The Goofus American

HAVANA — We went to Cuba! On our return, family and friends wanted to know all about it. “How was the food in Havana?” has been the most frequent question. Our answer: We barely ate on the island, not a satisfactory response for us, either.

What can my wife or I report? I didn’t lose my wallet at customs, and I was not mugged behind the mausoleum.

The Pollocks at Habana Cafe in Havana's Melia Cohiba Hotel dancing to an incarnation of Buena Vista Social Club.
The Pollocks at Habana Cafe in Havana’s Melia Cohiba Hotel dancing to an incarnation of Buena Vista Social Club.
Photo Christy K. Pollock

We went more as tourists than travelers, a silver anniversary cruise, so the passage was half the time and half the fun of the trip, not just conveyance. After 25 years, even before our second date two years earlier, I learned not to speak on behalf of My Beloved (MB). These are my perceptions. Going by the draft’s word count, I have some.

A few months after the trip, I can’t make this a travelogue. Like any other writer with any other destination, it’s all been said before. Reflective anecdotes I’ve got, though.

I did not approach the visit as a journalist, nor could I have done much, by my standards, as a professional observer. Yet after decades in news media I can’t help but watch, question, take notes and try to figure things out. When you share what you’ve learned, it’s journalism. Might be less than first-rate, but it’s real.

Our long-planned second honeymoon happened to overlap the day, April 19, 2018, when Raul Castro with little if any notice retired from the office his brother Fidel held for decades before him. Raul’s vice president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, succeeded him. Find journalism on this at “Castro Steps Down as Díaz-Canel Assumes Cuban Presidency” and “Cuba’s New Leader Vows to Modernise Economy but No Return to Capitalism.”

We almost had no idea anything was happening. The guide for our afternoon bus tour of Havana historic sites mentioned that “tomorrow,” Wednesday, April 18, was going to be important as a new vice president was to be announced. I don’t know if the guides on the excursion’s other seven buses informed their passengers. MB later asked the guide for our evening nightclub excursion, and he knew only about the same.

The Norwegian Cruise Line ship had few channels on the stateroom TV sets so I watched MSNBC and BBC, avoiding Fox News. CNN was not available. Nothing off the boat was in the daily schedule handout so no word on Cuban politics. Late Thursday, though, BBC ran three words on the bottom screen crawl, “Raul Castro Retires.” 

Internet on board cost $35 a day, so we decided to take a social media holiday. Did you miss us April 16-20?  Continue reading

Draft Beer? Maybe Draft Gore

“Forget Biden, drop HRC & Bernie. Maybe we need a Draft Gore for ’16 movement. Maya Lin’s enviro concerns inspired that impulse.”

Al Gore 2009
Al Gore in 2009. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

BENTONVILLE, Arkansas — The above was my Facebook post from just after a lecture Monday night by artist-architect-environmentalist Maya Lin (the descriptives are hers). Mind you, Lin said absolutely nothing about politics nor former Vice President Al Gore.

My social media comment got one “like.”

Lin of course is best known for her Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which she designed as a contest entry in 1981 while still a student at Yale. With that as a first (in more ways than one), she’s had a tremendous career in sculpture, four other memorials and still the occasional design for a home or other building.

Our Crystal Bridges of American Art commissioned her for an artwork. “Silver Upper White River, 2015” will be unveiled soon on a wall of the North Gallery Bridge. It’s similar to her other water sculptures that follow topographical maps of the identified streams. She crafts them from silver — recycled silver, mind you — for three reasons: Water from a distance looks silvery, schools of fish can appear silver from above and silver’s a precious metal, she said during her program Oct. 19.

Other sculptures resemble the mountains that islands really are. Mount Everest isn’t the world’s tallest mountain, Hawaii is, Lin said in Bentonville.

As a reflection on her genre, this month the publisher Rizzoli released Lin’s book Topologies, an oversize, illustrated book with several co-authors including John McPhee and Dava Sobel. (It lists at $75 but is far less expensive online.)

A number of her three-dimensional works plowed the audience over, almost literally. She has redesigned fields to resemble waves. After a lot of bulldozing work then resodding, these lands have become green-bladed seas.

What she calls her last memorial is online, a collection of short videos from Lin and her friends and allies as well as contributed by regular folk — crowdsourced art. It is, about how humankind (she called the people of Earth “mankind”) is destroying the planet and its life forms.

Lin showed the large crowd in the museum’s Great Hall one of the videos, “Unchopping a Tree.” It’s below, just 3:14 long. Music is by Brian Eno.

