Category Archives: Life Lessons

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Play’s Song Revives ‘Can-Do’ Memory of Father

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 20 December 1989 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock
Copyright 1989 Ben S. Pollock

Ben Pollock (Sr.)
Sketch by Cici Davidson, 1989, based on June 1975 photo by Edward N. Altman

My father was a funny man, yet I cannot remember any of his jokes, except the last one.

He died Dec. 19, 1985, — he was 69, me 28 — and still not a day goes by but something doesn’t remind me of him, sometimes opening a deep memory.

I saw a revival of Guys and Dolls this month, partly because it was Dad’s favorite musical.

The first full number, the program read, was “Fugue for Tinhorns.” Had I known that was the “can-do” song — which Dad sang or whistled in the years when he called me “Mister Boo” — I would have braced myself. Caught by surprise, I cried for a moment in the dark balcony, regained my composure and enjoyed the rest of the show.

Dad generally avoided lecturing my big brother, big sister and myself and on the whole gave us little advice. He had gotten a good deal of “When I was your age…” when he was growing up in the Depression, he said, and didn’t want to inflict that on us.

He did advise good grades and hard work as keys to success, with few anecdotes, and generally we complied. He also recommended business with little elaboration, which we ignored.

Although pleasant and generous, he didn’t say much to anyone. Dad was not taciturn. he just was quiet, and kept his comments brief, often disarmingly witty.

Dad also was nice. Everyone in Fort Smith knew him as nice, that gentleman who ran the Model Laundry & Cleaners for some three decades, minus time in the Army.

Dad was polite even when the family business folded in the late 1960s, about 17 years before he did. He acted correctly during the series of jobs after the laundry, including real estate salesman, office manager/data processor, job placement counselor and income tax preparer.

Some said it wasn’t that Dad was nice but, rather, weak.

Being nice wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, Dad admitted in spring 1984.

For still unknown reasons, the company I had served for three years had taken a sudden dislike to me, and I had just found another, better job.

As much as I hated to, I intended to give two weeks’ notice — the proper thing to do, I knew Dad would say.

I was wrong.

“They treated you like hell. Go in, tell them you’re quitting, clean out your desk, then leave,” he said on the telephone.

I can’t do that; it’s not right, I replied.

“I spent my entire life being careful about not burning any bridges, lest I need to cross them again. Now, I see it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference, whatsoever. You don’t owe them a thing.

“And tell them off, so they won’t think they got by with anything,” my father said, asking if I ever heard Johnny Paycheck’s song “Take This Job and Shove It.”

I couldn’t follow this rare advice, and despite my dad’s bitter, hard-earned insight, I doubt he could have, either. But I compromised: I announced my resignation in the morning, effective at the end of the day. Their reply was, “We’ll miss you.” I regret not giving them a piece of mind.

I’m still too nice, but I hope not as nice as Dad. What an awful thing to say.

Dad’s other bit of wisdom ended up coming posthumously. (Dad spent all of 1985 homebound, his nose tethered to an oxygen tank. He had emphysema, and only the fear of exploding kept him from smoking.)

During a visit a year or two earlier, Dad switched to the public television channel to show me Robert Benchley’s 1929 movie short The Treasurer’s Report. Although the print was scratchy, the hilarious service-club satire had not staled. Dad, the civic businessman, had sat through many such meetings; I covered them often as a reporter.

On one trip to Fort Smith in late 1984, Dad had a prize he bought for a quarter at the library’s used book sale. It was Chips Off the Old Benchley, a collection of the humorist’s deft pieces. When he spotted the book, Dad said, he knew I should have it because I might find a kindred soul — I had been trying my hand at light essays.

I hid the volume because it reminded me of Dad’s failing condition. When I tore through the book in mid-1986, I realized — once I stopped laughing — Dad had given me in Robert Benchley a mentor of style, a model of wit, a master of language.

Mom phoned in mid-December 1985. Dad was back in the hospital, but they didn’t want me to come home. I went anyway.

