Transcendentally Minded for 40 Years

We have a 50-plus-year-old house, and the closets are consequently small. I am 50-plus years old, also with cramped storage.

At the start of the month I contracted with a publication for a couple of articles on major business figures in Northwest Arkansas. One story fell through; that happens.

I’ve been told that’s that company’s way, for its executives avoid media. Still, maybe someone “Googled” me.

While a full-time newspaper guy I kept political opinions private — that’s ethical and standard company policy. That’s frustrating, here in First-Amendment America. As I’ve departed from full-time journalism, now taking any writing gig, the least I could enjoy is mouthing off about big subjects. Yet as a freelancer, I’ve found that you bumper-sticker yourself at your own revenue risk, so I still leave little exposed.

A vocation opportunity opened in October, when I taught a three-class series in vegan cooking. The course was publicized online, and I’ve posted my recipes on my website. I brewed no tea at this party, but given that most of the big corporations in the Ozarks trade directly and indirectly with foods outside strict vegetarian guidelines, one wonders. Am I poaching the Golden Egg, whether or not I eat it?

Yes, I am stepping outside the box every so often, ducking shirt hangers.

I don’t trumpet my diet, though it works for me. Evangelizing is no act of friendship, and I treasure friends, including ones I have not yet met. If the subject comes up, I aim for careful enthusiasm, leaven facts with compassion, and not too many details. Still, my talking and writing about cooking well is the beginning of a revenue stream, so the word’s out.

• • •

With November being National Novel Writing Month, I have written “Morning Pages” — three pages in a journal, about 750 words — nearly every day, as a “10-finger warm-up” to storytelling. Personal writing long has been out of my closet. I’ve explained this exercise, from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, in a 2008 Brick.

One thing I’ve learned this month is counterintuitive. The daily desk work is more productive when I do the “pages” before I meditate rather than afterward.

"Illustration of the mental process called "transcendence" during the practice of Transcendental Meditation."
“Illustration of the mental process called ‘transcendence’ during the practice of Transcendental Meditation.”
From Wikipedia

My 40 years of practice — I was initiated in the Transcendental Meditation technique on this very day in 1973 — have made me more creative and better able to integrate whatever inventiveness I have into daily life.

Meditation for me, while a method of unique and deep relaxation, is so much an energizing preparation that afterward I cannot wait to get moving on the morning (and jump on the evening following the afternoon session). When I write a bit then meditate, however, returning to the white page later is much easier and more productive.

Maybe I am closeting a few more oddments, but now is the moment for TM to bust the door.

On Saturday, Nov. 24, 1973, I had just turned 16, a sophomore (10th grade) at Southside High.

A “child of the ’60s,” as the phrase goes, I was long fascinated with subjects like Kabbalah and yoga. My rabbi sent me articles on Jewish mysticism. A local bookshop had a volume illustrated with basic postures from which I learned poses.

I had been reading about Transcendental Meditation for some time, in Time, Life and the Arkansas Gazette. The Beatles and other pop stars had learned TM from its proponent, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

We were visiting my older sister and new husband for Thanksgiving in their apartment in Atlanta, which had a major TM center. My parents gave me the class as a birthday present. I begged for it, showing them articles I found. (TM tuition was much less then, and there’s a discount for youths.)

Doubting my memory, I asked my sister a year ago what she remembered. She emailed: “Yes I remember the TM! And I vaguely remember some house [the TM center] in Atlanta! That was Thanksgiving of ’73 when we were all together and I cooked the 22 lb turkey! … Glad the TM is helping you now.”

The initiation often is on Saturdays so that is how I’ve extrapolated the 24th being my big day.

I continued to practice Transcendental Meditation twice a day through high school and college nearly till graduation. When a senior, I took a little class in Jewish meditation offered through the campus’ Hillel chapter. The teacher was a fairly Orthodox young man.

He taught a variety of techniques, including guided fantasy, visualization, candle-staring, mantra, breathing and walking methods. I took decent-enough notes. They’re around here someplace.

