Category Archives: 1990 Mirthology

Mirthology columns from 1990

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


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


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


White Males Easily Run Afoul of Taboos

Mirthology, 1st run Wednesday 28 March 1990, Arkansas Democrat’s Mid Week Magazine

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

Caption for illustration by staff artist Steve Scallion: Artist’s rendition of Andy Rooney in a high-top fade. Rooney had recently suffered some big-time misunderstanding. [“CBS” is “burned” in above Rooney’s left ear; he’s wearing a tux.]

Editor’s note: In a tradition begun just last year, humor columnist Ben Pollock Jr. writes a serious column for the April Fool’s Day edition. He says this is like dedicated partiers staying home and sober on New Year’s Eve. He didn’t how similar.

Steve Scallion augmented photo, 3-28-1990
"To write is to risk misunderstanding. ... To write is to be misunderstood. That is more accurate." -- Steve Scallion augmented photo of Andy Rooney

To write is to risk misunderstanding. That warning may not stand for high school term papers, which often are all but copied from reference books. Yet, if you’ve penned a love poem to someone who’s not ready for it, or taken a stand in a letter to the editor. …

To write is to be misunderstood. That is more accurate.

As a suburban Dallas reporter nine years ago, I wrote a “blotter” item on a woman’s rape in her apartment. The police report had unusual facts. The victim had three roommates. None was home. All four were flight attendants.

I included these facts in the brief to indicate to readers one may not be safe even when living in a house full of professional people, whose jobs require intelligence and strength and whose training includes basic self-defense.

Fair reporting, fair assumptions, right?

One of the roommates phoned me after the story came out. She believed co-workers could identify the victim, whom I didn’t name, because of their unusual living arrangement, although I didn’t give the address. Non-airline people, she added, think all flight attendants are bimbos and by mentioning their jobs implied the victim “asked for it.”

She called me sexist. She was wrong, but I felt awful.

Months later, I got a tip about a nightclub in my middle-class suburb, On weekends for a couple of months, a Jamaican disco had been set up in an Irving union hall.

I drove over one Friday afternoon to talk to the proprietor while he was setting up. He said this was a branch of a club he owned near downtown Dallas. A Trinidadian, he told me in a melodious accent how his clubs kept émigrés from all the Caribbean islands from feeling isolated.

I returned that night with a notebook, camera and date. I already had conceived my feature’s “lede” (opener): Irving has grown so cosmopolitan that it now accommodates such examples of cultural diversity as reggae and calypso music.

A sign above the cashier’s table and money box read: Please check guns and knives.” The club owner explained there’d been trouble in the parking lot a couple of weeks earlier.

A few patrons were dancing. None was boisterous. Drinks were sold from a couple of coolers. I bought my girlfriend a beer and me a soda.

Before writing the story Saturday morning. I made a few phone calls. They caused me to change the story to hard news.

The police, for example, didn’t know about the club but were interested in that sign. The state Alcoholic Beverage Commission said it had not approved a license for “Tropical Delights 2.” The union hall’s manager, who rented it occasionally to make money for the local, thought this was a service organization.

My last call was to the proprietor. He was angry that I interviewed the authorities.

“You must not like black peee-ople. I thought you were my friend. You don’t like black peee-ople,” he said.

I apologized over and over, saying color had nothing to do with thorough reporting. He wouldn’t believe me – or was he trying to manipulate me into feeling guilty? Either way, he was wrong, but I felt awful.

Tropical Delights 2 was shut down, and the club owner fined.

Columnists, because they don’t deal directly with facts but with their impressions of them, have to be even more careful. No matter how straightforward the writing, some readers will miss the point. Some will be offended inadvertently.

Long before the two examples above, I had learned misunderstanding cannot be eliminated. I still write and revise carefully to minimize confusion.

For months, I have jotted notes for a humor piece on how some good-looking, masculine fellows wear shower caps in public.

I am white; the men nursing their “soft-curl” perms are black. I would add in this essay that white women who wear curlers in Wal-Mart and dress their children only in diapers are just as tacky.

Such a column would be called racist. My even-handedness would be called window dressing to disguise prejudice. We’ve all seen this before.

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague stole my thunder and wrote deftly about the ridiculousness of the latest hairstyles of young black men and women.

The columnist wrote as if unconcerned with potential criticism. I envied her obvious disdain for disclaimers, apologies and explicitly stating good intentions.

Yet, the column did have implicit protection. The columnist’s “mug shot” shows a handsome black woman. She won’t be called a racist.

My photograph with a similar column, which I now will not write, would, therefore, be a picture not of a social critic but of the enemy.

