Category Archives: 2001 Loose Leaves

Loose Leaves columns from 2001

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?


The Heck with the Little Guy, Let’s Spend Time with Mr. Big

Loose Leaves column, 1st run Sunday 5 August 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

Wal-Mart has ruined me for others.

By its clout, it can buy in huge quantities and entice us by passing the savings on to us. As you and I know on our humdrum scale, the giant economy size often is cheaper.

Regular mom-and-pop or father-and-son stores, in fact entire downtowns across the country, say Wal-Mart is killing them.

They’re bankrupting themselves.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. chooses to do what human-sized shops once did: Back the products. There’s no back-talk, no suspicion on merchandise returns. Bringing that receipt makes matters smoother and faster (yes, the stores restrict returns on electronics, automotive and a very few other departments), but they flex to satisfy the customer. The customer is always right.

Wal-Mart makes lots more sales than refunds. It will make money. Kmart and Target make money with similar smiling return rules.

Dillard Department Stores makes money, too. Its refund policy is limited to 30 days, but they mean it. Last fall, the luggage sales clerk was understanding when I returned a suitcase bought two weeks earlier because pretend-packing showed it to be too big.

Lands’ End and similar large mail-order houses allow you to change your mind with efficiency. L.L. Bean exchanged my umbrella six months after I bought it when a wind gust broke it.

The neighborhood office supply of yore infamously overcharged. Its customers were guys using their companies’ money. Why be cost-conscious?

When repetitive computer stress struck my neck a dozen years ago, I set out for ergonomic chairs for work and home. A downtown office supply, in Little Rock, had them starting at $150; its clerk groused how the manufacturer, a trusted old brand, just signed with Sam’s Wholesale Club. Thanks, buddy; see ya’. At Sam’s I bought two for about $85 each. An arm wouldn’t screw on right, and I exchanged it easily.

Last year, I found the perfect satchel for my iBook at Its Internet policy allowed me to return purchases to any Kmart. That prevents having to fork out postage to mail something back. Yet this bag is ideal.

Weeks earlier, I went to a locally owned sporting goods store. The Macintosh iBook is a funny shape. The shopkeeper said I could buy two bags, take them home to try and bring back the one that was too small.

The next morning I returned. Where was the owner? Oh, he ran to the bank, I was told. He’ll be right back. We don’t take refunds. Oh, he said that? I’ve worked here six months, and they’ve never taught me how to run a credit-card credit; you’ll have to wait. I waited 45 minutes and was late to work.

With a week of use, I realized the case would not hold more than the laptop, except pens and a couple of cords and cables. The name-brand bag was inexpensive yet sturdy and hung comfortably on my shoulder. Maybe I could find another use for it rather than take the time and embarrassment of haggling over a return.

The well-padded tote now securely carries my alto, soprano and tenor recorders in their cases, along with book and sheet music an inch thick. Acoustic, not electric!

Why revive these grudges? Because the trend continues.

Four months ago I bought four tires at Sam’s. Week before last, one developed a 3-inch blister in the sidewall; a blowout was imminent. The Sam’s garage replaced it on pro-rated warranty, at 34 percent of the original price. Installed in less than an hour.

Last week, my car hit 60,000 miles. For such occasions I treat cars to service at a dealer. Besides all the usual components of this “major” tune-up, my owner’s manual calls for replacing the timing belt, which is costly.

Dealer A quoted me $300 and Dealer B $375. Both have good reputations, well, for dealer service departments, so the low bid won.

Two hours after it was dropped off, the guy at Dealer A phones to say that for my model the $300 standard tune-up should be $410. Plus an additional $400 for the belt replacement. I tell him to wait.

Would Dealer B have dealt me that? I called. There the belt would be $325 extra, which he, too, should have said when I first called with my model and year.

I had told both garages the year and model. Wouldn’t their computers or binder of estimates have spit back the particulars?

Well, $700 is better than $810. I reported my research to Dealer A’s service rep. He quickly agreed to match Dealer B.

Yet, if I wanted to haggle with dealers, I would have bought a whole damn car.