I wanted to be more authentic to my heritage. In the years that followed I gradually dropped TM and took up the most similar Kabbalistic technique.

They weren’t that similar.

Increasingly I did no meditation at all, except sometimes on bad days. At some point after we moved to Fayetteville in 1999, I resumed Jewish meditation but just in the mornings.

It was not enough. Work began getting weird in 2008. Home life was fine. Work would get worse, but I didn’t know that at the time. I needed help de-stressing.

I recalled the energy and relief that TM provided. Its technique is so simple we practitioners tend to over time complicate it. For that reason, the movement’s onetime fee includes lifetime free “checking” where any certified TM teacher reviews the process with you. That 20 minutes stands as a refresher, which I needed.

Fortunately, I had a trip to Los Angeles in spring 2008 so I contacted the TM center there for checking and have sailed through smooth mental waters since.

It’s cut my stress and kept me sane. My analogy is that Transcendental Meditation feels like defragging a computer — thoughts and memories get sorted and lie neatly. That’s a representation of the clarity felt. GQ magazine of all places recently published a witty look at TM.

Arkansas has a married couple who are experienced TM teachers. They live in a small, central town and teach here in the Ozarks every few months. I’ve gone there for checking and sometimes see them when they come up.

It should be needless to hide a practice as helpful as Transcendental Meditation, but people take bits of knowledge and get weird with you.

I’m tired of that game.

Maharishi University of Management is in Fairfield, Iowa.
MUM is in Fairfield, Iowa.

Back in August, on a trip to see her family in Iowa, my wife dropped me off in Fairfield, the U.S. headquarters of the TM movement. I took in a weekend retreat. It was my second, the first being in late 1975 and held at Fayetteville’s Mount Sequoyah Retreat (my town at the time had its own TM center). In October, the state’s teaching couple hosted a fundraiser in Little Rock to pay for teaching meditation to stressed veterans and others in hard straits — where I met other meditators, a fascinating and diverse group.

Maybe I’d have been fine these four decades just waking up and starting the day. I am not my own control group so who’s to say? I am, that’s who. Years without Transcendental Meditation comprise a baseline.

I keep my psychic wardrobe dust-free, but it’s far easier to breathe when out.

Ich ‘Ben’ ein Razorbacker

Ben Pollock on 09-30-1978
Giving ’em the slip
Ben Pollock, probably 30 September 1978, thus age 20, playing Tulane at home, Palo Alto.
Photo by Robby Beyers, @ lsjumb.stanford.edu .

A few days ago, a fellow journalist asked me if I planned to grow a goatee for her skit in next month’s Northwest Arkansas Gridiron, the annual satirical sketch revue of the local SPJ.

I asked the show’s coordinator, who reminded me that I should look clean-shaven for another skit. Yea, saved by a practical matter!

I am a laid-off journalist. I’ve been freelancing — reporting, public relations, web content and design — surprisingly successfully, but full-time employment remains the need and the goal.

Now is not the time for facial hair, especially as it’ll be scraggly in its first weeks, right? So September/October would be the time I land the TERRIFIC interview and offer, unlike the last 13 months?

In the spirit of “it just doesn’t matter,” I present a photo found online six months ago. If I located it, the web ‘bots of anyone’s Human Resources would find it.

In 1970, as a preteen baritone/euphonium player in Fort Smith, Arkansas, I watched Stanford play the Razorbacks on TV. The band members at halftime dropped their trousers, but, never fear, they were wearing swimsuits in a salute to the beach or some-such. But the ABC cameras swooped up, just in case the nation was being mooned by West Coast college pranksters.

That’s what persuaded me to apply to the California university and join the band when the time came, provided needed scholarships, work-study jobs and student loans came in. They did, so I played in the Stanford Band — the only valve trombonist in the conference — and graduated in four years from the esteemed school.

Hence the photo. I found it last March. I have no recollection of which game/show/formation this is, where all of us (see my pals in background) apparently have dropped trou’ to reveal slips. Stanford Daily photographer Robby Beyers dated it Oct. 1, 1978, a Sunday, so probably it was shot Sept. 30, meaning the Tulane game.