Wait, I’m not the enemy. Here’s my disclaimer to prove it: I have great intentions, and I apologize for any offense my words will ever cause. I don’t mean anything I say.

Happy April Fool’s Day.


Drawing’s on the Blank Side of My Brain

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 21 March 1990 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

Research in the 1950s found the left and right halves of the brain have different functions, and experiments in the 1960s proved the left hemisphere is in charge of logical number crunching — straight-line thinking — while the right side intuitive connects parts — finds the whole picture.

The left half thus is the computer and the right the artist. There’s no accounting for taste.

This is insufficient to explain some human weaknesses. I can however, and the latest diagnostic medical equipment isn’t refined enough to prove me wrong. The brain is not halved but quartered. My drawing skill indicates I’m right.

The physical separation of the brain is lengthwise, according to computer tomography (CT scan, $800) and magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI, $1,100, with 10 wallet reprints another $20). Philosophically, the brain also can be halved again, crosswise over the hemispheres.

The bottom half is in charge of reluctance, inertia, timidity and laziness. These three halves — left, right and lower — comprise the Trilateral Omission.

What about the fourth half? The top is simple and pure. Its function is to hold a hat.

The brain bottom makes you work hard to get a noble project off the ground, then reverses electrical polarity and lets you off the hook a week or two later with absolutely no effort.

I can prove this by my desire to make pictures. Other people have the same problem in sticking to exercise, diet or even a schedule of reading the Great Books. We know these activities are good for us, and can be pleasurable, but such motivations are not enough to drive the Trilateral Omission.

This effect is wholly inactive during childhood. Then, parents and teachers enforce habits. The brain bottom matures in adolescence, when the onset of acne, dating and driving force judgment calls — and their consequences.

The decisions can be narrowed to choosing acts of commission and omission, hence the origin of the effect’s scientific name — the term “commission” disqualified for already having a reputation.

The Trilateral Omission has never been reported in any scientific or academic journal, and hence is not subject to verification. Aren’t we lucky.

The T.O. theory is the only explanation I have for being otherwise perfect — I exercise regularly, eat nutritiously, write creatively and play euphonium — yet have no will power to develop graphic skills.

I have tried to enjoy this hobby ever since taking an introductory art course in my senior year of college a decade ago For one to three times year since, I have taken evening drawing or watercolor classes. But when I wake up on a Saturday and consider whether to spend the morning with an open pad and sharp pencil, I go back to sleep.

Experts say adults must admit their childlike selves exist inside, which needs to be let out for self-actualization.

I know my childlike self. It comes and goes as it pleases.

That is why I need classes to be artistic. My inner child needs an authority figure. If the continuing-education teacher did not assign projects and supervise me, my paper would remain white.

I enjoy painting once I get started and have been told I have some artistic talent that, with guided practice, could blossom. For me, these incentives are insufficient.

The hemisphere scientists believe this is my analytical left brain intimidating my imaginative right brain into a paralysis. Psychologists have the solution: The right brain must trick the left into retreat. Easy? Sure.

I haven’t had a community adult class in about 10 months. For a fraction of the tuition I could train myself, my imaginative right brain realized. Buying a lot of extra art supplies would prevent the right from feeling guilty — a left-brain trick — when I create catastrophes by this trial-and-error teaching method.

My brain’s bottom half hasn’t fallen for this ruse. I think it is in charge of writing this column, as a matter of fact.

“I think.” Who’s doing this so-called thinking? Who’s in charge here? The top, hat-holder half?


‘Watch for Hail’ when Life’s a ‘Bed of Roses’

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 18 April 1990 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

Retirement had been no bed of roses for Mildred Lynch Pierce Fenner Smith, especially since it was not voluntary. The recent visit from the governor, however, meant an escape from leisure.

Mildred reprimanded herself for the phrase “bed of roses,” but her anger at his request blurred her thinking. She believed such cliches arise because they fill a need for people much too busy to speak originally.

The governor had pushed Mildred, state poet laureate, into the land of emeritus — with a proclamation and plaque — because her talents no longer were consistent. Her attempts at rhymes, increasingly, skipped entire vowels.

The other day, however, the governor called on her to commission a project. He said he needed her creativity to put a law into action.

Mildred almost scalded her hand on the teapot.

The measure was sound: Warn people about the dangers of water. The nation had been swept with regulations affixing labels on beer, wine and liquor. Cigarettes had had warnings on their packages for years.

“‘Water kills.’ That’s what the signs need to say, but make it pretty, could you, Mrs. Lynch Pierce Fenner Smith?” the governor asked.