Wouldn’t you like to favor the “little” guy? So would I. But business is not charity. If they can’t be square, they deserve real competition.

Thank goodness there’s still 142 shopping days until Christmas.


Chandra Levy Taken by White Slavers Hired by Crazed Politicians

Loose Leaves column, 1st run Sunday 15 July 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

It wasn’t even Friday the 13th yet, but the week wrecked me from the start. Somebody said something vaguely insulting. The home repair was delayed a few days, again. My computer crashed; what’s new. Got a chain-letter e-mail from somebody I thought knew better. Something healthy I cooked disagreed with me.

Took the normal summer’s heat personally, too.

Bad weeks and bad days come up sometimes. They are just a collection of coincidences. Some coincidences start from the actions of other people, who may be superstitious.

Superstition seems to be increasing, despite the presence of not only more verifiable knowledge but knowledge that’s ever easier to find and understand. Yes, from the Internet.

Developed gossip is a form of superstition.

We smart people presume Internet information from legitimate companies and institutions to be more current and factual. We know to remain skeptical.

Some electronic information sell people can’t-live-withouts, troubling hoaxes or whole belief systems.

Friends and acquaintances you thought knew better e-mail you old-fashioned chain letters, asking you to relay them on to others for money or just luck. They send you inspiring anecdotes that history easily disproves, or horrible tales quickly found listed on sites that categorize contemporary, “urban” myths.

I could attribute the lousy week to cutting a couple of such chains.

Instead, I daydreamed of withdrawing $500 cash from an ATM then driving out, for about $300 worth of gasoline, junk food and cheap motels (and Wal-Mart for a change of underwear) then driving home in a week or a month on the remainder. This would clear my head of 40-something years of false notions, met goals and discharged hopes.

I fantasized I would decide to do this spontaneously one morning, leave the office that noon, calling my wife from a pay phone after crossing at least one state line. Let the office fire me for going AWOL. On my return I would take a sweaty but simple job at a bakery.

This is not just my fantasy. Thousands of U.S. adults go “missing” every year. Some return. Some never come back, having embarked on new lives. Very few are kidnapped or bludgeoned into the actually rather-rare amnesia.

Crime is decreasing, according to FBI statistics. People may be abandoning families for a breather or forever, but no epidemic of psychopaths exists, despite arresting images on TV or other screens.

This is, yes, enormously frightening, depressing and frustrating for the loved ones left behind. Nor are relatives and friends assured by a culture — not just the ratings-addled media — that thrives on gossip, paranoia and a drive for combining facts and coincidences into cohesive if false wholes — logic, common sense and knowledge of human behavior be damned.

Certainly I hope Chandra Levy cut and dyed her hair, hiding out to figure out the rest of her life, having merely run away from being a 24-year-old (three or six years of adulthood under her belt) Californian feeling stuck in a Washington federal internship, having fled a romantic or just sexual relationship with a married father of children her age.

That we have quit discussing the murder of the wife of actor Robert Blake — and tax cuts and campaign finance reform and summer boat safety — to focus on Levy and her ex-lover, an obscure US congressman from California’s fertile belly, and to gab about allegations of his other flings and associations, is pathetic.

What mythology, what common theory are we craving? Post-communist conspiracy? White slavery? Internet pornography-fueled anarchy?

Superstition, in a word?

Say you, a rational logical person, are driving along last Friday (the 13th!) and the hypothetical car up ahead is driven by a regular guy who still holds only a couple of superstitions, left from childhood.

The guy sees that a black cat just crossed the road ahead of him, so he slams on his brakes then swerves around to “avoid the path of a black cat.” You and the dope collide.

The superstitious guy simply made a bad call, never mind his reasons, which had an impact on you, and your car.

The people you tell this to at the office coffee urn turn superstitious (and you thought all their only superstition was to tally celebrity deaths, arguing if putting a musician in with two actors adds up to three). They say the black cat caused bad luck on both you and the other driver.

What can you do but return to the scene of the accident, walk to a nearby yard and take a photo of the hypothetical cat sitting on a shady porch, near its hypothetical owner?

