ISA HOPKINS

Raconteur. Adventurer. Kimchi Enthusiast.

Water Music

The final essay brought up from the archives… a personal piece, written in the immediate aftermath of late January 2010, edited later that year, still felt in 2016.

 

I am on the BART back to Oakland and the music pulses in my purloined headphones, hijacked from the seat-back pocket and emblazoned with the United Airlines logo.  They’re cheap headphones but the sound quality is better than earbuds, rich with depth and clarity that I haven’t encountered yet from my iPod.

 

The BART is packed for a Thursday afternoon and I focus on the music, the slippery sounds that I have never quite been able to comprehend; it is entrancing, this brilliant noise, and I am ensnared by its rising and its falling, forever enigmatic.  I’ve read books on music theory, sonic cognition, and still it refuses to reveal itself to me.

 

Words: that is how I order the world.  Language I can marshal and understand but music is sublime and mysterious, and no matter how I chase it no illumination arrives.  I want to escape into the music now but neuronal firings won’t allow it, insistent upon conscious thought, and these words won’t go away even though I wish they would, coursing through my gray matter as they’ve done all week:

 

David, I wonder; David, where did you go?

 

Where did you go?

 

*

 

My flight into Cleveland is delayed by an hour and a half — bad weather in Chicago — and when my mother and I walk through the back door it is nearly two a.m.  My father is still awake, in the living room with my uncle and three aunts and a cousin, more arriving in the coming days.  Most of us are still on California time but all of us are hesitant to go to sleep.

 

I am camping out in the basement, my own private cave in the zoo of so many people.  It’s a spacious basement with room for more but something is wrong with the water pipes and whenever the toilet is flushed they bleat a ridiculous song, something in between a siren and a gong, loud and reverberating.  No one else is willing to put up with the noise but I don’t mind it, my head too stuffy to sleep.

 

I take advantage of the privacy to stay up late, later even than everyone else is staying up, and in the quietude of dead hours I lean on language to make sense of all this.  I don’t know that it can but my aunt and uncle have asked me to speak at the funeral and by five in the morning I think I have beat the words into a shape something like my cousin.

 

*

 

This family, my family, our family, is a many-headed organism made of dozens of moving parts: one matriarch, twelve siblings and each one paired off, twenty-three cousins (only a few of those paired off yet), three great-grandchildren so far.  Technically I suppose the number is now twenty-two but the official tally, the permanent record, will always say twenty-three, death certificates be damned.

 

We play Scrabble and put Scotch tape on my aunt’s cat, sleep on air mattresses and go through gallons of booze and don’t stop talking until we pass out from exhaustion.  It’s so easy in this world to feel like an outsider but in this tribe I see myself reflected, in so much resistance to tragedy and so many reflexive jokes, and together at my uncle’s house and my parent’s kitchen and the funeral home we stave off despair with food and alcohol and laughter and each other, most of all, with each other.

 

*

 

I am in a NyQuil haze for the wake, my head pounding and congested and confused on so many levels.  I don’t normally take much medicine but I needed some rest and NyQuil seemed the best way to sleep through the symphony of the pipes; I’ve been too sick to drink but at least I can achieve a chemical unreality with cough syrup.

 

It is an open casket and David doesn’t quite look like himself, made up and in a suit and more formal than he ever was in life.  I want to touch him, to shake him awake, but instead I go through the line and hug my aunt and uncle and then my cousin, David’s little sister, collapses against me.  She is a senior in high school, about to graduate from my alma mater, a middle child forever hassled by her older brother, and I stand firm and hold tight and say nothing.

 

Words may be all that I have to make sense of this world, but sometimes there are no words at all.

 

*

 

There’s an easy moral to be had from it all — drugs are bad, kids — but I’ve seen “Trainspotting” half a dozen times, and my cousin never looked like “Trainspotting.”  The pastor gives the official eulogy, something long-winded and meandering that ends with an exhortation to come to Jesus.  My father had employed David in countless home improvement projects and he sobs next to me, my mother on his other side clutching at his hand, and I wonder if his devout Catholicism is blunting this pain, making sense of the inexplicable.

 

There is a polished wooden casket at the front of the church.  I had pushed past it moments earlier, to speak at the lectern, to read what I’d written, and it seemed then and it seems now oddly out of place: I know David’s body is inside, the same made-up thing I saw the day before, but that is not where my cousin is now, and I just want to figure out where he has gone.

 

*

 

We like to think of death as a point on a continuum: birth and youth, adulthood then old age then illness and then death, the period at the end of a long and complex sentence.  It is a process to reach such triumphant punctuation and we imagine that it should happen peacefully, with family and friends present, time given for all the necessary goodbyes.

 

It happens this way for some, I suppose, but for others it is binary and sudden: they are alive and then they are not, young and vital and then — not.  David didn’t even go to a hospital, beyond such intervention.  My aunt found him in his room and of all the comforts this enfolding human blanket of family can offer, no one can ever erase that tormenting image for her.  I’m told there was some blood but I can’t listen yet, can’t picture something that I can’t even believe to be real.

 

*

 

They tell me that I captured him well in my words, well-written and well-delivered, and I am asked for e-mailed copies.  What I can proffer is so little but it is at least something, these meager words and whatever meager comfort they might inspire.

 

They were only memories, these words; they made sense of the person that was but offer no insight into what has happened to him now.  David was a solid presence in life, the sort of guy you’d want on your side in a fight (the sort of guy who got into fights), but death has rendered him ethereal, here and then gone, given over to time and things I do not understand.

 

I could blame the NyQuil or the head cold or the lack of sleep, those screeching pipes, but deep down I know that no matter how lucid I am this will never make sense.

 

*

 

Within one thirty-six hour span I go to the airport four times, all of us dispersing back to the unceasing demands of a life that moves in only one direction.  Chauffeuring is something to do, to keep me occupied as my parents’ house slowly empties.  I am the last to leave, departing back to Oakland, leaving behind a mountain of sheets to be washed and the wailing of their plumbing for the distractions of work and stand-up comedy gigs and bills to be paid.  It all feels even more unreal from thousands of miles away, and it is too easy to believe it never even happened.  Days later I play Lady Gaga at absurd volume across the Bay Bridge and try to crowd out the tears in my head, but she is less effective than booze and family and the song ends too soon.

 

The tears never come, anyway, dammed up by unrelenting disbelief.

 

Memories peek into my life now from so many unexpected places.  A Phil Collins song plays and I remember joking about it two Christmases ago; “Titanic” is on television at a friend’s house and with a jolt I recall seeing it in the theaters with David more than a decade ago, my grandmother taking us both in her maroon Oldsmobile.  These have been unconsidered memories for so long, piling up in my brain without reflection, but now that their collection has been so abruptly foreshortened I cling to them; they have lain dormant in my gray matter for years, shuttered and unspectacular, and suddenly three time zones away from where I grew up with my cousin they are all that is left. 