I do, however, have a memory of sweaty bulky discomfort of the garment stuffed around our hips inside our wool pants for previous parts of the program, not to mention the first half of the ballgame.

Not visible in this picture is my usual wild bow tie. Barely seen is the plastic nose-and-mustache from a Groucho mask threaded onto my trombone mouthpiece. The crowning achievement is an Arkansas Razorback molded hat. For maximum field visibility, I weekly painted the tusks white with Liquid Paper and outlined other parts with black marker.

That was no Freudian slip.

Ich bin ein Razorbacker.

Regarding Roger Ebert

Now let’s regard Roger Ebert this afternoon. What his passing yesterday, Thursday the 4th of April 2013, can mean. Like any death that strikes your radar, knocking it off the table, you feel a need to inventory yourself.

Most of what I could say I chiseled nearly two years ago, when I presented him, by Internet connection, the 2011 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, serving as its president.

This week, the first lesson is obvious: Living life to the fullest. He did. Amazing. Second, working till the literal end. He did. Crazy dude. The third lesson can only be to put Nos. 1 and 2 together: Doing what you love. That is fortune.

These lessons just come from the last decade of his life. Cancer was first diagnosed in 2002. His partner-in-crime Gene Siskel, to give perspective, died in 1999, in his early 50s. Roger lost his voice, to cancer and its surgeries, in 2006. This June, Roger would’ve been 71.

What about lessons from other parts of his life? Well, Roger was lucky, so what can we really learn of his young and middle years?

He was lucky and also brilliant. Lucky being in the right places at the right time. Being an Illinois kid meant moving to any of the main newspapers in the state was only hard, not impossible. Plus those were true metros, as Chicago is not some Indianapolis or Omaha. Or Little Rock. Getting a movie critic berth so young. That was lucky, open-minded good editors with eyes for talent. Yet those folks would not have any idea what a huge and unique talent they had birthed.

Lucky and brilliant and indefatigable. Roger worked like a horse, if horses — even Clydesdale draft horses — can be said to work like humans do when we are driven by our own motives. Only people do that to themselves.

There is a Be True to Yourself element to Roger Ebert. He figured himself out to a small extent before the first TV show in the mid-1970s — as evidenced by a Pulitzer Prize arriving early, at age 33 — then came into self-acceptance wholly years later. He’s written that the process was gradual — the Pulitzer, the TV show, becoming sober, finding a great wife and so on.

Roger must have had both a tremendous ego but only a nearly equal humility. The humility must’ve been in check. You cannot get anywhere thinking less of yourself.

Yes, Roger could say, he could write, whatever he thought. But he earned that privilege. He did not write particularly personally until he began his blog after his cancer was diagnosed.

Can I be inspired by these facts?

There is this: Say I wake up beginning tomorrow — not today because I’ve been up for hours — and tell myself: What can I do today to make a difference? Not any idealistic nonsense of how can I — I of all people — improve the world or be kind to others? That is my default, trying to be nice and avoiding being mean. For all the good that does.

I mean, selfishly. How can I make a difference to myself, to my state of mind, even to the state of my little family. I don’t need to do six impossible things, either. I can write and post. I can look for meaningful work. I can quit berating myself for not applying for crap jobs, even when that seems to be all that’s around.

He did not post in his Roger Ebert’s Journal to illuminate the world with his wisdom, at least not directly. It’s obvious, and I have been a fairly faithful reader, that he wrote for himself, to explain himself to himself, to understand himself. A part of that, a good part of the time, was examining his mistakes and also understanding how he made the good decisions, too. Of course he had to realize these would help others.

The best writing advice always has been to write to satisfy yourself, not some “other,” be it family, friends or Lord help us, the “market.” Yet you do commit to communicate to others by writing on a device, be it paper pad or pixel board. A private diary is meant to be read sometime, OK, after you’re dead. A blog is meant for reading now.