He had a bad day, having almost lost his kitty. He thought about running away but didn’t because the cat needs him.

The cat has one white paw.


9-1-1, a National Call to Emergency, and We’re Low on Gas

Loose Leaves column, 1st published Sunday 16 September 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

TUESDAY — Here it is, 2 p.m. Gas-station shenanigans hold up everything.

Earlier today, I was wrapping up some family business in Fort Smith, and after lunch was driving along and saw that outside a couple of filling stations were two-block lines of vehicles for gasoline. What is this, 1979, the Tehran Embassy takeover and the threat of dollar gas?

It made sense with the morning’s continental terrorism. What’s it mean? War? Attacks eventually here in Middle America? Loss of our conveniences?

I phoned a newsroom colleague. He said reported rumors of shortages were found to be unfounded. That was not convincing people against precautions. He had topped off his own tank.

He warned that some stations hiked their prices, either to make a quick buck or to slow sales in case refineries fell short later, though they had plenty of crude on this awful Tuesday. We agreed that if I found a convenience store with a short line to go for it but otherwise not to sweat it.

If there is to be a shortage, what will waiting hours in line buy today: An extra week of cruising? When we’re out, we’ll be out.

What’s an hour and maybe a five-buck overcharge compared to that cloud over Manhattan? Mundane.

The first stations on the road to Springdale all have lines; some are $1.58 or $1.69 as before, but some post $2 a gallon or more. The Fayetteville area surely will be the same.

I exit at little Mountainburg for a station a couple of miles from Interstate 540, closer to old U.S. 71.

The C-store has up to four cars at each pump; none has to idle along the road. I spot a pump with no line, just one car about to be fueled.

What’s taking that car so long? I can’t believe I just did what I always avoid doing in groceries and banks. The shortest line always takes the longest. Now, I am pinned and cannot move. Look at the driver. A little older than me, she’s fussing and fidgeting. These are credit-card-accepting pumps. This new to her? The least she could do is shrug, acknowledge me. Must be a Yankee. Doesn’t she know which end and which side of the credit card to stick in? If she doesn’t figure that out soon, I’m going to, I’m going to, well, I’m going to honk my horn. She could ask the clerk for help. Her face is blank. National Public Radio now is giving details about the Pentagon hit and the crash near Shanksville, Pa. That woman looks about grimly and focuses on nothing. I look around. Everyone looks serious. Hey, this is one gorgeous day. Late summer’s first hint of a clear fall afternoon where air conditioning finally is superfluous. Two guys in a car on the right are talking. By the gestures, it looks like one is asking the other if he wants anything inside. They’re muscular, with contemporary shaved heads. He’s going in. Glad I’m not in that line. This day, get your gas and leave, buddy. He’s back, already, with bottles of Mountain Dew. My leader just started to pump fuel into a nondescript, not-too-old sedan. It must hold a hundred gallons, and she must have the pump set at “eyedropper.” Doesn’t she need to be somewhere, too? This is to be a day we’re all going to remember, “9-1-1 — the nation’s call to emergency.” Will our memories be of sitting just outside a gas station canopy waiting to funnel in overpriced petroleum that’s cheaper than anywhere else in the world?

She’s done!

It’s tough, but I manage to smile at her, be neighborly like the Southern boy I am. She just drives off, looking only toward the road.

Why am I so mad? I never get like this. Almost never.

Sheesh, gas now is 50 cents higher. Might as well buy some. I’ve waited this long.

The pump display orders me to insert my credit card again. The diagram next to the read-out shows the card should go in the other way, unlike all other pumps, surely. I should have looked. Now I’m mad at myself.

With receipt in hand — for just seven gallons — I return to the freeway. The anger dissipates. That happens quickly when anger’s unfocused, unorganized: Mad at my fellow customers. At the store. At how predictable this is. At how unpredictable the hijackings are. At how that’s left all of us feeling.

We could guess our formal and personal response to Iraq invading Kuwait. This just started, though. It is so different from everything.

Should we laser the anger, train and hone it into soldiering? That’s going to be needed.