My legs buckled when I saw how emaciated and helpless Dad looked in the white-sheeted bed.

What he said to me were pretty much his last words.

“You got here just in time.”

Dad was right.


Here’s Everything I Know So Far

Loose leaves, 1st run Tuesday 30 March 1999 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1999 Donrey Media Group

Want some advice? Most, but not all, of the lessons from Mom and Dad remain sound. Isolated quotations from articles or interviews still jump to mind. Bill Clinton’s Rules of Politics resonate years after I first read them. I’ve even come up with a few of my own that I’ve seen nowhere else.

Sharing new and old sayings is appropriate for a humor columnist in April Fool’s season. Just as serious drinkers stay home on New Year’s Eve, amateur pranksters should take their jollies in early spring while pro punsters should be figuratively sober for once. Hence, a serious column.

Dad’s five sayings stayed in my wallet for years. He gleaned them from his post-war generation. My father, may his memory be for a blessing, lived by them. As the 20th century ends and careers have overtaken both jobs and professions, all but No. 2 remain true.

  1. Luck is for the prepared.
  2. There is no limit to what you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.
  3. You don’t make this morning the friends you’ll need this afternoon.
  4. Your friends like to see you do well — but not too well.
  5. Just tell the truth. Then you don’t have to remember what you said.

Mom still likes to tell me:

  1. Don’t be a sheep.
  2. He who does not speak is not heard.
  3. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

In this time of constant, professional rumor-mongering, where there is smoke, there often is no fire, just dry ice. The victim of gossip must try vigorously to find and expose to air those carbon-dioxide cakes so they can evaporate to nothing.

Some odds and ends of aphorisms have stuck to me over the years.

  • “Don’t fall.” “Get up.” The favorite corrections of the Kirov Ballet school’s Alexander Pushkin, teacher of Mikhail Barishnikov.
  • “The ‘force’ is in you. Force yourself.” Harrison Ford.
  • “One should always leave the dinner table a little hungry.” Max Perkins, editor of novelists including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
  • “One is never drained by work but only by idleness. Lack of work is the most enervating thing in the world.” John Steinbeck.
  • “Only a very mediocre writer always writes at his best.” W. Somerset Maugham, about Dorothy Parker.
  • “If there’s no dancing there, it’s not my kind of revolution.” Emma Goldman.
  • “Happy people don’t need to have fun.” Jean Stafford.

My friend Meredith Oakley of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock had the statehouse beat for years and still covers it as a political columnist. When Clinton was governor he told her his personal guidelines. I read them in Oakley’s column a long time ago. She since has published them in her book On the Make: The Rise of Bill Clinton, (Regnery Publishing, 1994).

Bill Clinton’s Rules of Politics (reprinted with Meredith’s permission)

  1. Most people are for change in general, but against it in particular.
  2. Never tell anyone to go to hell unless you can make ’em go.
  3. Whenever someone tells you, “It’s nothing personal,” he’s about to stick it to you.
  4. Whenever it is possible for a person to shift the heat from himself to the governor, he’ll do it.
  5. Under enough pressure, most people — but not everybody — will stretch the truth on you.
  6. You’re most vulnerable in politics when you think you’re the least vulnerable.
  7. When you start enjoying something, it’s probably time to leave.
  8. Never look past the next election; it might be your last.
  9. There’s no such thing as enough money.
  10. Don’t drink in public. You might act like yourself.

Wonder if the president would change or add to these?

Having thought about them for ages I set seven original maxims to paper long ago, which I haven’t referred to since. I just found that leaf in a notebook. It’s dated June 6, 1991. Later that day, I met the woman I would marry.

