Bringing it home

While I’ve never been an academic, I appreciate the connection scholarly research shares with my chosen profession of journalism. They are cousins in their ability to dispel myths and call basic assumptions into question.

IMG_E2596Take sociology, where Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted” is a tutorial on the ability of comprehensive field research to recalibrate our understanding of the world. Journalists who haven’t read his book (and I suspect there aren’t many) would be well advised to do so as a refresher on the finer points of objective observation. Not that Desmond completely succeeds in that objectivity (more on that later), but his few failures also hold lessons for us.

Based on Desmond’s field research project in the largest city of my home state — Milwaukee, Wisconsin — “Evicted” investigates the transient nature of the private low-income housing market. Chapters chronicle the struggles of both black and white folks — the former lodged in the city’s near-north side neighborhoods and the latter in a south-side trailer park — to keep a household in this famously segregated city. Desmond introduces us to a renters’ roster of welfare recipients, single moms and drug addicts who shuffle eternally through the city’s low-income housing stock, along with the landlords who engage them in a tense but familiar dance of lease and eviction.

Along the way we encounter heartbreaking mixes of bad luck and deliberate choices that lead people into drug use, prostitution, petty crime and, ultimately, homelessness. How society views these “losers” in the game of life is important, because our perceptions inform the policies we devise as a response. And that’s where the misconceptions, and Desmond’s ability to counter them with his findings, come into play.

For instance:

  • Rents in the inner city — which features dilapidated housing in crime-ridden neighborhoods — rival those of middle-class areas of the city and suburbs. Yet for a number of reasons that range from a rental applicant’s checkered past to outright racism, those middle-class vacancies remain off limits to inner city residents, and landlords take full advantage of a captive market.
  • Because of this, the inner city rental market can be highly profitable. It is not the low-margin business we might expect. Those who are willing to deal with the considerable headaches that come with low-income tenants can find it worth their while. As the book points out, “the ‘hood is good.”
  • The housing is dilapidated because there’s a disincentive for landlords to make repairs for tenants who are behind on rent and halfway out the door, and there’s an equal disincentive for tenants to make their own improvements to a home from which they may soon be evicted. As a result, they live with backed-up sinks that attract vermin, and wear overcoats around the house to weather the winter months.
  • With the imminent threat of eviction, there’s little incentive for tenants who are behind on payments to catch up. Call them deadbeats, but it makes sense. A $700 gambling windfall is better spent on a security deposit for your next place than any back rent to a landlord who’s going to throw you out anyway.
  • Like many cities, the Milwaukee police’s nuisance-call policy discouraged residents from reporting crimes in their homes — particularly domestic abuse. Under the policy (since changed), multiple police visits to a residence would trigger nuisance-property fines for landlords, who would promptly initiate eviction proceedings. The lesson to tenants: Don’t call 911 for help in an emergency, or risk eviction.
  • South-side trailer park residents are often enticed into leases that “give” them ownership of the trailer. They’re only responsible for renting the space in the park. But the tempting illusion of easy home ownership is just that — an illusion. Because the home is not his, the arrangement lets the landlord off the hook for any repairs. The tenant is responsible for maintenance and, in the event of an eviction, removal of the unit. Most can’t afford that and simply abandon the trailer, which falls back into the landlord’s possession.
  • The predominantly white residents of the south side trailer park lived at poverty levels comparable with their black counterparts on the north side, yet they stubbornly clung to bigoted attitudes. Though conditions in the trailer park were undeniably foul, they viewed the impoverished north side with the disdain of suburbanites and lived in palpable fear of ever ending up there.
  • Desmond boldly tested this divide by splitting his field work between the trailer park and the north side, where he found south-siders’ prevailing fear of racial animosity to be exaggerated. If anything, white people, while turning heads in the ‘hood, tended to enjoy a particular immunity from the daily violence that defined life there. Desmond’s black landlord fretted mightily over his safety and took great pains to right any wrongs committed against him.