What about the anger that propelled people smart and fearless enough to learn to fly commercial aircraft around obstacles, above the din of screaming passengers, squarely into buildings? What’s their problem?


There’s No Time Like Show Time to Fake What You Know

Loose Leaves, 1st published Sunday 9 September 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben Pollock

Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

Spring is no time for commencement addresses: Who can pay attention in the excitement of graduation from one course, looking toward the next beginning?

September may be a better time. Where you’ll be a year from now may well be set commencing now. Fall is when many runs of events commence, after all.

The primal American myth is that any child can grow up to be president. Or a pro athlete, a star, a leader, something big.

That belief often leads to disappointment. We, all of us, cannot be on top.

Most of us fit the category of “most of us.” Some of us will get to do what we want. A few of us will make it big. Most of us, for example, will be choosing between “making a living” and “enjoying our work.”

Most of us can surmount a broken and mean childhood, like Bill Clinton’s, by realizing it is up to us to leave the past behind us. We don’t have to win the presidency to be successful.

Most of us will be glad, thank you, to hit adulthood with pleasant-enough jobs and family and friends to love.

A general and realistic goal, then, is not to be president or play pro ball but to find work you love. Which most of us don’t find right away. Fortunately, most of us are driven to have the best-paying job possible. This probably is what allows the whole system to move forward.

Most of us will be grateful to find jobs or, better, a line of work (“career” is jargon intended to benefit the economy by entrapping the individual, a related but separate topic) that pay enough and be interesting most of the time.

Most of us will not become CEOs in work paths that basically match our aptitudes and interests but not our passions. Management must not be everyone’s goal. Do you think your boss, a nice-enough person most of the time, likes every duty he or she has to do?

The rest of us? Most of the rest of us — I am among them — discover miraculously work we love. That means an occupation so delicious we’d do it for free.

Because we cannot all be superstars, this work likely will pay less than the work we can endure pleasantly. Like all jobs, it will have times of boredom, frustration and fear.

Picture that singer or that actor or that quarterback practicing practicing practicing. Picture them in the dark of night knowing that if they have a couple of duds in a row they’ll turn into has-beens. They have met on their way up famous failures on their way down.

Most of us don’t need stardom to be content.

That’s fortunate, for avocations often pay nothing to most of us. Most of us, indeed, will do the thing we love on the side: Paint or sculpt on weekends, write poetry or newsy letters, strum in garage bands or toot in community wind bands, act in amateur theater or video productions, design innovative Internet sites few will find. …

Most of us are enormously successful just to pull that off, while working legitimate jobs that pay enough, with friends and family to love along the way.

Getting there, yes, means not just a few but many false starts, wrong turns, ignored good advice and fully idiotic, should-have-seen-it-coming boners.

Most of us recover from most mistakes, though we may have to fuzz up the old goals. Most of us do find that we rely on the ability to fix mistakes all the way to second childhood.

Most of us will be quite grateful to finish high school, then manage to earn further degrees or certificates in just a few years, working part-time and filling out every form we can find to get scholarships, grants and loans.

As an example, you can take a dumb chance and become a teen parent. You can go back and finish school later. You will be able to concentrate better, knowing how badly you need the diploma. It will be harder with lease or mortgage, other loan payments, responsibilities to spouse and children — literal debts and emotional responsibilities.

Not all of us can do that, though. That’s the problem.

Most of us mistake-makers trip over a vague, moving line where we cannot go back and try again. That line is different for each of us.

It’s where you cannot recover the energy of youth. It’s where you cannot recover the money you didn’t need to blow. It’s where you cannot take back that remark. It’s where you missed the chance to apologize even when it’s that other person who should have apologized first. It’s where you missed the chance to say and demonstrate love.

If I knew where that line was, I’d show it here. Save us all some time at commencement. Most of us always will be commencing something.


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?


Head for Hills, Hogs Coming — But We’re in the Hills

Loose Leaves, 1st published Sunday 2 September 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben Pollock

Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

In days, Northwest Arkansas will be overrun by large vehicles flying fluttering red pennants indicating — not the communist overthrow or seduction of Gov. Mike Huckabee –the return of far-flung University of Arkansas football fans.