By writing you admit you’d like to be read by others at some point. If you didn’t commit to recording thoughts in a way that would make sense — decent enough grammar, heeding spell-check — by gosh you would just keep to thinking these things silently or talking to yourself. Lots of people do.

Life vanishes if you only think about life. Pictures help, glad we’ve got cameras, for all of us who cannot draw. Talking to others — storytelling — is wonderful, but its permanance the most fragile.

For a few thousand years we humans have farmed, built machines and written. Yes, for all but the last three centuries universal literacy was as abstract a goal as human rights and civil liberties. Thus nearly all the old tales are lost.

It’s not the case now. I can write and read, you can read and write. And we are living in a time when we can read Roger Ebert reflecting about walking through London with a young grandson, searching for hot chocolate.

Copyright 2013 Ben S. Pollock

Well Meaning Writers a Target

The essay by Angie Albright, “Blogging IS Real Writing,” posted Nov. 28, 2012, at Arkansas Women Bloggers, impressed me and, judging from social media reactions, many of my fellow scribes. It follows exactly from the title, an apologia for the form. I agree, blogging is writing, but skip the defensive “real.” Of course she’s being defensive, that’s her point. I defend the form, too, have for a decade.

We’re going about it wrong.

A descriptive of hers sent me to Conjecture Land. Albright cited a “Well Meaning Woman” as the impetus for her column. Our heroine found a topic for a post, and a Well Meaning Woman responded that the topic should be reserved for “real writing” instead of blogging.

Doesn’t that just set your teeth on edge? Unless you see merit in the doll’s point. If you do, I hope to knock your block off.

When print newspapers began dying, it seemed the Internet would raze the venerated genre of columns. Until the blinkered looked at the Internet and found it full of columns. Online they often but not always were called blogs. Blogs takes all forms from fact to opinion, from crusade to satire, from how-to to why-not, and from punch lines to novellas.

Back in the day, columnists, especially if they were any good, had been advised to find a more honorable form. Reporters with skill have been told “there’s a book in that story.” I’ve been stuck in a series of editor’s swivel chairs for more than three decades so I’ve heard that there’s better status in editing magazines over newspapers, editing books over magazines.

You see where this is going. Everybody, every creator, every artist is handed this line. Watercolorists are advised to work in oil because it’s more permanent. Budding rockers are advised to learn classical techniques. Watercolorists learning oil can improve their approach (oh, ancient cave paintings? water-based), and musicians improve their technique by widening the range of their teachers.

To “keep on keeping on” is not ever what’s being suggested by the critics — the Well Meaning for various reasons are proposing abandoning one form for another. Do these interlopers have the best interest of their victims? Both giver and receiver may think so, but hearing out their reasons is a black hole.

Books on writing single out these people — call them wet blankets or wet noodles, crazy makers — and to a one the experts recommend: Avoid them if possible, otherwise ignore them the best you can. That’s because many of the Well Meaning  are uncomfortably close.

Bullies. To a one, even if they’re blood, even if you love them, these Well Meaning Women and Men are bullies.

If you defend your blogging — or embroidery or hand drumming or pies (“hon’, you could open a bakery”) — to these bullies you don’t solve a thing.

If you want to express yourself in a blog, or in poetry kept in a desk drawer, pay no mind to bullies.

Screenwriters at every level are told that only a novel will earn them writer privileges, while even published novelists are urged to abandon fiction for scripts because no one reads anymore — read their interviews.

My favorite master of the short form, Robert Benchley, surrendered to insecurity: Biographies state he envied his writing peers. He was on record as wanting to write a proper British history. Benchley was well-paid and popular. He was revered by contemporaries in short-form humor from E.B. White and  James Thurber to the current day’s Woody Allen and Dave Barry.

We in the middle or end of the line must note that the top ranks have bully issues, from gold-medal gymnasts to quarterbacks to CEOs — all have people trying to take them down.

As a left-hander, the shortest kid in grade school, the only Jew there or in junior high, almost the only Arkansan at Stanford and so on, I should have advice on battling bullies. Not really.

