Missing Words

There’s been a lot of discussion around whether there’s a word missing in the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” There isn’t. To paraphrase a paraphrase, it says what it means and means what it says. It’s short and self-contained, and yet it’s bursting with insight that others have elucidated much better than I can. But there’s another bit that I feel I can discuss, and that’s the insight that the supposed missing words provide into our own assumptions and biases.

By now the phrase “All Lives Matter” is heard more often ironically than as a sincere response to the BLM movement (at least it appears that way, and I really hope this isn’t just my bubble talking). I imagine that’s less because most people have caught on about what “Black Lives Matter” really means and more a factor of the increasingly brief shelf-life that ‘pithy’ sayings tend to experience. Just because it’s fallen out of fashion, however, doesn’t mean that the sentiment has ebbed along with it in any real or lingering way.

But some of us liberals, in our quest to be helpful and informative, often don’t know when to leave things alone. In this case, we tried to get involved in the early days of this back-and-forth and “explain what black people really meant,” because “black people can’t do this for themselves,” more likely phrased as, “black people left out an important word that would have prevented all of this.” And shame on us, liberals. Will we ever learn? But we decided to involve ourselves in the “Black Lives Matter” versus “All Lives Matter” debate because we could see where the breakdown was and we knew how to fix it.

“What they really meant,” we said, “was that black lives matter just as much as other lives matter. It’s not that they matter more, it’s that they also matter. Really, there’s a word missing, and it should be ‘Black Lives Also Matter,’ but it’s a bit late for that, so just take our word for it.” Bang up job, white people, just like always. And please understand, I include myself in this. I might as well be quoting one of my own responses to people’s Facebook posts back in 2015. I’m certainly no better.

But that’s not what they meant. They meant that black lives matter. That’s what they meant. Because that’s what they said. Sure, we can infer that ‘also’ there, and that’s great. We could even infer an ‘actually’ instead, as in: “Black Lives Actually Matter.” That might even be better than ‘also’ because it sets off the phrase as being less a statement of fact (of course black lives matter) pages.stolaf.eduand more an indictment of the state of affairs in our great nation. People weren’t acting like black lives mattered, so reminding everyone that they actually do makes sense.

The word ‘actually’ isn’t missing either, though. It’s just a word we can read into it, and we’re free to do that. We can fill in missing words in our own minds all we want, and we can discuss these nuances with our friends and with black people themselves (this is recommended!). But what we can’t do is say that this word, or any other, belongs as a part of the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” It doesn’t.

I think Michael Che put it best when he said, “We can’t even agree on ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Not ‘matters more than you,’ just ‘matters.’ Matters. Just matters. That’s where we’re starting the negotiations.” And this, of course, was in response to another attempt to infer a word in the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” In this case it was the predominately white, conservative assertion that what was really meant here was “Black Lives Matter More,” or as I also heard it, “Only Black Lives Matter.” “That’s what they’re really saying!” friends of mine contended. “You have to read between the lines,” family members assured me. “Well, it’s just misguided because it sounds like they mean, ‘matter more’ if you think about it,” still others reasoned.

But they weren’t thinking about it. They weren’t trying at all to think about it. What they were doing was the same thing that liberals were doing when we said, “What they really mean is that they also matter,” and conservatives would respond with, “Well, they should have said that!” or even, “They would have said that if they’d meant it!” We were leaving black people and what they themselves said out of the conversation.

And so, as with all things, we have a spectrum. There’s the well-meaning liberal who wants to interpret black people’s movement for them and help them express themselves better, while at the same time translating for scared white people. There’s the conservative who doesn’t know what to think, wants to believe the best about everyone, but just wishes people would do things the right way. And there’s the conservative who thinks they’ve seen the light, who thinks they know the hearts of all women and men involved in BLM to be entitled and lazy and reverse-racist. None of us is off the hook, though, and none of us is listening to black people and what they have to say. We’ve heard words and then reentered our own narrative, and that says a lot about us. As I said at the beginning of this post, the words that we go on to infer can even tell us who we are.

If you hear the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and your first reaction is to assume that the person saying that is trying to elevate themselves above you or imply that they’re more deserving than others because of their skin color, if you infer the word ‘only’ or the word ‘more,’ that inference reveals an underlying bigotry within you. I’m sorry, but it’s true. What that assumption does is out your inner racist misgivings; it gives that voice what it’s been quietly looking for while it waits inside you: evidence that black people really are different, or that at least there’s something to the idea that skin color can play a role. If “Black Lives Matter” means to you that black people are getting ‘uppity’ and too entitled and trying to get a handout or special treatment, then that says that this is something that you already inherently believe about black people. The phrase itself is innocuous. There’s no claim of anything other than mattering. What you add to the phrase comes from within you.

And if you protest that you heard others say this first, that someone told you that when people say that black lives matter, they mean that only black lives matter, and you thought they did their research or they’re someone you usually trust or feel is a ‘pretty with-it individual,’ then those words you are inferring reveal two things about you. First, they still reveal your inner racism because you were ready to swallow that explanation when it came along, and second, they show that you’re not using your own brain to come to your own conclusions. But don’t worry, liberals aren’t off the hook either, as I’ve said.

Before we liberals and ‘allies’ start feeling haughty, those of us who inferred words on the other side of that spectrum have something to answer for as well. Sure, we had the best intentions and our inferences are a lot closer to what black people mean when they say this, but when we go so far as to imply that “Black Lives Matter” is missing something that could make it clearer, we’re showing our racism, too.

The idea that black people (who started this movement for and about black people and the idea that their lives matter) didn’t get the name right is also racist, not to mention arrogant. Sure, it seems less offensive at first, but think about it: what we’re saying is that white people know better. White people speak better or write better or come up with slogans better or organize better or even just know how to talk to other white people better. Even if the last one is sometimes true, no one asked us to be mediators. No one assigned us the role of translating the black message to the whites. To say that the phrase “Black Lives Matter” could have been clearer is to try to take ownership of black lives mattering away from black people. I know, we didn’t mean to. But really, when was that ever a valid excuse?