Where does Albert Arnold Gore Jr. fit into an evening of remarkable contemporary design and art?

Continue reading

Debatable? Indeed.

A full-scale, live television candidate debate just may be the pinnacle of unscripted yet predictable “reality TV,” with a local example as proof. It was a circus of tamed animals, no clowns.

Illustration of Mark Pryor and Tom Cotton by Shafali Anand. Republished with permission of Talk Business & Politcs
Illustration by Shafali Anand.
Courtesy of Talk Business & Politics

On Tuesday, Oct. 14, incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor faced Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton at a University of Arkansas auditorium.

Below are my takeaways. For what happened, see these two thorough news articles.

The Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce sponsored the debate, the second of two for this race. The host TV station was KHBS/KHOG (where I interned in 1978) but two other stations in the state were co-producers, with C-Span deeming this important enough to air live nationally on its main channel. The feed can be viewed at the website of Little Rock’s KATV, which has broken the hour-long video into four segments.

The reflections that I first posted during the debate on Twitter and Facebook are in quotes. Others are Continue reading

#nsnc14dc: Crafting Columns, Getting Them Known

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Why were we here, besides for our writer friends and some sightseeing? To get better. Speakers at the 2014 conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists discussed politics, government and history, but the focus was on development of our skills. Hence, two wrap-up pieces.

John Avlon, Eric Heyl, Alexandra Petri and Ben Pollock after the morning session of the NSNC conference Saturday, June 28, 2014.
John Avlon (from left), Eric Heyl, Alexandra Petri and Ben Pollock after the morning session of the NSNC conference Saturday, June 28, 2014. Suzette Martinez Standring photo

I tried to live-tweet a lot except when called away on conference business. (Nature called at times, too.) Rather than paragraphing these notes, the following comprises headings then the top quotes of speakers, annotated as needed. Other conferees posted live as well, and I borrow from them. For various reasons, some sections are longer.

“Industry Changes and Strategies for Success” — Connie Schultz, Creators Syndicate columnist and winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary

“There is a skill and a craft to column writing that is abetted by age and experience.” “I don’t know a columnist who doesn’t spend a lot of time talking. Use some of that time on Facebook.” “Being on social media as a columnist helps you control what is said about you in other media.” “We are the gatekeepers for our own image.” “Don’t create envy in people,” so downplay or avoid references to your relative affluence. “If I were any more transparent I’d be plastic wrap,” on disclosing her marriage to Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.  “They will always accuse you of bias. That doesn’t mean it exists.”

Continue reading

#nsnc14dc: Columnists in the Capital & Beyond

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Speakers at the 38th annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists could be separated into two general topics, with overlap: Some focused on Washington and capital news, and others on developing of crafting and marketing columns. Hence, two stories.

I can explain. Being immediate past president, I was welcomed to the opening June 26, 2014, of the NSNC hospitality suite by Marcia Tammeus, Annie Barr and Michelle Freed.
I can explain. Being immediate past president, I was welcomed to the opening of the NSNC hospitality suite by Marcia Tammeus (from left), Annie Barr and Michelle Freed. Washington Plaza Hotel, June 26, 2014. Tracy Beckerman photo

I took a lot of notes and live-tweeted, except when I was called away. The following will comprise headings then top quotes, annotated. Colleagues posted to social media as well, and some of those are included.

“As Current As Current Affairs Get” — Dana Milbank, Washington Post columnist, author, and frequent MSNBC and CNN commentator

Politics and journalism: “Speaker John Boehner has said do not measure a Congress by how many laws they pass but how many laws they repeal. The number of the latter is zero.” “Wouldn’t Will Rogers be terrific on Twitter?” “Sourcing is overrated. This town is saturated with journalists, but what’s amazing is how many just follow the pack.” “There’s a lot less editing by necessity. There’s fewer editors” due to layoffs. Where does Milbank get topics? “A lot is in plain view. A lot is in documents. There is a tremendous supply of malice. I let the event drive the column.” “We storytellers don’t need ‘Deep Throats.’ We just need our eyes.”

Advice to columnists: “‘Editor bait’ [for breaking in new editors, is to] put in a line that’s completely over the top. They can cut that and leave the line you want alone.” “In this environment, what is a newspaper columnist to do? I’m not even sure there’s such a thing as columnist. I am not identified as a columnist, but as an opinion writer.” “We’ve sort of reached the point where everyone’s a columnist and no one is a columnist.” “Old-fashioned shoeleather journalism is what will distinguish us [as columnists]. I think we can stick to our knitting and things will work out.”

