Category Archives: American Culture

Mass, Pop, High, Low — and that’s for starters

III. Free-lance Picketers Finally Clean Up

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 9 May 1990 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

(The finale, Part 3, go back to Part 1 or Part 2)

* * *

Because the teenager was not easily discouraged, Y.D. reminded wise Oscar Hapgood of a self-reliant cowboy, and so years ago he nicknamed him Young Dude. Oscar was caught up in Y.D.’s dream of bring back the Counterculture. Y.D. got hooked in himself because their junior-high buddy, Duff McDuff, had been studying the Vietnam War era in history class.

Oscar had grown to maturity in those years, then became a success in big business. The former hippie took an early — unusually early — retirement to live the life of an artistic vagrant.

The three this Saturday had put together reusable pickets from wooden dowels, foam poster board and tape.

Cici Davidson illustration 3-22-1989
"We haven't eaten all day. We can tell the vegetarian contingent we haven't eaten meat, and advise the others that we are fasting for them." -- Cici Davidson illustration

The teachers kicked them out first. The educators had been marching for better textbooks and took the trio’s blank signs — one black, one white and the last gray — as symbols against illiteracy. The fellows, though, were only trying to stay flexible, which offended the educators.

So they joined the Japan bashers a few blocks away. Y.D., having bought jars of water-soluble tempera powder, painted one word on each sign — “Tick,” “Tock” and “Tech” under clock faces representing an approaching midnight. The working men and women took the boys to be wise guys and ran them off.

Ever optimistic, Duff, Y.D. and Oscar walked down Main Street toward its intersection with Acorn Drive, where opposing sides of the abortion issue had gathered.

Since the fellows were on the west sidewalk, they decided to approach first the group there, which supported access to abortion.

“Excuse me,” Oscar said, “can we help?” We brought our own supplies in knapsacks.”

After exchanging handshakes with the 25 pro-choicers, Y.D. painted Duff’s white board to read, “If abortions are outlawed, only outlaws will have abortions.” The adolescent printed on his black sign in white: “A woman’s body is our temple.”

Oscar brushed on his gray board: “Hooray for Captain Spalding!” Old Hapgood preferred Marx Brothers dialogue to unsolvable social issues.

The men and women didn’t let the newcomers march with them long, and so the guys crossed the street to where 15 anti-abortionists walked slowly in an oval.

Duff wetted the sponge in water from the jug Y.D. carried and wiped the three pickets clean.

Oscar headed toward the leader, who held a Bible, and said, “Looks like you could use some more picketers. I count 10 women and five men, and yonder are 25 opponents.”

“Sir, we are equal in number to those fanatics, if not greater,” the minister replied. “All these women are pregnant so they count as two apiece. Then there’s Millie. She thinks she’s carrying twins, or maybe triplets, the way she’s been feeling.”

“Then we can really help,” Y.D. called out as he joined Oscar. “Mr. Hapgood and myself probably have 500 viable sperm apiece swimming around our bodies at this moment.”

Duff felt left out of this conversation. The trio’s signs were dry by now, but he could not draw any fresh slogans. Although 11 years old, Duff believed he could contribute to these negotiations.

“Let’s not overstate our numbers to these well-meaning people,” the boy said. “A sperm is not a whole human being, but a half. It needs an egg from a woman. I learned that in sex education class. That means, friends, at best your 1,000 sperms are only worth 500 humans.”

The minister gazed at the short-haired upstart, then at the beret-bedecked teenager and last and the gray-haired, denim-trousered Oscar. “The Bible says nothing about the New Math,” he concluded.

The other protesters then raised their pickets as if to smite the trio.

“Let’s try City Hall,” Oscar said, jogging away with Duff and Y.D. “Surely we’ll fit in with the environmentalists’ rally.”

“We’re on foot, and the Greens will appreciate that,” Y.D. said. “We’ve been recycling our pickets all day long, and poster paint doesn’t hurt the atmosphere’s ozone layer.”

“We haven’t eaten all day, either,” said Duff. “We can tell the vegetarian contingent we haven’t eaten meat, and advise the others that we are fasting for them.”

The fellows merrily sang “Look for the Union Label” as they walked, the only protest song they knew in common. Their pickets rested on their shoulders. As they drew close to City Hall, they saw dozens of cars drive away.

The boys were too late for the Earth rally, but not too late to work for a good cause. It took them only an hour to clean the area of soda cans, food boxes, extra petitions and surplus pamphlets.

* * *

The finale, Part 3, go back to Part 1 or Part 2

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II. So Many Burning Issues, So Little Time

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 9 May 1990 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

(This is Part 2, back to Part 1, go on to Part 3)

* * *

Young at heart, Oscar Hapgood was a match for his budding flower children, 11-year-old Duff McDuff and the teenaged Young Dude, whom he was teaching the art of peaceable assembly.

Y.D. this Saturday morning picked up Duff to shop for picket parts at the art supply store.