So no, there aren’t any missing words in that well-known phrase. It really is just “Black Lives Matter,” and that’s all it was ever supposed to be. Those extra words we think belong there, they’re cries for help from our inner selves because sometimes the voice inside of us is not our conscience and not a deeper wisdom. Sometimes it’s the voice of our deficiencies, of our weaknesses, of our insecurities, of our fears, yes, even of our hatred. We have to learn to tell the difference before we open our mouths and give air to those voices, but we’d also better make damn sure we listen closely to them, and with a critical ear, if we ever want to learn and grow. And white people, we’ve got a lot of learning and growing to do.

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Precedential Fixation

Any fight against Trump must by necessity involve a struggle to reach the hearts and minds of those who support him. There can be no successful strategy against Trump that does not also include the one-quarter of the electorate that voted for him. There are many among that number who we might like to write off as lost causes. There are those who A man leans out of a Hummer shouting words in support of U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump while driving through Times Square in New Yorkbelieve that facts are simply not real, those who, like Ben Carson, believe that religion must be used to interpret science because science might just be propaganda. This is frustrating, and perhaps we will never be able to convince them that what Trump is doing is simply wrong. Not a matter of opinion, not a partisan disagreement, just wrong. There may even be some who truly are lost causes. But as of the latest count, just under 63 million people voted for him. That is not a number that we can simply write off. This is a demographic of its own, and we have to address it as such.

As I sit here on December 18th, the eve of the true election day, and contemplate what fresh misery tomorrow will bring, I feel an odd sense of resolve about the coming fight. I do not believe for one second that there will be enough faithless electors to force this decision on the House of Representatives, much less that there is a potential outcome that puts Hillary in the White House. The time for denial is over, and many, if not most, of us have known this for a long while and have been facing things head on and organizing for the struggle to come. No, Donald Trump will be elected tomorrow, and he will be sworn in in just over a month. It’s not Bernie’s fault, nor is it Jill Stein’s or Gary Johnson’s, or even the Russians’. The fault lies squarely with the American people, and it is there that our focus must remain.

The 2016 campaigns divided this country more dramatically than perhaps any in modern history, and the result will be the election to our highest office of a man with no political experience, very limited knowledge of how the government functions, a fundamental disconnect with the average American, and a surprising lack not only of diplomacy itself, but also of any interest whatsoever in gaining a deeper understanding of how one conducts oneself with foreign governments and emissaries. He has chosen to fill his cabinet with men and women who are either equally as inexperienced in the fields which they will be directing, or who are grossly unfit to serve the institutions that they will head. Not only that, but he is surrounding himself with his children, including his son-in-law, and a white supremacist as some of his closest advisers.

In the short time between the national election and the one that will be held tomorrow, Donald Trump has managed to flout convention to such a degree that lawmakers and legal experts have warned that he could be violating the US Constitution merely by being sworn in. He has not only refused to divest his stakes in his various international holdings that many argue could lead to a violation of the Title of Nobility Clause (often called the ‘Emoluments Clause’), he has also met or spoken with foreign political and business leaders (e.g. from India and Argentina) to ensure that Trump projects that have been stagnating in legal negotiations suddenly receive the green light. Finally, Trump’s international blunders have already threatened to upset the relationship with China that we have fostered for nearly 40 years, and he looks set to reward Putin’s land grabs and power plays with a lifting of sanctions, lucrative oil contracts, and a laissez-faire approach to Russian involvement in the Middle East.

The one unifying theme of all of this is that it is unprecedented—no matter how you spell it. And we have been using this word to describe it since long before the polls opened on November 8th. We have discussed Trump’s unprecedented attitude toward propriety, women, minorities, the rules of debate, and the use of social media. We have been appalled by his unprecedented attacks on journalists, on fallen soldiers and POWs, on peaceful protestors, and on people he generally dislikes. We now deride his unprecedented style of leadership, from his refusal to take daily intelligence briefings or hold press conferences, to his lack of concern with his ‘alt-right’ [fascist] supporters and his apparent witch hunts against scientists. We shout him down in one loud chorus, and the word we often find to voice our disgust is: ‘UNPRECEDENTED!’

There’s just one problem: his supporters are using this very same word, and they’re doing it to praise him. All of the articles we post, all of the evidence we cite, all of the arguments we make lead to a deceptively simple conclusion: this is without precedent. Its hidden complexity lies in the fact that, although everything about our current situation is indeed unprecedented, there are two very different ways of interpreting this word. When we seek to find common ground with Trump supporters, we imagine that showing them how unprecedented this all is will make them understand that it’s also wrong. In reality, however, we are only fueling the fire that we are trying to fight. It is precisely this aspect of a Trump presidency that appeals to his base, and the louder we decry that it is unprecedented, the louder they will cheer it.

What we have to accomplish in the coming months and years will require more than we may realize. While we are fighting against Trump and all that he tries to do, we must also be on the front lines with the very people we might rather dismiss. We have to come to terms with the fact that they are a force themselves, and although there is diversity among them, just as there is diversity within any group, they represent a demographic all their own. They may be privileged, but they see themselves as disenfranchised; they may be delusional, but they feel threatened. They are angry, and they are afraid. They are true-believers in the post-factual reality, and while they are by no means a monolith, they rally behind Trump for one major reason: he promised them that he would do things differently, and although he has already broken many of his promises and looks poised to break many more, the promise of being the un-president is one that he will likely keep.

Let me be clear: this is not a plea for coming together in a spirit of healing. This is not an entreaty to get along and let bygones be bygones. Everything will not be alright, and the nightmare that we are living is very real. This is a call to arms. There must be more than a fight against authoritarianism; there must also be a battle for the hearts and minds of those who refuse to believe that it is coming. Defying Trump, denying him the ability to do all of the things we believe are terrible, will not be enough. We must target him and his policies, but we must also engage with the people who want him there. We ignored them before, to our detriment. To continue to do so is to fight the effects of fear and ignorance but to do nothing about their cause. We cannot leave them behind and hope that they will go away. They are a part of us, and ultimately we must find a way forward together.

