Friday, March 21, 2008

Literary Interlude: To Althea, from Prison

Earlier this week I had a discussion about the freest people in Cuba being the political prisoners. It reminded me of this old classic. I post it today, because I'll be on the road again this weekend, so I don't know when I'll be able to post.

To Althea, from Prison

When love with unconfined wings (50.1)
Hovers within my gates;
And my divine ALTHEA brings
To whisper at the grates;
When I lye tangled in her haire,(50.2)
And fetterd to her eye,(50.3)
The birds,(50.4)that wanton in the aire,
Know no such liberty.

When flowing cups run swiftly round
With no allaying THAMES,
Our carelesse heads with roses bound,
Our hearts with loyal flames;
When thirsty griefe in wine we steepe,
When healths and draughts go free,
Fishes, that tipple in the deepe,
Know no such libertie.

When like committed linnets, I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetnes, mercy, majesty,
And glories of my King.
When I shall voyce aloud, how good
He is, how great should be,
Inlarged winds, that curle the flood,
Know no such liberty.

Stone walls doe not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Mindes innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedome in my love,
And in my soule am free,
Angels alone that sore above
Enjoy such liberty.

Richard Lovelace

A Question of Characters

I was doing a post on an AP article about the purported inroads being made by the Democrats in South Florida for Babalu when I was struck with the notion of character.

I came across this tidbit about the Diaz-Balarts:

Both have the backing of likely GOP presidential nominee John McCain, whom they refused to desert when his poll numbers were down.

Almost unheard of in politics to continue backing a candidate who's been given up for dead . But that's what the brothers did. Also surprising is the reluctance, self-serving or not, of other local elected Democrats:

While the national Democratic party supports the challengers, Reps. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., have refused to actively campaign against the Diaz-Balarts.

Verry interesting as they say.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A New Havana?

Not sure what to make of this piece in April's Atlantic Monthly. I link to it for its quirky map of what might happen in an embargoless Havana. Don't ask me. See it here.

Read: Broken Paradise

The most salient characteristic of Havana born Ceclia's Samartin's Broken Paradise is loss This is not a book you read for the seamless, flowing narrative. The beginning, set in the lost paradise, is a bit stiff as Samartin uses the almost idyllic Varadero vacations of two young girls, cousins Nora and Alicia, to establish Cuba BC. True, she attempts to ground this Eden with the overt racism of the grandmother, but it doesn't quite work. In part it is a matter of perspective as the memories are Nora's, and to be a teenager at the beach surrounded by your loving family is always idyllic in retrospect.

It is as the book approaches life in Havana with the first whisperings of unrest that the book becomes engrossing. Nora and Alicia's coming of age takes place against the backdrop of the convulsions of the revolution. From this point on, pain reverberates throughout the work. From the characters it radiates outward to the reader. There is no happiness, only brief snatches of joy. There are the travails of Nora's side of the family as they come to terms with their losses and life in a harsh new world. While back in Cuba Alicia's family is destroyed by the revolution, and her glorious young love turns to tragedy as the book traces the inevitable awakening of those who early on believed in the false promise of those days.

The ending reminds me of those lines from Wordsworth: "Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower. We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind." And in the end, that is what the characters do, as they adjust to the realities of their lives. They survive and some thrive, all carrying with them the bitter taste of loss.

Samartin's greatest achievement in this book is to give names and faces to the victims of the cataclysm that was the revolution, to make flesh history. By the time it ends, we feel as if the characters are real people we have known, and perhaps they are.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

Read the text of Obama's speech on race. Gotta admit it: the guy is good. He might have left out an inconvenient truth or two, but he hit the right notes, in part because it is a topic he has lived. The one note he didn't leave out was that his white grandmother once confessed to him that she was "scared" of black men on the street sometimes and has said things that made him "cringe." This by the way is the grandmother who he tells us has sacrificed for him. Go figure.

There's some fun stuff around the net on this one. Ann Coulter at her finest seizes upon the reference in this week's column, aptly entitled "Throw Grandma Under the Bus." On a slightly smaller scale, it took me two readings on Nelson Guirado's blog to realize that the post about Grandma was satirical. It is pretty hilarious from the mob burning granny in effigy to the calling out the National Guard to the comment from the "barista" and activist and finally to Obama's calming speech. A must read.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Childhood's End: Arthur C Clarke Dies

It was one of my early teaching years. Although it was the 80's, vestiges of the open curriculum 70's persisted, and I was scrounging around for some material to suggest to students. One of the things I loved about the scheme was that it resulted in the "resource center" where all sorts of literary treasures lay on floors, between easy chairs, next to carpet squares, just waiting for the curious student. My own experiences with open curriculum in English and Religion as a student had led to my discovery of The Last Temptation of Christ, The Stranger, The Dead Sea Scrolls, Anna Karenina.