 

Six months later I am transferring numbers into a new phone, culling old friends — fallen away now — and I am blindsided at the letter “D”, tears welling up backstage at an open mic, and against all rational thought I put David’s number into my new phone because anything else would be a betrayal.

 

It would’ve been a fun trip home, under different circumstances, but under different circumstances we might not have all been so determined to have fun.

 

*

 

I am, like so many other members of my family, a terrible judge of time.  If it can be held and touched I can measure and analyze and understand but when it comes to the fourth dimension I am strangely disabled, pathologically tardy, incapable of proper judgment or perception.  Music lives in that incomprehensible space, transient, evanescent, and despite the best efforts of man to suspend time and hold onto these sounds still they fall forward into the ether. 

 

It is like life in that way, music is, and just like life it cannot go on forever.  There is much about music that is a mystery to me, but this much I can understand; these are impermanent things, fading from the earth in time, disappearing to unseen places, but when I close my eyes I can still recall the peculiar notes struck by water rushing through my parents’ pipes and the particular cadence of David’s voice, and these lush sounds are more than all the words I’ve ever put together.

 

His birthday is (was? is?) two weeks after the funeral.  Twenty-three years old today, if only I knew where to send the card. 

*

On Israel

Written in September 2014.  Not posted because WHY WOULD I INVITE THAT INTO MY LIFE eh fuck it though…

 

My life isn’t complicated enough. I think I’ll write about Israel.

 

Much ink has already been spilled about Israel, and Palestine; my purpose here isn’t to add to the cacophony but to clarify certain dimensions of Israel’s identity, to better understand the claims made about it (and about Palestine).

 

1.  Israel is Jewish.

 

That Israel is a Jewish state is its primary identity; it was founded as such, explicitly, as a nation for the people without a homeland.  I don’t have a great deal to say on this matter except to point to a masterful (and shockingly readable) essay by Judith Butler, explicating why those who claim that to criticize Israel is to be anti-semitic are, in fact, making the same error of conflation as the anti-semites who use Israeli actions as an excuse to, say, smash windows in French synagogues.  The essay is beautifully reasoned and should be read by all.

 

2.  Israel is colonialist.

 

This is, perhaps, the number-one complaint against Israel: that its actions against Palestine are those of a colonizer against an indigenous population, and while violent oppression of the indigenous certainly has had its supporters, its historical heyday seems to have largely passed.  However, the colonial nature of Israel runs deeper than its actions, and even deeper than its founding.  Zionism, as a movement, developed in Europe’s imperial age, and its entire philosophical context is predicated upon colonialism.  That the Balfour Declaration was a British document owed not only to Britain’s comparatively liberal attitude towards the Jews, but also to the utter domination of the British empire, which had enough geopolitical credibility to resettle a global diaspora within a foreign land to which it held no legal title — a maneuver which takes both cojones and unequivocal international pre-eminence.  Israel is not only a colonial project for its Jewish residents; Israel is a European colonialist project, an abdication of “the Jewish problem” to another continent and, as such, a projection of European imperialist power. 

 

3.  Israel is militarist.

 

Israel often claims that its partnership with the United States is necessary as a consequence of its geopolitical importance: that it is the only liberal democracy in the Middle East.  We’ll approach that claim next, but one important distinction between Israeli democracy and the other Western democracies to which it compares itself is that Israel is, fundamentally, a militarist state.  In the post-WWII era, European democracies have demilitarized; Japan was forcibly demilitarized, to the same effect — the reduction of military power as a central pillar of national might.  Even the United States, by far the largest military in the world, uses its armed forces less as a tool for national identity than Israel, where all citizens, regardless of gender or ability, must serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (Arab and Druze citizens, as well as ultra-Orthodox Jews, may be exempted; the exemption has been challenged for the ultra-Orthodox).  As a practical result of this, every Israeli leader, in all sectors of the country, has been, at some point in their lives, a soldier.  There is quite literally no other liberal democracy in the West where a similar statement can be made, because universal military conscription doesn’t exist  in any other liberal democracy in the West.  Universal national service exists in other Western liberal democracies, but such programs also include options for non-military government work or even community service; if an Israeli version of AmeriCorps were available as an alternative to the IDF, the experience of youth would be radically different.  Military service has often been a crucible for the formation of national values, generally patriotism, sacrifice, and adherence to authority.  That the Israeli public opinion continues to shift rightward is the result of many factors, but one little-discussed is the values formation inherent to Israeli citizenship, which is militaristic. 

 

When one holds a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; when every citizen is a soldier, war becomes an easy answer. 

 

4.  Israel is a liberal democracy.

 

Though this is a key dimension to Israel’s national and geopolitical identity, it is only a partial truth, mediated by point number one.  If Israel is to be an explicitly Jewish state, then it is unlike any other Western liberal democracy in that it is not secular.  If Israel is to be a truly liberal democracy, on the other hand, then a two-state solution with Palestine is actually less desirable than a fully integrated single state, with social and political equality between Palestinians and Jews.  Any claim for both full democracy and full Jewishness must rest, then, on the total expulsion of the Palestinians — a realization which has been the central principle of Israeli strategy since its foundation, and which might have been morally and politically acceptable one hundred years ago, but in the era where wealthy governments are officially apologizing to indigenous groups is no longer.  Intrinsic to contemporary notions of liberal democracy is pluralism.  Israel can either be a pluralist democracy and therefore embody the word as it is now commonly understood, or a Jewish democracy and therefore distinct from every other Western liberal democracy to which it compares itself.

 

5.  Hamas is a terrorist organization.

 

Yes, Hamas has used suicide bombers to terrorize the Israeli population.  They are terrorists.  But terrorism, by its very nature, implies just the asymmetry that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict typifies: terrorists do not engage in terrorism because they have the means to wage legitimate warfare, or to otherwise accrue power through peaceful, legitimate means.  Terrorism is — without diminishing its horrific effects — a tool of the dispossessed.  Moreover, terrorism does not necessarily delegitimize a cause.  Numerous states have achieved independence through means which included terrorism, but the actions of, say, the Irish Republican Army did not negate the brutality of the English against the Irish.  It is one thing to condemn violent actions which result in the loss of life; the loss of life is always tragic, whether in acts of terror or “legitimate” warfare.  It is quite another, and logically insupportable, to claim that acts of terror invalidate a subject group’s claims to liberation. 

 

A common statement made in support of Israel is that the nation has the right to defend its existence.  But this is essentially meaningless: the Palestinians have the right to defend their own existence, too (as do all human beings).  Moreover, it is not the fundamental claims of either group which are commonly subject to critique in Western media, but rather the methods invoked in creating those national identities.  If Israel can object to the manner in which Palestinian leadership proceeds, then Israel must itself be open to similar critiques.  Criticism of Israeli methodology is more important not because of any difference in identity or fundamental claims, but because of the asymmetry of power and resources; no matter how many tunnels are dug Israel is, indisputably, the stronger of the two combatants, and with great power comes great responsibility.

