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 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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Every so often there comes a post that doesn’t really know how it wants to be written. What is its voice, its style? What, even, is its purpose? The post does not know. The post is worried. Perhaps it is not a post after all. Perhaps it will never be written, and all of its little gems will simply sink into the deep. But eventually each post tends to find its voice, if it truly wants to be written, and this post has been clamoring since Friday night. It is one of those rare occasions in which the post and the experience unfolded at the same time, with the experience itself exhaling as the post took its own next breath, and it is precisely this symbiosis that makes the writing so challenging. Enough with this dive into the meta, however. Let us look at this thing they call Hoodslam. I promise, I shall strive to do the experience and the post justice.

Alright. I would say I’ve had a fairly eventful life so far. I’ve seen things, you know? Strange and amazing things. What I saw on Friday night, though, was downright surreal, and I’m still not entirely sure that I didn’t dream it. As someone who has a tenuous grasp on reality at the best of times and who currently finds himself somewhat between realities, for lack of a better way of putting it, the hours I spent at Hoodslam did nothing to dissuade me from believing that life occasionally just goes off the rails.

I joined an old friend of mine, whom I shall call Alistair Higgenbotham, for the sake of anonymity, on a trip to the Oakland Metro Operahouse for a night of sheer bafflement. I knew only that wrestling was on the menu, but if I had envisioned something like a poor-man’s WWF (I’m old, I still say WWF), I was in for a surprise. Far from down-and-out photograph by Mikul Eriksson and Syra McCarthyversions of Hulk Hogan and The Rock, Hoodslam was a strange amalgamation of ebaum’s world throwbacks, video game characters, and strange permutations of my beloved friends from Saturday morning cartoons. And those were just the ones I recognized. Case in point: the debut match took place between Scorpion (of Mortal Kombat fame) and someone named Cereal Man. It’s worth noting that Cereal Man had a plush cereal box for a head, from which he withdrew smaller boxes of cereal to distribute to the crowd at the opening of the fight, before removing his own head to reveal a smaller (human-sized) one beneath, face hidden by a luchador-style mask.

Interestingly, it was one of the few nods to luchadors that I saw in the ring that night. Another fighter (for what else can I call them?) named El Flaco Loco also wore a luchador mask, but I believe that was the only other one, aside from the referee. I had expected to see many, although I must admit, if you told me that a gang of spiders raided the place halfway through and carried off several fans, I’d have a hard time not believing you. I’m still not certain just what I saw. That, I think, was the brilliance of the entire performance, and a performance is precisely what I feel it was.

Everything about the evening was expertly staged and choreographed to ensure the maximum return on our $10 investment. Entertainment was the order of the night, and the folks at Hoodslam know their business well. Whether you find the actual nuts and bolts of amateur wrestling appealing, whether you imagine yourself diverted or disturbed at the idea of grown men (and women, in one match) appearing to beat the proverbial stuffing out of each other, whether you have given up on this post out of absolute disgust at the very topic, these Hoodslammers are savvy. They have found a way to turn what is at base one of the most male-dominant, testosterone-driven farces I have ever witnessed into an event that manages to embrace so many varied groups that I was hard-pressed to identify a key demographic among the lot. The requisite flannel and eccentric facial hair that identify both hipster and redneck alike were certainly in appearance, but they were hardly the majority that I had expected. Goths, metalheads, jocks, punks, and geeks, with a fairly even distribution of lads and lasses among them, all made up the rank and file of Hoodslam fandom. And then there were the inappropriate T-shirt people. My sole recollection, sadly, is one that advertised Ass Juice with the phrase, ‘Outta our ass, intta your glass!’, with a cartoon skeleton…depositing…said juice into a receptacle of indeterminate nature. Yes, it spanned the whole spectrum that night. As my friend Alistair pointed out, however, there seemed to be very few people over forty. There were also no children, due perhaps in part to Hoodslam’s admonition: ‘Don’t Bring Your F’n Kids!’ So it may be that there is a dividing line after all.