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Confronting the New Reality

That Donald Trump has been living in a reality of his own making (or at least one in which he sees his skewed world views reflected, whether he made this reality himself or not) is not surprising. We’ve known this for a very long time, and since he became involved in the election last year, this has become all courtesy-of-mydailynews-comthe more evident. But we’ve seen plenty of people come to the fore who arrive encased in their own impenetrable fantasy worlds with
hermetically sealed views that have somehow managed to prolong their lifespan. These folks gain some traction, primarily among those who inhabit similar reason-proof shells or seek change at any cost, but they never get very far. I’m not talking about people with whom we disagree ideologically here, like your McCains, your Romneys, your Bushes H.W., and even your Bushes just-W. We can say what we will about them, especially about the last one, but even if they sometimes play by their own rules, we at least recognize the game.

I’m talking about people who have a fundamental break with reality, who operate on a different plane of existence from the rest of us, and one that is by no means transcendent and enlightened. In their reality, only their impressions of the world matter, and facts are merely annoyances to be swatted away like the buzzing of mosquitoes. One might accuse such individuals of believing the truth to be subjective, but it goes one (very large and terrifying) step beyond that: these people absolutely believe in a single, objective truth, it just happens to be their own. It is an unstable truth, to be sure. It is shifting and ephemeral by its very nature, as it grows to suit the mind it possesses, but the one characteristic that remains solid and defined is its immutable, unassailable veracity. They are the sole purveyors of this truth, the real and final truth, and they alone have the clarity of vision with which to implement that truth. This myopia, combined with messianic convictions, is usually spotted underneath the ill-conceived, if not insidious, rhetoric that such individuals employ: ambition wrapped in patriotism, misinformation backed by fear, fundamentalism coupled with nostalgia, and ignorance masked by bravado.

What is different about Donald Trump is not so much that he won the election, but rather how he did it and the transformation in the national psyche that made his win possible. It is not fake news that swept him into power, but our willingness to believe it and to spread it. It is not that some sought change at any cost (for there are always those who do), it is that we were willing to believe that those costs were worth paying because the need for change was so acute. It is not that the white middle class has been disenfranchised to the betterment of minorities, but how easy it was to convince us that this is true. The difference with Trump is not that he has his own reality. We’ve seen this before, and in many forms. The difference is that Trump somehow managed to merge his reality with our own in the minds of so many Americans.

We have truly entered a new reality, and we must admit that and discover new ways to fight within it if we are ever going to set things right. This reality is upon us, and it is based on ad hoc impressions and anger and fear, driven home by simple repetition and a raised voice. We cannot give credence to this reality, even as we acknowledge its existence. We cannot play by its rules, lest we legitimize and entrench it. We must seek new ways of combating it, for our reliance on facts alone is no longer enough. To bemoan the loss of our old reality is to mourn it, however, and I am not willing to mourn. Our reality is not gone, it has not been destroyed. It still exists, hidden beneath this new one, and we have to dig it out. It will be difficult, and I cannot pretend to have the answers. I don’t think anyone does yet, at least not all of them, but this is why working together is so important. We will forge new tools, and we will carry on the struggle. We need to be fighters, but we also need to reanalyze the fight. In order to do this, we need to be seekers. We need to be diggers. We need to be learners. Otherwise, we’ll stand no chance throwing off this new reality and reclaiming our own.

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My Evening with Fidel

Yesterday marks nearly 16 years to the day that I met Fidel Castro while visiting Cuba in December of 2000. His death has sparked numerous articles analyzing his contributions and his mistakes, as well as decrying his despotic measures, and it has inspired countless posts on social media that range from sentimental displays of solidarity with the Cuban people (on both sides of the political spectrum) to unbridled enthusiasm for the passing of their leader. The man who had seized power and held it for nearly fifty years engendered both pride and revulsion, as is evidenced today by the reception of his death. Sifting through the jeers and the words of praise, I have been trying to come to terms with my own feelings about the man I encountered so many years ago in Havana, a man I had read and even written a great deal about as a student of international affairs. Rather than the sinner or the saint, however, it is the spirit of a revolutionary that has always been most memorable for me about Castro, and it is this spirit that I feel will be missed.

In the fall of 2000, I had the immense fortune of studying abroad with Semester at Sea, and during our 3 ½ months we sailed west from Vancouver and stopped in 9 countries on our way to New Orleans, where we finally disembarked at the end of our voyage. Havana was our final stop, the second time in a row that Semester at Sea had procured a special educational visa from the US Treasury Department, and I am told that students went back one final time in the spring of 2001 before the Bush administration canceled even these special visas to the island nation 90 miles off the Florida coast.

Now, when I say that I met Castro, I don’t mean that I was enjoying an ice cream while walking along El Malecón, Havana’s gorgeous esplanade, and happened upon the man who had defied the United States for over forty years. Nor did I have a private meeting with him to discuss global political strategies and the economic revitalization of our respective countries. It was not exactly a personal chat, in other words, but in no way do I mean to say that what transpired was not an intimate affair.

My shipmates and I only had about four days on the island, as opposed to the usual five that we enjoyed in most of the other ports of call, and that is hardly enough time to get to know any place, even a relatively small one. We had spent five days in China, for example, and to this day when someone asks me if I’ve ever been to China (or any of the other countries we visited), I feel compelled to reply that I was once in Shanghai for five days. I cannot claim to know China well, nor do I claim to know even a country the size of Cuba well after so short a stay.

I will be the first to admit that my personal and direct experience of Cuba is limited to the capital, Havana, and that mostly to the tours we took of local schools and hospitals. I point this out in case there are those waiting to jump on this and say that my time there was manipulated by the Communist regime to give me a favorable view of the country and its advances. I concede on this point fully and without hesitation, and although they did a remarkably good job, you don’t need to take my word or theirs for it. Independent analysts from the World Bank, UNESCO, the World Health Organization, and others attest to some of the remarkable progress that Cuba made under Castro. The country boasts the tenth highest literacy rate in the world at just under 100%, as well as a high school graduation rate of 94%. Meanwhile, the US ranks 45th in literacy with an 81% graduation rate. The life expectancy in Cuba, at 78 years, is on par with the United States, health care is free, and Cuba has the highest doctor-to-patient ratio in the world. There is also very little violent crime, and although cash poor, the Cuban people tend to have their basic necessities met.

