Category Archives: history

Adventure, Socialism, the Embargo, and Salsa: The Basics of My Recent Cuba Trip

A view of the Capitol building

A view of the Capitol building

To attempt to convey what I learned and experienced in the past few weeks would make my head explode, maybe yours as well, so I want to keep this post basic. I returned yesterday from Cuba, where I stayed for most of my days in La Habana, though I visited also Cienfeugos, Trinidad, and Santa Clara. Naturally, I must get the obvious out of way:

Yes, it was difficult to get there, and we needed special student visas.

Yes, Cuba is a very poor country, but the people and culture are immensely rich, and these people deserve a lot more of our attention. Most Americans, when thinking of Cuba, think only of Fidel Castro and the vague term of “Communism,” but Cuba might not be as foreign as we pretend, the people sharing some of the same intense passions as us (like baseball, rap music, and good beer).

Yes, the rum and cigars in Cuba were superb. If you go to Cuba and don’t try the rum and cigars, then what were the doing the entire time?

havana-city-2More importantly, however, are the questions that United Staters don’t ask when I tell them I just returned from Cuba. On its surface, its a land of bad gas mileage, a land of salsa, a land of making out in public. But the people transcend those stereotypes, like all people, expressing a deep love for each other. Most of Cuba’s population suffers from crippling poverty, and most don’t have cell phones or access to the internet because of this, but it brings people closer. They must build communities in a way most United Staters cannot.

Then comes other misinterpretations, like the inane idea that these people suffer because of the evils of “Communism.” Certainly not. They suffer because of the United States reaction to their socialist revolution, and they suffer because of their own government’s stubbornness to compromise their ideologies with neo-liberal policies. But when you see the track record for US corporations or IMF implementations in Latin American countries, who can blame Cuba for holding out from joining the system? (See: Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile)

The embargo certainly affects more than just Cuban-US relations which could be quite healthy if we did not cling to Cold War ideals and fears. We sanction other countries for even attempting to trade with our island neighbor, and this creates an isolated economy, struggling to reform but still adamant to resist joining the current world system. My opinion of this has change drastically.

What anyone must understand is that despite the poverty and the deteriorating buildings and smog choking Havana’s air, the people persevere. Each day, they find ways to survive, no matter how destitute or desperate the means. Some drive taxis, others sell rejected cigars to unknowing tourists; some go to university, but far more drop out of school to prostitute themselves in the streets, even kids as young as 13 or 14. And our self-made-man society, our American Dream culture, may scoff at that, call them lazy, call them whatever we like, but in the end, we’re the ones hurting them.

I will write more about Cuba in the following months, but I felt compelled to depict at least this much about it. What I’ve written in no way captures Cuban culture, and definitely, my experience could not capture the totality of Cuban culture. Even if I visited for a year, I doubt I could truly understand unless I had lived there, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to understand, from trying to understand. So, first, what must be said about Cuba is that our policies toward them are antiquated and, in the light of our relations with China, highly ridiculous.

I encourage anyone even slightly interested to study Cuban history and our relationship with them, and I challenge you to learn with an open mind and heart and to not emerge from this study disillusioned and indignant.

A view of the Melacon and of the Havana skyline in the distance.

A view of the Melacon and of the Havana skyline in the distance.

The trip include adventure, swimming in mountain pools under water falls, lunching with a German diplomat, studying museums, singing at the top of my lungs at the Melacon (Sea Wall), learning to salsa, going to concerts, meeting locals, and staying up till 6 am with philosophers discussing life. But despite the experience, I learned some practical things, things that will affect me and things I hope to fully believe six months from now. Though I learned hundreds of things, perhaps the most important lesson was the following idea, something simply conceived and so simply true I’m not sure why I had not considered it critically before.

The privileged of the world have the full power and ability to alleviate the suffering of the underprivileged, but only if they choose to surrender the comfort of privilege. Therefore, the only real choice anyone must make is whether to live for others or to live for oneself. Once that choice is made, the others come easy.

