Archive for November, 2018

Mixed Palette

Overpriced,
costing more than
the white wall
framing it,
a painter displays
his true colors.

An off-color joke
is hung out to dry—
silence on the other
end of the line.

Thinking outside
the box, wielding
chalk, a child
enlivens neighbors’
sidewalks, too.

Taken from
the same palette as
yesterday’s,
today’s local color.

A rainbow promised,
how can this
politician claiming
to be color blind
ever deliver?

Seen too late,
a technicolor sunset
has already lost
its vibrancy—I write
about it anyway.

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Stark Naked

Surging across Canada’s border,
an arctic cold front
has forgotten to put its clothes on.
Shamelessly exposed,
nothing is left to the imagination.
Not bothering with
decency, its extended forecast
scandalously continues
to wear the same skimpy outfit.
To think its thick blanket
of covering snow could become
such a flimsy garment.
No matter how adorned it is,
fully accessorized with
the bling of Christmas lights,
a warm heart cannot
compensate for its two cold feet.
Even if dressed for it,
we feel stark naked underneath.

The Noonday Demon : An Atlas Of Depression / Andrew Solomon

Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon tackles the topic of depression, and its scope and depth on the topic is impressive.  He examines the effects depression has upon a person, showing that no two people experience the condition in the same way.  Whether the disease is a result of chemical processes in the brain or the result of environmental factors, its manifestation is unique to each individual.  He also explores how the condition has been viewed and treated in a cultural context, from Ancient Greece to current times.  A large chunk of the book focuses on the scientific aspects of depression, providing an overview of the progress made over the centuries to find a cure.

Throughout, Solomon bases his conclusions on interviews with sufferers of the disease, doctors, researchers, and politicians who have wrestled to understand, explain, and treat a condition that seems to be afflicting an increasing number of people across the globe.  He concludes that, despite recent advances in pharmaceutical treatments, there is no magic pill capable of providing a cure.  Each patient with depression is unique, and so too is their treatment and response to it.

Solomon also provides a detailed account of his own battle with depression.  While this certainly gives him the necessary credentials to impart insights on the topic, at times the personal accounts of his struggles seem to dominate the discussion.  I would have preferred a broader examination of other sufferers and how they learned to cope with a disease that very often can be curtailed by different therapeutical approaches, but rarely cured.  Nonetheless, The Noonday Demon is a noble investigation into a condition that has far too long been considered shameful and something to be kept hidden.  By fully examining all aspects, this book goes a long way to correct society’s misinterpretations of an affliction that affects 18 percent of the population in the United States.

Because of its broad scope and depth of detail, the book is not an easy read.  I found portions of it to be a slog to wade through.  But for families and individuals dealing with depression, the wealth of information should be a lifeline, one that offers a deeper understanding of the disease and possible treatments.  After its publication, The Noonday Demon was honored in 2001 with the National Book Award for Nonfiction.  For anyone interested in the topic, this atlas of depression will be an eye opening read.

Hue 1968 : A Turning Point Of The American War In Vietnam / Mark Bowden

In late 1967, General William Westmoreland was making the rounds to media outlets in the United States.  As the commanding general leading the American military effort in Vietnam, he was delivering an upbeat assessment of the war: thanks to the help of American troops, the war in Vietnam was close to being won.  Unfortunately, his optimistic outlook was based more on wishful thinking than on solid evidence.

On January 31, 1968, the first day of the Lunar New Year, called Tet, the North Vietnamese government launched a major offensive that would prove that they were far from being a defeated force.  The Tet Offensive featured attacks across South Vietnam on its major cities, including Saigon itself.  Most of these attacks were easily repulsed, but not the one focused on the third largest city, Hue.  There, the National Liberation Front’s army, composed of ten thousand soldiers, captured all of the city save for two small military outposts.  

Hue 1968 is a detailed (and fascinating) account of the Front’s capture of the city, and the bloody twenty-four days that followed before American forces were able to recapture it in house-to-house fighting.  In the process, close to eighty percent of the city was destroyed.  Caught in the cross fire or executed by the invading army, more than 5,000 civilians were killed.  The communist forces lost an estimated 2,400 to 8,000 killed, while Allied forces lost 668 dead and 3,707 wounded.  