Duff followed Y.D. down aisle after aisle quietly as long as he could. “Cardboard sheets were on the other side of the store. And why did you put the felt-tip markers back just now?”

Ceci Davidson illustration, 5-9-1990
“'If we reuse or recycle it ourselves, then we’re exempt from practicing "safe soapbox,"’ Y.D. said." -- Ceci Davidson illustration

“We’re fixing to protest for the long term, and that calls for foresight,” the non-conformist teen said. “Look at these thick sheets. High-gloss paper sandwiches a slice of dense foam. We’ll be able to ….”

“That won’t break down quickly in the environment,” Duff interrupted.

“If we reuse or recycle it ourselves, then we’re exempt from practicing ‘safe soapbox,’ ” Y.D. said, picking up three colored foam-core boards.

“Three 3-foot dowels, a couple of brushes, paint and tape,” Duff noted as Y.D. put them in Duff’s shopping cart. “I’m beginning to understand. Oscar will be proud.”

Y.D. also tossed in a large sponge, collapsible water jug and some other items.

The youths carried their purchases in knapsacks to the downtown park. It was noon when the boys arrived to find Hapgood (who though gray was on the near side of middle age) serenading passing vehicles with his euphonium. Oscar could pitch the tenor tuba to mimic car horns. The more he tooted, the more the infuriated drivers honked. Oscar put down his brass instrument every so often to giggle at his escapade.

“Good job, boys,” Oscar said, examining the purchases. “We can get started right away. Teachers are picketing at the school administration building three blocks down.”

After filling the jug at the fountain, they headed over. Oscar talked with the picketers — with Duff tugging at his belt to point out his favorite instructors — while Y.D. affixed the poles to the signs.

“Every Saturday they protest the quality of teaching materials,” Oscar turned to tell the boys.” Is that my picket, Y.D.? Where’s its message?”

“The large the rally the bigger the impact, and that’s where we can help — numbers,” Y.D. said. “With so many causes to pursue, we’ll need the flexibility of blank signs. Mine is black, Duff will hold a white board, and since no issue is just black and white, we’re bought you one that’s gray.”

The three fell in line behind the teachers.

Duff noticed the only bystanders the group drew were a newspaper reporter, a wire service correspondent and a couple of television news crews, all looking bored.

The media was just about to leave, this being a typical protest with nothing standing out, begging to become stories, but the print reporter grew curious.

He asked the lead teacher about these guys who obviously were not educators. Knowing better than to appear uninformed or not in control, the rally organizer said the trio was calling attention to illiteracy and that’s why their signs were blank.

All the journalists then headed toward Hapgood.”Illiteracy? Sure we’re for that … I mean, oppose,” Oscar said. “Boys, let’s walk to a protest song, like my gang did during the Vietnam days.”

Although Duff and Y.D. had read of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, they had not memorized their hits. The only folk song all three knew was “Look for the Union Label” so that’s what they sang.

The teachers firms asked the three to leave.

“Did we fail, Y.D.?” Duff asked, sniffling.

“No. Some activists think they don’t need allies,” the wise teen said as they walked away. “The blank boards may not have been the best idea. I picked up some jars of poster paint powder, just in case. It washes off the plasticized paper so we can repaint the signs with different messages.”

The guys soon came upon another protest. This was a group wearing white hard hats, marching for economic security. Their own pickets read: “Japan Go Back,” “U.S.A. makes my day,” “We invented high technology. Europe stole it.”

Y.D. unloaded his pack, mixing tempera with water from the jug. On each of the signs he painted a clock face. One read 11:45, the next 11:50 and the last five to midnight. He printed one word on each, respectively: “Tick,” “Tock” and “Tech.”

“Y.D., how clever. Simple symbolism is best,” Oscar said.

They fell in behind the blue-collared men.

Unlike the teachers, the workers did not ask the fellows to leave; they ordered them.

One sympathetic laborer, however, yelled, “You might try the environmentalists; they’re at City Hall today. And pro- and anti-abortion protesters are on opposite curbs of Main Street at Acorn Drive.”

Oscar gleamed. “There, we could work both sides of the street.”

* * *

This is Part 2, back to Part 1, go on to Part 3

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I. ‘Hop-along’ Prepares to Pass the Torch

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 2 May 1990 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

(This is Part 1, on to Part 2 and finally Part 3)

* * *

The older stories were the favorites, and 11-year-old Duff McDuff and his teen-age friend Y.D. often insisted on them when they visited the downtown park after school.

There they usually found Oscar Hapgood. He wasn’t old, but he had done a lot to hit early middle age intact. Others who had thrown their lives into their 20s and 30s usually ended their lives in bars or, more often, a suburban home in a subdivision, living substantially as their parents had.