 

 

Submerged: Part Three

storms-at-sea-i-marilyn-muller

 

{Part 1}

{Part 2}

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When it began raining, we brought buckets, pots, Tupperware, flower vases, trash bins, and plastic cups outside. Anything that could catch water, we hauled outside. Then as the sky puked its guts like a binge-drinking frat boy during finals, we paddled off in our rickety dinghy. Work to do, beneath the shifting sea.

Irregular, to purchase fresh water in this part of the country, most of the land underneath the ocean, but rain came every few weeks; we collected every last drop. Ethan struck his paddle into the water and pushed our vessel away from a shallow mud bed. We floated between two strips of land into the open sea, where the waves crashed violently against the edge of our boat.

As Ethan changed into his rubbery diving suit, I took the paddle and furiously beat against the waves. Our island stood several miles away from the bay where Charleston lay. In the islands near the coast, a few people still lived, either too criminal or too poor to survive in a city. Most people lived in cities, because the federal government had invested billions to protect the patches of urban growth, the places where money came from.

They built walls and glass ceilings that filtered the sun’s UV rays; farms only existed in blooming skyscrapers, seeds sprouting in clean, white laboratories. Everything wild eradicated. And below the gleaming banks and offices with sterling views lay the waste of society. Slums strewn in the underbellies of luxurious hotels, these houses made of rotting wood and trash. The garbage was often unbelievable, sometimes flooding the streets. Sewage leaked into the streets, where children sifted through the muck that reached their knees, collecting trash to sell in local markets. For them, anything could have value, anything at all. Though we were no better, diving beneath the sea to strip garbage form forgotten cities, selling it to modern pirates.

Though the smugglers had not come, not for weeks. Before, they sailed the islands once a month, docking near us to buy whatever we had found. Sometimes copper, sometimes old car parts they no longer manufactured. Once, they paid us a fortune for a pack of unopened Coke cans. I wanted badly to let Ethan try drinking one, since they didn’t make sodas anymore– you needed water for that, but we sold every last can. All unopened, not too badly damaged. We had found them floating inside one of the abandoned houses underwater.

Ethan pulled the mask over his face and mumbled, “Ready.” Through the frothing waves, I could make out the dark patterns of Charleston’s streets.

“Stay close. We’re looking for more copper. Copper would be great.” He nodded, then flipped backwards out of the boat. I cranked the winch backwards, the rope snaking into the water slowly. The boat bobbed with each passing wave, the rain splattering against the brim of my hat and trickling down my neck, cold as death. Grasping the rope, I let it run against the edge of the dinghy, burning my palms raw. Rain made it slippery to grip, and Ethan kept tugging, traveling further and further from the boat.

Another wave crashed against the boat’s bow, water spraying onto the deck. The next onslaught fell heavier, crashing against my legs and nearly knocking me to the ground. The smugglers– they never came. What happened to those damned pirate bastards?

Not far from where the top of the wall still jutted from the ocean’s surface, a broad white sheet as grandiose and strong as the Hoover Dam. I sighed, bracing myself as the waves crashed harder against me. A foolish idea to row out in the middle of a storm, but we would have been stupid not to– only a few copper wires, and what was that worth? There must have been more, under every house here.

Lifting the rope, I pulled as tight as possible. Ethan, how incompetent– had he not found a suitable house by now? I felt a tug in the rope, a sign to begin cranking. Turning to the crank, I clutched the handle and turned it wildly. The winch whizzed loudly, even against the pounding of rain, the rope disappearing into a thick hemp spool. A minute later, the end of the rope rose from the water and whipped limply onto the boat deck.

Collapsing against the boat’s side, I clawed through the water. “Ethan?” Now I shouted his name. “Ethan.” But no head came bursting from the water. I tipped out of the boat, plunging my head beneath the sea. Bubbles escaped my mouth as I called out his name again, and again. Then I rolled over the side, plummeting through the waves.