Sixteen years ago, I walked the darkened streets of Havana, striking left and right through the barrios in search of an authentic sense of the place, and I had no fear of being robbed or attacked as I might on the streets of a city in another, “more-developed” country. I would later learn that my sense of safety was likely due, at least in part, to the fear of reprisals by the police if an American was hurt or robbed, and in part due to the fact that Cubans want to attract people to their country, not scare them away. Nevertheless, it was a singular experience visiting a place where the people, although poor, seemed so happy.

And yet, this all comes with a price, as we are aware. Political dissidence is forbidden, and Castro was known for harsh repression of ‘counter-revolutionaries,’ those who spoke out against the regime and his rule. He was, and this is without question, a dictator who was at times brutal and who always took a hardline approach to any who opposed him or the revolution. He jailed dissidents, restricted travel, made life very difficult for homosexuals (including sending many to jail or labor camps), and allowed the execution of around 500 officials from the regime that preceded his. The last move, Castro remarked at the time, was one of necessity for the safety of the revolution. Fulgencio Batista, the dictator from whom Castro seized power in 1959, had presided over the torture and execution of those who opposed him, and Castro saw the extermination of Batista loyalists as the only way forward. We may judge this decision as we wish, but we must look at it in the context of American apathy toward the Batista regime and the atrocities committed under Batista’s rule that Castro was fighting against.

The Cuba under Batista, we should remember, did not enjoy a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It has been described as a playground for the American wealthy, and US companies had strong ties to the Batista regime due to favorable trade deals and lucrative private industry in the country, much of which involved keeping Cuba dependent on the sugar trade. Before railing against Castro’s dictatorship, it is important to look at Batista’s as well. This is not to excuse Castro’s repressive measures, nor is it to justify his treatment of his own people. Instead, it is to better understand the man who died yesterday and understand why he did what he did, even if the corruption of power substituted its own agenda for that of the revolution along the way.

But my visit to Cuba took place over forty years after the especially harsh measures that followed the revolution. The Havana that I saw was full of music and laughter, and the stories I heard were compelling. One man showed me where he had hidden American dollars under his mattress, telling me that he loved Cuba and everything about it, except that there was no opportunity to make money. “I will go to America,” he said, “and I will make lots of money because in America you can make money.” “So you would rather live there?” I asked. “No, no,” he smiled. “I will make money in America, and then I will return to Cuba a rich man. Cuba has everything I want. Just no money. I don’t want to live in America for long. Just long enough to make money and come back here.” The man sold cigars to tourists for dollars and hoped that one day they would be legal in Cuba again so that he could finance his trip north. According to him, at least, money was the only thing that kept Cuba from being paradise. I doubt he was the only one who felt this way. I told him that money was part of why the United States isn’t paradise either, just the other way around, and he smiled and said, “Socialism is better! I will take money from the capitalists and use it here. That is the best way!” And what could I do but wish him well.

Castro himself is something of an unseen entity in Cuba. I expected to see posters of him everywhere, along with giant billboards and signs praising him. Instead, I only saw images of Che Guevara, “el espíritu de la revolución,” now immortalized in Cuba (and in the dorm rooms of many American college students). Castro’s face was nowhere to be found, and all references to the revolution and the spirit of the people were made about Che. Che, the man who was to spread the revolution in Africa and South America, only to die at the hands of Bolivian authorities when his mountain hideout was discovered (tipped off, so the theory goes, by Castro himself once he became paranoid that the beloved Che would one day usurp him). It was a clever move, I realized, making a martyr into the face of the revolution. As a fallen warrior, Che’s memory could never be tarnished, and Castro could play the humble servant of the people who ruled for the sake of Che’s ideals. In the land of “sand, sun, and socialism,” as the locals call it, Castro could wrap himself in modesty and almost be convincing.

But if he truly thought he was fooling anyone, he did not show it. The man who survived at least 8 CIA assassination attempts (and hundreds more, according to the Cuban government), and thumbed his nose at the United States for over fifty years from just 90 miles off shore, had a swagger and a penchant for bombast that belied any pretense of shyness. His speeches regularly went for hours, and it was a truncated, 2 ½ hour speech that prompted rumors that he might be ill.

This returns me to the night we met him. We had been told throughout the semester that there was a chance that he might speak to us, though the likelihood was slim. Upon arrival in Cuba, we again heard that the administration of Semester at Sea was in contact with Castro’s office and that there was the possibility of an appearance, although no confirmation could be given. Fidel Castro speaks to students from Semester at Sea in Havana, Cuba.And on the night in question we were told that we would be received as official guests of the Cuban government in the National Assembly, and that Castro might attend, but due to security concerns they would leave us in suspense. If nothing else, our staff informed us, there would be a dinner and a performance, and it seemed foolish to risk missing a glimpse of the world leader and major force of the Non-Aligned Movement, so we all boarded local buses at dusk and made our way to the reception.

We were greeted in the hall of the National Assembly by representatives of the youth council, and as luck would have it, I managed to find myself in the first row. The two chairs at the front of the stage were occupied by a man and a woman of roughly college age who introduced various officials arrayed at the flanking tables behind them, but Castro was not among them. The two students at the front explained how the National Assembly functioned and occasionally pointed back to one of the men or women who was responsible for a particular office. One chair, at the edge of one of the back tables, remained conspicuously empty, and I kept my eyes open for its would-be occupant, rewarded before long as Castro himself emerged from the wings and casually took his seat. The students continued speaking, and Castro sat with his legs folded, hands in his lap, and an expression of sincere attention on his face as he listened to them finish their speech.