Vic Harville illustration, detail, 9-21-88
They "found Oscar this day sitting on the grass with a paper pad on his lap and watercolor palette next to his knee." -- Vic Harville illustration

Oscar was different. As soon as he became successful in a field he left it. He retired from college to be a hippie and retired from the Vietnam days to join big business. For the most recent change, Oscar set up some investments that mailed him checks every month, bought some art supplies, polished his brass euphonium (tenor tuba) then retired to become a bum.

The boys knew the later tales well.

The gaunt, prematurely gray Hapgood spent his days in the park pursuing the arts. Someday, he hoped to catch one.

Duff and Y.D. (Oscar had nicknamed the lad Young Dude) found Oscar this day sitting on the grass with a paper pad on his lap and watercolor palette next to his knee.

“Hi, guys. Hey, Muses,” Oscar said to the air in front of him, “take five. Get a sandwich or wash your togas or something.”

“Are they gone yet?” Duff asked, looking behind a tree.

“Kid, Muses are goddesses from mythology,” Y.D. said. “The Greeks believed they cause inspiration. Oscar is being funny.”

“The Muses really were my nine ex-girlfriends, because they led me in different directions,” Oscar joked. He was glad Y.D. was reading the library books he’d recommended. Oscar had seen that school was not giving Young Dude what he would need to become a thinking adult.

“Tell us about the 1960s. My teacher said people like you changed the world,” Duff said.

“We hippies didn’t fix anything. Besides, the ’60s weren’t the ’60s,” Oscar said.

“Huh?” Y.D. and Duff grunted.

“Three-fourths of the 1960s was an extension of the ’50s: short hair, Red Scare, drinking on a dare,” Oscar said rapidly. “It was almost the ’70s before the ’60s began. 1968 — Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. got killed. Woodstock was 1969. That was the year of the biggest anti-war protest: 250,000 chanted in Washington, and that was in November, a month before the new decade.

“The four Kent State students were killed by our National Guard — when? 1970. Yet our government didn’t let Saigon fall until 1975 — five years later. The first Earth Day was in 1970. Is our planet clean yet?”

“You must not have enjoyed yourself,” Y.D. said.

“We had lots of great times. The best thing about sit-ins was they separated ‘us’ from ‘them.’ You always have more fun being with people who agree with you, rather than taking a chance with strangers. We found out who was who quickly.

“Did I tell you my counterculture friends called me ‘Hop-along’ Hapgood? You see, I wasn’t drafted because one of my legs is a bit shorter than the other. Whenever I carried a picket and wasn’t concentrating, I would walk in circles,” Oscar said, and the boys laughed.

Duff was disturbed. “What about Eastern Europe now?”

Both boys were mastering the questioning of authority, be it that of peers to conform to fads and intoxicants, or of the adult world of rules, or even of Oscar’s view of the world.

“Sure, there were protests in Romania, Lithuania, Hungary and the others, but they came after the communist economies began collapsing. Those countries have turned democratic because it was the only alternative to unemployment and mayhem. History doesn’t stop evolving; there could be more changes yet.

“Look at Beijing,” Oscar challenged his young friends. “Students there weren’t marching for work and food in 1989, they rallied for ideals. Because China’s economy isn’t in too bad a shape yet, the government was able to crush the movement.”

“Are you saying our First Amendment — freedom to peaceably assemble and to petition for redress of grievances — is a waste of ink? Y.D. said.

“No, the Constitution is there for when we need it: economic crisis,” Oscar said, “but when that time comes, we’ll need to fight for it.”

“We’ve got lots of problems that aren’t catastrophes. People strike and march and chant. Sometimes it works, like for the teachers,” Duff said.

Hapgood smiled slowly. “Labor rallies like those worked frequently 50 or 75 years ago, but not often now, even though they should because of better media access. Maybe protests all look alike to the audience of the moment.”

Let’s make the system — the anti-system — work again,” Duff said.

“Count me in. I’ve got an idea how to do it,” Y.D. said.

“I’m hip for another try,” Oscar said.

* * *

This is Part 1, on to Part 2 and finally Part 3

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Is It Just My Imagination, Or Is Everybody Paranoid But Me?

Loose Leaves column, 1st run Sunday 4 February 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

Tomorrow, I’ll return Stephen King’s “On Writing” to the library so you can check it out.

In it, King summarizes his youth to show how he came to his profession.

He started out with an active imagination, dark even in childhood, and encouraged by an adoring but quirky, single mother.

If he were a teen-ager today, the stories he wrote for his brother’s neighborhood newsletter would have landed him at some Maine Juvenile Home for the Potentially Deranged, being full of monsters and psychopaths, inspired by those cheesy horror movies of the 1950s and ’60s.

Yet no matter how you feel about “Carrie” or “The Shining,” King also has given us “Stand By Me” and “Shawshank Redemption,” the latter books and later movies of redemption, though not without gore.

“On Writing” is my first King book. I’ve seen those movies, though, and read a couple of his short stories in “The New Yorker.” They’ve now inspired me to read his novels or hear them on tapes from the library.

