jew, married to a Christian student of Tibetan Buddhism. [Two University of Arkansas faculty members helped arrange the UNI Tibetan events.]

This morning’s is a panel discussion. That’s such a dicey format. Continue reading

Lama-palooza I: Rock star

The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama arriving in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on May 17, 2010. Photo by Christy Pollock.

Copyright 2010 Ben S. Pollock

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — I got this close to the Dalai Lama (spread hands about four feet) last week. If you can get that close, he might bless you, shake your hand, lift your khata (ritual silk scarf) from your neck and replace it or some combination. In this surprisingly small band of about 18 — not a Clintonesque rope line of hundreds — only about four received such a greeting. Some of we 14 later expressed disappointment, but most were like me, just delighted by the proximity.

I gained no instant revelation from the “almost” and, being rational most of the time, I am confident none would have come from direct contact, any more than my writing improved after Salman Rushdie the other year signed my copy of The Satanic Verses, or how last month at the local library Mel Bartholomew shook my hand and signed his revised Square Foot Gardening for me. Yesterday I saw a rabbit eye the lettuce in my raised bed, because he can’t read.

Yet something electric began, outside the performance auditorium of the University of Northern Iowa, about 2:15 p.m. CDT Monday, May 17, 2010. The overall visit embedded something vital. This Brick, Lama-palooza I, along with Lama-palooza II and Lama-palooza III, will consider this roundabout couple of days only as straightforwardly as needed. [The running title refers to the Lollapalooza music fest, due to the celebrity aspects of His Holiness on a U.S. speaking tour.]

Plus, what am to do with the notes I took? The jottings could be fashioned into news articles. All would be better off reading the regional Des Moines Register’s accounts of the the Dalai Lama’s morning panel and afternoon speech or the robust coverage by the local Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, which even posted videos. [I’ll looked at them after posting my three columns.]

My Beloved and I drove from Arkansas, combining a hometown Iowa visit for MB with two hours further to UNI, also her alma mater. University of Arkansas at Fayetteville Adjunct Instructor Geshe Thupten Dorjee, a Tibetan monk (“geshe” corresponds to Ph.D. in Tibetan education), and his sponsor, English Professor (also Fulbright Honors Program Director) Sidney Burris, every fortnight for months have traveled here to teach Buddhist religion and Tibetan culture, and advise administration and faculty on the pending holy visit. MB has gotten close to the two men and the spiritual group they lead; sometimes I tag along. Due to the duo, perhaps 20 other Northwest Arkansans carpooled to Cedar Falls as well. News that the Dalai Lama is scheduled to speak at UA next May was confirmed only recently, after everyone’s travel plans were set.

Geshe advised us by phone to be outside Continue reading