Any minute now, I thought, Castro was going to get up and start doing his thing. He would begin running the show. But the students kept talking, and Castro kept listening. The translator dutifully continued the task of rendering Spanish into English, and no one seemed to think that anything was out of place. Finally, one of the students signaled behind them, and Castro rose, grinning and even blushing, to step forward. Dressed in his familiar military greens, he looked all the part of El Comandante. He then took about half an hour to tell us that he was not going to give us a speech. He laughed and said that we had all had the opportunity to hear him drone on and on at length, but that on that night he wanted to do things differently. The students remained seated at their table at the head of the stage, and they were to be in charge of fielding questions from us Semester at Sea students, which Castro would then do his best to answer. What followed was over three hours of questions and answers, in which the students, from start to finish, assumed the responsibility of calling on people and adding their own thoughts into the mix. The feeling that they were in charge and Castro merely an expert tasked with relaying information may have been an illusion, but it was an illusion that had a remarkable effect. Their leader appeared magnanimous and gracious as he held sway over his 800-member audience, as he surely intended.

What does one ask a septuagenarian dictator, you may ask? Given that his responses lasted around 45 minutes apiece for most questions, we only made it through about five or six. The simplest question, with the shortest answer, was: “What is your favorite color?” “Rojo, claro!” Castro replied. Red, of course! The rest were more serious, including one that referenced a political crisis that we were facing at the time. The Supreme Court had just called for a stop to the Florida recount after the 2000 presidential election, and Al Gore had conceded to George W. Bush, prompting many to begin referring to the latter as the “president-select.” The symmetry of this story coinciding with one such tumultuous election and Castro’s death coinciding with another is hardly lost on me. But although Castro’s response was longer this time, his answer to the question was fairly concise: it was not for him to weigh in on our elections. He felt it best to remain neutral—another interesting parallel to the events of today, given the foreign meddling that has come to light.

His answers tended to meander, this I remember well. Castro would mull the question over for only a moment, and then he would begin to respond. It was always a very direct and relevant analysis of the question and its answer that would initially take shape. For five or so minutes it would seem that he would have little more to say than what might be obvious. And then he would leave things open, the question still unanswered, and begin to tell a story or wander a bit out loud with us though his own history and his country’s. Each time I caught myself thinking that I was watching a true politician at work: restate the question, pay it lip service, and then move on to something else that was relevant enough to fool people into thinking they’d gotten an answer. And each time Castro appeared to be doing just that. He would spend 30-40 minutes discussing various other things, constructing theories and beginning claims that he then left hanging and unfinished, and this prompted me to wonder if his mind was as sharp as it once had been. But then, in the last few minutes, these thoughts would be plucked back to the forefront, the theories knitted together and the claims substantiated with minimal further explication, and his closing thought on the subject returned us precisely to the question originally posed. Every moment of his rambling tale was then proved to be a salient point in his discussion, and the answer stood before us.

This remains to this day one of the most marvelous things I have ever experienced. A master orator, Castro displayed one of the few simple acts of brilliance I have ever had the pleasure to witness first-hand. It was a flawless performance, and regardless of what any may say about the power of charisma, for he certainly had it, there was a magic about that man that went much deeper than his ability to manipulate. He had a keen and capacious mind, and each of his answers was a work of beauty, crafted to perfection. They were not especially partisan, and I doubt anyone was converted to Cuban communism that day, but this had as much to do with the questions as they did with the answers. His audience was there to play hardball, for the most part, and Castro took this in stride. His attitude was more that of a historian than a politician, and he was as quick to poke fun at his foibles as he was to laud the courageous spirit of the Cuban people.

Another question I remember well from that night was especially pointed. “Why did communism fail?” someone asked. If I expected El Jefe to bristle at this, I was to be disappointed. Certainly, he contended that it had not failed, that it was in the process of being realized, but his answer slowly developed into the nuanced, multi-layered treatise that we had so quickly come to expect. Whether it was an attempt to convince us that communism had not failed or merely a way of presenting what Castro saw communism to truly be, I do not know, but his tone was not that of a lecturer or even of a teacher. It was rather that of a parent discussing a child, and here it was that we truly saw a glimpse of this man as the father of the revolution. In that moment, he seemed truly humbled. The next question, and indeed the last, if memory serves, was perhaps the perfect follow-up.

“Is there anything that you wish you had done differently?”

Castro grinned and nodded and thought for a moment. “I would not have been so quick to align with the Soviet Union,” he said. Perhaps I should not have been, but I was rather stunned. He went on to explain why he felt that this was such a mistake, what led to his decision, and how he felt things might have been different. “We became much too dependent upon the Soviet Union,” he continued, “and when it collapsed, we had nowhere to turn.” What followed this was a frank discussion of the Cuban economic downturn of the 1990s, along with a lengthy coda on why the future of Cuba was something to be positive about. In between, however, came a degree of contrition that I had not expected. He deplored the trade embargo placed upon Cuba by the United States, but he also said that the US government had not had a choice. It had been a different time, he noted, and quick decisions often spelled the difference between continued peace and the terror of renewed hostilities between nuclear powers. He mentioned what we call the Cuban Missile Crisis and said that he should never have accepted the nuclear arsenal that the Soviets stationed there, adding that this poisoned the waters for a long time to come and made negotiations with the US impossible. He pointed to the failure of the Cuban economy after the Soviet collapse as a direct result of his mistakes, and he apologized to the people, saying that he should have been better prepared. In the end, he said, the blame lay with him.

It ended on a high note, of course, with promises that the Revolución Cubana would continue and would thrive again. Castro even expressed desires that he would see come to fruition shortly before his death. He spoke of his hope for an improvement of relations with the United States and for greater bilateral partnership. He boasted of Cuba’s impressive health sector and admonished us that we had a lot to learn and that Cubans would help us do so if we asked. But mostly he said that he wanted to see more brotherhood between nations. He hoped that Cubans and Americans could be friends and grow together, making the world better for communists and capitalists alike. Sentimental? Perhaps, but we can forgive an aging dictator a mawkish parting remark, I believe.

