Archive for July, 2017

First Dress Rehearsal

Come September’s final week
we witness
Winter’s first dress rehearsal.
Before dawn,
Autumn’s colorful stage is
fog-draped.
Festooned with a thick curtain
impervious to
the moon’s revelatory spotlight.
A white expanse
encasing morning, it emulates
October’s frost.
With silence now in costume,
a steaming cup
only mimes Summer’s warmth.

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Evicted : Poverty And Profit In The American City / Matthew Desmond

Matthew Desmond convincingly argues in Evicted that policy makers have overlooked a major cause of poverty in this country – the high cost of rental housing in cities across America. In this ethnographic study, he follows eight families/individuals in Milwaukee, showing how they struggle (and often fail) to keep a roof above their heads. Desmond interweaves the narratives of individuals living in a trailer park on the fringes of the city’s south side with those of tenants on the poverty-ridden north side. Both have become areas where the economically disadvantaged are usually restricted to when seeking housing.

As he shows, this is not because the rental properties in these areas are more affordable; it turns out to be just the opposite. Housing is typically expensive, and yet, worse still, barely habitable. So why do the people Desmond follows in this study live where they do? It is because they have no other choice. Due to poor credit history, being branded with past evictions, and landlords’s racial bias, they are turned away from affordable and more desirable rentals in better parts of the city.

This means that those living below or near the poverty line end up spending at least half of their income on rent alone. To put this into context, the average American is encouraged to set aside 30% of their income to cover housing costs. For the individuals in this study, it is an expense they cannot hope to cover. Any kind of emergency, such as job loss or illness, results in falling behind on their rent as they try to keep the heat on and their families fed. This leads to eviction notices from landlords, which sends these individuals, many with young children, into a mad scramble to find another place to live. Most are forced to move deeper into the ghetto to find a place to live, even if it means accepting a place that lacks a stove, proper plumbing, or is cockroach infested.

The people portrayed here are often their own worst enemies. Desmond does not try to put makeup on them. They often foolishly spend what money they have, are single parents with numerous children, and a good many abuse drugs or are engaged in prostitution to make ends meet. Yet Desmond’s descriptions of their lives also highlight their dignity and generosity. Most of them give money they cannot afford to lose to help friends and family in desperate straits. Although Evicted portrays flawed individuals, by showing their struggles, along with their hopes and dreams, Desmond is nonjudgmental and wins the reader’s sympathy for their plight.

This study, clearly presented and supported by documented facts, goes a long way in outlining the need for affordable housing in this country. In his epilogue, Desmond does offer some workable solutions to the problem. All are common sense and worthy of consideration. But what Evicted does best is to present the cause and effect of this housing issue, putting a human face on a topic most of us would rather ignore or simply place the blame on the poor themselves. The author’s masterful research and writing elevates the issue into one of a basic right. Along with adequate health care for all, affordable and fair housing ranks as a major issue our country must soon address if we are to overcome the poverty problem in America. No matter where one falls on the political spectrum, this is a book that persuades that our country needs to step back and reconsider the issue with fresh eyes.

Bottom Of The Ninth

The Visitors score twice
in the ninth to go up by three runs.
Only a fool would dream
our last place team could ever
mount a come back.

Turning into a full rout,
grumbling fans begin to trudge
for the parking lot exits;
the highways and neighborhood
bars soon congested.

Ushers are no longer policing,
and a front row seat
can be nabbed without fear.
After all, nobody is
being called out for the steal.

Fully aware that their
ace reliever has yet to squander
the lead, I too gather
my possessions and prepare to
join in the exodus.

But then, humbled by
the boy in front of me who still
believes the game can
be won, an inner voice whispers,
why not wait and see.

When he rises to cheer
the first batter up, wishing I
could be ten and
so naive again, I find myself
clapping in support.

Fifteen pitches later,
another loss is chalked up
and those who left
early can jadedly laugh and
say I told you so.

Not knowing what
they missed: the rapturous
look on that boy’s face
when a foul ball was deposited
straight into his mitt.

Decent Fit

Mated for life until one
or the other’s sole finally gives out.
Used and discounted,
a mismatch of styles, laced together
and sorted by size.
Aisle after aisle, poorly displayed in
flickering fluorescence.

Wedding shoes, divorced from
the happy occasion.
Dancing shoes, some barely worn.
The sensible and exotic.
Hiking boots, now gone the distance.
Baby shoes that assisted
in taking hesitant steps before they
were outgrown.

If only these tongues could speak.

Seeking a new relationship,
willing to overlook calloused toes
and thickened nails,
this time around they simply dream
of finding a decent fit.

Valiant Ambition : George Washington, Benedict Arnold And The Fate Of The American Revolution / Nathaniel Philbrick

As a child in school, I learned in history class of the treasonous acts of Benedict Arnold during the American Revolution. He was presented as the blackest of villains who betrayed both friends and country. What those school history books failed to supply was the backstory that explained the events that led Arnold to commit treason. In this engaging read, Philbrick presents “the rest of the story.”