But what is Hoodslam? I’m still asking myself that. I’m still trying to remember what I actually saw, as distinct from what I half expected to see next that (likely) never materialized. Sadly, the lights were out for most of the show, spotlights focused on the ring, so I couldn’t even take any notes. As I said above, the experience and the post were evolving together, and I frantically tried to repeat things to myself over and over in hopes of remembering them, while at the same time trying to take in as much as possible. The result is this very disjointed post regarding a very disjointed experience. Believe me, though, it would have been a disjointed experience no matter what.

The night began with a very long line. It was wrapped around the building for a block and a half by the time we got there (around 9:30, if memory serves, but as I’ve said that’s no given) and continued to grow as we waited. We inched forward for a while, but finally it started to move more quickly. A woman with a microphone was going down the line, accompanied by a cameraman, and they were interviewing attendants and asking Hoodslam trivia questions. That was my first clue that there was a cult following here, that this was something more than just a quirky night out. Inside was a warehouse-like atmosphere, right down to the exposed rafters and steel-studded crossbeams that ran above our heads. There was a bar to the left, and further back some stairs led up to a caged area where a metal band was thrashing away. The lead singer was none other than the woman who had been interviewing people outside, and she wasn’t half bad. Dead center and set almost against the far wall was the ring, and presiding over it was a man I would later come to know as Broseph. Broseph Joe Brody, ringmaster of the all-human circus. It was about to commence.

A sense of camaraderie that borders on group-think quickly developed. This was achieved through chanting, choral repetition, and call and response. Like I said, these folks are savvy. While Scorpion fought Cereal Man, I got my first taste of this. Over and over again, one fighter or another would have an opponent pinned, and the count to three would begin, inevitably stopping at ‘2’ for the first several times. A cry of ‘1! 2! Oh! Only 2!’ would be heard, followed by echoes from the crowd, ‘Oh! On-ly 2!’, twin fingers raised to drive the point home. And when the matches really got going, there were frequent shouts of the Hoodslam slogan: ‘This is real! This is real! This is real!’ And at times (though only at times) it really did look it. I call them fighters because, as in pro wrestling (to the best of my knowledge), there is a lot of punching and kicking involved. There are also lots of headbutts, body slams, clotheslines, piledrivers, and moonsaults (yes, I had to look up that last one, and there are lots more crazy names for equally crazy moves–this one involved doing a back flip from one of the posts and landing on your opponent…I saw many a moonsault Friday night). None of it is designed to actually hurt, but after a while that doesn’t matter. It begins to feel all too real, and before long, it’s hard to believe that Juiced Lee didn’t just roundhouse kick El Chupacabra to the face.

Which brings me to the names. Yes, video game characters abound. Ryu from Street Fighter was in attendance (reference was also made to Guile), along with a few other characters from that game, as was the aforementioned Scorpion. Even the Peanut Butter Jelly Time banana put in an appearance. But those all paled in comparison to the likes of Doc Atrocity, Johnny Drinko, Drugz Bunny and, my personal favourite, Batmanuel. There were so many more that are lost to me now, but the match ups alone were worth the entrance fee. And the names of the matches were also wild. There was Broetic Justice (just about anything that can be bro-ified was, well, bro-ified–Barney Stinson would have high fived this guy for sure), and the great ‘Blunts versus Booze–Tag Team Grudge Match’, which featured drunks versus stoners who would chug a bottle of booze or smoke a blunt (as you might have guessed) whenever an opponent could not get up from the mat. The stoners won, in case you wanted to know.

Alistair and I wondered aloud about whether it was actual booze, but we didn’t bother asking about the blunts. The entire place smelled like [insert your preferred weed-saturated environment here], and it was clear that no one was concerned about what was being smoked. In fact, Broseph himself had announced at the beginning of the event that if anyone heard the code word, it meant the cops had arrived and everyone should dump their stashes. What was the code word, you ask? ‘Blueberry pancakes’. So two words. And there were blunts and joints and pipes and even little bongs. I tell you, contact high is spelled H-O-O-D-S-L-A-M.

The fights went on and on, as did the chanting, though there were occasional breaks for Broseph to serenade the audience, pour booze into waiting mouths (or spray it onto fans from his own) or announce raffle winners–100% of the proceeds of which, by the way, go to an Oakland after-school program (I think? It’s something cool like that. The dearth of information on the internet about this and all other Hoodslam-related material is astounding). So, you see? A redeeming quality. Something for everyone at Hoodslam!