I write this not to salute Fidel Castro, nor to condemn him. I hope that any who read this see in it a measured take on a man who straddled the rupture of a world order whose aftermath we are still at odds to define. A despot? Surely. A tyrant? Perhaps that as well. But ultimately, Fidel Castro was a man of his time, and a man who outlived that time. The last century saw myriad revolutions all over the world, and although his was not the last, Castro himself was the longest lasting of those revolutionaries. He overthrew one oppressive regime, and although he implemented another, he also dramatically increased the quality of life for poorer Cubans. There are untold stories here, to be sure, but this is an account of my glimpse of Cuba and my brief encounter with one of the most reviled and most respected leaders of the last sixty years. If the adage holds true that no one is truly loved who is not also truly hated, then Fidel Castro has certainly earned his place in the hearts of his people and in the history of both his country and the world. He will be remembered by more than those who miss him, but let us not fool ourselves into thinking that his loss will not be felt for what it is. In many ways, Fidel Castro was the last revolutionary, and his death marks the end of an era.

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The Walk

Yesterday, due to a series of decisions I made myself, I ended up taking a very long walk back to my little room in the little house that is nestled among the hills of Oakland. It was a halfway accidental walk, although if I’m honest with myself (and I tend to be), I mostly saw it coming.

This walk, though, was not so much about how I got from A to B or what I saw along the way. Sure, I’m going to tell you about those things, too, but the important thing about this walk was what didn’t happen: for some reason, and I’m not even sure myself why it is, I did not switch on my music for the first time in several weeks. The post that will follow this one is going to talk about music and how it has affected me for the last couple of months, so stay tuned for that, but yesterday my ears were free and my mind was open to the world around me and the world within me, with no artificial input from the songs that have occupied my attention for so long. The result was that, for the first time in a long time, I felt what I was truly feeling as I made my way home. My thoughts came on their own, inspired only by other thoughts or the random sensory encounters I was having. I was experiencing each moment and each feeling that that moment brought. And this is what I wish to write about today.

I left Richmond with a camping backpack and a broken shoe. The shoe was a casualty of the previous night’s tree-climbing. Somewhere on the way up or on the way down, the Floprubber heel-part-of-the-shoe separated from the leather…shoe-part-of-the-shoe, and I noticed it flapping as I walked away. The shoe was of a pair, as shoes often are, and this pair I had purchased at an antique shop in Memphis over the summer for a grand total of $6.50. They were worth every penny and still are. Some glue will do nicely to set things right.

But I also had a backpack, as I noted above, and in that backpack were pajamas, a leather jacket that was far too hot to wear in the afternoon, a phone charger, and my beloathed raincoat. I have written about this raincoat briefly before, so the curious may consult my previous post: Under My Umbrella. And so outfitted, I made my way to the BART station for a ride as close to my house as I could manage.

I should mention something here. I live, as I said, in the Oakland hills. Far up in the hills. My bike has become a second set of legs, and I rarely go anywhere without it. This is because I can’t. Not that I don’t like my bike. I do. I like you, bike. But I also can’t get from where I live to anywhere I’d like to be without a very long walk, or a walk and a long series of bus rides, or a bike. So my bike and I have grown necessarily closer. On Saturday evening, however, I had gotten a ride to a birthday party and left my bike behind. The late hour of our return from said party meant that I had spent the night in Richmond, which itself meant that I had to make my way home bike-less. If my Richmond friends are reading this, rest assured that I chose to walk, knowing that you would have given me a ride had I asked. It was two parts not wanting to bother you, but at least one part looking forward to a little adventure. So fret not (if fret you did).

And so I journeyed, and Flop, as I have dubbed my left shoe, journeyed with me. Step, flop. Step, flop. Step, flop. All the way to the BART station. I called my parents and chatted with them for a bit. I made a couple of other calls but had no luck there, so I traveled on in silence. And still the music stayed off. Curious.

How to get home? I had no idea how far I could go on public transportation. But I knew that one station was closer than the others, and if a bus to take me farther was not in the cards, at least I wouldn’t be more than a half hour bike-ride’s distance from my place. No sweat–or, considering the weather, an acceptable amount of it. Plus, the station in question is right near Zachary’s Pizza, perhaps the best pizza there is or could ever be. I could stop and have some delicious food, carry the leftovers with me, and eat like a king for days. Precisely two days. So, yes, I would go to Zachary’s. That was my goal.

But, wait! An examination of the BART transit map showed me that I would have to transfer, and transfers on Sundays can take half an hour. No, I was in no hurry, but I knew I had quite a bit of time ahead of me as it was, and the prospect of waiting in a BART station for half an hour was unappealing. I supposed I could at least listen to music. Why wasn’t I doing that already, though? Ah, but then another thought struck me: if I got off one station earlier, I could go to Berkeley Bowl and buy a few boxes of concentrated chai mix. My decision was made.

So I exited Ashby BART station and suddenly realized I was near a friend. Perhaps she would be interested in going to Zachary’s as well. But, no, she was headed out for a bike ride with another friend. Would I like to join them? The funny thing is, had I had my bike, I never would have been there to call her in the first place. No, I would be walking and eating alone. But as I was soon to discover, this was for the best, for it is now that our story truly begins!

Step, flop. Step, flop. Out I went into the bright, sunny day. Again I thought of music and asked myself where it was. If my bike is a second pair of legs, the 23 songs that I have on my phone have become a second brain. I seemed to have abandoned both. And yet somehow I decided, then and there, that I would let the music go for the afternoon. I would just walk and think. So off my first legs carried me, and off my first brain whirred. The birds were chirping (they really were), and the breeze was blowing nicely (it truly was), and my shoes were stepping and flopping along and showing me the way east–hill-ward and homeward.

It was not long before the sidewalk did a funny thing and split around a very interesting little grove of redwood trees. They huddled there, in no way bothered by the concrete that surrounded them. In fact, they almost seemed to laugh at it all. Towering above me and the asphalt road beside us, they had sprinkled their patch of earth with brown leaf branches, lending the entire scene a magical feel. It was as if there were a wedge of forest right there in the street, and it beckoned to me. I happily wandered toward this little grove, for I never miss the chance to spend time with trees, but as I reached the edge, a sudden realization overtook me, and I stopped. Rather than a tree here or there, or even a park where there are lots of trees about, this truly did seem to be the entrance to a forest, and I had not been in a forest since I lost my love. I stood, looking at this little forest, contemplating its existence, and considered my next move.