You can be a local, fervent UA alumnus, Razorback fan or both and still be off-put by these overly cheery, often forceful and surprisingly loud people in polo shirts.

They take over Fayetteville on home-game weekends. Thus, local residents need advice.

With this season’s expansion of Razorback Stadium from some 50,000 to more than 70,000 seats, close to campus begins further away.

• Thus, the first tip for locals is that the best seat is in the den.

Your den — or elsewhere if the game is just on radio — has a refrigerator and microwave nearby, which only the skybox guests have, but they’ll be wheezing from the smell of new carpet. You won’t get nosebleeds from the new seats’ altitude.

Your parking is closer.

• Don’t leave home on home-game days. The streets are clogged, and will be so for more miles due to the enlarged stadium.

For Saturday afternoon games, the traffic begins Friday and is again OK on Sunday. Following night games, Sundays are best spent reading the paper or working in the yard, away from the curb.

Traffic is heavy yet also erratic. Folks get lost. Also, drivers prowl for free-if-distant parking and also for short-cuts. Their glares indicate they think that “Dead End” signs are but a ruse.

• With tables set for 70,000 fans plus teams, bands, media and staff, not just local but area cafes and bars will be packed. Cook at home, having groceries bought by Friday.

If you’re grilling, do it out front, flaunting the burgers and drinks at the passing football fans, who are driving from restaurant to restaurant hoping to find anything for less than a 90-minute wait.

• Game-day Saturdays are just the time for many Northwest Arkansans to drive to Tulsa to shop or just look around.

• Also recommended are scenic drives south and east on the various Pig Trails. Spending the entire day at Beaver Lake is inviting; you won’t need a radio; the game can be heard from all the boats.

• Alternatively,drive to Little Rock for Park Plaza, McCain Mall and the delightful River Market. Go to the zoo in Fair Park. It is also the home of the Razorbacks’ other coliseum, War Memorial Stadium.

If Little Rockers somehow detect you’re from the Ozarks, you simply must tell them you are there for the game — didn’t they know that there’s been a policy change and ALL UA home games will be played in Little Rock every year, forever.

Little Rockers need their legs pulled; they act as if Northwest Arkansas is but a suburb of their Pulaski County. Either that or we’re a theme park that’s just a bit of a drive.

• Shopping locally can be ideal during games. Shops and the mall will be deserted. Just watch the time and get home before the middle of the fourth quarter. If the weather’s bad, leave sooner.

• In planning how to deal with the up-to 35,000 SUVs, minivans and Cadillacs (holding the 70,000 guests), it helps to consider whether the Saturday in question is summertime-humid, fall-balmy, fall-downpour, or, toward November, fall-freezing.

A hot Saturday means that popular drinks are the cold ones.

A brisk fall day brings out nostalgia,and that means libations.

A wet Saturday necessitates fortification.

Ticket holders fight a cold Saturday with trips to concession stands or stretching toward the cooler under the seat. This is warming exercise.

At least one home game will undergo a downpour. Do Razorback stalwarts open umbrellas or cover their heads with programs? Observation over the years indicates many are fair-weather fans and head, soggily,to the mall or the movies.

• One part of UA Chancellor John White’s goal of a student- centered research university (isn’t that contradictory?) is a nerd round-up, new this term.

Students who during the game grab a few quiet hours of study are to be kidnapped at their labs and libraries by the Chamber of Commerce.

They will be taken to video arcades and movie houses with free passes. The pocket-protector pack also is given pizza hot from the oven — not tepid as delivered. All this will persuade them to stay at the UA for graduate school and then to start billion-dollar businesses here.

• There is one advantage to being in a football town: The least painful and least compromising way for grown-ups of all ages –I mean all ages — to feel again is to spend Saturday evening hanging out on Dickson Street near campus. We and our bellies and gray hair will stand out, but no problem; the current students are nice. The constabulary is assuringly out in force but ignore so-called victimless infractions unless brought bluntly to their attention.