A common thread weaving through these examples is a remarkably rational thought process going on in low-income circles. We typically don’t think of poor people that way. We associate their status with some sort of dysfunction, a failing of the mental faculties the rest of us have. But to a junkie going through heroin withdrawal, spending money on another hit rather than rent is a reasonable response. Buying your child snazzy new shoes you can’t afford, not only because he needs shoes but because you love him, makes perfect sense. Even the seemingly irrational racial divisions of a city like Milwaukee reflect a common understanding among its residents, poor or otherwise, of where societal norms permit you to live. Such realities are important in redefining the scope of low-income housing challenges, if not poverty itself. You can’t go about proposing solutions if you fundamentally misunderstand the problems, and in that regard, Desmond has done a great service. Once we engage the mechanics of low-income housing as essentially rational, it becomes easier for sociologists to propose solutions and policymakers to implement them.

In his final chapter, Desmond pulls back the curtain for an intriguing mea culpa on his  project. The field work entailed what we’d expect — living among the residents, first in the trailer park and then on the north side. But in both cases he acknowledges blurring the line between observation and participation. He’d give one of his research subjects a ride to an apartment showing. He’d help another with packing and moving after an eviction. He’d lend someone a few bucks. He admits possibly crossing the line, but he makes a strong argument that living in a neighborhood with people, sharing a bathroom, meals, the streets — sharing their struggles and being a part of their lives — renders the notion of objectivity into an abstract and somewhat useless academic conceit. Fair point.

There are journalists who also test the limits of objectivity — for instance, the “gonzo” practitioners who insert themselves into the story they’re telling, or “solutions-based journalists” who write and report with the purpose of effecting social change. I’ve always believed that a journalist shouldn’t be part of the story, but these methods, while unorthodox, can be instrumental to achieving access, which is instrumental to painting an accurate picture. As a trained sociologist, Desmond seems to be comfortable with his overall conduct, and I can’t argue with the results. His interpersonal relations with sources were essentially about access, without which their stories could not have been told, and our misguided perceptions would have gone on unchecked. And that’s what turns a heady research project about poverty and housing into a book about people and homes.


Short and sweet

“I”ll be brief,” said the guest presenter for a film screening I attended several years ago. He followed with a good 20 minutes of exposition on the topic at hand, after which he released us, exhausted, to finally enjoy the movie.

Clearly, some people have a different notion of “brief” than others. As a journalist, I understand the value of brevity in a vocation that demands it. I take great pleasure in paring four sentences down to two and dismissing five colorful but unnecessary words in favor of the essential one.

So imagine the consternation a couple weeks ago when Twitter revealed it was expanding, on a limited test basis, some users’ character limit from 140 to 280. Twitter is a favorite social media tool among journalists because it demands brevity and rewards word efficiency. You want description and clarity, but you also need to get to the point, and fast. It is a practiced art that few of us will ever master, but it’s a lot of fun to try. It forces good writers to be better and bad writers to… well, stick to Facebook.

There are greater problems in the world than Twitter’s character limit, and we’ll individually adjust if the change comes to pass (I suspect many of us will start out by voluntarily restricting ourselves to the original 140). But it’s worth entertaining a discussion on the value of brevity across the creative spectrum.

Ernest Hemingway famously challenged writers to think not only in terms of what they’re saying but what they’re not. Most of us know his famous six-word short story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”), but here’s an excerpt from “The Sun Also Rises” that’s a little less provocative:

I walked away from the cafe. They were sitting at the table. I looked back at them and at the empty tables. There was a waiter sitting at one of the tables with his head in his hands.

That’s an interesting observation of a person (the waiter) we don’t encounter anywhere else in the novel. Is he distraught? Annoyed? Tired? Amid 247 pages of drunken carousing, it’s what Hemingway doesn’t say that captivates the reader.

Let’s look at pop music. In the transition from vinyl to CD (and later digital iterations), recording artists found themselves free from the constraint of five 3-to-4-minute songs, per side, offered by vinyl records (or cassette tapes). As a result, we got 70-to-80 minute CDs and now, virtually unlimited packages of official releases dressed up with alternate takes, out takes and other assorted recordings. So what’s lost? The need to curate. It’s fascinating to read about decisions that went into the production of vinyl releases, and how musicians and their labels negotiated what made the cut and what had to be left out. When artists are forced to assess and prioritize the quality of their work, you tend to get their best.