*

2086

I had never lived in a city and never imagined one so antique like the kind you saw in classic movies. Like a tropical snow globe of pastel-bright houses and business men in flip-flops. But I arrived downtown in a traffic jam of shuddering cars, languid tourists, and horse-drawn carriages. All a mirage of simpler times, when no one worried the sea might kill us all.

Still, the reminder loomed clearly from many miles away, the wall half-finished. It would be over nine hundred feet tall when finished, a bleak white spectacle. In downtown Charleston, residents and visitors tromped around like nothing was happening, like the world wasn’t changing. At least someone had learned to ignore the inevitable.

I parked my truck by the docks where the man told me. Others waited anxiously, some without vehicles. Most looked like burnt-out college grads like me with too much stubble, and others looked unluckier. A man approached us wearing a bright-orange hardhat and holding a plastic clipboard.

“You’re the ones here for a construction job?” He chewed on a piece of gum, glancing at the wall thirty feet away, which struck out of the water solidly, a concrete barrier. “Follow me, and we’ll get you set up with jobs.”

We all needed jobs here, I realized, all of us desperate and drained of ambition. Lining up behind the hard-hat man, we followed him up a set of steel stairs to a stark office where a fat man in a red tie assigned us, seemingly randomly, to different crews.

“Top of the wall, block placement.”

“Filling cement.”

“Cement cutter.”

“Cement hauler.”

“Top of the wall.”

“Crane duty. Danny’ll teach you. Just head over there.”

“Cement hauler.”

“Look like a good cement hauler.”

When I approached him, he glanced at me only briefly before announcing “Cement cutter.” Before I even knew what that meant, I was ushered off with the other men and women assigned to cut cement. Really, the task seemed pretty easy after a burly black man explained it to us at the base of the wall. Some other people created these massive concrete blocks a few miles away, then the cement haulers brought the huge blocks to the wall, where we would cut it into smaller blocks depending on what the foreman wanted. Then we loaded the blocks onto palettes, which were moved by massive cranes to the top of the wall. There, hundreds of men shoved the block into place Egyptian-style. It seemed very crude to me, it being almost the twenty-second century, but I could hardly complain about scoring a job.

The next day, after sleeping in dorms the construction company provided, I walked down to the docks where other men began climbing onto the backs of the flatbed trucks. One of the supervisors handed me a portable concrete saw and indicated the freshly drawn black lines running down the length of the long cement blocks. After cranking the saw until it vibrated violently in my hands, I pressed the blade against the concrete. I could hardly hold the saw still as I attempted to trace the black line, and sparks spat from the blade as I jerkily cut.

Pulling the saw away from the block, I nearly fell over, weighed by the saw’s immense mass. “This is not as easy as I thought,” I muttered. The black man from the day before stood beside me, wearing safety goggles and calmly cutting. He turned to watch me as I reapplied the saw.

“Careful there, now. Wouldn’t want that saw to drop down, cut into your foot.” I shook my head, that no, I didn’t. But it was certainly one more thing to worry about.

Six weeks later, exhausted near the end of the day, I collapsed against the concrete block, and the saw veered from its path falling on top of me. But before the blade sliced through my chest, I grabbed it hard with my left hand. The blade sliced clean through my thumb, and as I fumbled with the saw, screaming, the blade fell against my wrist. Blood spurted from the stump as I crumpled to my knees. It took nearly ten minutes before the supervisor decided to call an ambulance.

And all I could think about as I blacked out, red lights blinking around me, men shouting, some jeering at my stupidity– now I was useless, truly useless, even for this sort of job.

Self-Destruction: Not Just For Killer Robots Attacking Earth

If I traveled back in time to confront me about something that could potentially ruin my life, would I listen? We have seen this plot recycled too many times in Sci-Fi made-for-TV movies or during reruns of Doctor Who. This particular, ole deus ex machina implanted itself into our own culture so well, it would be ludicrous to dismiss the warnings of our future-selves. But would we really listen? If we were stopping at a gas station to use the restroom and our future selves time-traveled to forbid us from doing it, would that actually change our fate?