We of the Ozarks can be gracious hosts.


Take My Hand, I’m Scared; Let Me Go, I Can Do It

Loose Leaves column, 1st run Sunday 6 May 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

I am paranoid or sensible enough to fasten the seat belt every time I get in an automobile, without caring that most states, including Arkansas, mandate wearing them.

My family rented a boat on Table Rock Lake a few weeks ago. The man checking out the boat to us explained he had stowed enough life jackets for all under some of the seats and that only children are required by Missouri law to wear them.

Did I check which seats and put one on? No. Why seat belts and not life jackets? Why am I trusting my brother not to capsize us?

Without seat-belt laws, too many of us would not bother. Legislation protecting us against many avoidable mishaps may cost a torn-but-blank corner of the Constitution but is a useful sacrifice of freedom.

Arkansas should not have abolished the mandatory motorcycle helmet law. You don’t have to be a police reporter for long to see the results of even a slow-speed motorcycle wreck.

I never fail to wear a bicycle helmet on Fayetteville’s hills on my red BikeE recumbent. No law covers bicycle helmets for young or old, just that bicycles must be operated just like cars, ridden on the right, with turn signals, etc.

I bicycle like I drive and swim — slowly. When I was about 12 I signed up for a two-day bicycle trip. This being before mass-marketed, drop-handlebar 10-speeds, we campers were given black Raleigh three-speed English touring bikes.

The slowest bicyclists had to lead, to keep them from falling behind and getting lost. The other boys so taunted me during the weeks of practice that on the morning of the trip I managed to wake with a fever and got excused.

But I never lost a love of bicycles. I pedaled all over Fort Smith, even after getting my driver’s license.

My honeymoon was a Caribbean cruise. One afternoon, the wind increased quickly, bringing in ominous clouds. My wife, theretofore even more cautious than me, called out, let’s walk to the front, and took off. I weighed waiting inside, then followed.

Yes, it was exhilarating. This was years before the movie “Titanic,” so we did no “king of the world” scene on the bow. We didn’t stay there but a few minutes because, fortunately, she got cold.

By the time we returned, gripping the now-wet rope railing for dear life, the loudspeaker was sounding with a call to clear the decks, that a storm was blowing in.

Yet she hates for me to bicycle. An acquaintance our age, author Ned Shank, died from a collision in Eureka Springs last year. Harry Lewenstein, husband of my favorite journalism professor, was 70 in 1997 when he broke his neck after his bike hit a bump in Portugal; he’s a quadriplegic.

But I continue to pedal out, helmeted and full of lights and reflectors, for all the good that does around here. I would call out to children bicycling illegally or helmetless, but that might scare them into swerving. Should strangers interfere with the offspring of relatively sensible adults?

Children in peril captivate readers and viewers like no other news event. A few years ago a little girl wandered off and fell in a hole, and the nation watched TV news until she was dug up, alive.

This is an old phenomenon. A subplot in the 1987 Woody Allen movie “Radio Days” has the main characters glued to their radios — during the 1940s — for updates about a fictional child who fell into a well.

Accidents almost by definition are all technically preventable. But we can’t think of everything all of the time. Weeks ago, I did leave the cold-water tap on, in the sink with the bad plunger that closes on its own, and it did flood.

At some point we have to acknowledge that life is not a theme park with firm railings and smooth ramps everywhere. The main part of growing up is testing new waters, whether you’re 6 or 16.

Even if you don’t believe in angels, it is difficult not to cite super-natural guardians who serve God with subtle rescues most of the time. The key, because we are mortal, is “most of the time.” Angels watch ships: Goony landlubbers falling overboard are quite rare.

We also must be one another’s angels.

When we hear of a kindergartner taken by adults on a hike along a fast river with cliffs, we hope others who still think this is an appropriate activity will hang a whistle on their child’s neck and ensure their child is in the front or middle of the group, not last where it may take precious moments to notice her disappearance.

The next time we should not boast how the ensuing search-and-rescue was the biggest in Arkansas history.

Angels don’t mind their own business.


Go and Sin Some More: You’ll Be A Better Person For It

Where’s the Sin in Synonyms?