 

6.  Israel exists because of the Holocaust.

 

This is true, but is nuanced by point number two in interesting ways.  Before getting to that, though, it’s worth recalling the abhorrent history of violence against Jews in Europe — pogroms, expulsions, and genocide happened with regularity for some thousand-plus years before the Shoah.  There is, to this day, a town in France whose name translates as “Death to Jews.”  That Jewish idealogues saw in European colonialism a way out, a path to their own liberation, is utterly unsurprising, given the unceasing violence arrayed against them over the centuries.  In many places, even in the twentieth century, even before the rise of the Nazis, even assimilated Jews were not full citizens of Europe.  Zionism may have reached its apogee in 1948 but it developed over the nineteenth century, and the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917, well before anyone imagined six million dead in concentration camps. 

 

Those concentration camps, however, were not a foregone conclusion.  One of Hitler’s earlier ideas was not to murder every Jew he could get his hands on, but rather to export them all to Malaysia, an idea rejected because — in short — he thought it would outrage the British (that same nation which was the first to diplomatically support the export of Jews to Palestine).  Against the brutality of the Holocaust, some may find this nothing more than a bit of historical trivia, but it reflects an uncomfortable truth about Zionism: that removing Jews from Europe was a goal shared by Zionists not with liberal, assimilated Jews, but with anti-semites who wanted them gone.  Prior to the grotesquery of the Final Solution, where assimilation proved no guard against annihilation, the idea of moving to a hot, undeveloped, already-populated foreign land in the name of Jewishness was not exactly the most popular goal amongst the diaspora.  That Israel now asserts centrality within the international Jewish identity (a notion rejected by many non-Israeli Jews, but shared by many others) is, therefore, a feat of historical re-engineering rather than an inevitability.

  

Let’s hope that in the two years since I first wrote this, that town in France has changed its name, eh?  

Sudden-Onset Baby-Mania: A Sufferer’s First-Hand Account

Another tidbit from before this blog even existed: written in 2008.  Edited in 2012, by which point the sentiment had already well passed, but oh well…

 

The biological clock is rumored to exist within all human females; it begins its supposed steady progression at menarche, the moment it is turned on, but the ticking doesn’t really start to thrum until one’s twenties, when the siren call of the ovaries becomes impossible to ignore.  By the time a woman is in her thirties, the constant, metronomic hum of the unfulfilled biological clock drives her to the kind of madness chronicled on Sex and the City — compulsive preening, loss of sexual judgment, finding Carrie Bradshaw’s musings remotely interesting, etc.  At least, that’s more or less what I’d always heard, what I’d absorbed and compiled from pop culture and my elders; though a human female myself, I’d never felt much of these strange uterine directives, and I was perfectly content to keep it that way.

 

Until…

 

It happened the week before my twenty-fifth birthday: a sudden, inexplicable, maddeningly inescapable baby-lust.  I was helping my brother move into his new apartment and on trips to IKEA we were surrounded by small children, hordes of them shrieking and crying, and as I saw one and then another and then another I had to force myself to look away, to stop my goofy grin, to not reach out and pry someone else’s child from their arms and run off like a baby-snatching lunatic.

 

In short, the week before my twenty-fifth birthday I lost my goddamn mind.

 

In time this consuming obsession has faded into a steady background noise; it waxes and wanes depending on whether or not I’m living on food stamps or sleeping on somebody’s couch (the correlation isn’t what you might expect: in times of stability my lust is only for adventure, whereas the more my life is in shambles, the more my ovaries scream “You know what could fix this?!  A BABY!!!!”  Because, you guys, my ovaries are stupid, selfish bitches.

 

I thought I could live out my days immune from such biological pressures. My parents have long been concerned about my willingness to spawn, a concern perhaps permanently engraved in their minds when, during my freshman year of high school, I walked around for two days with a sign on my back that read “DO NOT REPRODUCE WITH ME: I AM A CARRIER!” in response to a biology lesson discussing hereditary diseases.  Among my high school nicknames was “asexual” (I wasn’t actually disinterested in sex, just more focused on getting into my dream college), and those who recall the Lauryn Hill song “Doo Wop (That Thing)” can hum along with the anthem my loving friends penned in my honor: “Hop, you know you better watch out/some asexuals are only about/bud-ding, bud-ding, bud-ding…” 

 

It wasn’t that I never wanted kids, or that I hated kids.  I’ve always liked kids a lot, actually, although my preference has generally run towards the more sentient, language-capable variety — you know, ones that have reached the age of reason.  I grew up in a family of four but with a mountain of younger cousins, the bulk of whom I have gotten to know fairly well and all of whom I find to be totally rad little people.  I dig kids, and kids have generally seemed to dig back, perhaps because my complete unwillingness to assume adult responsibilities ultimately renders me nothing more than an overgrown child myself.  Whatever the reason, kids and I get along, and more than that, kids crack me up; when they’re still young enough to be youthfully unselfconscious every day is a dance party (with, yes, occasional tantrum-breaks), and then when they get older and completely, obsessively self-conscious about every minute detail of their lives they’re so easy to embarrass that every day is like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, except all the neuroses are actually developmentally appropriate.

 

None of these sentiments towards children or the eventual possibility of a family, however, prepared me for the baby-lust, the explosive announcement of my biological clock’s existence.  It was immediate.  It is visceral.  And it will not go away.  I have degenerated into an empty-headed cliche and although I am aware of this sudden transmogrification into a chick-lit heroine, it would seem that I am powerless to combat the forces of millions of years of evolutionary pressure.  Suddenly some of my sexual fantasies are even ending in pregnancy, which up until this point has been among not only the least sexy but also simply the most horrifying scenarios imaginable.  It is not okay, people!

 

I would probably be less weirded out if I did not feel so freakishly alone — not alone as a female (or a human being, really) suddenly desperate to reproduce, but as a thinking person so suddenly overwhelmed by biological impulse.  (Seriously you guys, women who co-found their own feminist comedy nonprofits aren’t supposed to be so consumed by baby-lust… right?)  It seems a cruel trick of nature, that it should pick me for this particular Darwinian gambit: congratulations on lasting a quarter-century, commitment-phobe — now get on with the baby-making!  I was already bad at picking up guys when all I was interested in was no-strings-attached sex; now that I’ve lost my mind altogether how am I going to ever find a man crazy enough to want to mingle his DNA with my own (and then spend the next eighteen years being legally and financially responsible for the results)?  I thought I could remain unbothered by the hookup culture until I was at least thirty, but now for the first time I’m having to contemplate the prospect of trying to land myself in a serious relationship.  I don’t know much about those except that they seem to take a lot of effort, although to be fair even that is probably easier than raising a kid and suddenly that’s made its way to the top of my to-do list. 