  1. A man or woman who could be considered a scoundrel [having fluid morals] in one scope of activity often is a scoundrel [having fluid morals] in other areas.
  2. People who strongly believe in fate are not controlled by the heavens but by other people. Manipulators can smell them out like dogs sense fear in a pedestrian.
  3. People are as busy as they choose to be. (If she wanted to see you, she’d find a way.)
  4. People generally do the things they want to do and generally avoid doing the things they do not want to do. As for any thing in the gray middle, that thing generally will not be done, either. There are three shade of gray: (A) A wholly neutral or ambivalent opinion on this thing to do. (B) Partly want to do the thing and partly not want to do it. (C) Changing their mind several times over wanting to do the thing.
  5. Relationships move only forward or backward, grow or decay. Dating relationships that seem to be merely stable, or wavering, really are moving toward dissolution. Yet with vigilance, marital relations have a joyful stability.
  6. In a consensual yet submissive relationship between adults, the passive partner is in charge. Healthy partners exchange dominance in different parts of their lives. In unhealthy relations, the passive partner decides to leave, not the dominant one.
  7. A relationship may well be over when the standard question “How was your day?” suddenly is perceived as an invasion of privacy.

A few weeks after our marriage in 1993 I came up with an eighth rule.

8. Couples are most prone to argue, about anything, when they are tired or hungry.

So far, no one save for my wife has ever admitted the truth of No. 8.


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.


A Dinner with Andre

Guest column, 1st run 18 June 1994 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Copyright 1994 Ben S. Pollock Jr.

Heaven may very well be like a bakery. Think of the smells: wheat bread, onion bagels, cinnamon rolls and doughnuts. The counters are white, its staff is dressed in white.

Conversely, good bakeries are like heaven on Earth. Where would our two Andre’s restaurants be placed?

The bistros endure, but robbers killed owner Andre Simon in the newer restaurant, a renovated cottage in the between-the-wars neighborhood called Hillcrest. They got only $70.

Inspired, neighbors have begun meaningful enterprises in his name. I’m not sure this unpretentious man would approve, so let’s interview him in the third Andre’s, which never closes.

“Regret putting up a struggle?”

He answers crisply with that no-nonsense, French-Swiss accent.

“It was stupid, yes, but how was I to know how it would end? You cut straight to the point.”

“I don’t have much time.”

“I have all the time. All the time.”

Andre moves from around the white counter.

“So you don’t see any lesson in your murder?”

“These things happen. May I rest in peace. Continue to, that is,” Andre says, seating himself at my table, itself clothed in white linen.

“You may see no point, but your tragedy motivated everyone around Beechwood Street. They beefed up Neighborhood Crime Watch.”

His eyes glint.

“Those people don’t see the town is simply growing, getting big-city problems. They’re getting big-city advantages, too. They wouldn’t want to give their malls back, would they? Look at me. I expanded to two gourmet restaurants. I earned good money with a dozen tables at each.”

I press on.

“Your old neighbors want more police, too. They’ve even offered to hire their own, just to work that area.”

“What good would that have done me?” he yells, annoyed not with his end but with me. “Some guys hungry for excitement and easy money were driving from clear across town and saw my sign. They came in during dinner — what Neighborhood Crime Watcher would have suspected any more than perhaps tardy busboys? After a minute of commotion, it was over — in front of a house full of workers and customers. Patrolling police would not have suspected a thing until the shots. Then it wouldn’t have mattered.”

“So, Andre, you’re saying police are useless and homeowners should draw their curtains and lock their doors?”

“Just because I’m dead, don’t put words in my mouth. Neighbors always should look out for one another. As a community grows, so should its police force. Just as obvious is the fact that impulsive crimes like mine can’t be prevented, except one way.” He pauses for effect. “Some people always have tried to get something for nothing. Yet society now has created the right to be lazy.”

I thought angels would be tranquil, but Andre is just warming up.

“Publisher’s Clearinghouse constantly invites you to enter sweepstakes: You don’t need to lick your own stamp. States promote lotteries: Big money, no effort. Casinos are creeping in everywhere: Worship luck, not effort. So why shouldn’t these kids keep guns handy for quick cash?

“That makes as much sense as me, the late Andre Simon, working seven days a week for years. For what?”

“So your old friends could find some meaning? So a writer could find some?” I ask.

“Smell! The bread’s done. I have to go to the ovens. Anecdotes like me scare people. Then statistics prove crime is stagnant or even declining. Together they have always said. Be cautious, but live. Bon appetit.”