Loose Leaves column, 1st run Sunday 25 March 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

There may be seven deadly sins, but we don’t hear much about most of them. The reason is that they have important uses, if not different names.

If that’s not the case, then maybe the others just aren’t as sexy.

The seven sins, and seven virtues as well, comprise a Christian concept. They’re not uniform, either. Do fortitude and bravery mean the same thing? How about pride and arrogance? Greed, avarice and covetousness? It may be just differing translations and interpretations but then again. …

You don’t have to look for long to find seven sins on the Internet. At least.

From and, you’ll find pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. In the interest of equal time, they list the seven virtues, which generally include prudence, temperance, courage, justice, love, hope and faith. Fortitude, however, comes in for courage on some lists. Charity replaces love in other versions.

Sometimes I get charity at home, myself, often as not a charitable glance. If you can wangle a receipt, it’s deductible.

Lust of course gets good press and lots of prime-time television. Lust for sex films well, but lust for power or control is more common and can be televised earlier in the evening, sometimes during the news.

Greed makes for family programs, but where is the melodrama in gluttony? It’s not Julia Child’s gourmet cooking shows. Gluttony may be found in the latest incarnations of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” on the E! channel or Home & Garden Television.

HGTV shows materialism in all forms, beginning with the raw materials of land and lumber.

The E! series “Wild On …” shows ideal vacations for the younger crowd. Viewers should be lusting after the babes and hunks, but all that is visible is gluttony: “Gee, they’re drunk.”

Gluttony does not necessarily arouse envy, either.

Oh, sloth. Fishing shows show guys sitting on a dock or a boat or a rock each holding a long stick. Sometimes they wiggle the sticks.

The stars are not as nearly slothful as we, for watching them.

We all need sloth periodically. It is recuperative.

Sloth, though, is written out of traditional manuals. The Sabbath, as more traditional Jews practice it, is fully devoted to prayer and study of holy books. As a complete change of pace from the workaday life, even if it’s just as intensive, this is genuinely rejuvenating.

But so is contemplation of the week’s Bible readings on Saturday morning and later taking a beer to the porch for some afternoon sun.

These few days of near-spring weather addle my brain.

Anger — wrath — can at best just be minimized, but the emotion, rather, sin, has much to speak for it.

During my 20s I learned that while simmering or buried anger turns into depression, which should be a sin, anger can be seen as unfocused energy. Focus that energy into positive action, and you’ll find yourself learning watercolor or dancing or free-writing in a journal daily. Personal growth would be a virtue but for the irritating new-age terminology.

Pride seems interchangeable with arrogance.

Everybody needs pride, though. Let’s call arrogance the sin. Specifically, the arrogance of laziness angers me. I focus my anger into getting a column out by deadline.

Mediocrity was reported recently in “Loose Leaves” as a pet peeve. This is when someone routinely does a B-level job, especially aggravating when A-level involves little more effort or thought.

Weeks of evolving fuming have led to the conclusion that mediocrity is a specific laziness borne out of a presumption someone else will take care of it, whatever it is, if it matters in the first place.

Laziness with presumption becomes arrogance.

It is not becoming.

Meanwhile, pride has to be a virtue. Sure, folks do foolish things out of pride, but pride — vanity — keeps good people thriving and productive.

Michael J. Fox, the actor, quit series TV work because of early Parkinson’s disease. He can no longer hide his tremors for very long. But there he is acting on commercials. He can’t need the money. He works out of what amounts to pride.

Christopher Reeve, quadriplegic from a horse fall, plans to walk again. Reeve is a handsome actor, full of life, and pride might as well be the root of his efforts to move. Bully for him.

You could call it lust for life, but there it’s lust.

A dear neighbor died of cancer last week. Quiet and industrious, she fought to stay productive and helpful and kind to the end.

A close friend suffered a mild stroke last week. He insists on feeding himself and walking a little. Pride will speed his recovery.

Meanwhile, I’m proud — full of pride — that I could work “arouse,” “addle,” “wangle” and “evolving” into a column praising sin.