“Mrs. Smith is sufficient. Sir, what is the logic behind the water law? Look at tobacco. Daily morning coughing jags, shortness of breath after walking a block, chest pains when the boss looks at you cross-eyed — after all those symptoms, will a surgeon general convince smokers?” Mildred said, then thought of another objection.

“You know, what I’d write, governor, if you had given me the beer and booze assignment? ‘Alcohol burs thinking, impairs bodily functions and can be addictive — that’s why some people like it.'”

“Yes, dear, but water warnings will reduce our liability insurance premiums. The ‘We Tried to Tell Them’ defense is good for a 20-percent discount. I need your touch on all three lethal forms — solid, vapor and liquid.”

Mildred thought a moment and recited:

“Watch for hail
“When you fetch the mail.”

“That’s beautiful. That’s awful. That’s perfect,” the governor said, then elaborated after Mildred glared at the “awful.”

“Mrs. Smith, prose warnings are too matter-of-fact: ‘Slippery when wet.’ ‘Road may ice in winter.’ Those never get noticed,” he said.

“People are too stupid to drive slowly after an ice storm never believe such highway signs are meant for them,” she said. “What do you want of me?” Sometimes Mildred was a bit intolerant. Maybe it was her age.

“The Legislature wants a printed version of corny commercial jingles, the inept kind that race around your head hours after you’ve heard them,” he said, putting on his coat.

After that last insult, Mildred wished she hadn’t served the governor tea in her best china. A politician is more used to disposable cups imprinted with slogans.

Yet, she had been bored these last months. She got out a yellow legal pad.

Mildred initially considered fooling the state government by writing well. Then she understood her job. No one pays attention to clear writing.

A committee’s a commission, after all. She often wrote to order in the old days, though people demanded quality verse. Now, she settles for “bed of roses” even when thinking to herself.

She began writing with a good fountain pen.

A sticker to be affixed on all steam kettles:

“Grab a mitt or a potholder,
“For when you hear the whistle,
“That kettle didn’t grow colder.”

Meter, rhyme, both are fine, Mildred thought with a smile. Now for bathtub posters:

“They say cleanly is next to godly
“And scum always rises.
“But when your bathtub walls turn gray,
“Your quest toward divinity
“Could land you on your bum.”

Scum-bum. A diagonal rhyme — moving from internal to end-of-line — is barely acceptable. Thank heavens her rhythm is intact. She’d lose her pension if she ventured into free verse.


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.


Book Solves Drug Abuse! See Page 103

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 14 March 1990 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

MIRTHOLOGIST’S NOTE: In the interest of broadening the appeal of this publication, I am turning over this space for a tryout column by psychologist Seymour Sock, Ph.D.

Sock, one of my best-educated characters, knows so much about child development that he wants to share it with everybody instead of one client at a time. If this audition passes muster, the editors may put him on the payroll.

I hereby present Dr. Seymour Sock. Welcome to the keyboard, Sy. Don’t forget my advice.

* * *

Thanks. Hello, everybody. Ben’s suggestion, by the way, was to use everyday words and not to be too long about it.

In civic club presentations, I’ve learned to always open with a joke. I’m sure that works just as well in the writing game.

My topic is drug abuse. Where do I get my expertise?

I researched societal pressure for my doctorate. My thesis — “Effectatious Application of Enforced Structure on the American Model of the Smallest-Frame Learning Reception Environment,” or Classroom Discipline — has held up over the years because succeeding studies also used the children of professors as subjects.

I hope that sentence wasn’t too long.

I know a lot from personal experience as well, coming as I do from a large family who all grew up to by psychologists. No, in response to that question from the back, I am not Joyce’s brother. Ha ha.

That was the anecdote. This isn’t like lecturing at all. How can I wait for the peals of laughter to die down when there aren’t any? Actually, I never have to pause during my speeches, either.

For my first column I thought I’d try a book review. I’m quite familiar with the paperback “Just Say No, Thank You.” It is ethical to review your own book, isn’t it?

Early reviews have suggested the purpose of my book’s large print was to increase the number of pages and thus the price. Actually, the type size was to help parents of all backgrounds, if you know what I mean.

My only criticism is that I should have used more makeup for my back-cover photo.

The title elaborates on the 1980s slogan. My research is that to “Just Say No” to illegal drugs isn’t quite enough.

It is insufficient for South American peasants, who would starve saying no to a steady cash crop; for the addict who needs professional help to say no to his fix; for the casual user who thinks “Just Say Maybe This Once” harmless; and for thousands of middlemen and middlewomen — distributors and marketing reps — whose Saying No would collapse the economies of too many states.