 

Of course, the sad truth is that I probably won’t be procreating for a good few years yet (actually, there is nothing sad about this truth — it is unequivocally a good thing, rationally speaking, although all my rationality seems to have recently absconded in the face of this newfound procreative urge).  Practically, I am in a position absolutely untenable for having a kid, although if this new obsession drives me to be more pragmatic in getting together a career than I suppose it’s not entirely a bad thing.  Also, humans are not yet a parthenogenetic species, which means finding at some point an XY-chromosomed partner for this particular venture.  In fact, chances are pretty good that I’ll end up like Liz Lemon:  ten years from now I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find myself accidentally stealing coworkers’ babies and suffering Mexican-cheese-curl-induced pregnancy scares, because even a healthy dose of professional success is apparently not enough to compensate for an unfulfilled baby-lust, a biological clock ticking away the moments until genetic irrelevance — which is what, in turn, drives a girl to off-brand Cheetos in the first place.  

 

I can believe that.  The brief span of my unfulfilled baby-lust has already been torturous enough; ten years from now I could probably be spitting Pulitzers and still crying into my cornflakes about precious little fingers and chubby cheeks and wispy hair and drool.

 

In the meantime, pass the off-brand Cheetos.

 

Maybe all I really needed to give birth to was this blog?  A niece and nephew are doing me juuuust fine these days, y’all…

Enter the NoPhone

Wrote this in September of 2014 — it was commissioned by Shareable, who then didn’t run it (or pay me).  Transient and forgettable?  Maybe… but so was the topic.

 

If you or someone you care about happened to be among the huddled masses lined up outside an Apple store awaiting the iPhone 6, then maybe — just maybe — you need some smartphone methadone.  Enter the NoPhone: Dutch designer Ingmar Larsen’s gift to the tech-addicted, or to that overlooked demographic of folks who hate talking or texting but really like carrying around palm-sized plastic rectangles.  If you want to communicate with loved ones without the NSA dropping in on the conversation, the NoPhone is definitely the way to go; just be sure you’re within earshot of the loved one in question, because the NoPhone, as its name implies, is not actually a phone.  It’s a 3-D printed cultural commentary, and designer Larsen will send you one if you pledge twelve dollars on Kickstarter.  (For fifty bucks, you get a five-phone “family plan”: available on all major carriers!  I mean, no major carriers!) 

 

If that’s not enough to make your Apple-wielding friends jealous, go for the Selfie Upgrade — a mirrored sticker that posts images not to Instagram, but to your very own eyes, which, for those too young to remember a time before social media, is basically the same thing as setting your photostream to “private”.  The NoPhone mirror images don’t stick around on anyone’s server — just think of it as Snapchatting with yourself! — so if you’re a celebrity, it’ll also keep all your nude selfies hacker-proof.

 

Larsen is advertising the shatterproof, waterproof, battery-free NoPhone as an antidote to smartphone addiction (you no longer have to forego “any potential engagement with your direct environment” just to grip some cool black plastic), but with over $28,000 still to be raised for the product to be made, maybe we just like our smartphones too damn much to shell out for their Luddite simulacra.  Or maybe folks who feel the desperate need to clutch an obsolete, non-phone quadrilateral are just holding tight to their iPod Classics.  (RIP.)  If you’re in need of a “smartphone placebo,” now’s the time to shell out — just because you don’t have to camp out on a sidewalk for days doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy the smug glow of being first in line. 

 

Our Dumpsters, Ourselves

Written in April 2012.  I came up the title and needed SOMETHING to match it!

 

When conservative pundits caricature progressive, ecologically-minded urbanists as hothoused wealthy elites, I can’t help but laugh: I fit the profile as far as a college degree goes, but I’ve also spent more time in a dumpster than I ever anticipated at my Georgetown graduation and, sometimes, I’ve eaten ketchup packets for dinner.

 

We’ll get back to the ketchup thing later.  The dumpsters — it started when I worked with Habitat for Humanity.  One day my site supervisor tasked me with ensuring that the mountainous pile of cast-off lumber and sheetrock fit properly into its green metal container, so like the twenty-two-year-old badass that I once was I climbed in, revved up a circular saw, and bent a gigantic mound of trash to my will.  My photo on the staff page of my current employer’s website is of me sitting kinglike atop compressed leaves and branches and clippings in a green waste bin — I spent an entire day directing volunteers in the technique of proper dumping, and it was awesome.  Unlike some of my other poverty-addled environmentalist brethren, I’ve never actually dumpster-dived; no, my time in dumpsters has been spent in the seemingly eco-antithetical act of putting things in, not keeping them out, but I’ve still learned some lessons from it.

 

Most of my dumpstering experience thus far has been purely professional (you try working in a construction-related field and not learning a thing or two), but recently, things got personal.  I’ve never been one to have a lot of stuff — even as a kid, I relished the compactness of my closet — and that trait, compounded with general young-adult transience and the fact that I spent most of 2008 living out of my car (and occasionally dining on free condiments), has always kept my personal dump-quotient to a minimum.  But I’ve been living at the same address for a year and a half now, and although it’s a one-bedroom apartment shared with two other people, permanence has enabled stuff to settle and collect with a vastness that my prior vagabonding made impossible.  Also, my roommates have so much crap that sometimes I want to light it all on fire just to have it out of the way — not everyone, it turns out, adapts well to small-space living, but they’re working on it.

 

Even those of us committed to living lightly, however, can find ourselves with big problems that end only in a dumpster.  Recently, I picked up a new mattress (well, new to me — I got it off the Craigslist free section) to replace the one I’d had for over two years, a memory foam hand-me-down from a friend who’d moved back to Texas in 2010.  Regular flipping had staved off the development of permanent dents for some time but over the last eight months or so I had found myself sleeping in an indestructible foam crater, reappearing no matter how strenuously I flipped or rotated.  Replacement, I finally acknowledged, was my only option, although with the victory of a free Craigslist conquest came a startling question: what the hell does a person do with a yellowed, compressed, used foam mattress?

 

Sure, there are a couple of recycling programs out there, but most are run through manufacturers (not much of an option when your mattress is second-hand) and, as it happens, even the progressive Bay Area doesn’t offer anything in the way of alternatives.  My options were twofold– a dumpster or a giveaway — and I just didn’t feel quite comfortable pawning off the source of my recurring back pain on somebody else.  Sometimes one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, but sometimes, no matter how much we upcycle or downcycle or recycle or freecycle, crap is just crap.

 

So I hacked the foam mattress into pieces with a serrated blade, and into the dumpster it went — there was some other garbage in there already so it fit less than neatly, the sort of job I wouldn’t find acceptable if I were loading the dumpster from the start.  When I run dumpster crews, I often surprise volunteers with the suggestion that hauling and tossing trash is a task which actually requires skill and strategy — after all, we’re trained to stop thinking at the word “trash.”  No wonder most folks find it difficult or impossible to envision the scale, logistics, and impact of landfills or Pacific garbage patches: if a twenty-cubic-yard metal container at a construction site or streetcorner or park cleanup day is already regarded as a black hole of refuse, how are we possibly to make sense of what happens to our waste even further afield?