I have always loved forests. The woods are such an important part of my life as to be inseparable from my identity. Nothing could keep me from them, and nothing will, and yet I found myself stymied by the notion of entering even this small wooded area without her. Nature was such an important part of our relationship, of who we were as a couple, and this had its roots (no pun intended) in the fact that nature is such an important part of who each of us are as individuals. It has been difficult to witness natural beauty without becoming wistful, even sad, since our paths diverged in a wood of their own. I did not surrender my passion for nature and the outdoors when I lost my love, but it has been difficult to enjoy them in quite the same way as before, now that she is no longer in my life. The world is muted, and with it nature itself. It simply is so, and it will take some time for nature to return to me in all of its glory, or for me to return.

So I stood there at the entrance to this forest, and I told myself to go in. It was only a few steps from start to finish. A few flops. Surely she has walked through forests herself, and surely she will soon walk through more–alone, or with another. Has she hesitated to set foot on forest floor? Has she let my memory hold her back? Why, then, should I demure? What was I waiting for? And so I went through, and amidst the trees I shuddered. I had not been ready after all. I nearly wept–to be there not only alone, but disconnected. Cut off. The trees pitied me, though. They did not chastise me for my uncertainty or shoot Neverending Story-style laser bolts when I lost my resolve. They bent lower and urged me on. They knew that I would be back, and I know that they will be waiting.

I turned north toward Berkeley Bowl, and there I selected three boxes of chai-flavoured addiction and put them into my backpack. Readjusting the straps to compensate for the weight, I was soon back outside and headed east once more. I placed a final phone call, this time to Zachary’s. Yes, their number is in my phone. Under ‘Z’. For ‘Zachary’s’. Many is the time I have placed a call to them en route, for it takes at least half an hour for these pizzas to cook. Deep dish, you see. Nothin better. Jon Stewart can rant all he wants–there is nothing like the sweet sweet sublimity of taking a bite of a well-prepared deep dish pizza. My stomach is growling as we speak, and my mind is wandering to the fridge…

Somewhere along the pilgrimage to The Great and Powerful Z, I noticed a blister developing on my right big toe. These shoes, bless them, are not meant for wandering. Bereft of band-aids, and most pharmacies being closed on Sundays, I felt that I would soon be faced with another decision: to go barefoot through the streets of Oakland or wear the blister deeper and deeper into my toe. I resolved for the former, recognizing as I did so the potentiality for far greater harm than a mere blister. As luck would have it, however, there was an open pharmacy across from Zachary’s, and next to that: a Trader Joe’s. Band-aids purchased, I moved on to Trader Joe’s for some of their signature Pomegranate Limeade. Delicious stuff. My backpack grew heavier still. Soon I had the pizza in hand as well and was ready to start the final journey, but not before taking care of that blister.

This is when I broke my other shoe. Standing toe to heel to remove it, as one does, I heard a rip that spelled doom for Flop’s companion, thereafter to be christened Flip. I bandaged my toe, slid Flip back into place, and flipped and flopped out of Zachary’s and eastward once more. Flip, flop. Flip, flop. Flip, flop. Onto the sidewalk–flip, flop; flip, flop. Under the sun–flip, flop; flip, flop. Up into the hills–flip, flop; flip, flop; flip, flop.

It was growing steeper, indeed, and my weighty pack gave the final leg a hint of intimidation. I suspect that had a passing stranger offered me a lift, I would have said ‘Yes!’ and been glad of my good fortune. But this was not to be, and there were lessons yet for me to learn. Almost immediately I came upon my route to and from campus, only sans bicycle. I passed the familiar baseball field where a game was in progress, parents cheering on children and praying they would never grow up. The road deepened before preparing for a long climb underneath the highway, and for the first time I noticed a shortcut. Suited only for feet, it went down a soft shoulder, across a gravel lot, and up a dirt path to the underpass. This path called to mind a similar one I had known in Vienna, one I’d taken on two occasions, on two particularly fine afternoons, with the lady of my heart. I did not grow faint for long, though, but shouldered my burden more securely and made my way. It hurt, but not as much as the little forest had.

I wound my way around, climbing higher into the hills, gaining altitude. Soon I had reached the park through which I ride twice daily. It was filled with people, it being Sunday, and I smiled to see that the beachfront on the lake was open again. Some sort of water quality issue had plagued the beach and kept visitors away for many weeks, but yesterday the lake was swimmable and teeming with families eager to escape some of the unseasonable heat. Farther still I went, and I came upon countless gatherings of people young and old. They were grilling, playing Frisbee, having picnics and park drinks, laughing and talking and running their fingers through each others’ hair. I smiled once more. It made me happy to see them and happy to recognize that I have not grown bitter. Clouds occasionally form to see hands held and lips caressed, I won’t deny it. Lovers embraced, intertwined and entangled, at times instill bouts of sadness mixed with anger, but the anger passes quickly, even when the sadness lingers. Nevertheless, the happiness is there as well. Love is in the world, and that is a blessed thing.

‘That guy’s got his Zachary’s!’ a man nodded to his little boy, who was ambling toward me onto the path. A fellow aficionado, I surmised. The box is a tell-tale sign of quality, after all, despite its being unadorned. ‘I’m excited!’ I assured both man and child, and the father laughed. Did envy lie beneath his mirth? Without a doubt, dear friends. Without a doubt. But I flipped and flopped on by, prepared to run should prudence demand it.

And Flip and Flop bore me out of the park and farther up into the hills. As I made the last turn onto a long and climbing road, blisters sprouting elsewhere and pack digging into places where it oughtn’t, I was nearly ready to call out for mercy. I even considered hoisting a thumb in hopes that someone might take pity on me and drive me the rest of the way. Then I imagined such a scenario and felt certain that they would demand a slice of my pizza as a reward. Perhaps the aroma from that hallowed box, or perhaps the walk itself, had addled my poor brain. Either way, I resolved not to accept a ride on the off chance that this was premonition rather than paranoia.