Ben, was that too long a sentence?

The book’s first few chapters elaborate on this chain of U.S. capitalism, then drop it suddenly for the major theme. That may be poor thematically, but without it, I’d have a pamphlet, which would be ineligible for the best-seller list.

The book’s first point, on Page 103, is children of the 1990s must be courteous even when dealing with such evil. Adults find etiquette to be society’s lubricant for getting ahead. Your child’s tempter isn’t all that different from the jerks you have to deal with at work, right?

Children should never forget their “Pleases” and “You’re welcomes” and how to select the proper spoon. Just Say No, Thank You.

The second point is you must be taught the difference between drugs and medicine without resorting to exaggeration: Children eventually will see through such scare tactics.

Parents should, however, warn of the humiliation, prison, disease, death and bankruptcy that drug abuse brings.

All of us should be role models, and that means admitting alcohol is but another drug easily misused. Not only should our homes be free of booze, but adults should abstain from other enjoyable chemicals, such as tobacco, caffeine and garlic.

The book’s final advice is how to use diversion. The best tactic is the anti-drug talent show. Theater has three advantages: Children will be too busy rehearsing to stray and the adults who run the concerts keep a close eye on participants. The last is that the actors always get media attention. They will woodenly tell TV reporters how easy it is to walk away from a dealer.

Instead of learning to “Just Say No, Thank You,” unfortunately, the school assembly simply may envy the stars’ getting excused from weeks of class. My solution: more variety shows. Involve all students in fighting drugs. The heck with education.

This critic recommends that everyone buy this book.

* * *

NOTE: Dear Sy, No, thank you.


Pay Attention, You Will Be Tested Later

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 4 April 1990 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

NEWS ITEM: A national survey of experts has shown sex education classes thoroughly teach biological aspects of the subject. However, educators have found children also need to learn the relationship of sexuality to society, responsibility in relationships and adding etiquette to dating.

* * *

Good morning, boys. How was spring break? I hope you didn’t use anything you learned about since New Year’s. For the rest of the semester, we’ll cover Applied Sexuality.

What more is there than finding out how to do That, how to prevent This and how to keep from catching It?

First, you have to get to First Base, today’s topic. Remember, That, This and It are capitalized, bold-face or Italic code words. (Maybe I’m kidding.)

In my day, we only had basic sex ed.: single-cell organisms, human reproduction and venereal disease. You never hear about VD now; they’re all Sexually Transmitted Diseases. STD sounds like a new car or computer model.

Getting to First Base has nothing to do with Sperm, Ova and the Latex Barrier. That comes later.

First Base is a kiss. Before That, you kiss. It sometimes takes years before you get to That.

There are rules for First Base, which together with related activities is called dating.

In my day, we knew there were rules, but they weren’t formally taught. Sometimes you could get a hint of them on the playground, in the pinball arcade or the gutter. The most reliable source of information back then was guessing.

The rules have changed somewhat, naturally, but still are not written down, even though Responsible Relationships is part of our curriculum. No one pays any attention to dating rules, anyway.

Here is how to begin a relationship. I am leaving out morals, because those often have a spiritual base, and That involves religion, and This is school. It is quite possible to have a mutually enjoyable and rewarding romance without mucking It up with philosophy. Rationalizing comes with marriage.

1) Choose the potential object of your affections. Use any criteria, such as intelligence, attractiveness or sense of humor.

My favorite method of choosing is to select someone who is already interested in me. Often, It is easier.

1 1/2) The easiest way to find out who is interested in you is to wait for a woman to ask you for a date. (Traditionally, however — we role models had nothing to do with This — males ask females.)

2) When you get tired of waiting, approach the target. Make small talk then ask her out. The only aspect of dating every covered in books is the small talk, otherwise called opening lines. The how-tos suggest the following topics: astrology, animals, allergies and algorithms. I have found stammering until getting to the question as effective as any of these.

2.1) Which is to say: If she is interested, she’ll say yes, almost no matter what you blather. If she is not, nothing will save It so sulk for a few months then focus on someone else.

2 1/4) Have ready a schedule and one or two alternatives. A date often includes food, such as soda or a dessert, and entertainment, such as movies or miniature croquet.

Fellows often try to leave the entertainment up to the woman, thinking she’ll enjoy the date more if she makes the choices. This is the worst mistake for a budding relationship. Nothing is more frustrating than a “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know. What do you want to do?” conversation. She’ll take you for a wimp. Don’t make her guess.