What about those advice articles of recent years that are a part of an American campaign against bullying? They come to no consistent conclusions. Different bullies require different tactics, I’ve found, and you need more options than confrontation or capitulation.

My advice on bullying comes from the fact that bullying never ever stops. If school is all about learning, then that’s where you learn that for the rest of your life you will face bullies. So I am forced to be grateful to the mean from earliest childhood, acknowledge that adults in my village usually were powerless, too.

Bullies.

Fort Smith, Arkansas, taught me how to deal with bullies at Stanford, which I managed, once I got over my surprise that even Hoover Heaven it had its share of jerks. Every place in every year of life has its share of bullies. Hear this:

Know yourself, know what you want and plunge ahead. Deal with bullies as circumstances dictate. Often, there’s little to be done to thwart bullies.

Write a blog, perhaps.

Copyright 2012 Ben S. Pollock

Fare Thee Well Address

This column first was published as the “President’s Message” in the May 2012 newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Dear Larry,

[NSNC Vice President Laurence D. Cohen is on the slate of nominees for the May 6 election, for 2012-14 president.]

This, the columnists presidency, has been a humbling experience. I’ve had plenty of humbling experiences in my life, so I should know.

When you were nominated for vice president, you asked me for tips so I suggested you consider U.S. vice presidents such as Alben Barkley and Charles W. Fairbanks.

Now I offer:

Hoist your opinions as the leader’s consideration counts.
Avoid saying anything, it’ll upset someone.

The board is a single entity, proved by many unanimous votes.
The board is a hydra of personalities, proved by many flurries of emails.

The NSNC is trending down like the rest of the print media.
The NSNC remains solvent with a consistent number of members, if you weigh 15 years not the last six.

While I have held several mid-level newsroom management jobs, a nonprofit’s presidency proved surprisingly different.

In business, workers accept pay in return for labor. That doesn’t mean the boss has much direct authority — that’s why bookstores have dozens of shelves of advice. In nonprofits, people offer to be officers and other positions for no or modest remuneration, so a president has little clout.

Persuasion is overrated. Continue reading

My Friend Jeff Zaslow

When you’re middle-aged, what the hell is a friend, anyway? Some of my favorite people I see for one long weekend every year, a conference. In between there will be a handful of emails and, these days, rather more frequently, single-sentence repartee on Facebook. I often have met their spouses, briefly, but damn if I know the names or interests of their children or if their parents are still alive.

Here in the home town, I do know those details of a good many people. They’re people my wife and I socialize with. Spend time with them no less than monthly. We’ve eaten in one another’s homes. We’ve attended the funerals of their loved ones and they mine.

Yet, I am uncomfortable calling members of either group good friends. I don’t know the definition anymore.

The image of friend that I cannot shake is the childhood one.

Those were close friends, you know nearly every thing about them and they you. I made those kinds of friends through college, but just for a few years afterward. (The best thing about Facebook, that would not have happened any other way — annual Christmas cards? You’ve got to be kidding — is reconnecting with those early friends.)

In terms of hours together and personal details shared — few — technically my conference friends are acquaintances. It also means that nobody bar one is a best friend. My Beloved is the sole owner of that title. But that insults all of us. These people that I know and who know me, either across town or across several states, well, we enjoy one another’s company immensely. So we must be friends. Even if we have to identify ourselves when phoning.

Columnist Jeff Zaslow (right) and professor Randy Pausch
Columnist Jeff Zaslow (right) and professor Randy Pausch

I had a comfortable familiarity with Jeff Zaslow. I last saw him in June 2011 at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ conference, this time in Detroit. He lived near the city but he could spare the weekend barely a half-day, due to a book deadline. His reporting and writing career exploded with the success of The Last Lecture, the first of several memoir-ish books where he sat second chair to the big name. This opportunity allowed him to solo in book-length non-fiction projects, such as The Girls from Ames.

What did we talk about? I was helping run the conference, so we talked about scheduling and other logistics, but full of quips and winks.

Here’s the thing. We talked like friends.

We talked exactly like we work in the same newsroom and only last saw one another just before lunch Continue reading