“The Unique Joy of Being a Columnist” — Lewellyn King, writer of a weekly syndicated column and executive producer and host of White House Chronicles on PBS

“What the Internet has taught us: The reading public didn’t want” so many filters on information from professional media. “The Internet tends to be people trying to say everything at once.” “We are allowing ourselves to be licensed. Those press passes” are an example. “The first ratcheting down of our freedom [by both parties] was during the Carter administration. When they started having a third person present during interviews.” “The institutional memory is failing not just in government, it’s failing in journalism.” “We’re down to the molecular level,” about the amount of political coverage in Washington. “Every line that is written and read is worth writing.”

“Politics, Prose and Career Longevity” — Suzette Martinez Standring, syndicated columnist, 2004-06 NSNC president and author of the recently published The Art of Opinion Writing

“The art of persuasion — what opinion, humor and lifestyle columns have in common.” “One goal of opinion writing is to offer a perspective not offered elsewhere.” Clarence Page said, “In print, the lead counts, in broadcasting, it’s how you end. Because that’s what people remember.” Connie Schultz said, “Believe in your vision. Do not let others define you.”

“Writing a Column: The Agony and the Ecstasy” — Craig Wilson, writer of the popular “The Final Word” column for USA Today until spring 2013

“The best columns come in 15 minutes. The worst come in three days. And the readers always know it.” “All of you know that writing a column is an ego thing. And the fact that people are paying you is really quite amazing.” “The whole thing about a column is relating to other people. … And you never know what is going to get a reader going.” “What happens when you don’t have an idea for a column? You don’t have that luxury.” “The last refuge of a columnist is to write about their dog.”

“How to Write Convincingly About Race with 21st Century Technology” panel — Richard Prince, columnist on news media diversity issues for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education; Rhonda Graham, columnist, editor and editorial writer for The News Journal in Wilmington, Del.; Mary C. Curtis, award-winning multimedia journalist and contributor to The Washington Post; and Professor Yanick Rice Lamb of the Howard University Department of Media, Journalism and Film. (Prince took great notes.)

Prince: “Know what you’re talking about.” “Some phrases are dynamite. Language is a weapon. People try very hard to make us use their language.” “There’s no such thing as reverse discrimination. It’s just discrimination.”

Curtis: “Don’t have lunch at the same place with the same people every day. Go to a movie in a different neighborhood — to help you be on top of stories. Live a diverse life as well.” “Many of you will have different challenges than we have. You may feel awkward about entering the debate — anxious not to say something you shouldn’t. But if you write and report with sincerity, complexity and nuance, that should be enough.” “Don’t just parachute into a community when something’s happened. Sources will be more open if you consistently cover these communities. Your columns will have more depth as well.” “Don’t just parachute into a community when something’s happened. Sources will be more open if you consistently cover these communities. Your columns will have more depth as well.” “Know what you don’t know — don’t be afraid to ask questions. That’s what we do. You can break new stories and make some new contacts.” On political correctness: “You want to be true to yourself and the story but you also want to be clear. Potential readers put off or offended by language may miss the point you are trying to make.”

Graham: “For a full perspective, know the black politician, as well as the black barber or mechanic.”  “Don’t show up only during public tragedies.” “Keep tabs on the valuable community events — beyond Black History Month.” “Constantly, we must make decisions that keep us authentic about our own point of view, when we are right, as well as when it turns out that our view is in error and is challenged. This is the best way to approach and gain entry into unfamiliar worlds and culture.” “I defend the right to use a word that is comfortable for me. If I use such words, then you have to be comfortable with my response.” “It’s more important to be heard than to win.”

Some quotes above were taken from the live tweets and Facebook posts of Tracy Beckerman, Richard Prince, Teri Rizvi, Nikki Schwab and Bill Tammeus. Thanks, friends.

• • •

Previously published, in slightly different form, in the July 2014 issue of The Columnist, the membership newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Steve and Steve, Paul and John

Steve Wozniak of all people showed up in Fayetteville, Ark., for a campus speech Sunday night. He spoke engagingly for a senior status wonk-nerd-geek — he is 62.

Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, 1975
Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, 1975

Is there humility in a guy like that? Yes, after a fashion. “Woz” is certainly an electronics genius following a childhood as a certified math prodigy (literally, he tested out, apparently). He differentiated “innovations” from “inventions,” the latter being more singular and unique, the former if not collaborative then build-upons. I innovated on this, I invented that, on and on and on. He gave due credit to others, the late Steve Jobs certainly, but also Bill Gates and even John Scully. Scully ran Apple for some years and has been criticized widely, but Woz praised him. Woz repeatedly praised Hewlett-Packard, for which he worked before co-founding Apple with Jobs.