Have That schedule written out. (You can prevent muttering by making dates over the phone. Then you can rely on notes but sound spontaneous.)

2.6) Be ready to dump your schedule before or during the date. Changing set plans is a healthy conversation. Doing so will tell you a lot about her before you get too involved: Is she: Flexible? Stubborn? Expensive?

2 2/3) This ends the man’s role in the date.

3) All other decisions are hers, especially the progress of affection.

4) Your date will let you know if you can kiss her. If you miss her subtle hint, she will make her desire more obvious. (Warning: Do Not Jump to Conclusions. Make her spell It out.)

4 7/8) Some women make the man make all the moves. This is a trap; avoid her type.

5) Getting to First Base is not a measure of the date’s success. Getting another date is, even if it’s not with the same woman.

There’s the bell. Tomorrow, class, we will discuss holding hands.


Where Do You Go When You Want Humane Care?

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 7 March 1990 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

Waking up with a stopped-up ear is a nuisance. You know the cause — the previous week’s head cold — and that it’s not infected — no pain. Yet, the ear needs fixing, because people are having to shout for you to hear them.

The hardest part of getting my ear treated recently was persuading my cat to help. She hates going to the doctor.

Would this make better sense if I started at the beginning?

A couple of weeks ago, my left ear closed up completely. The right one wasn’t hearing so good, either.

I went to my internist, Rufus Finkleman, M.D. As usual, I sat for an hour in his waiting room until I was called to an examining room. Five minutes later, a nurse came in for my blood pressure and to say the doctor would be in right away.

I shivered, half-dressed, for another 25 minutes until Dr. Rufus flowed into the cubicle, dapper in a black turtleneck.

“You got the ‘crud’ that’s been going around?” he asked pleasantly in his closed-mouth drawl.

“I guess so,” I said, adding it was centered in my left ear.

Just then, Dr. Rufus was called away to take a phone call from another doctor. When he returned he glanced in my ear with a small flashlight, having written, while out of the room, prescriptions for 10 days’ worth of antibiotic and decongestant pills.

When the full course of pills didn’t work, I decided I wanted an old-fashioned doctor, one with compassion and patience, one who returned phone calls directly, not through a nurse.

I contacted the office of Finkleman’s sister Doris Finkleman, D.V.M. To avoid suspicion, I made the appointment in the name of my 5 3/4-year-old kitty, B.C. (for Ben’s Cat).

The veterinarian was known for rapport with her patients.

My long-haired calico was reluctant to go along with this plan. I had to drop her, butt first and by surprise, into her carrier, like when I take her for the annual car ride for vaccinations.

The receptionist asked, as all vet secretaries do, “What’s our problem today?” in the royal we.

So I answered similarly and thus honestly for once, “Our ear.”

She led me immediately into the antiseptic-smelling cubicle and sprayed disinfectant automatically on the Formica table. She said I should get B.C. out of her cage once she closed the door.

I placed B.C. in her box on the master’s chair and climbed onto the examination counter, waiting there on all fours. Within seconds — this being a vet’s office — Dr. Doris entered through the room’s second door.

You should have seen the look on her face.

Once I explained my situation, the alarm left her face. “Does Rufus know you’re here? Did my brother,” she said, chortling, “refer you to me?”

The preliminary interview taken care of, my new Dr. Finkleman offered to take my temperature, avoiding most of the obvious jokes. I declined.

She asked if I preferred my penicillin shot in the middle of my back or in the meaty part of my thigh. When I flinched at that, she stroked me under my chin with one hand and tickled the space between my eyes with another finger, which was surprisingly calming. I almost purred.

Doris then found a penlight in the pocket of her white lab coat and looked carefully into my ears.

“I don’t see any wax, Ben, but there is some fluid in the left canal that didn’t drain after your cold. It will go away in a week by itself. You can help it along by pinching your nostrils and blowing gently — like after a plane ride — to help clear your Eustachian tubes.

“Do that a few times a day. When that left ear pops, you’re cured,” she said.

“You’re not going to give me any medicine?” I asked.

“I don’t prescribe pills, I dispense them here. Besides, you certainly wouldn’t want to size tablets I offer. I was just joking about the injection, too.”

Dr. Doris hesitated. No doctor criticizes another lightly.

“I don’t know why my brother wrote those prescriptions. He must not have looked closely in your ear. I could see the fluid through your eardrum.”

I hopped off the table. Dr. Doris gave B.C. a sample chewable vitamin, like a pediatrician gives a child a lollipop.

I got a different sort of treat: Dr. Doris signed my insurance claim form. I’ve been laughing about that ever since I turned it over to the personnel office at work.