Let’s move on to cinema, where the supposed gold standard is the feature-length (90 to 120 minutes) fictional narrative. Yet recently I saw the French short film “Uncanny Valley,” set on a World War I battlefield, that was shot entirely in stop-action photography. It was an interesting, if experimental tactic that worked well for its 13:30 running time, but there’s no way it could have been sustained for an hour or two. Feature-length is not always the ideal format, yet at the Oscars or Cannes, those are the only films anyone talks about.

Let’s go back to our guest speaker. It’s a conceit in academics that more words equal more information, but anyone who has sat through their share of college lectures knows this isn’t always true. Even in politics, we’re taught that any speech of significance like the president’s State of the Union can’t be great unless it’s at least an hour long. But consider that one of the greatest political speeches in our history, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, weighed in at 271 words and was delivered in less than 3 minutes. That was a man who knew how to get to the point without sacrificing eloquence.

It’s unfortunate that we live in a world that equates “more” with “better.” An all-you-can-eat buffet will always turn more heads than a small plate of fine cheeses, and that view is widely shared among the arts. Still, our guest presenter’s “I’ll be brief” tells me he understood the audience expectation for his opening remarks. The next time we just need to hold him to it.

Blazing a new trail

One of the great failings in environmental debate is the tendency to view environmentalism as an ethic that removes humans from the equation. Such rhetoric comes from both the for-and-against extremes, doing a great a disservice to the sensible middle. The tree-huggers envision a return to bucolic ecosystems of yesteryear despite those systems’ need to somehow accommodate 7 billion human beings. Meanwhile their opponents argue society’s economic health comes first, not realizing that whatever we do to the environment, we do to ourselves.

Here in Wisconsin, we sit in the sensible middle. It’s a state with a tremendous environmental legacy — the modern movement was set in motion by our former governor, U.S. senator and Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson. Yet it’s no Wyoming or Utah, where areas the size of small Eastern states are set aside for parkland. Even in its sparsely populated northern reaches, Wisconsin doesn’t have undeveloped space on that scale. There’s tourism. There are Northwoods cabin getaways. There’s the timber industry. In other words, there are people.

IMG_2077As a result, we sometimes see environmentalism operate at the micro rather than macro level. Yes, there are state parks and national forests managed via vast bureaucracies that we trust have the right intentions. But there are times when the local folks take the reins. Case in point: The Ice Age trail.

OK, it’s technically the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. But that’s a federal designation bestowed only after tireless volunteers at the local level organized the patchwork project into something viable. It’s a success story brought to light in Melanie Radzicki McManus’ recently published “Thousand-Miler: Adventures in Hiking the Ice Age Trail.” In chronicling her attempt to complete the 1,100 miles approximating the furthest glacial advance of the last Ice Age, McManus highlights a state treasure hidden in plain sight.

There are two gratifying components to the Ice Age trail. First, it came together not via governmental decree but organically out of residents’ desire to set aside some green space within their communities. That desire reflected a number of favored recreational activities — camping, hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, horseback riding, biking and, yes, hiking. Secondly, it’s here in Wisconsin. You don’t have to go to Appalachia or the Mountain West to enjoy a world-class outdoors experience.

As McManus’ tale shows, this is hardcore hiking. Eleven hundred miles is not for beginners. Yet the culture, supported by a quasi-governing body called the Ice Age Trail Alliance, is one that encourages participation. McManus’ attempt qualifies as a “thru hike,” meaning the person pounds the trail — for weeks, months, however long it takes — until they’ve finished it from end to end. They rest each night, either camping or staying at local motels or the homes of “trail angels” — local volunteers who offer a bed, a hot meal or a ride to the next trailhead, where the hike continues. However, many people “section hike,” or complete portions as time allows, returning to their homes and jobs in the meantime, until they’ve done each piece comprising the trail. It doesn’t matter if it takes years. They’re given credit as finishers right along with the thru-hikers.