 

As I shoved my old mattress into my apartment’s dumpster, I couldn’t help but reflect on William McDonough’s eco-classic Cradle to Cradle — in that moment of doing battle with hunks of memory foam it was tempting to think that the problem was in its disposal, but the real issue — the one McDonough articulates so clearly — was that the mattress wasn’t built for reuse in the first place.  My friend had purchased it new less than five years ago, and now it was all but useless; she’d bought it on some great sale, but how good of a deal is anything that doesn’t last — and, moreover, that can’t be put to new life once its time has come?  My new box spring was previously used by a now-deceased old woman who had it for decades, and if it craps out on me I can at least cut it open and reclaim the lumber from its frame.  Memory foam, on the other hand, looks awesome in the ads, but in my experience it has been less than promised, just another piece of junk to add to the garbage patch.

 

But I know (albeit on a small scale) the effort that garbage-management requires, and despite the claims of marketers across the country, there is no piece of junk that is truly easy to dispose of.  If only we all got to spend a little more time hanging out in dumpsters, then maybe we might spend a little less time buying — and making — the kind of tossed-away stuff that fills so many of them.

 

Four years later: still love a good round of garbage Tetris.  This one holds up.

Your San Francisco Treat

Reaching waaaaaaaaaaay back before this blog even existed: March, 2007.  This was written for an NYC friend’s zine, and I honestly have no idea whether it was ever published, or whether the zine even existed past its first issue…

 

In September of 2006, I moved back home for a temporary, painful stint in Cleveland.  The job market was crap, none of my friends were around, and the whole four months I was there I was stricken by a longing to return to the city I’d left behind: San Francisco.  Like Journey, I composed mournful ballads in homage to the city by the bay; unlike Journey, I resisted both a mullet and the impulse to make any such tunes public.

 

But I did get back to the Bay Area as fast as I could.

 

San Francisco looms large within the American cultural imagination — the Golden Gate Bridge, Haight-Ashbury, streetcars and the Transamerica building are all iconic.  But that’s just tourist crap.  What is the substance of contemporary SF?  Is it really, as some aging radicals will tell you, a sellout town of yippies and Silicon Valley money?  Or is it, as Bill O’Reilly would have you believe, still the bastion of liberal thought in this country, all Birkenstocks and acid?

 

Eh, a bit of both.  The Internet explosion may have priced pretty much the entire Bay Area real estate market out of ownership range for anyone not a millionaire, but the technology sector also ensures a population of young, progressively minded intellectuals; these engineers may have bigger bank accounts than their hippie forefathers, but the sense of personal hygiene is about equal.  And it’s the only major American city our current president has yet to visit — the Republicans have given up altogether on even making an effort here. 

 

I would love to wax rhapsodic about Bushman, a permanent fixture at touristy Fisherman’s Wharf who would jump out from behind branches to scare tourists, but — as much as he represents the stereotypical Northern California free-spiritedness — he’s retired, so that will be of no use to any NYC’ers planning trips this way.

 

No, the best place to recapture the sixties spirit is Golden Gate Park.  It’s on the west side of the city, the non-hip and predominantly Asian side, and thirty-nine years ago it was host to many Summer of Love festivities.  To go there now, you’d think it’s all gentrified, art museums and arboretums and Japanese Tea Gardens.  But on the western edge, hidden behind a bocce ball field, is Hippie Hill.  And Hippie Hill is where the sixties will never die.

 

Hippie Hill is not the actual name of the place, but if you’re wandering around the park looking for it, you can be assured you’ve found it by several measures.  Frequent drum circles provide auditory clues, and a pervasive odor of marijuana is omnipresent.  If you find a field meeting those criteria and are still unsure whether or not you’re in the right place, you can further verify your location by checking how many people around you are either (a) barefoot or (b) appear homeless.  I had a long conversation there once with a man known as Bag Lady Betty, who was a college friend of Robert Zimmerman at the University of Minnesota (which Mr. Zimmerman left before becoming known as Bob Dylan).  Bag Lady Betty got a PhD and was a professor at Berkeley when he got kicked out for dropping too much acid, which of course begs the question: How much acid was too much acid at frickin’ BERKELEY in the SEVENTIES?  It blows the mind to contemplate, and judging by Mr. Betty’s new hobby of collecting cans, it blew his mind as well.  On a related note, if you’re wandering through Hippie Hill and find yourself suffering a sudden hankerin’ for the reefer, pretty much anyone will share with you.  The ol’ hippie spirit of communalism still lives on, right alongside the drug culture and the drum circles.

 

And from Hippie Hill, on the western edge of Golden Gate Park, it’s just a short few blocks to the corner of Haight-Ashbury, where you can wander into the Gap and buy corporate, sweatshop-produced clothing to your heart’s delight.  It’s definitely a dichotomy.  The good news, though, is that if neither of those options — barefoot stoner-hippie, limousine liberal — sound appealing, you can always just pick up a wetsuit, a surfboard, and hit the beach.  Or some hiking boots, maybe a mountain bike, and head for the trails.  Outdoorsiness not your thing?  Well then, how about Chinese culture?  We’ve got the highest concentration of Asians outside of that continent.  Dim sum doesn’t sit so well?  How about burritos?  You can’t go a block down the Mission District without tripping over a taqueria (and, in a special note to the New York readers — good Mexican does not exist east of the Mississippi.  I know you’d like to believe otherwise, but our burritos are the best burritos.  Trust me.  I am a burrito connessouir!).  And if none of this is working for you, you can visit America’s most infamous prison at Alcatraz, or, alternatively, drive up to Napa and get shitfaced at wine tastings.  Because I’ve waited until the end to tell you the very best part of life in Northern California: being so close to hoity-toity wine country might make for some of the most expensive (and best) restaurants in the world, but Pinot Noir comes cheap enough to chug.  Similarly, since the coastal corridor from San Francisco north to Vancouver is generally considered the best weed-growing climate in the world, the marijuana is both potent and inexpensive.  And really, whether it’s rich techies getting drunk in their wine cellars, or dirty hippies smoking up with some smooth Humboldt County ganja, intoxication is one thing that everyone in this city can agree upon.  And isn’t that what matters most?

 

Ha!  Remember when I could afford to rent a place in San Francisco??  Or was able to eat glutenous burritos?  Oh, naive youth… (I did make a fun video about Hippie Hill — and the ease with which one can procure pot there — in 2009.  Watch it here.)

“Sharing,” My Ass!

Written late October 2014; rejected by Grist and Shareable shortly thereafter.

 

Have you shared lately?  I don’t mean “share” in the sense that most of us use the word — the sense that we’re taught in preschool and kindergarten, the sense that commonly implies “wait your turn” and “be considerate of others” — but rather in the Silicon Valley definition of the term, with the rather less-common meaning of “use an app to hire a stranger to perform a service for you.”