Penny Wise, Dollar Smart, Grand Genius: Regis, Pound Me

Loose Leaves, 1st run Sunday 22 October 2000 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 2000 Donrey Media Group

Penny wise and pound foolish is not a recipe for gluttony. Who needs to follow a recipe for that?

We heard it from our elders, who got it from a bloke named Robert Burton who coined the maxim in the early 17th century.

Those of us who remember the 20th century may know people who saved remnants of bar soap to eventually combine into a mass big enough for a few more washes.

When the toothpaste is almost out, how much time do you spend squeezing two or three more dabs? Two minutes? Ten minutes?

That’s as compulsive as molding soap — and penny wise.

Your family size toothpaste costs around $2 and lasts, what, four months?

That’s 120 days, 240 brushings. You putz in the bathroom for less than a penny’s worth of mint polish? You’re late to work, go already!

We are still so economical that we comparison shop for bottled water.

We gauge home computer models for features we might need. Do I need video-editing software when I don’t own a digital camcorder — but I might.

Back when a dollar was worth a dollar (I’m almost 43 so my dollar was worth a dollar in the 1970s), I mused to my childhood best friend Dana Daniel how you can’t compare worth and price.

My example — I don’t know how Dana put up with me — was that for three drive-in lunches you could buy an album. The meals would be long digested and gone while the LP would last for years. One record equals a couple pounds of burgers and fries and Cokes (no Perrier in Fort Smith at that time).

We were only 16 or 17 so no revelation came from such musing, unless we concluded I was nuts.

The nation may be at record-high employment, but with little effort you can spend yourself broke.

Since my wife calculated that she spends $50 an hour at discount super stores, she goes just once a month. She’s there 2 1/2 hours and it costs $125.

Me? I am much better shopper. I can spend $125 at Wal-Mart in half the time.

Being armed with coupons helps just a little. Coupons work only when (A) you need the item and (B) you need that name-brand form of it. After that, discounted items are frills, which is why manufacturers still offer coupons.

Our hunting for bargains keeps the economy robust.

Does it make sense to go to Kmart for odds and ends, among which is spray cleaner, then later go to Wal-Mart to finish out the shopping list and see the same cleaner for over $1 cheaper?

Meanwhile, you discover some of what you bought at Kmart was a buck cheaper, proving the total at either store still works out about the same.

Would you buy a second bottle of the spray at Wal-Mart and the next day return the first to Kmart?

Well, it was a dollar.

Gas costs almost $1.50 a gallon, and the extra shopping trip takes 40 minutes of valuable time, not to mention killing a lunch hour.

Factoring in all of the costs to evaluate the multiple excursions is the true waste of time. I’d rather just assume I am dollar smart.

To live in America, we don’t need to act like paupers. Times are good, let’s enjoy all we can buy. Nice paper to write on stirs my creativity. My favorite is 8 cents a sheet, including shipping for the mail order. For 8 cents, however, you make a photocopy down the street that already has writing on it.

A basic computer today can be $1,500 or $1,800. Why not get the bigger one?

Then it will be too small in five years instead of four. It’s just $300. Not counting sales tax.

You buy a car, a few grand more than others because among other attributes it has side air bags. What price safety? I’m a grand genius.

Life insurance? First you sign. Then you pay. Last you undergo a physical.

“You mean my having to take a little cholesterol pill despite being in ‘excellent’ health kills the ‘preferred’ premium, and I have to pay $400 more?”

For that $400 I might as well enjoy eggs, yolk and all, a few times a week.

Eat, drink and surf the Net, for tomorrow we pound foolish.


Au Revoir, Adiós Hasta Mañana

Loose Leaves, first run Tuesday 4 April 2000 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

Ben Pollock

Copyright 2000 Donrey Media Group

Anyone who said he was not afraid of John R. Starr is a liar.

The Little Rock newspaperman died April 1. He was only 72; but, when I joined the “Arkansas Democrat” 15 years ago, he already seemed ancient, with white hair, thick glasses and a history of heart disease.