I think, No. I think I would stop despite my own protesting because as a human, curiosity acts as a better motive than self-preservation. In fact, we can be downright self-destructive at times.

But the phrase “Self-destruction” has many meanings to many people, not just an odd architectural choice for the Death Star. Why am I so interested in this as a writer? Why does it matter? Fiction writers are merely very biased philosophers, so when we write a story, we instill our own values and beliefs into the characters we write. Not that I agree with my characters, but through them, I try to make a point; in this way, writers must balance characters as real and fleshed-out people as well as symbols for something bigger. In Victorian novels, characters often acted as spokespeople for whole social groups, but today, we can’t generalize people in that fashion through literature.

Self-destruction is a purely human trait, which is why it interests me as a writer. Every bit of the human condition intrigues me. Other

animals act out of self-preservation. We, however, have a tendency to choose to do things we know with certainty will harm us. Of course, suicide comes to mind. Apparently, panda bears also commit suicide by either starving or suffocating themselves, but there is not much substantial evidence as to why they do this. In that way, we are of a select few animals who practice self-inflicted death or even self-loathing.

Then think, suicide is a definitive form of self-destruction, but there are more ways to kill yourself than just with a gun. Suicide needn’t be instantaneous but can take place daily, a system, a routine. Sometimes, even while doing what we love, we are actually causing our own deaths or at least our own unhappiness.

Consider this.

Animals eat to survive; we eat for pleasure. We keep eating even if it is killing us. We eat too much, drink too much alcohol, and smoke too many cigarettes because what we love can one day kill us unless we kill whatever it is (that craving, impulse, or desire) we love. Think of Wile. E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner across the desert for eternity, allowing ACME bombs to blow him up and anvils to drop him off cliffs, boulders crashing on his head, for what? For a single delicious meal? In a way, he is killed by his own needs, by his insatiable addiction.

Because self-destruction does not only occur when we hate ourselves but when we love something else more. In that vein of thought, we could argue that Jesus possessed self-destructive tendencies. Because he doesn’t do what best serves him, he effectively destroys himself, allows himself to die. We argue that this is compassion, a special type of altruism, yet nevertheless is also a form of self-demolition.

Or any volunteer worker who commits his or her time for a cause– this is time not spent selfishly and therefore perhaps “self-destructive.” For that reason, the term is difficult to define, and the boundary pushing toward altruism or some other distinct human trait can be blurred.

When I talk about self-destruction, do I just mean causing our own deaths through bad habits or also causing rife within ourselves? We spoil our own emotions knowing that what we do will make us unhappy. We are fully capable of torturing ourselves physically and emotionally. Other animals attempt to escape pain, but sometimes we invite it or self-inflict it.

Out of a pure Darwinian lens, this makes no sense. Why do we make choices that we actively know will yield terrible results? Why don’t we just listen to our future selves and avoid all this pain and misfortune? Biologically, we like all animals exist for a short time, but our DNA can exist forever through procreation. Producing offspring becomes the true test of success when concerning an animal. We need only produce viable offspring with a mate, and BAM, we’re considered a success.

Humans, however, sometimes purposely refuse to have children. Is that self-destructive, because even if we care about the survival of us, we don’t care about the survival of our genes. In a world of over-population, does that truly matter any longer? From an evolutionary standpoint, we would see not having kids as counterproductive, but many adults choose careers over their potential parenthood.

This entire essay is composed of questions, not any sort of theory or secret notion that ties the truths together. I am a writer because I ask questions. In fiction, we explore the subtleties of what makes us human. When we use words so freely, we have to consider their meanings, even those which are barely-defined like “self-destruction.” The meaning of words gets so lost in vagueness: self-loathing from compassion, love from deadly obsession.

We must quietly consider why we commit acts we know will cause pain, and why this sets the human race apart, what it might mean for our future.