 

Wait, what?

 

As the battles over Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, and their ilk become ever-more pitched (this week saw Uber drivers protest in multiple cities across the country, and the company’s PR attempts at LA Weekly backfiring badly), it’s worth wondering how the heck these companies ever came to adopt the feel-good collective moniker of the “sharing economy.”  As originally conceived, the phrase was a rebellion against consumption, rather than a new and deregulated form of it; it was coined by thinkers operating outside the boundaries of traditional capitalism, and looking to redefine our concept of ownership and need.  Even before it had a name, the sharing economy had exemplars — Couchsurfing.org, for example, has existed for years as a worldwide hub for travelers, regulated only by social norms and community reputations (think of it as exactly as thorough and safe as Airbnb, except free).  Ridesharing was found not only in company-organized carpools but bulletin boards (whether at a coffeeshop or on Craigslist) and civic-led designated carpooling pick-up spots, not to mention, of course, the longstanding, grande dame of ridesharing: public transportation. 

 

Neither Uber nor Lyft look anything like real ridesharing, so it’s strange that they’ve co-opted the term while focusing their attention on killing the real industry that they mimic: taxis.  Read Uber’s corporate press and you’ll hear a lot about “taxi cartels,” as if cabbies are nothing more than organized millionaire thugs who happen to sometimes drive people places.  The app companies are doing a public service, they claim, by “disrupting” this inefficient service, and while it’s true that taxi rules could be improved in many cities, this could just as easily be accomplished by disruption’s gentler cousin, reform — a process in which all stakeholders could participate, that might even resemble actual sharing. 

 

The appeal of the “sharing economy” is obvious: public transportation is painfully unsexy, but dialing up a black car on your smart phone feels a little like being on an episode of “Gossip Girl.”  Couchsurfing is a hobby of vagrants and dirty hippies, but renting a couch (or a room, or a treehouse) somehow becomes aspirational.  One of the great lies of consumer capitalism is that value only exists as financial value, and so a service like Airbnb seems safer and more secure than the trust-reliant Couchsurfing.  I get it — when I traveled throughout South America in 2011, renting a room for three weeks via Airbnb felt vastly more proper and adult than arranging accommodations via Couchsurfing, but when my Airbnb host was a no-show and I was left stranded in Buenos Aires, it was the Couchsurfing emergency list that came to my rescue, no fee involved.

 

And therein lies the fundamental problem with the “sharing economy”: however much it co-opts the language of cooperation and collaboration, the “disruption” these apps promise most is the monetization of previously unvalued (financially, at least) interactions.  This sounds great on paper, particularly in a recession — hey, make some money doing the kinds of things you do anyway! — but as numerous studies have shown, introducing financial incentive into gift exchanges breeds distrust and destroys relationships.  You’re much more likely to become friends with your Couchsurfing host than your Airbnb landlord, and to be chummy with your carpool organizer or bus buddy than your Lyft driver.  The promise of human connection secured by money will always be false.

 

What’s not false, though, is the money these companies are making, and the anger their practices are generating.  Uber has been banned in Germany, and activists in places like New York and San Francisco are working to rein in Airbnb, which offers profit margins so far above long-term rental rates that mass evictions and conversions of buildings into exclusive Airbnb listings are leaving locals in a lurch.  The halo of “sharing” still offers these companies a comfortable veneer of anti-establishment do-goodery, even as Uber drivers run the numbers and realize their earnings fall below minimum wage, and even as the originators of the “sharing economy” concept have quietly abandoned the phrase — visit the websites of Shareable.net or the Sustainable Economies Law Center, which promote efforts like co-ops, b-corps, and community gardens, and you’ll read about the “new economy” or, more formally, the “social and sustainable economy”, or SSE.

 

In the interest of fairness, I think we should follow their quest for better labeling and call the “sharing economy” what it really is: the App-enabled Sub-minimum-wage Service Economy.  That’s a bit of a mouthful, so we can just go with an abridged acronym — the ASS economy.  Because only an ass could think it has anything to do with sharing.

 

Still true.

Dear America: You’re Doing It Wrong (#Ferguson edition)

According to my computer, I wrote this in 2014 — on Christmas Day.  Huh.

 

Hey there!  Do you have opinions about what’s happened/happening in Ferguson?  Of course you do!  You’re a person.  Perhaps even a person who cares about peace and justice!  Maybe you could use some extra ammunition for all of your Facebook arguments with people who think “posting links to Ted Nugent’s point of view” is a helpful tactic.  Maybe you’ve been posting links to Ted Nugent’s point of view (about anything, really).  Either way, let’s dive in to a hot topic and call bullshit on a lot of bullshit!

 

Bullshit One: “Mike Brown was shot in the front.  Therefore, his shooting was justified.”

 

This particular piece of bullshit has gotten a lot of airing among defenders of Officer Darren Wilson (with headlines like “shocking” and “conclusive”).  But guess what?  It’s also bullshit!  Fun fact: the direction a person is facing when fatally shot by a police officer has next to nothing to do with whether or not that officer will be charged with anything.  Front, back, side — if a cop can justify a “reasonable threat,” then it pretty much flies.  And if someone is shot in the back, then that means that they were running from the police, and the only people who ever run from police are criminals/the guilty (FACT!*); therefore, by cop-logic (or at least the tortured cop-logic deployed in these situations), someone running from the cops can still constitute a “reasonable threat” to public safety and deserve to be shot.  Even fatally.

 

There’s a reason that very, very, very, very, very, very, very few lawyers take police brutality cases.  The facts of the case hardly matter.  And speaking of…

 

Bullshit Two: “Mike Brown robbed somebody!  Therefore, his shooting was justified.”

 

Mike Brown may have robbed a convenient store before his death and stole some cigarillos.  Whether this is true or not has yet to be established, which is why it’s bullshit — yes, a grainy security video shows someone who strongly resembles Brown, but the store owner (aka the robbery victim) has said it wasn’t him.  Really, what this particular bit of bullshit demonstrates is how few facts around Brown’s death have been actually established, which is why a trial would have been a very good thing.  Determining the facts of a case is a major part of why trials happen at all!  It’s not why grand juries are convened, so at this point social media is basically carrying out the investigation which the St Louis county prosecutor was too lazy/corrupt/racist to do himself.  You know, like he’s paid to. 

 

Bullshit Three: Anyone cares what you think about the protests/riots.

 

Are you Pharrell Williams, Charles Barkley, or Ted Nugent?  Shut up.  Are you posting memes of Martin Luther King with the words “I respect this…” alongside pictures from Ferguson saying “not this”?  Stop.  Stop now.  Please, for the love of god, shut up.