Finally, there was the Battle Royale, the winner of which gets to fight in the Golden Gig (I’m not sure exactly what that is, but apparently it is Hoodslam’s biggest honour to win it). This final event pitted two fighters against one another, with an additional fighter coming in every minute. The only way to be eliminated was to be thrown from the ring, both feet touching the floor beyond. People had been thrown out before (landing atop rapturous fans), but this was nuts. How these folks didn’t break something is beyond me, yet everyone seemed able to stagger to their feet. Batmanuel did not make it to the end, sadly. Nor did Drugz Bunny, Link from Zelda, or Cereal Man. I honestly don’t remember who won, and it’s not on their website yet that I can find. But someone did win. I am certain of it. And that someone felt very special, I’m also certain.

But then it was over. The lights came on, and everyone milled out of the place, dazed. It was as if we had been abducted by aliens en masse and were emerging from what we would later convince ourselves was some impossible shared hallucination, wondering where we were and how we had gotten there. Frankly, by the time it had all come to an end, my mind was so sluggish that it would not have surprised me to turn around and find that we had just emerged from an abandoned building–that it had all, in fact, been a dream. At least until the first Friday of next month, when Hoodslam returns to rock Oakland yet again.

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Exile’s Return

My eyes are on fire,
And smoke billows from my lungs.
I have passed through flame
To emerge with skin
charred and cracked,
With hair fizzled.
My heart has burst from unbearable heat,
And my soul is all but seared.
It was a long journey,
And though I have traveled far,
It is not nearly done.

Weary and wasted,
I followed light’s slow descent
Into the land of evening,
Pursued by voices from the ether,
With words of songs both familiar and un-:

Strap from you tether
Some kind of madness is
Swallowing me whole.
I think I’m breaking down

They tease me,
They trip me,
They loose my feet from the stirrups,
They send my head swirling,
They threaten to cast me down from the saddle.

But other words break in,
Unbidden, yet welcome:

Carry on, my wayward son!
There’ll be peace when you are done!

They echo through the night,
Off mountain walls,
Through forest halls,
And they set my heels back down.
My back is straight,
My head aloft,
The danger of falling
Has passed for now.
A thought emerges:
I am my own soundtrack.

My faithful steed,
From East of Mississippi way,
Veteran of many a campaign,
Ever-present confidant
And comforter.
We have passed through the fire
We have arrived in this place
We may rest now.
We may heal now.
But then we must toil anew.
It is a strange sort of paradise,
But for now,
For better
Or for worse,
We have returned.

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Quitting the Light

As we hurled ourselves into the darkness, the-approaching-darkness from www.examiner.comthe clouds boiling toward our advance, I do not believe that there was a single one of us who turned his head to look back. Whatever was there was past. But it was not even that, for the past at least informs the present, shapes the future, no matter how irreconcilable it may become. What we left behind us that day was barely a memory. It had no place where we were headed, and so we set it down at our feet and continued on. We sloughed it off like something dead and useless, as if we were being reborn and crawling out of our protective shells to find them coarse and ugly–abominable things that we would sooner not recognize as the transformative and life-giving vessels that they had been. This was how we quit the light. No farewells, no final glances or mental photographs or fond reminiscences of the life that had been. We rushed toward the darkness, and it embraced us. We knew the light no more.

What choice did we have? Who could have turned his head and not his mind? What heart could ever glimpse that fading glow and not retreat, not return? What soulless thing could behold that promise and not long for it, and in that longing forsake its duty and cower in the remnants of light before the encroaching shadows? And so what hope might we have had if we had let ourselves believe that there was something more than darkness, that there could be a path other than the one we marched, if only for a whisper of a moment?

But that is what we abandoned along with the light. We abandoned the hope of light, even the desire for hope, and in doing so we condemned ourselves, however pure our ambitions or holy our task. We turned our backs on the very thing for which we fought, for to see it again would have meant its destruction instead of merely our own. Our courage was born in our forgetting, and even now I dare not think on this too long. Just as I dare not look behind me for fear that I might see the light and hope, for fear that I might not see it and despair. Just as I dare not look to my left or my right, for fear that I might confirm what I have long suspected: that I am the last one facing forward, the last of the willfully hopeless, inching further into the dark, alone.

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