Either way you do it, it’s no walk in the park. McManus encounters a number of serious medical issues, mostly with her feet (not uncommon for distance hikers), that threaten to derail her. There are bears and wolves, particularly in the northern segments, while connecting highway routes can pose hazardous traffic. Mosquitoes and ticks, along with overgrown vegetation that impedes rougher portions of the trail, take their toll on exposed skin. But the biggest pain McManus contends with is losing her way. The yellow blazes affixed to sign posts and trees indicate the official route, but posts and trees sometimes fall over. Fast-growing vegetation can hide signs, leading hikers to unwittingly take a wrong turn or continue on when they should turn.

“Thousand-Miler” is at heart an adventure story, deftly sprinkled with educational components about the history and current operation of the trail, but the book’s most charming asset is its equal amounts of affection for people and place. Distance hiking has its own subculture, and McManus meets a number of characters on the trail, each with his or her own reasons, and strategies, for walking it. As a thru-hiker, she also benefits from the assistance of family members, friends and trail angels who serve as her crew, supplying her with food and water midhike, ferrying her to and from the night’s lodging and, most importantly, providing moral support. While an 1,100-mile hike affords the solitude and reflection of a personal journey, it becomes clear that there’s more to the story than one woman and the vast wilderness.

McManus acknowledges as much near the end of the book. Her own quest complete, she relates a recent effort by a veterans’ group to send military service members returning from war zones out on the trail. The idea is to plan and complete a hike as a way of therapeutically reintegrating into civilian life. The natural spaces give the veterans room to breath, while their reliance on support from family, friends and trail angels remind them of the goodness in humanity. They find peace through the land, and its people.

All of this comes together through the preservation of natural spaces. Score one for the tree huggers. But it’s a broader experience than traipsing through pristine forests undisturbed by human influence and hearing birds chirp unperturbed by human voices. What sense is there in creating an 1,100-mile trail if there’s no one there to hike it — or write about it? This is environmentalism in totality — one that has a place for people.


Bad dads

The worst complaint most people will make about their father is driving too slow on the freeway or dancing to embarrassing effect at a wedding reception. But we still love the big lug.

Then there are those whose dads leave a little more to be desired, and in extreme cases, become worthy of autobiographical study. Read Jeannette Walls’ “The Glass Castle” or Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” and it’s hard to find more egregious examples of failed fatherhood.

Both books are painful recollections of bad parenting from the child’s point of view. The misbehavior runs the gamut, from severe alcoholism and chronic unemployment that subjects the family to poverty and starvation, to a more benign but no less scarring outright absence from the lives of their children. In both cases, the protagonists endure alternating levels of abuse and neglect, leading them to eventually give up on not only their fathers but entire families as they split town in search of a better life.

That’s obviously a bittersweet resolution, but the best that can be expected from stories based in reality and not fairy tales. What surprises me, though, is the adult children’s desire to memorialize their fathers through their respective books. More than once, Walls and McCourt revisit rare paternal displays of decency and, yes, charm that complicate the overall picture. How they’re able to do that is a mystery to me when after all, Walls’ dad taught her to swim by literally throwing her into the deep end of a hot spring, nearly drowning her, and once half-heartedly attempted to prostitute his teenage daughter to raise a few bucks. McCourt’s father did little better, sinking any of the family’s meager financial windfalls into the local tavern and ultimately disappearing to England, leaving mom and kids to fend for themselves.

But, it’s their story, not mine, and should they choose to cling to any redeeming characteristics they can associate with their fathers, I have to respect that. It gratifies me, however, to list puttering along in the slow lane as the worst memory I can offer of my own dad.

Name games

What’s in a name? If it’s like mine, not much. Just words that let people get my attention, or organize me alphabetically in a classroom setting. But in rare instances, there’s a whole lot more to a name. There’s power.

Take for instance “Audubon,” as in the society dedicated to all things birds. John James Audubon, the man for which the society is named, certainly had a passion for winged creatures — he shot thousands of them over the course of his career in a crude, if effective, method of cataloging the various species. Yet because of the reputation the Audubon Society has built, his name shares rarefied air in naturalist circles with the likes of John Muir and Aldo Leopold.