In his blow-by-blow account, Bowden highlights the bravery of the Marines tasked to drive the Force out.  While there are fewer descriptions of the battle from the North Vietnamese perspective, their courage and determination is fully acknowledged.  He also details the incompetency of the military leaders who refused to believe the North Vietnamese were capable of launching such an offensive.  For days after the takeover of Hue, smaller units of Marines were sent to try to dislodge a much larger occupying force.  And throughout, Westmoreland continued to believe the attack on Hue was just a ploy, that Hanoi planned its true offensive elsewhere.

When North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive, they believed the citizens in the South would rise up and join them, leading to a quick victory.  This did not occur, and it soon became apparent that their forces would be driven from Hue.  Nonetheless, the National Liberation Front was determined to make the Americans pay a dear price to dislodge them.  And while the Marines were able to eventually wrest control back, they in no way emerged the victorious army.  As Bowden shows, the Tet Offensive changed the American public’s outlook on the war.  The Battle of Hue provided them with proof that the war was not winnable.  Hue 1968 is a gripping account of this pivotal point of the Vietnam War, and it provides lessons we have yet to master as we continue to get involved in local wars around the globe.

In Retrospect

In retrospect, I wish
I’d been born in a more
civilized world.
Had confessed the lack
of a hunting license.
Asked at Christmas for
a bicycle instead.
Made a noisy approach
to shoo it back
into invisibility’s cloak.
Found a way to
pry my finger away from
a trigger’s grip.
Or at least could claim
hunger to justify
my triumphant cry after
the killing blast.

How Democracies Die / Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt

How Democracies Die has a “hot off the press” feel to it.  With Donald Trump’s election and his attacks on journalists in the U.S., the book raises a scary question: is America’s democracy in danger?  Its authors are Harvard professors who have spent their careers studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and South America.  In comparing the events that led to autocracies in other countries with the actions of Trump’s White House, they present ample evidence that there is cause for concern that our democracy may be in danger.

To bolster their argument, Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss what has happened in recent decades in such countries as Venezuela, Hungary, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, and Turkey.  In each country, there was steady weakening of political norms and crucial institutions, most specifically the judiciary and the press.  In each case, there was no military coup or violent seizure of power.  The democratic breakdowns were caused by the elected governments themselves.  Bit by bit, officials took control of the judiciary, gained control of independent media, and found ways to muzzle the opposition.  The authors outline what they consider to be the four key indicators of authoritarian behavior.  In examining Trump’s actions as President, they believe he has already met most of these indicators since assuming office.  For those of a liberal persuasion, the arguments in How Democracies Die are convincing, and chilling.

While I agree with the book’s conclusions, I would have liked to see more in-depth discussion of what led other countries to succumb to autocracy.  The book also has a hurriedly written feel to it, and there is no denying the authors’ liberal slant on the issue.  I realize that they probably felt an urgency to publish their book – “striking while the iron is hot,” early enough in the Trump Administration’s political climate, and perhaps to keep it short enough to attract a wider audience.  Yet, they too often repeat arguments rather than providing more evidence to support their case.  I could not help but wonder if a condensed essay on the topic would have proved just as effective.  Despite these caveats, I do recommend the book to anyone concerned about the future of democracy in this country.  The good news is that while the guardrails keeping this country from authoritarianism have been weakened, they are still in place.  For those interested in this issue, the book will provide insights they have felt if not fully understood.  After all, knowledge is a powerful weapon; being forewarned is being forearmed.

All Of Its Eggs

Winter’s dark
is the season’s exterior.
Mostly emptiness,
it is a bottomless basket
that contains
an entire solar system.
Come January,
how cavernous it seems.
The light of day
barely accumulates in
its atmosphere.
Hope and snow compact
and it seems
impossible to climb out.
But winter has
put all of its eggs into
one basket.
And life grows restless
in such a shell.
This season’s dark will
be no match for
an interior transfigured
by beaks.