From the time Walter Hussman Jr. hired him as managing editor in 1978, Starr crafted a statewide newspaper with fire, building a newsroom staff that in late 1991 toppled the venerated “Arkansas Gazette,” owned in its last years by Gannett, a media conglomerate not accustomed to losing a cross-town war.

Starr’s corner office may have been only a 12-foot square. It seemed smaller with walls hidden by tall, filled bookshelves and piles of newspapers and documents falling across alternating black and white squares of Linoleum that dated the second-floor newsroom. Starr and his confidence filled the rest of the space.

A reporter or copy editor would squeeze in, move papers for a place to sit, barely breathing, having been summoned by memo or e-mail: “Come see me. JRS.”

Most of the time, Starr just wanted questions answered. He advised reporters on research and interviews, offering source names and numbers from his Rolodex. He did relish teaching.

Because I was wire editor and because his first two decades in journalism were spent with The Associated Press, he usually asked me what national and world coverage the wire services were transmitting. Rarely but still too often, he asked me why the hell the “Gazette” had some piece and we did not. That could ruin a whole week.

Still, it taught reporters and editors to think fast. You could not lie. Starr would not accept, “I don’t know.”

He would tell you the best answer, if you did not have one: “I made a mistake. I am sorry. I will do better.”

If you repeated those sentences, Starr would let you leave, trembling less than if he had caught you, an “idiot,” trying to hide or shrug off a “bonehead” gaffe.

We all have nightmares from Starr. There was the week of the ground attack of the Persian Gulf War with debates on running reliable AP copy or taking chances on secondary wire services’ not-quite-confirmed rumors — guessing what the “Gaz” might run.

There was the day and night of the final tweaking of the “Democrat,” rather, the first tweaking of the “Arkansas Democrat-Gazette,” when he called me a “second-grader.” More accustomed to being an “idiot,” “second-grader” really stung.

We both knew I was neither, for I would not have stayed employed.

There are two kinds of editors: The copy-based editor who fidgets with words and the editor who inspires, instructs or intimidates subordinates into reporting or editing an article fully, fairly and clearly.

Starr was the latter. He developed reporters, experienced or fresh from college. He scared copy editors into doing their work perfectly all of the time, an impossibility, or quitting.

He had another side. The gruff, moody Starr talking baby-talk with an ankle-high yippy dog was as surreal as seeing him treat Norma, his wife since 1948, as tenderly as a delicate, rare porcelain vase. I saw him do both.

Starr retired as managing editor in mid-1992, months after Gannett shut down the “Gaz” and sold the assets to the Hussman family.

We reporters and line editors tried to be inconspicuous when Starr was in the newsroom. This habit was so developed that few of us looked up when post-retirement he paid infrequent visits to the renovated third floor.

On one such visit, I was trapped. We were standing by the bulletin board, when he told me to call him Bob, not Mr. Starr. My name remained “Pollock,”never Ben.

Bob is what friends called him. John R. Starr was his byline. Strangers called him John. People who should have known better called him John Robert. His enemies called him lots of things. They even called him at home. Bob, who did not shirk from a fight, who did not flinch from direct and caustic criticism, always kept a listing in the phone book.

Most readers did not realize he retired, for his column continued. When any public figure strayed from public service, Bob continued to pounce. The only changes were an increase in travel columns and a reduction from daily publication.

If Bob did not suffer rocks through windows or worse, it must have been because neither as editor nor columnist did he play favorites. He would enthusiastically praise or sneeringly condemn the same public official or policy as his thinking developed — or reversed. He was reluctant to admit mistakes, but he would do so, cleanly and with his head high.

Columns and editorials have little influence. Studies have shown few voters are influenced by punditry. A reason editorials and political columns continue, however, is that the powerful, who desire flattery and fear criticism like the rest of us, do take them seriously.

As vituperative as pundits seem to be on cable “news” talk shows, they are show biz. When Bob blasted a politician or coach for falling short, he meant it.