That day, I picked up a thin, worn book, one of those old paperbacks with the yellowed, brittle pages. It was entitled Childhood's End. A slim volume of science fiction, it held promise for engaging the average teenager. It was after school, so I sat down just for a few minutes to read. That was my introduction to Arthur C. Clarke. Later, my husband and I would watch his Mysterious Universe on the recently introduced cable TV.

So it is with a certain nostalgia that I mark his passing at age 90. Author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, he was literally a man of many talents. In an interview on his birthday this year, he suggested that he would like most to be remembered as a writer. So it is as a writer that I will mark his passing.

Black Spring By the Numbers

30,000 the approximate number of signatures the Varela Project collected.
75* the number of dissidents, independent librarians, independent journalists arrested in
response 5 years ago.
20 the rough average of length of sentence in years imposed on the 75.
55* the number of the 75 remaining in prison.
16 the number released for medical reasons, at least one of whom has died.
4 the number of the 75 released and sent into forced exile, touted as a sign of change.
2 the number of International Human Rights Accords Cuba has signed.

*The numbers do not include Oscar Elias Biscet who was picked up earlier and sentenced to 25 years. He remains imprisoned.

In Which I Get Taken to the Woodshed

A few days ago, I posted on the "toilet paper" bill sponsored by Victor Crist (R-Tampa). Alas, I should know better than to believe the media. Today, I find this rather pointed comment which I offer for your perusal and which provides a different view of the proposed bill. I'll publish it here so as to catch readers of the original post:

Your comments regarding Florida State Senator Victor Crist’s legislation dealing with restaurant restrooms is misleading and inaccurate. If you would have verified your facts, you would have found the bill actually deals with restaurant restrooms and is a whole lot more than just toilet paper. In fact what it really does is expand Florida’s inspections of restaurant kitchens to include restrooms. The bill ensures that restaurant food preparation staff has the necessary means to be clean in order to prevent the spread of disease in food preparation areas. The bill simply requires restaurants to have rest rooms that function. That means running water at the sink, antibacterial soap, a means to dry your hands, toilets that function, and of course toilet paper. The basics needed to ensure the prevention of harmful bacteria that can be easily transmitted to food during preparation after using the restroom.

I do hope that the members of the MSM where I got the original story received a similar message. Anon.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Irish Connection

No, it's not a drug thing. It's a six degrees separation kinda thing. When I was little, growing up in a Brooklyn tenement, working class, but quite decent, Cubans were a rare thing. The Irish, however, were everywhere. In my innocence of history, of "Irish need not apply" and "bog trotters" epithets, I thought the best thing in the world would be to be Irish. This way you could be accepted; you didn't have to worry all the time; and you got to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.

Well, demographics and I changed, but I still got a kick in my college history class on the history of the British Isles out of the knowledge that one branch of the Celts who populated the British Isles was Iberian in origin. Today, I'm reading Penultimos Dias when I find that no less an Irish group than the Chieftains had acknowledged the connection, specifically in the Galician music that made its way to Cuba. Oh, yeah, and Ry Cooder's involved there, too. Then in MaT's blog, which is at its best when he is exercising his considerable knowledge and writing ability on his own material and not deconstructing the work of others, there is an enlightening bit of Cuban history.

Now some things made sense, like the bagpipes when I went to Club España in NYC, and the jiglike folk dances. Aha. I personally claim no kinship, since although some of my forbears were gallegos in Cuba, the kind that jumped ship in Cuba when people actually wanted to emigrate there, they were not actual gallegos, as they hailed from the Canary Islands. Anyone from Spain in the Cuban lexicon was tagged a "gallego;" in the same way anyone who was of Jewish stock, from Europe, and even from Lebanon was tagged as a "Polaco." For the longest time, I was very confused and thought there were many Polish people in Cuba. But as far as I can remember those were the two ethnic distinctions other than Cuban. Oh, I forgot "Chino."

But anyway, I forgot the corn beef, which I don't like anyway, and the cabagge, so tonight it's going to be boliche with broccoli- it's smelly enough- on the side. Close enough, don't you think?