The I did-I did-I did that Woz is entitled to proclaim was not boastful. He was born with gifts and from early childhood worked night and day on projects. It wasn’t so much that he’s earned the right to cast off being humble but it would be a crime for a person like him to have talents and not use them. Woz could’ve talked about anything, and it would’ve been pretty interesting, like current projects, advice to students etc. He chose the 40-minute autobiography that’s popular among public figures on the lucrative speaker circuit [Even NPR’s Claudio Sanchez reiterated his youth for area high school journalism students a few years ago who would’ve benefited more from a talk on careers].

Steve Wozniak at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville on April 7, 2013
Apple’s Steve Wozniak speaks to the media before a speech April 7, 2013, at the University of Arkansas.
Ryan Saylor for The City Wire

For a recap of Woz’s appearance, see reporter Ryan Saylor’s account at The City Wire, “Apple Inc. Legend Wozniak: ‘Love What You’re Doing.’” By the way, local TV stations also covered the talk, but region newspaper NWA Media did not.

A signal quote I jotted was, “Write the book that you haven’t read.”

Woz was not referring to his one published volume, the 2007 memoir iWoz penned with a co-author, but hardware and software: Write the program, solder the circuit board that no one has done for the want or need you have located that others don’t seem to have worked out yet.

Driving home, I reflected on Woz’s generous remarks about his colleagues that also were clear-eyed. Woz was the shy techie guru and Jobs the marketer and showman, who saw consumer interests and directed Woz to hit the workbench. Jobs of course was great at programming, and we all saw Woz not being bashful.

John Lennon, Paul McCartney, 1964
John Lennon, Paul McCartney, 1964

Revelation: Woz and Jobs are the John and Paul (respectively) of the personal computer device world.

According to common culture, John Lennon was the quiet wonky Beatle, a bit homely, and Paul McCartney the flashier, cuter Beatle. George Harrison and Ringo Starr wrote dozens of songs for the pioneering band, but Lennon and McCartney composed its most lasting works. In truth, both Lennon and McCartney were strong composers and witty lyricists, working in several pop music genres.

According to Woz, he had moments of marketing acumen, and Jobs could fine-tune devices and their apps. The duos’ comparison surely has been seen before, but a revelation to me.

From asking people at conferences over the years I’ve learned that celebrities on the speakers’ circuit are advised to deliver one speech all the time. Two rarely. Booking agencies want their talent to deliver one multipurpose speech. It can and should evolve over time, maybe have a 10-minute version and a 40-minute version, but outside of introductory acknowledgement of the audience and sponsors, it’s the same speech. These are professionally rehearsed, including gestures and pause breaks, and it travels well.

They’re easy to spot. My Beloved and I looked at each other last night, as we’ve done over the years, and whispered five minutes in, “It’s the One Speech.”

That leaves the question-and-answer portion for glimpses of the real person. Even there, booking agencies want even the Q-and-A capped to the minute. It’s in the best interests of everyone for details like this to be in written contracts.

The questions asked by University of Arkansas students were broad-ranging and eloquent. [An Arkie like me tends to fret if “we” will be embarrassed at times like this. Even in childhood, I cringed when some VIP is coerced into accepting a plastic Razorback hat or waits behind a painted smile while the crowd chants Woo Pig Sooie with those arm gestures. On Sunday, UA was a broad-based land-grant research institution honoring an American icon — no nonsense.] Woz answered each question directly and with warm smiles.

Yet at precisely 8:30 the UA’s gray-suited security guy, standing to Woz’s left, collected the two audience microphones. There was one student left at each pole stand. The young man nearest me shouted his question and Woz leaned from the platform to hear it, but the executive saw someone’s signal, and he walked quickly off stage.

This looked like a contracted arrangement and that Woz could’ve handled it better. Most celebrities veer off the plan at times like that. But he didn’t. My analysis is that’s because he’s a geek, a geek with senior status.

I checked, and this is what happened. Steve Voorhies, manager of news and media relations for UA’s University Relations, responded to my written query this morning:

It was a contractual limit — and people on line had been told there would be no more questions, but apparently the student went up after they sat down — by that time the mike had been turned off. When Woz got the signal the time was up he left, again, in accordance with the contract.”

This Brick was typed on an Apple MacBook Pro. Hats off — and fingers on keys — to Woz and Jobs and Apple’s thousands of employees here and abroad.

Copyright 2013, Ben S. Pollock