I am not sure Bill Clinton could have won two presidential terms or survived the impeachment had not Bob toughened him. If Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes a senator from New York, it will be partly because as a campaigner and politician she learned how to deflect Bob’s criticism and never take his praise for granted.

Bob’s legacy, however, should be his stewardship of the “Democrat.” Until this week, I would worry that people would see his columns as his prime accomplishment. Now I predict his editing and columning will be remembered equally.

America may not see tough newspapermen again. We have become too nice, taking elaborate pains to defend solid journalism or sincere opinion.

In 1988-90 I wrote a humor column for the “Democrat,” hidden in a Wednesday mailer to non-subscribers that wrapped around grocery ads.

On another post-retirement newsroom visit, Bob told me he only seemed to have ignored my essays.

“Would I have let it run if I didn’t want it to?” Let’s take that as a compliment.


If It’s in Print, Believe It (or Not)

Mirthology column, 1st run Thursday 17 September 1992 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1992 Ben S. Pollock

Too many people — and you’re probably one of them — disbelieve everything they read.

Oh, come on, now. You know who I mean.

The other 50 percent (statistical margin or error plus or minus 49 percentage points) trust every word. After all, “they” wouldn’t print it if it weren’t so.

The writer is setting up the reader to look ignorant, right? No, look at this as a lesson in school. Then we can play in the garden.

News reports’ inaccuracies and perceived biases come from basic fallibility and plain disorganization. To overcome these, serious journalistic periodicals, like this one, have three ways of proving their integrity.

One. Naming people who are quoted shows you that you can call them up yourself if you don’t believe the media.

Two. Attributing facts or opinions to “anonymous” subjects occurs after readers find the identified sources in the phone book and call them during dinner.

Readers should phone news makers after bedtime. Reporters have mealtimes reserved for their calls.

Did someone say food? Vine-ripened sliced tomatoes, topped with fresh chopped basil, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and speckled with sea salt.

That sounds inviting. … Wait, who said that? Never mind.

Three. There have been two number threes.

The obsolete method of demonstrating press sincerity — after cited and discreet attribution, discussed above — was the direct observation of the reporter. For example, the scribe on the police beat would count the number of fire trucks outside the burning building.

This was phased out because readers stopped trusting fact-gatherers.

Currently, the reporters asks the battalion chief how many united are parked in front of them. The official instinctively asks not to be named.

Now, nobody believes either of them.

Awarding-winning journalism may need only three roads toward a convincing truth, but some writers get away with a fourth.

Federico, is that you?

OK, the fourth method is not taught in journalism school, but it is standard, You should know about it. Columnists, how-to-ers and other experts may announce the truth, like this:

“Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees.” Sez who? Sez me.

“Shred newspapers for a cheap mulch.” Why? It’s common knowledge.

But if everyone knows how to bake bread and slow weed growth, Ben, why bother writing it?

Because only some people know such things, Federico. The rest need advice.

Students, you say you can’t see him? Then let’s go meet the mischief maker. It’s time for that recess, anyway.

Federico is a two-foot sprite responsible for the garden at my home, the Bengalow. In his cotton tan tunic and oversized sun hat, he looks like a back-to-the-earth Jewish leprechaun.

He tries to ensure that I write responsibly. Federico spends the rest of the day disproving any garden manual that I hope will increase my harvest.

When I transplant sweet bell peppers, this sprite switches them for jalapenos. He ensures that carrots planted in April won’t mature until the next March, then be 2 inches long.

I don’t foul up everything; Ben needs little help. If you look closely, folks (go ahead, walk on the lettuce. It bolted to seed before he remembered to pick it), he has five tall, spreading tomato vines. Look at all the leaves! Now, count the fruit. Both of them. He over-fertilized.

Thanks, Federico. I admit to being fallible and disorganized, but only a little. If only I could find a neighbor to count my tomatoes for you. Unfortunately for me, he wouldn’t want to be identified for the record.

Class is dismissed. We’ve had too much sun for today.


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.


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.