My current book-on-tape is “The Blind Assassin,” winner of this year’s Booker Prize. Margaret Atwood’s narrator is an old woman recounting her life, apparently to an estranged granddaughter. The other family is dead, none of natural causes. This fascinating “chick” book has a subplot that includes lizard-men from outer space who wear flammable shorts.

Was Atwood a bad girl writer in Canada?

Ceci Davidson illustration, 1989
"I imagined my Orange Stick into a motorcycle handlebar, a race car steering wheel or an airplane throttle." Ceci Davidson illustration, 1989

In recent years I have carried a weapon, even to London.

I had one just like it as a kid.

The original Orange Stick came from a wooden block set. It was a 1-inch dowel eight to 10 inches long.

I imagined my Orange Stick into a motorcycle handlebar, a race car steering wheel or an airplane throttle. More practically, it held kite string and could dig small holes. George the terrier fetched it.

The Orange Stick also could be a dagger, spear or pistol, needed for Cops and Robbers, Cowboys and Indians, and Army.

I took the Orange Stick to Fort Smith’s Ballman Elementary often. Other boys had brought to recess their plastic pistols and rubber knives. We growled “Pow!” and “You got me!”

Dying was fun. We dramatized groans and convulsions. Dying gave a kid a moment to catch his breath — then you got up, a different soldier.

None of us, and Ballman had kids of all socioeconomic classes, seriously attacked one another or any adult.

In fifth grade the wind grabbed that spring’s kite and pulled the Orange Stick high into a tree. After a few years, I couldn’t see it anymore.

In summer 1998, I made two replicas from a hardware store dowel and a pint of paint.

One Orange Stick stays on my writing desk. I probably get by with carrying the other one everywhere because I shun the temptation of running through the newsroom or airports steering a pretend-Harley.

Oh yeah, in fourth grade my mom was called to school because I had written poems about hippies, drugs and suicide. The year was 1967.

The teacher asked Mom what kind of literature was in our house. Mom said, “‘Time,’ ‘Life’ and the ‘Arkansas Gazette.'”

Last December, a 16-year-old boy presented in drama class a monologue he wrote about a bullied boy taking revenge by blowing up his school.

The writer himself has a speech impediment and has been bullied. He also threatened three students, according to The Associated Press and the Toronto Globe and Mail.

The Ontario boy was charged on four counts of making death threats and jailed for over a month, until bail was set. His 14-year-old brother then made two threats and was jailed several weeks.

Police found neither weapons nor bomb-making materials in their home. A couple of weeks ago, the family celebrated a belated Christmas.

Canadian authors, including Atwood and Michael Ondaatje (“The English Patient”), have made the young writer a cause celebre, saying writing vents anger safely for many youths.

Yet surely, threats must be taken seriously. Note the following from our state, from last week:

“JONESBORO (AP) — An 8-year-old boy was suspended from school for three days after pointing a breaded chicken finger at a teacher and saying, POW, POW, POW.

“Kelli Kissinger, mother of first-grader Christopher, said the punishment was too severe.

“South Elementary principal Dan Sullivan said the school district has a zero-tolerance policy against weapons because the public wants it.

“In March 1998, four students and a teacher were killed and 10 others wounded when two youths opened fire outside Jonesboro’s Westside Middle School.

“Christopher said he had been called down for talking in the cafeteria and was sitting at a detention table at the time.

“‘I don’t doubt that he did it,’ Kissinger said. ‘But like his psychiatrist said, (the school) needs to be able to tell the difference between a threat and a playful act. … Chris has … an active imagination, but he’s never been violent.’

“Sullivan said punishment for a threat ‘depends on the tone, the demeanor, and in some manner you judge the intent. It’s not the object in the hand, it’s the thought in the mind. Is a plastic fork worse than a metal fork? Is a pencil a weapon?'”

Is a pencil a weapon?

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Americans Save Time by Spending Money

Mirthology column, 1st run Thursday 2 April 1992 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1992 Ben S. Pollock

One of the most annoying things about the rest of the world suddenly agreeing with us Americans is guilt.

Just about everybody is freely electing presidents and legislators, and writing constitutions, just like we in the West. In economics, supply and demand has caught on, too.

So why do we Yanks give each other furtive glances when we learn yet another country is imitating us? We serve as an example, and look at whom we’ve been electing. Look at this season’s crop. Maybe it’s not that bad.

Capitalism is unnerving under the microscope as well. We still have to acknowledge it is the only economy that works on the long term and overall is the most fair. Yet the free market is different from democracy — they’re two different beasts.

If this is so, then why is our currency inscribed with republic slogans like “One of Many” or “The People Rule”? Shouldn’t our dollars remind us of the U.S. economic motto, “Let the Buyer Beware”?

On second thought, that would be disastrous. If people read and heed that wisdom, fewer coins would be exchanged. Then there’d be a recession.

Wait, we’re having harder times now without that motto jingling in our pockets. Maybe the solution is to combine mottoes, to “The Buyer Rules.”