In the early days of the war, Arnold was a devoted patriot, someone who rose quickly through the ranks of the Continental Army to become a general who could lay claim to saving the young country from ruin. In several key battles, it was his leadership that led to the British being turned back when they attempted to invade New York from Canada. In the second battle, Arnold was severely wounded and nearly lost a leg. While an inspiring leader, he was often “prickly and hotheaded” in his dealings with authority figures, leading him to run afoul of the Continental Congress. Even though he had lost his family fortune and good health in the cause of freedom, it refused him reimbursement or further career advancement.

While Arnold experienced early successes as a general, George Washington in the first years of the war made a number of mistakes that almost led to the British crushing the rebellion. His saving grace was his ability to learn from his mistakes. Unlike Arnold, prone to recklessness, Washington realized the importance of outlasting the British rather than risking everything in one roll of the dice. Yet despite their differences in how to conduct the war, Washington held Arnold in high regard and did all in his power to assist him to win promotions and recompense.

As Philbrick shows, the British Army and the Loyalists were not the only stumbling blocks facing Washington’s ragged army. The “radical Constitutionalists” in the Continental Congress also did their best to derail the war efforts. They proved unable to find a way to adequately fund the military campaign. More interested in protecting their own state interests than the fate of the nation as a whole, members bickered about states’ rights rather than loosening the purse strings. Even though there was a clear need to raise taxes to insure an American victory, they were loath to do so. (Sound familiar? Some things never change in this country.)

Several things led to Arnold’s decision to betray the American cause. Money was a major problem for him. Having married the daughter of a rich businessman, he needed funds to bestow a settlement on her and find a means to support their upper class lifestyle. At the same time, as the military governor of Philadelphia, he was being hounded by the president of Pennsylvania’s Executive Council who was determined to bring him to trial for corruption. While Arnold’s greed and self-interest played a part in his betrayal, persecution by supposed allies led him to believe that he was the one who had first been betrayed by his country.

In 1780, George Washington put Arnold in charge of West Point, an American fort on the Hudson River in New York. Arnold had lobbied for the position, already determined to hand it over to the British for the promise of money and a high rank in the British army. And he nearly succeeded, as the final chapters of this book show. Ironically, once it was revealed, his treasonous act served to supply Washington with the funds his army so desperately needed. Benedict Arnold became the “despised villain” who helped to unite a divided country and caused the radical Constitutionalists to lose control of the Continental Congress.

For those who want to have a better understanding of this period in American history, Valiant Ambition will entertain even as it educates by telling “the rest of the story.”

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao / Junot Diaz

While Oscar De León, an overweight young Dominican man growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, might dominate this novel’s spotlight, he is not the story’s primary character. The author, Junot Diaz, uses Oscar and the history of his ill-fated family to show what life was like in the Dominican Republic under the long, brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo.

Oscar De León, nicknamed Oscar Wao (a bastardization of Oscar Wilde), is the ultimate nerd. Obsessed with science fiction, comic books, and writing fantasy stories, his childhood is a lonely one. As he grows older, he falls in love with a number of women, but for the most part he is too shy to approach any of them. His greatest fear is that he will die a virgin. Surprisingly, Oscar makes the perfect vehicle for the author to tell the greater story of the Dominican Republic’s sad story. Through flashbacks that introduce his grandparents, mother, and other members of the family, the reader is provided with details surrounding the cruel reign of Trujillo (nicknamed El Jefe), the country’s ruler from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Oscar’s forebears dared to defy Trujillo and suffered serious consequences – his family was branded with a fuku, essentially a curse, for generations to come.

The story’s narrator for most of the book is Yunior, a friend of Oscar’s and someone who is in love with his sister Lola. Yunior’s narration swings back and forth from Caribbean vernacular, often profane, to a more academic tone, complete with footnotes. Sprinkled throughout are references to Lord Of The Rings, which creatively compare Trujillo’s rule to the Dark Lord Sauron. Yunior’s interesting asides provide the historical details that show the true horrors that Trujillo and his band of thugs inflicted on the country.

When this novel was first published in 2007, despite receiving glowing reviews, I decided to give it a pass. I thought it fell into the genre of magical realism, a type of fiction that I’ve not been particularly drawn to. I found that, while it does include elements of magical realism, it is better described as a tragicomedy. It is the rare novel that succeeds in telling a personal story which illustrates the history of an entire country. Without a doubt, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao will be on my favorite reads list for 2017.

Wolf Moon

Forgotten all day
the Wolf Moon hungers and howls
contained by the sun

Expectant with light
see it struggle to rise from
horizon’s cushion

Now considered tame
it never shows its dark side
except to the mad

Disguised by the glow
its craggy face knows distance
preserves the allure

Liberated from
restraints, wantonly engorged
it prowls the night sky

How can we envy
Saturn’s profusion of moons
when full with just one

After consuming
admiring glances, this Wolf
still hungers for more