Mention the name “Tommy John” in a baseball locker room, and you’ll likely send more than a few shudders through the pitching staff. Forget that John won 288 games on the mound; most associate his name with the revolutionary arm ligament surgery that bisected his career. News of a pitcher requiring Tommy John surgery generally poses two sobering considerations: a lengthy rehab, followed by an uncertain future. Although John went on to pitch in three World Series after the procedure, the surgery that bears his name carries the weight of an athletic death sentence. That’s power.

And then there’s “Uncle Tom.” Few names conjure up such cultural baggage as the protagonist from the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel. The association of Uncle Tom, particularly among black people, is not a positive one: he’s seen as happily deferential to whites, accepting of his subordinate position and, possibly most harmful, bereft of any sense of racial pride. However, it’s been noted and it bears repeating that anyone who assigns those traits to Uncle Tom isn’t likely to have read the book. Do so and you’ll find a surprisingly different man. True, he accepts his lot as a slave, but only because his deep, unyielding religious faith carry his spirit to a higher plain. His belief in the glory of God and a greater reward allow him to submit to varying levels of bondage, from the relatively benign Kentucky farm to Louisiana and the geographically and spiritually forsaken plantation of Simon Legree.

A high school English class can easily identify Tom as a Christ figure, both through his emboldened expression of faith and the increased suffering it brings upon him. Through gentle persuasion, he rises, Christ-like, above his mortal surroundings to become a beacon, for his tormenters as well as his fellow sufferers. In the process his character demonstrates a superior standing among his antebellum contemporaries that defies the conventional “inferior” Uncle Tom characterization that society since has come to embrace.

Yet embrace it we have. “Uncle Tom” is not a name thrown around in good cheer among black people, and it probably never will be. Though he desperately wished for his freedom, he never acted upon those wishes, even when given chances by indulgent masters. Why? He was too honest (a quality distinctly lacking among the white people in the novel). It’s possible that by standards of subsequent generations of both blacks and whites, that’s viewed as a moral failing. All the high-minded religious devotion he brings to the table doesn’t make up for his unwillingness to fight back, thus giving the negative “Uncle Tom” connotations the edge in the court of public opinion. Judgment has been passed, incorrectly or not, and that’s where the name derives its power.

Separate but equal

John Irving once said the key to making a movie out of one of his novels is to throw away nine-tenths of the novel. Given the size of a typical Irving book, that seems like a fair ratio. The trick is to keep the right 10 percent.

It’s a common conceit that a big-screen (or small-screen) adaptation of a literary work is going to be inferior, and to an extent I get that. The two media have different aims and different means — books have an unlimited capacity to immerse us in a story, while movies traditionally are expected first and foremost to entertain. I’d point to Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” as a classic example of cinema’s inability to convey the drama and pathos of the remarkable narrative that unfolds on the printed page. In the hands of a more artful director, it might have worked, but I’d recommend the book to anyone who wants to gain a full appreciation of Oskar Schindler’s story.

That doesn’t make it a rule. This week I caught a screening of an Italian adaptation of Stephen Amidon’s “Human Capital,” at which the suggestion came up that the movie is actually superior to the book. I haven’t read it, so I’ll have to take that assertion at face value, but what struck me about the film was the depth of its characters. That’s a telltale sign of a book as the source material for the script, and I applaud the producers for understanding its value. There’s a decent thriller plot to drive the story along, so a lesser director (I’m looking at you, Spielberg) could’ve easily latched onto suspense and narrative twists at the expense of character study.

Luckily, that didn’t happen, and we care what happens next while caring about the people it happens to. Whether that makes it “better” than the book, I can’t say. I’m more inclined to argue that the best we should hope for is “equal.”