On third thought, you couldn’t take that to the bank. There, the Benjamin Franklin rule is “A Penny Saved Is a Penny Earned.”

That’s what we were taught, back when banks would start up a youth account with a $1 deposit. The personable teller would give a child some board folders with notches in which to stick dimes and quarters. That’s back when saving wasn’t more complicated than a “passbook account” plus the occasional bonus toaster with a $200 deposit. Interest rates, compared to the inflation of the time, were negligible. A gimmicky incentive — like a bonus — was needed.

Later, certificates of deposit and money-market savings increased interest greatly, but then earning also fluctuated widely. The free casserole dishes were stopped.

Franklin’s motto changed to “A Penny Saved Is Two Pennies Earned in 15 Years at Your Bank, or 10 Years at My Bank.”

This line of reasoning may sound cynical, but I’m the innocent sort who’s pleasantly surprised — indeed grateful — for any amount of interest accrued. I’d better be pleased; earning are dropping through the floor these days. Any positive bank statement is welcome in my mailbox.

When the old-timers advised us to “Save for a Rainy Day,” they weren’t advocating mutual funds of NOW (Negotiated Order of Withdrawal) accounts, just that spending is the opposite of saving. If your don’t buy, you have more money. The cookie jar doesn’t bear interest, and it can crack, so the bank keeps your money as a public service.

So here’s a proposed motto for our times: “A Penny Saved is a Penny Not Spent.”

Who am I kidding? You? You know better than that. Me? I ought to have more sense by now.

How about this one, “A Penny Saved Today Is a Penny to Spend Tomorrow.” That’s honest. But time goes by so quickly now, today is tomorrow. If automated teller machines could give advice, that’s what they would say.

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You’re Invited to a Special Benefit Roast, But It Won’t Be Much Fun

Mirthology column, 1st run Thursday 6 August 1992 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1992 Ben S. Pollock

Ever wonder what you’re doing wrong if you’ve never been asked to one of those fund-raising roasts? Me, too. Why, I’m almost an executive. So where’s the invitation?

Why is success in a community measured by being obligated to attend a mediocre evening’s entertainment in black clothes for a good-size buck, albeit one for some good cause? Heavy dinners followed by well-intentioned speeches are tedious for anybody, no matter whether you’re wearing a suit or tuxedo, an office dress or evening gown.

Let’s have our own Special Dinner. You’re invited. They’re not.

“Dear (name): We would be utterly honored if you and your delightful life partner, M–. (name), could attend our dinner, a fun-filled benefit roast for the Donenough Foundation. Rather than a guest of honor, the institution of the mock testimonial itself will be gigged. Bow ties required. R.S.V.P.”

Thank you all for coming tonight. Because of your generosity, after we pay for the dinner and the hall, the Donenough Foundation will be able to clear a week’s worth of expenses.

Since this is an amateur affair, we will flag each joke with an exclamation point — the equivalent of a talk show applause light. So if you don’t get it, fake it!

Because this dinner excludes the exclusive, we considered serving a freshly prepared meal that many would like. Yet our overriding goal was to offer a typical roast, to see what we have been missing.

This explains your small salad with tired lettuce, followed by either dry prime rib with salty au jus or baked chicken over mushy rice. You also had the option of having your brown-and-serve roll made soggy by being served atop the canned string beans or the gravy-drenched mashed potatoes.

Most of you, regrettably, missed that generous introduction of me, offered while the peach cobbler with aerosol whipped topping was served. Clinking forks against plates provides necessary atmosphere!

The time has come for the self-deprecating remark.

Hearing all my colleague’s quips and heartfelt opinions has been a privilege. It will take me through next week to decide which ones were which!

The body of the talk is nigh.

We are here to celebrate the roast. For those of you who are vegetarians, we instead will applaud the cow. Do I hear moos … or boos? Oh, you’re calling out “booze”!

The Friars Club apparently invented the roast as a parody of the testimonial.

For the traditional testimonial to have filled the tables, the guest of honor must have been not only successful and widely known but also well-liked. A city the size of ours still can handle only one testimonial a year. Roast are offered almost once a month, and this hotel room has reservations to the turn of the century!

Roasters since the Friars have aspired to be Don Rickles, who disguised bile as sarcasm.

Each roaster thus tells a few stories then offers the same tribute: “But in all seriousness, folks, this person is the most generous professional I have ever known. And I really mean that.”

Thus the conclusion tonight turns somber.

What does the lighthearted testimonial dinner say about society? Why do we need a roast of fraternity hijinks and jokes on aging to help some charity? Direct donations feed more funds straight to the goal.

I move that next year, let’s have another $50-a-plate roast, then offer diners with discretion the option of sending $35 to the Donenough Foundation, skipping dinner and pocketing $15.

But in all seriousness, folks, tonight’s roast has been the most generous we professionals have ever known. And I really mean that.

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Scandal Sidelines O.J.’s Series of Successes on Silver Screen

Guest column, 1st run 23 October 1994 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Copyright 1994 Ben S. Pollock Jr.