Oh, and before I forget, Happy St. Paddy's Day to all!.

Humor and Pathos for the Tourists

Did you know Fidel is the worst bartender in the world? He has been trying to make a Cuba Libre for 48 years and still hasn't gotten it right.

Fidel and Raul are on a flight across the country, and Fidel says, "If I could drop one peseta out the window, I would make one person very happy." Raul says, "If I dropped two pesetas out the window, I would make two people very happy." To which the pilots says, "Why don't I drop both of you out the door, and we would make 11 million people very happy."

Three presidents are making phone calls to hell. President Bush completes his call and his bill comes to $1,000. President Putin finishes his call and must pay 1000 rubles. When Castro is done, he is charged 10 cents. The other two are very upset until they are reminded that Castro's call was a local call.

Such is the state of affairs in Cuba, when they can joke like that about their leader.

These jokes appear in an article in the Redlands Daily Facts, the fourth in a series by Ilene Cox who went to Cuba on a "humanitarian mission" in November of 2007. Frankly, the article makes it seem more of a tourist trip than anything else. Hmmm.

In the process, she seems to have learned more than a few jokes, closing with the following:

What a beautiful city, what a beautiful country.
Look past the crumbling buildings and the pace of life there and you can envision a time when Cuba may once again take its place among progressive nations. Now that Castro has stepped down, maybe there are some changes in the wind.

Contrast that with this account of a tourist trip in the Guardian in which Alison Littlewood struggles with an inconsequential decision that haunts her. Obviously oblivious to the truth of Cuban history and reality, her major concern seeming to be the costs incurred in the trip, she passes by "a pony and a trap" and "oxen" without any conception that Cuba has been sent back to the nineteenth century.

Her unease is caused when she refuses to buy a little wooden tortoise from an elderly man, having decided she would not buy souvenirs. It is a decision that haunts her...

I looked again. His soul was there, in his eyes. And his soul was full of pain, the kind you can't fake. It was built in layers, one disappointment laid over the next. Fergus was talking to the guide. I opened my mouth, started to say something: "Oh, go on. Let's get one." But my voice somehow never came out.


Later, I wondered how long he had spent making these things. Twisting his old hands around them, forming the shells, the shine of a tortoise emerging. Putting in the mechanism, some trick he knew. And all the time, maybe he was thinking of me, or someone like me. Seeing this thing take shape, the thing he made, and all the time hoping that we would like it.

and finally

I took a little of it away, I think. I left him nothing, but I took away a little of his sadness. I hoped it lightened his load, but really I think he had more than enough to go round. I've imagined it since - pressing a note into his hand, telling him to keep the change. Seeing the wonder in his face that someone had so much to give away. Seeing him smile.

In this last, I find a metaphor for these tourist junkets. They may lighten the load of some, but there is more than enough sadness to go around.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sunday Bible Study

And the scales fell from his eyes. Never thought I'd be linking to the Village Voice but here is an essay by famed playwright David Mamet who explains why he is no longer a "brain dead liberal." Not surprisingly even in the midst of a pretty personal and conversational essay, there's some sharp writing. I won't tell you what changed his mind, but it's more about living than politics.

The truth shall set you free. Here's an interesting one from Pat Sajak, who's experienced cable news burnout. I feel your pain, Pat. At one time in my brief, inglorious career I was addicted to Hardball, before Matthew's went off the reservation, that is. Sajak points out that with the range of printed matter, he gets a better understanding of the world.

Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. In the midst of the Spitzer Sex Scandal, Ben Shapiro asks what happened to the concept of shame? A good question, it seems to me. Alas, I fear that its a notion like that of honor which is lost in the mists of time. Read it here.

How the mighty have fallen. One of the casualties in this time of economic uncertainty is Bear Stearns. The venerable old financial house was rescued by the Fed, which had to use a law enacted during the Great Depression to do it. The Wall Street Journal article points out the role of JP Morgan Chase in the bailout, evoking the role of founder, J. Pierpont Morgan, in earlier market rescues. Wasn't he the guy with the funny nose? Read it here.

Judge not, lest ye be judged. In a reversal of fortune, a Northern Ireland appeals court judge overturned a 25,000 pound jury award for libel. Goodfellas pizzeria in West Belfast had taken a restaurant critic to court-and won- over a negative review. This judge said fuggedaboudid. You can read about it here.