 

Whether you’re riot-shaming, respectability-politicking, or just straight-up racist (thanks Ted!), all you’re actually doing is refocusing the conversation away from the very real injuries suffered by black Americans to whether or not their reaction is up to your standards.  And you know what?  Your standards are complete, utter, highest-order bullshit.  Of course you respect MLK now, and if we’re being real, fifty years from now today’s protestors might very well be regarded as freedom fighters — but in the meantime, asking them to live up to the best, most sanitized version of one of the greatest non-violent leaders in all of world history is fucking absurd.  Can you imagine telling anyone in your regular life that you can’t respect them because they’re not acting like MLK?  No.  Because that would a ridiculous, arbitrary, and impossible standard to live up to.  (If you don’t believe me, try it!  Tell a coworker that you won’t respect them until they live in the image of MLK, or Gandhi, or Mother Teresa.  See what happens.  See if you get punched.) 

 

If you want to have an impact on the tone of the protests, get out in the streets yourself.  Otherwise, shut. the. fuck. up. with this line of bullshit.

 

Bullshit Four: Cops are rational actors.

 

This bit of bullshit is one of the most endemic and problematic, because it’s what shields cops from the consequences of their fatal mistakes.  But let’s say for a second that it’s generally true — we can even put race aside for a couple sentences.  Let’s say that generally rational, good cops sometimes misjudge the situation and kill unarmed, innocent twelve-year-olds (#Cleveland edition), because they thought such a kid constituted a “reasonable threat.”

 

Well, reasonably, that is bullshit.  Reasonably, we must conclude that any cop who does such a thing is not particularly capable of accurate threat assessment; reasonably, we must conclude that such a cop is not very good at one of the core competencies involved in cop-hood.  Reasonably, if chronic tardiness is enough to get someone fired, mistakenly ending the life of an innocent human being whom you have sworn to protect should at the very least cost a cop his or her job. 

 

Reasonably, if typical citizens can be imprisoned for manslaughter when they accidentally kill someone, agents of the state — authorized to use lethal force only for the protection of the polity — must be held to a higher standard of behavior.

 

I’ve met many perfectly nice cops in my life.  I’ve also been on the receiving end of a completely arbitrary and essentially purposeless exercise of police authority: it’s a trivial comparison, but when my friend Smo and I were arrested for a curfew violation, it had very little to do with any meaningful law enforcement and much more to do with a new, young cop bullying two vulnerable targets to satisfy his own ego.  Again, it’s trivial in comparison to the stories of Mike Brown or Tamir Rice, but most white girls — indeed, most white people — don’t ever experience police bullying, even on such an inconsequential level, unless they choose to (namely, by participating in justice-oriented protests).  It’s not something that the vast, vast majority of white people ever consider as an everyday possibility, but the truth is that cops can be dicks, and when a cop is being a dick to you, you’re pretty much at their mercy. 

 

Which is to say: the greatest bullshit of all is people claiming that they would, or would have, acted differently — if they were at the protests, if they were Tamir Rice, if they were Mike Brown, if they were Trayvon Martin.  Are you Martin Luther King right now, today, in your regular life?  No?  Then why do you think you could transform into Martin Luther King when faced with a gun?

 

We all know how that story ends, anyway.  As others have pointed out, MLK still got shot in the head.

 

Bullshit The Fifth: It’s just a few bad apples!

 

Are the majority of cops basically decent human beings?  Probably, but then again, the vast majority of humanity are basically decent human beings; nothing more and nothing less.  Sociopaths and heroes are exceedingly rare, and you don’t have to be a sociopath to kill people (especially in America). 

 

I put this one down because I just couldn’t stand to keep wading into the superheated discussion (and yes, I am aware that stepping away from stuff like this is absolutely white privilege at work).  Also, apparently I wrote this on Christmas, and, y’know, that’s a pretty busy — and generally happy! — day for me…

#YesAllWomen: A (Kind Of) Homily

Written in June of 2014.  

 

Some thing are worth saying because they are timely; others, because they are true. 

 

Lately in Cleveland, I have had a routine: after the quieting of the daytime bustle and as the long summer evenings bent into darkness, once parents were asleep, I made tea and took my laptop to the living room for emails and writing and general webfuckery, the cornerstones of my California life folded into a few nighttime hours.  “Friends” ran on the CW and then Nick at Nite and became the background to my labors, something like five episodes per night, and after weeks of this unfocused soundtrack I realized why Ross and Rachel took so damn long to get together: because neither of them knew what love is.

 

Ross idealized Rachel, from their preteen days.  Shy and insecure his strategy was years of pining, punctuated by an occasional grand gesture — an attempted prom rescue, for example, or a night at the planetarium.  And Rachel, the idealized object, enabled this, never considering Ross as a romantic partner until his devotion was revealed via such gestures.  Their on-again off-again relationship propelled the show’s narrative but it was also ludicrous, especially as the comparatively tame Monica and Chandler navigated a commitment built on friendship, shared values, shared goals, mutual attraction, and compromise — which is to say, a genuine and strong commitment, but not one to sustain an audience’s interest.

 

Grand gestures do not a relationship make, which is why so many gesture-built romantic comedies end when people fall in love (or “love”) rather than exploring an actual relationship, and also why romantic comedies are mostly bullshit.

 

For those who have experienced sexual assault there are two possible labels, it seems; we are either “victim” or “survivor”, both of which lend far too much credibility to the event in my mind.  “Survivor” implies more agency than “victim” but when I think of survival I recall my mother in intensive care, scrawling on a pad of paper because a tracheotomy prevented her speech, bald and pallid from chemotherapy but somehow still alive despite leukemia’s best efforts.  The sexual assault which I survived did not threaten my life in such a fashion, although the aftermath fully pursued may have; there were many reasons I did not testify against my late grandmother’s husband but the most prominent was that I simply wanted the whole thing over with, sooner rather than later. 

 

But whether I testified or not, the situation was beyond my own control.  Through a combination of coincidence my grandmother’s husband (her second husband, after my own grandfather died before I was born) was arrested and although he spent less time in jail for misdemeanor domestic assault than I did for violating curfew it unleashed a torrent from his enraged son, who paid a lawyer fifteen thousand dollars to send me threatening letters throughout the summer of my sophomore year of college — they would find out why I’d lied; they would find out the truth of why I’d transferred from Caltech to Georgetown; they would tell the world that I was nothing but a spoiled pawn of my father; they would destroy me. 

 

And what had I done to deserve such a backlash?  Was it because I had worn a tank top that night (or maybe it was a polo shirt — I can’t quite remember)?  Was it because I had visited my grandmother in Miami?  Was it because it was it was Good Friday?  Was it because I was nineteen and had a future that could yet be destroyed?

 

Or was it because yes: all women.

 

Those who stand in a witness box, who stare down the feint of objectivity that is the law, who force justice or at least demand to be heard — those are the real survivors. 