“Come on, baby, light my fire. Come on, baby, light my fire. Light my fire. Light my fire. Ooh. Ooh.” — Jim Morrison.

Not infrequently, especially in Hollywood, that quasi-mythical land of broken cliches, talent continually appears but often is quenched as quickly as damp fingers snuffing a paper match at a nouvelle restaurant that bans smoking.

Now that it’s irretrievably spent, the acting career of football legend Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson — the “Juice” — only seems to have been as brief as a flame. Actually it wasn’t short at all. Simpson had major roles in some 11 films spanning an even 20 years.

Even if he is acquitted in his trial for the murders of his former wife and a waiter, we have to conclude: No more movies for O.J. The loss is American culture’s.

Simpson years ago retired from professional athletics to endorse products with smiling, just barely madcap commercials for rental cars and the like.

He also made money as a ball game commentator.

Then there were the thrillers and comedies.

After his first role in the 1974 schlock classic “The Towering Inferno,”it seemed that for every noble film, he sank in a clunker. There was “Roots” in 1977, the exploitative “The Klansman” in 1979. The brilliant 1978 satire “Capricorn One” almost was overshadowed by duds like “The Cassandra Crossing” of 1976.

An argument could be made that the “Naked Gun” trilogy comprised not only the finale of Simpson’s movie career, but also his finest thespian work.

O.J.’s tragedy lies in these comedies.

In each movie — 1988’s “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad,” 1991’s “Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear” and this year’s “Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult” — Simpson took the character of Detective Nordberg and nimbly trotted it down the sideline of taste.

Simpson soberly played one of the comic foils for the lead, Leslie Nielsen as Lt. Frank Drebin. The former jock gamely recited straight lines for the racial jokes and the athletic puns.

Even in the movie poster of the last farce, Simpson could be said to have exploited himself, his image, his race and his libido, albeit good-naturedly. Below his photo as Officer Nordberg on the three-sheeter, the caption reads, “That really is a gun in his pocket.”

If you can spare a bar stool and another glass for me, I’ll concentrate on one memorable scene with some technical foreign words.

Image. French for set-up. In the opening dream sequence of “Naked Gun 33 1/3,” the Police Squad of Nielsen, Simpson and George Kennedy (as Capt. Ed Hocken) prepare to arrest Mob figures in a grandiose metropolitan train station. It would be a film noir if not for the color film stock.

Collage. French for collision. Mothers with babies in perambulators arrive at a huge staircase. Drebin, Nordberg and Hocken stop their law enforcement preparations to move the babes from the expected line of fire.

Homage. French for honor among thieves. The scene is a bow toward Brian DePalma’s 1987 “The Untouchables,” whose babies-on-stairs sequence itself is artistically linked to the Odessa beach scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 “The Battleship Potemkin.”

Montage. French for splice of life. In a sequence of brief shots, the editing itself a quote from both earlier classics, Drebin and Hocken are shown throwing the babies to Nordberg, a nod to Simpson’s football days. No lives are lost. Touchdown!

Simpson’s deft handling of this slapstick shows how his athleticism evolved into an actor’s instinct. Perhaps Simpson was hired among these acting veterans because he was a known black face, but one who wouldn’t upstage the white leads. Then again, the satirists behind “Naked Gun” surely used their casting as a send-up of Hollywood’s covert racism.

With the trial, no one ever again will think of Simpson as a funny policeman. He also has lost credibility as an action hero. He needs another career.

If he only would sing.

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Ask Not for Whom the Porch Swings: It’ll Spin for You

Mirthology, 1st run Thursday 4 June 1992 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Copyright 1992 Ben S. Pollock Jr.

DATELINE MIRTHOLOGY — Now that the country has been broadsided once again by mass violence, we either can get together and clean up the mess, or stay in our seats and ask ourselves who is to blame.

Then we can gather those we identified and ask who they fault. At last, we can bring all of the above together and square them off before an audience.

That is how you get “spin” news, the dozen-year-old phenomenon that competes with what-happened-when “hard” news.

I’m Ben Pollock. This is “Nightfall.” Welcome to my home, the Bengalow. I see there’s a big crowd this evening. Good thing you brought your lawn chairs. Who needs television when you have a front porch?

Tonight, we will ask penetrating questions of two masters of “spin doctoring” — that is, inflating the importance of opinion on a news item past the impact of the event itself. Because these leaders of leaders are not accustomed to being interviewed about being interviewed, they have asked for partial identities, just Bill and George.

Also, after the opening backgrounder, we will speak with the creator of this format, Ted. Not Teddy.

“Thanks for listing me last, even though I am sitting between the politicians on the porch swing. It’s because I have the shortest legs. While I have your attention, I’d like to point out that the event that brought us here is truly a traged- …”

Not yet, Ted. You surely remember the format; you tested its rules.

First, our introduction.