But again, it was best that I continued on foot, for I spied the gas station not far ahead, and I knew that there I could find the perfect complement to my long-awaited feast. Nothing goes quite so well with American pizza as an ice-cold Dr Pepper, and so I made one last stop to procure just that, and my pack grew 12 ounces heavier.

Flip, flop! I made my way into the coolness of the hills, much to the chagrin of the remaining heat that had clung so long to my Zachary’s. Flop followed Flip further still all the same, until I spied something shiny on the ground ahead. I soon discovered that it was a small, flat piece of metal, sculpted and painted to look like a double-decker bus. As if there could be any doubt what this was meant to depict, a tiny Union Jack was also in attendance, next to a bold ‘LONDON’. After only a slight hesitation, I scooped this up and deposited it onto my pizza box.

As I made my steady upward progress, however, I noticed that the wind threatened to blow the miniature bus back onto the ground. It seemed likely, in fact, that this would happen at any moment. And I impressed myself then. Perhaps it wouldn’t impress you or your friends or your strangers, but it did impress me, at least a little. I decided that if it fell, I would let it lie. Someone else would find it and carry it a ways farther. Perhaps they would take it home, perhaps it would fall again, perhaps it would one day make it to the top of the hill. In the end, where it made it was back with me, and it sits on my desk as I write this post. I’m glad that it decided to join me the rest of the way.

So, there it is. Just a simple story. No mighty revelations, no answers to life’s great questions learned. Only a quiet walk and some personal growth. Those other things will have to wait till next time. For now I’m just glad that I’m still putting one foot in front of the other, following Flip with Flop, wherever the path takes me.

I did get some interesting looks from people I passed, though, as I shuffled along in my broken shoes with my big backpack and cardboard box of food. Perhaps they took me for some ill-fated vagabond. Vagabond is a badge I’d wear with pride, of course, but ill-fated? Never think it. My life has been one great adventure, with lots and lots of walks along the way, and it will only continue to get better and better. Of that I have no doubt.

The pizza, by the way, was excellent.

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A Most Welcome Arrival

I sit alone on wicker chair
And watch the sky drain grey to blue.
The autumn blanket, late arrived,
Laid gently over tree and hill,
Knew little welcome but from me.
That longed-for azure morning missed
By friends and passersby alike–
How could they grieve its absence when
For so long it has sat the throne
And banished clouds both near and far
To distant realms beyond our sight
And kept the winds themselves at bay,
A lonely breeze our only guest?
How misty mornings soon gave way
To sunny hours until dark,
Our line of sight unbroken from
Horizon to horizon.backyard
The trees knew only whispered words,
The hush of silent secrets kept
Within one corner of the woods
Without the means for moving on.
And giddy bodies, nearly bare,
Stood reveling in sheer delight
At summer’s tardy exodus,
At fall’s apparent impotence.
And yet before this hour began
We lay beneath that hallowed shroud,
Reminded once again, it seemed,
That autumn’s might would not be quelled,
Could not be doubted, nor dispelled.
The lilting breeze became a wind;
I heard the roar of oak and spruce.
The redwoods spoke with mighty voice
And boomed their tales for all to hear
In words that few can understand
But fewer still dare to ignore.
The song of ages pierced the day
And made us mortal beings shake
To recognize, in fear or bliss,
That chills will seize us one and all
And force us into shoes and socks;
That jackets, sweaters, even coats
Will soon abandon closet shelves;
That hats will hide our wind-blown hair
And collars cover throat and neck.
The bleakness is returning, friends,
And stark skies lie ahead in wait,
For though the blue emerged once more–
A final wave while heaven-bound–
The clouds have tumbled in again,
The air is cool and promise-filled,
And in the eucalyptus grove,
Among the branches and the leaves,
A song is growing loud and deep:
‘It comes, it comes, it comes–it’s here.’

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Synthetic Division

‘Spare me the darkness,’ I cried in fear.
‘Have mercy on this frightened child.
Keep it distant, keep it far,
So that it never touches me,
Never knows me,
Never tears me from this place of light.
The world within is twisted and fey
And calls to me
And sings to me
And lulls me into sleep.
But I cannot go there,
For surely fell things wait
Where I cannot see.
Keep me awake,
Keep me safe.
Warm me and nurture me.
Comfort my soul.
Return to me the sun,
That I may know the world I walk
And discern the path I take.
Deliver me from this darkness–
Hide me in the light.’

‘Bring on the darkness,’ I cried in pain.
‘Have mercy on this broken man.
Wrap me in the emptiness.
Let it fill me,
Let it consume me,
Let me become the nothing that waits at my door,
Enveloping and caressing me,
Shutting out the light.
There is nothing here I want to know,
No answers left to tempt me.
Take me to a place that’s past forgetting,
Where memories fear to tread.
Call to me,
Sing to me,
Lull me into sleep.
Allow me to embrace that moonless night,
And never know the sun again.
Quench this fire within my soul and give me a heart that is darkened.
Release me from the pain of longing.
Let me feel nothing.
Let me feel no one.
Take me far beyond this earthly realm.
Deliver me to this darkness.
Hide me from the light.’

Yesterday I trembled at the truth.
Today I slept to forget its face.
But fear and denial have left me cold,
And the war between them has torn me apart.
This house divided has begun to crumble
And set me sinking in the sand.www.encognitive.com two faces
Light and dark,
I’ve let them rage;
I’ve let their battle scar the skies
Till only twilight now remains.
No truce yet forged between the pair–
A weighty standoff in its stead–
I stumble through this half-lit space,
Behold a world I’ve rent in two,
And wonder in my desperation
How I might yet escape.
But these pieces must be whole again,
And dark must feed the light.
Restore to me my shadow,
Return night to the day.
I find that now I’m still asleep,
But tomorrow I will wake,
And soon there will be peace.

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