Cheating the Greeting Cards with Revolt for Originality

Loose Leaves column, 1st run Sunday 22 April 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

BIG CEDAR LODGE, Mo. — What can be worse than amateur poetry? Perhaps only off-key singing by a relative you dare not criticize. On the other hand, what is better than specifically local verse? Nothing, provided such recitations come in short doses and at the right times.

A family friend, back in Fort Smith, used to write poems for special occasions. The last couple of times, he was taken aside and asked not to recite them anymore. He told me this over dinner a few years ago and then gave me a half-dozen of them, hoping for kind words.

He got them.

There was one for a young cousin on his wedding, some to honor birthdays or anniversaries of friends or family and one honoring a colleague’s retirement.

No one would have mistaken them for works of Tommy Eliot or Johnny Donne (or Bill Shakespeare), but they were personal and sincere. If the rhymes sometimes were forced, they at least were clever puns in the spirit of Ogden Nash.

Sadly, my friend — really my mom’s friend — was not well enough to come here for my mom’s birthday.

My big brother flew in from California and big sister from North Carolina. The reunion followed four months of planning, e-mails and toll calls (for this long-established, generally classy place does not have a toll-free number).

I presented Mom a couple of poems. She doesn’t need any more earrings or purses, especially now that we kids went in together on nice ones.

This seems a good time, weeks before the contrived Mother’s Day, to call a revolt against greeting-card companies, greeting-card shops and greeting-card aisles in multipurpose stores.

Etiquette experts agree handwritten notes outclass greeting cards, no matter how much one customizes the printed message.

A box of blank cards, from any of the above enterprises, can cost little more than a single, fancy greeting card.

Before or after “Happy Birthday,” “Happy Mother’s Day” or whatever, pen out a dozen words or a dozen lines about and to the recipient.

“I love you” is spoken or written too rarely. But for this, the Three Magic Words truly are not enough.

Folks might also use fancy pens and careful penmanship. I have to believe in the authenticity of crossed-out words. There is no choice, for I tinker with word choice, am easily distracted and am just sloppy. A last resort is to type it in and print it up.

Unfortunately, not everyone reads etiquette books. Despite good stationery and intentions, you may be rewarded by being thought of as cheap for not buying a $7.95 deluxe greeting card that takes two stamps even if you hand-deliver it.

Thank goodness I am married and no longer date women who think they know better. My wife actually does know better.

Fie, of course you can write as well as Hallmark. If your unique sincerity or cleverness dismays the recipients, get new friends. And new relatives while you’re at it.

My mom’s sonnet, however, would not come together. Desperate, already the seven of us seated at the 7 o’clock birthday dinner in Top of the Rock at Big Cedar, I returned to the lobby. In two minutes I wrote up two couplets on one of the index cards I always carry. It was just right, not to being mention short and timely.

7 at 7

Here we are, seven at seven
To celebrate a day stolen from heaven.
With Mom at the center, we turn
About, focus, years of love discern.

Two mornings after B-Day — “Hey, Mom, you don’t look a day over -0,” we joke — my sister-in-law insists I read the delayed sonnet at this, our last meal.

Life Is Not a Gift Shop

It takes something like a birthday
To group us in a lodge, after so long.
We could look back as … say-what? Say
“What if’s?” “What happened’s?” But, Mom, we are strong.
Surely a woman is more than her pride,
Yet that is all we, the three cubs, can see.
So entitled, we story-tell, not snide,
But, our picture of her, it may have to be.
What then to number? Count a string of jobs?
Count homes, hometowns; dare we tally her men?
The woman has to be more than these parts,
Must try to see the whole, for our sake, then.
We move day to day like bread by the slice.
From your end, the loaf with odd cuts is nice?

* * *

Before 1941, Ernie Pyle traveled across America. Those columns described small-town life. Pyle then traveled with the troops during World War II. The columns were unadorned and brisk. He merely wrote down what the boys said. This had not been done before. Or since. A Japanese sniper killed Pyle on April 18, 1945, a day now called National Columnists Day. It has no greeting cards as yet.