Commentary is as old as news itself. Just look through the Bible. But until the late 1970s of our era, newsmakers and commentators — and their followers and listeners — never mistook the event for its spin, that is, its immediate rather than historical significance.

At the time, the media was faced with a significant event, the taking of the U.S. Embassy in Iran and the holding of 52 people inside. Day in, day out, correspondents reported on negotiations. Swarthy gunmen made threats.

That was it. Television news producers were frustrated with repeating the same story for what was to last 444 days. The media felt hostage as well.

Ted rescued journalism. Late every night, he asked soon-to-be-famous people their opinions. When the inevitable disagreements ensued, the audience grew. This was not news, but it was conflict, and drama sells. The genre spread.

George, why has spin grown more important than any crisis?

“Events by themselves have little meaning. It’s how they affect people that makes them important.”

Bill?

“George always says nothing. I must point that out.”

Bill, my question?

“Oh. Events, riots for example, show how the American people react to poor leadership.”

Ted, wouldn’t you rather host “Wheel of Fortune”?

“Who needs another game show? I want to try your first question. Spin is big because often its topic is so small it soon will be forgotten. Yet journalists have to file something by deadline.

“The rest of the time, spin takes control because its subject is overwhelmingly huge. We can reduce the crisis to manageable proportions by trivializing it.”

George, this is a question from an old magazine cartoon: If a tree falls in the forest, but the media aren’t there to cover it, has it really fallen?

“Nothing has happened until I announce my sadness, meet with aides, fly over the site and declare an emergency.”

Bill?

“I wouldn’t fly over it. I’d take a bus. After the natives are polled, I’d express dismay and declare an emergency.”

Ted?

“First, I’d ask Bill and George if the tree fell, but off the record, because nobody believes our leaders. I can no longer simply report the tree falling, because nobody believes the media, either.”

It’s now pitch dark outside the Bengalow so here is the last question. Could any of you exist without the other?

“No. I need an opponent.”

“No. I need a target.”

“No. I need the ratings.”

This has been “Nightfall.” For a tape, transcript or subpoena, please write.

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So Big Bro’s Not Listening — Everyone Else Is

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 10 January 1990 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

Everybody at work knows my business so well that sometimes I’m the last to find it out. I mean, if privacy is a constitutional right, what’s left?

Today, for example, I called on a colleague in another department. The reason is not important here. He has a modern office — its walls stop half-way up and the doorway has no door.

Everything we said could be heard in the adjoining cubicles. I know this for a fact because when my friend went to get us coffee, I was glued to every word uttered on all sides.

Whispers carry surprisingly well, I found, unless you funnel your words to the other fellow’s ear with a cupped hand or rolled magazine. Nobody does that, because partitions provide a false complacency.

I’m now waiting at my home, the Bengalow, for my housemate Noah Vale, to arrive and advise. He’s great with this sort of problem.

Here he is, coming in at the right part of the essay, too.

“First, Ben, let’s take apart this emergency. Then the solution will be obvious. It only depends on how you split the components of the crisis.”

That’s how logical this guy is. By the way, Noah is my alter ego, former pen name and invisible confidante whom I left at college when I assumed I was grown up. Noah tracked me down after I got wise to the maturity game.

“I see three kinds of offices,” Noah began.

“The first is a full setup, with floor-to-ceiling walls and doors that latch. Despite the complete privacy possible, all sorts of problems come in. There’s no privacy if the door’s open, and, if closed, everyone outside will assume the worst.

“The second office is no office — just one big room. The air vibrates with creativity. Ideas and gossip flow freely, which is impossible in a series of formal offices. Open spaces are also noisy. The Big Room exploits the myth of democracy in business. The power hierarchy is subtle, shown only in desk size and who owns the corners.

“You know the third type, Ben. Modular. It fits in between. Those 5- to 6-foot walls are mounted on stands so they can be moved with a Big Room as needs change. Yet they rarely are repositioned. The phone jacks are at the right places, and the posters and bulletin boards are already hung — not to mention the carpet stains hidden by the desks.

“You know partitions do not block sound waves, so modular offices confer only status to their residents. I’m going to take a walk, Ben, and think about it.”

I went to sleep. The next morning I went straight to the Bengalow kitchen to make coffee. Floating above the dining table was a 4-foot-long, 12-inch-wide hollow snake. I yelled, “Noahhhhh!”

He skipped into the room, laughing. Morning people are disgusting.

“That’s no snake, Ben, that’s a solution. The base of your problem is conversation — in any type of office. In phone calls, eavesdroppers only hear your half of the dialogue, unless they bribe the switchboard operator. The written message is unrelated, too. You keep other people’s useless memos, and they keep your embarrassing ones.”

“But Noah, you’ve hung heating duct above my breakfast. What do you call it? A conversation piece? Where’d you go last night? Convenience stores don’t stock that,” I said.