Evolution of Writing (Part 3): Who Is, and Who is Not, a writer?

As much as the art of writing has changed over generations, so has the perception of the writer. Let us crank up the Dolorian again to travel back and look at how the common people viewed writers over the ages and how writers viewed themselves. Could the persona of “writer” have changed that much from the dawn of time?

Speaking strictly in cavemen terms, writers were pretty progressive. They used symbolic language to communicate stories that we have read millions of years later. Such brilliant narratives as: I found mammoth, I made spear, I kill mammoth, and I eat mammoth. From the invention of fire to the first use of clubs, cavemen scholars documented their primeval progress on cave walls. Even before words existed, man possessed an innate need to tell stories, which we surely have not outgrown today.

Once language, written and spoken, was formalized, writers of stories became better well-known. They were the wise men of their day, scholars and preachers and philosophers. These were storytellers who could actually read and write. Playwrights such as Socrates, philosophers such as Plato, scientists too: all these were celebritites because of their skill at the written word.

And yet in the recent past, writers have been viewed not as elite people but lowlife bums too lazy to get jobs. They sit at home collecting unemployment checks while writing about their drug addict lives. We can see the writer crouched over a rusty typewriter, tripping on Benzedrine, chain-smoking, and naked.

The Beatniks of the fifties inspired this attitude towards writers. They were poor people trying to connect with a mystic way of life through drugs. Rather than tell legends, they wrote about their own lives. But they were also glamorized as enlightened and hedonistic. Living life to the fullest. Though sometimes pretentious and overly “ironic” by today’s standards.

While some writers are scene as wild like these, others are seen as recluses.

Think of Salinger or Pynchon. While some are poor, others are rich.

There once was a time when writing was the past time of wealthy aristocrats. Famously, in 1818, Lord Byron challenged his visitors at Lake Geneva to write a gruesome story. Each took turns trying to scare the wits out of the others. One such story that came of this was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Some writers speak as nobles, others for the common man. During the Industrial Revolution, portraits of the common man came into vogue. People saw working conditions from a working class man’s perspective. We saw inside of factories, the evils of corporations run wild with greed, and the daily strife of living in poverty.

Then there are the Romantics, writing expressively about their emotions, about their torments and loves and loss and horrors. Then come the realists who take scientific views and incorporate them into stories. They are intellectuals writing factually about things that will make them look smarter if the right professors read the books.

 The war-torn writers write about how battles scarred them, about their emotions being drained. About the absence of a meaning to life. About horror and blood and brutal, pointless violence. These men we viewed as lost souls, writing as emotional release. Penning those feelings that were pent up for years after wars.

We have seen writers in a variety of ways for so long: as highly influential literati, as common men spinning common tales, as the Lost Generation, and as hipsters telling stories ironically.

Today, these perceptions have all meshed so that there is no one perception of “writer.” The only true thing tying us together is our burn to write, our need to tell stories. We cannot clearly define ourselves any longer. We are novelists, vocalists, bloggers, and poets. We are idealists, realists, poor, young, old, wealthy, calm, and angry.

There are no literary periods anymore. All we have to offer are words, trying to describe our own human condition. Perhaps the public sees us in a myriad ways.

But in truth, we are only humans struggling to articulate our own inability to articulate our struggles.

The Evolution of Writing (Part 1): Faster, Better, Stronger

Since the dawn of typewriters, there has been an evolution in how writers write. Some say that to speed up how fast someone can pen a story will only lead to more bad writing. That can be true, to some extents. Wen u typ rilly quick, u tend 2 mispel words or just sound stuped.

It has been argued that since writers can write faster, they have to think too fast. And they do not pay enough attention to what they’re actually saying. They’re just banging out words, like I do whenever I write a blog post. A robotic writer-churner of words, processing word vomit thirty terabytes per second. How exactly has writing evolved?

We’ve gone from pen-to-paper to type writers to laptops to tablet-sized writing devices. It seems we can write anything and anywhere, so how has that affected the art of writing?