The most “equal” screen adapation of a book I’ve seen is Lawrence Kasdan’s “The Accidental Tourist,” primarily because of the lead performance by William Hurt. Interestingly, I saw the film first, so I’ll never know how I might have envisioned the Macon Leary put forth in Anne Tyler’s novel. Hurt forever defined the character for me. His puzzled and sometimes pained delivery captures the character’s maddening attempts to stoically ride above life’s turbulence. That came through when I read the book, but was it because Hurt put it there? Like I said, I’ll never know. That’s extraordinary casting and an extraordinary performance in a film that’s worthy of its literary counterpart.

“Wonder Boys” benefits from similar casting brilliance, but for the film version of  Michael Chabon’s book, I’d substitute “equal” with “different.” Michael Douglas is the perfect choice for the lead role of befuddled, drifting Professor Grady Tripp, but I found room for my own interpretation of the character when reading the book. Perhaps this is because there are significant differences between how the two versions of the story play out.  To me, they were equally enjoyable. In the spirit of Irving’s nine-tenths rule, the filmmakers understood that Tripp is the beating heart of the novel. As long as the they stayed true to that character, other differences wouldn’t matter.


It ain’t me

Four kids on the corner trying to bring you up
Willy picks a tune out and he blows it on the harp

Based on what I know of his catalog, the last word I would use to describe John Fogerty is angry. OK, “Fortunate Son” was seething, but that was a righteous anger, a rallying cry against the privileged classes. But for the most part, Fogerty’s legacy, first with his seminal band Creedence Clearwater Revival and later during his unlikely comeback as a solo artist, is one of loving devotion to his craft. His folksy observations on life captured in songs like “Down on the Corner” and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” carry an everyman appeal without the slightest hint of belligerence or bitterness.

fogertySo it was a surprise to me to find so much vitriol in Fogerty’s recently published autobiography — puzzlingly, if predictably, titled “Fortunate Son,” considering the agonies described within its pages. Much of the suffering he bemoans is brought on by the legitimately rotten circumstances of CCR’s rise and fall. An onerous contract with its record label robbed the band of much of its income and Fogerty of his songwriting royalties. While this wasn’t uncommon in those times (just ask Grand Funk Railroad), Fogerty was subjected to unusually harsh provisions that essentially forced him into musical exile for more than a decade following CCR’s breakup.

About that breakup: Fogerty has nothing good to say about his former bandmates, including his brother Tom. That’s a little odd. Most music bios I’ve read will reference some early period of productive collaboration, if not pleasant harmony, the good times before things went sour. According to Fogerty, that never occurred. He was an extraordinarily committed musician and songwriter, while Doug Clifford, Stu Cook and Tom Fogerty appeared to be along for the ride, enjoying the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle but contributing very little to the band’s success. This is where it gets difficult to fathom — Fogerty describes a dynamic in which he alone oversaw the band’s output, from writing the songs, teaching the guys their parts, supervising the recording sessions and doing the mixing and editing (which included re-recording his vocals over theirs when he determined they weren’t good enough, and at least in one case, painstakingly splicing the drum track to fix Clifford’s apparent bad timing). I completely accept Fogerty’s brilliance at face value — his music speaks for itself. But it’s hard to believe he could have established CCR’s beloved legacy with little more than bumbling sidekicks.

Reading between the lines, it’s more likely a case of a singularly gifted musician with a relentless perfectionist streak, the natural consequence being that he couldn’t get along with anyone. This bears out in Fogerty’s post-CCR experience, during which he continued to churn through musicians that didn’t measure up and ultimately relied on a “one-man band” approach that allowed him to control every last detail of the production. Not surprisingly, this didn’t make him any happier as he burned himself out on endless minutia while getting further away from the spontaneous, collaborative spirit that drew him into rock ‘n’ roll as a youth.

Happily, Fogerty comes to terms with it in the final chapters of the book, when at the urging of his wife, he produces an album in which current acts — encompassing rock, country and gospel genres — do their own versions of his classic songs. He’s honest about the initial anxiety he feels as he watches those bands take his music in uncomfortable new directions.  But perhaps recognizing his new role as one of rock’s elder statesmen, with his legacy firmly established, he learns to let go. Only through this process does he find a sense of peace and finally embrace, despite nearly a lifetime of misery, the title of fortunate son.