“It wasn’t on the shelf. I had to go through the roof and the air conditioning. This is flexible duct, big wire rings in a tube of plastic-covered cloth or cloth-covered plastic. Thick. Insulated. Soundproof.

“The middle of the Talk Tube is suspended by a fixed length of cord. Its ends are hung on pulleys so each confreres can adjust them according to head height.”

“What about documents, and won’t you fog up your glasses in the tube?” I had him, I thought.

“Most talking isn’t confidential, Ben. You ‘tube’ only when needed, and you obviously don’t slide papers through it. Use your hands. Lastly, you disinfect the Talk Tube with a quick spray between appointments.”

“We haven’t come that far from tin cans and string, have we?” I said. “I think, however, I’d rather just ask clients to take a walk with me outside when secrets are to be passed.”

“What about the weather?” Noah asked.

He’s right. I never have anything important to say, anyway.

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They Don’t All Do It and They Don’t All Lean on Voters

Loose Leaves column, 1st published Sunday 26 August 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

Would a man who would lie to his wife — and lie regularly and evidently successfully for a good year — lie to voters?

Did someone say Bill Clinton? It’s not the fault of any particular politician. This long bout of queasiness and two-faced public and private hypocrisy about adultery includes Colo. Sen. Gary Hart in the 1988 Democratic presidential campaign.

Remember this Golden Oldie from 1976? “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do — and I have done it — and God forgives me for it.”

Yes. Jimmy Carter.

Or, “Easy, boy.” That was Bob Dole, 1996 GOP presidential candidate and former Senate leader, being paid earlier this year to tell an actor-dog to quit barking at the scantily clad, caffeinated sugar-water swilling-shilling Britney Spears. And she’s a teen-ager.

Some powerful men have always messed around; prestige accelerates seduction. Most behave. Carter claimed to feel guilty about normal fantasies. Bob Dole healthily jokes about ogling.

These men — as well as several senior Republicans whose conduct was exposed during Clinton’s impeachment (not just Li’l Abner’s Senator Phogbound or Shoe’s Senator Belfry) — despite their confessions proved to majorities of voters their ability to lead through long resumes and evident persuasive and organizational skills.

What we are left with, today, are cases like those of former state legislator Jim Hendren. In a bid to continue a career of public service, the conservative Republican from Sulphur Springs is running for the 3rd-District congressional seat recently vacated by his uncle, Asa Hutchinson, who resigned to run President Bush’s Drug Enforcement Administration.

Before anyone announced candidacies, this became a closely fought race. It’s a primo job, congressman.

There’s lots of political talent, and ambition, in Northwest Arkansas. Because of term limits, there are quite a few former elected officials; they may have day jobs, but they no longer have prestige. Also, their family members may plan to “Stand by my man,” no matter what, to further ego or ambition themselves.

Hendren publicly mulled running, withdrew then jumped in. Last week when forced by exposure, Hendren, accompanied by his wife of almost 16 years, explained that he had a nearly yearlong extramarital affair, apparently ending sometime in 2000.

A one-night stand, or even a weekend romp, might be a momentary indiscretion. One year — OK, “nearly a year” — is not a lapse in judgment. Running a stop sign is a lapse.

Would a man who would regularly lie to his wife lie to constituents?

Jim Hendren, 38, has been blessed with an understanding family: A wife, and children ages 4 to 14. They haven’t thrown him out. He has been blessed with a terrific church: Its elders want him to continue teaching Sunday school.

Sulphur Springs, indeed all of that part of rural Benton County, his friends and colleagues everywhere will and should stand with him.

That does not entitle him to stay on the ballot.

All of us know men and women who have succumbed to temptation — not just to adultery but to greed or gambling or expressed anger etc. — and those of us with strength, honor and charity do what we can to lift up the fallen, to forgive them, pray with them, break bread with them and do business with them.

Besides, nearly all of us may well be similarly unfit for public viewing of our private lives. We continually circle that darn pile of stones, wondering whether to pick one up to throw or to run like hell to avoid being struck.

Jim Hendren, with his warmth, intelligence and early amassing of political skills, has a strong future in any endeavor he chooses. Someday, some other day, he could win elected office.

He plans to stay on the ballot for the Sept. 25 primary, which he could take if the other candidates are revealed to have worse faults. Then he would go on to fight the Democratic nominee at the Nov. 20 special election.

Hendren had been the front-runner; he could win.

Then he would start out and remain “the congressman who. …”

Jim Hendren should withdraw. Tomorrow. He should be a Southern gentleman and retreat, be a good sport and sit this one out. So he can come back.

Life in Washington, whether before the cameras or behind the scenes, is not for the weak. We voters must focus on which man or woman can best serve this district and this country.

At the end of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” the leader of the assassins, Senator Brutus, foreseeing defeat, has his servant Strato hold out a sword. Brutus, the ultimate dangerous coward, runs into it: suicide.

Think Strato felt proud to be loyal and obedient? Had second thoughts? Became nauseous? Think Hendren is asking voters to be his Strato?

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