A long, long time ago, the printing press was invented. Before that, the Bible and a few other texts were the only things were read because monks had to devote their lives to transcribing those thousands of pages. Imagine if J.K. Rowling had to write every Harry Potter book by hand for each individual reader. It’s likely she would not have sold as many books.

No one was very literate. All the townspeople relied on the priests to interpret the Bible for them, which of course caused some obvious problems. Church leaders could say things like, “God says to give me all your money and your wives. Seriously, it’s in The Bible.”

There was something else impressive about these books: their ornateness. Some might take more than a year to pen own, perfectly. And then they were filled with incredible illustrations, rewritten every time a book was reprinted.

Then, when the printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in around 1440. This exploded literacy because more people could afford books. Bibles and scholarly works were available to more people, so more people began to read. Of course, this lead to the Protestant Reformation and a change of religion, but this isn’t about religion. This is about writing.

Before, storytellers acted orally. A story might be passed down through generations, as was Homer’s Odyssey and the Arabic classic 1001 Nights. But when the printing press came along, writers could get their stories out there which gave rise to what we call today “the novel.” Not only did texts of science, philosophy, and religion bloom, but so did works of fiction such Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The books published were more widely circulated and read by more people.

This increased the flow of ideas, so by the time the 1600s come, everyone is reading books and sharing ideas. This is end of the Renaissance era. Writing is entirely about ideas, so this is important to what I’d like to talk about next. In 1868, the typewriter was born, which revolutionized writing. Before, writers were affected because more people could read what they wrote. But this device made writing available to more people because it was faster and more efficient. Like a mini-printing press at your fingertips. Writers loved typewriters. Even today, a typewriter seems a universal symbol of the ideal age of writing.

Things have changed, but have they changed for the better?

Today, I sometimes take notes in a journal and at other times with my Nook. Soon, I’ll buy a keyboard attachment so without the hassle of carrying a full laptop, I can whip out the device and type away whatever I’d like to. Even in the backseat of a car at night, I can still make notes and write. Amazing, huh? Try to do that with a typewriter. This has also changed WHERE we write (which can certainly affect the story itself), but that is a discussion for Part 2.

Typewriters seemed the natural evolution of recording words, but the next leap changed things forever. Writing words in a digital form. Ala, a word processor. This changes HOW the writer writes, literally. On Microsoft word, if I suddenly don’t like a word, I have to only delete it. But typing on a typewriter, I may have to use white-out or trash a whole sheet and start over again. This forces the writer to do the thinking in his head rather then on the computer. He must compose the perfect sentence first before typing it out, “thinking as he goes” as many computer-users do. Then again, does it not seem easier to type it on an erasable surface such as a computer screen?

Why are some writers obsessed with the old times?

Ernest Hemingway stood beside his typewriter to give him better creativity. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road on his typewriter using a single scroll. E.E. Cummings used his typewriter to accentuate his poetic style in his famous “Grasshopper poem.”

Writing has been inexorably changed! AGHAST!

I can go back now and delete the entire post without having wasted tree’s lives. What madness hath these computers brought upon us?

We can write anywhere and anyhow we want now that we use computers to write instead of paper or a typewriter. Unless you still do write out entire drafts on paper or are nostalgic enough to use a typewriter. Honestly, I usually write poems and short stories first on paper, even sections of the novels I’m working on. But to write an entire novel on paper seems ridiculous, pointless even.

Yet changing the way we write, we change the WAY we write. We write with a different psychology. Because we write faster, we think differently. We are allowed to write much later into the night, so we write differently. Perhaps the ability to write at any time has diminished how much work we actually get done!

What do you think about this evolution in writing? Has the ability to use new writing implements proved helpful or detrimental to our writing processes? Is the future the way to go, or should we fall back upon what has served us in the past? How are you affected by the change in writing tools?

Tune back in soon for an extension of this conversation on the evolution of writing and writers.

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