 

One of the most popular #YesAllWomen tweets was a quote from Margaret Atwood — “Men are afraid women will laugh at them.  Women are afraid men will kill them.”  When Margaret Atwood and Louis C.K. are making the same point, there is no secret left to it. 

 

My own story is complicated (as these things always are) by ethnicity.  To be Cuban is to be Hispanic and to be Hispanic is to be a culture of machismo, a society which excuses male philandering, and so an eighty-five-year-old groping his nineteen-year-old step-granddaughter is seen as part of a larger pathology; and Americans can shake their heads in sadness at the dysfunction of others. 

 

But Latinos have Dilma and Cristina and Michele and even Violeta, an elected female leader all the way back in the twentieth century.  Women at the helm do not disprove systemic misogyny any more than Obama’s election here ended racism, but it is not meaningless either. 

 

We have yet to vote a woman into our highest executive office, but in one of the most liberal states in the US we brought in the Governator.  The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, and yet somehow it is the caballeros whose problem is more tragic.

 

Here is a real tragedy: the distance between “I refuse to apologize for my privilege” and mass murder is much shorter than most anyone is willing to acknowledge.  

 

This was the start of a super-long examination of our narratives of romantic love, and how they promote misogyny; and how our American/Western sense of our own progress impedes us from seeing how much work remains to be done.  But I didn’t finish it.  I did get sexually assaulted again, though — in a totally different context this time! — so I could bring a whole new perspective to it now… but I’m not gonna.

Going Home

More from the archives — this was written about a year ago.  I’m not entirely sure if I decided that it was finished or not….

 

My executive director recently discovered that I’m Cuban.  “Oh,” she said, scrolling through an Internet video to show me a particularly cruel squat she’d seen, “are you going to go?”

 

My face betrayed me, and she caught herself.  “Is your family exiles?”

 

Yes, I said, and she said she had friends who were Cuban exiles; she knew it was a complicated question.  Our conversation returned to fitness.

 

Earlier today I was in a meeting with my immediate director and a co-worker.  I don’t know how Cuba came up in the discussion but my boss’s reaction was immediate: “Oh, I can’t wait to go,” she said, then addressed us.  “Don’t you guys want to go?”

 

I’ve only known my co-worker for three days now but she’s quite savvy, and she redirected the conversation before I even had a chance to react.  A good thing, because if I had reacted, I would have — at the very least — expressed the same frustrated refusal that I showed my ED, that reminded her of the other Cuban exiles she knew.

 

The ED’s question, though, was redundant.  To be Cuban is to be exile.  There are rare exceptions, to be sure, but for almost all of us the identities are inseparable and insuperable, a daily paradox of who we are and who can never really be.

 

*

 

My sister-in-law is an immigrant.  She came to the United States from Australia after completing her PhD in astronomy to do a postdoc at Harvard, and then to work at NASA.  She did not anticipate living stateside indefinitely until she met my brother; now they have a house and twin babies and her green card is in process, sponsored by their mutual employer.  But if they hadn’t accepted job offers at Caltech they would have taken positions at Australia National University, and living Down Under is not off the table of their future.  Her mother and sister visit regularly, freely, and the question of whether Jessie would ever like to go back to Australia is freighted only with pragmatic negotiation and personal history.  Immigration is never easy, but hers bears no geopolitical scarring.

 

When non-Cubans ask Cuban-Americans if they will or have ever or would like to visit Cuba, I suspect that they — that you — think you are asking the same question you would ask Jessie.

 

You are not.

 

*

 

Growing up in Cleveland, I walked the same streets that my father navigated in his childhood.  My brother and I went to the same high schools as our paternal aunts and uncles and grandparents; we ate at the same pizzerias; we sat in the same pews, in the same churches.  My father’s life has a context that I can never truly grasp — the Cold War, Vietnam, pre-civil rights — but it is also familiar and knowable from having lived there, laying new memories across a well-worn geography.

 

My mother’s childhood is the opposite of all of that.  To walk the streets of her childhood was not only to cross a significant distance but to traverse legality.  The US government is frequently blamed for freezing out Cuba, as if we are the sole bad actor, but even with rarely-granted American permission I could not have walked freely through my family history on that impossible island: tourists of any stripe but particularly Cuban-Americans are monitored if they stray from the beaten path of photo-ready beaches and hotels or the picturesque spots of Old Havana, where the nostalgic ideal of Cuba is shepherded and mediated, curated for all those in need of something “authentic”. 

 

Things are changing now, of course, there more so than here.  My cousin Teva, a Spanish citizen who can travel more easily, laid her mother’s ashes to rest last year in Santiago. 

 

Someday, I will make it all the way to Marcane.

 

*

 

Marcane is where my mother grew up, a small sugar-cane town in Oriente province, in the southeastern part of the island, along the alligator’s lower jaw.  I know it from stories and pictures and fever dreams, and I’ve imagined going back a thousand times.

 

You may know Cuba from news stories and articles, documentaries and the Buena Vista Social Club; photos might catch your eye, spark your imagination for a moment, inspire a moment of sympathy for those poor Cubans. 

 

To grow up Cuban-American is to be immersed in a place forever out of reach.  We know Cuba from news stories and articles and documentaries and the Buena Vista Social Club, from photos smuggled out and every photo that makes the paper, from articles clipped and mailed, memoirs and novels and blogs, links to El Nuevo Herald and Generacion Y.  I don’t linger on images of tropical beaches but about a decade ago there was a gif of Fidel Castro tripping on his way to give a speech, face-planting; I don’t normally delight in injuries to the elderly but I watched it over and over and over again, transfixed, gleeful.

 

We know it from family, from pork and black beans and ropa vieja and empanadas and mojo, from heirlooms that made it out, from letters, from diaries, from memory. 

 

What does it mean to return to a place that you already know by heart?

 

*

 

But of course, I don’t know Cuba at all.  I’ve never been there; all I’ve ever lived with is the rupture and the loss, the omnipresent absence.  Of course I want to go.  Of course I will go.  How could I not?

 

*

 

Going to Cuba is your vacation.  It is something wholly different for me, and for those like me.  Cuba is not about beaches and food and music and vintage cars but about understanding the central trauma that shaped the lives of my mother, my aunts, my grandmother, my grandfather, the interconnected web of extended family.

 

Cuba is about my mother: a determined and resilient woman who has survived cancer twice.  She came to the United States when she was nine years old.  Some of her stories I know by heart and some of her stories I will never know; traversing ninety miles of ocean is a hurt that time has mostly turned to scar tissue but hasn’t entirely healed, and I don’t know if going back to Cuba will be enough to close the open wound she still carries.

 

Cuba is about my grandmother: stiff and aristocratic and unyielding and judgmental; warm and generous and big-hearted, with a laugh that could transcend all of my shortcomings.  I didn’t know she had a sense of humor until I was twelve years old and we were in my parents’ sunroom in Cleveland, and her laughter was a revelation.  Most of my stand-up material would have shocked and appalled my abuela but she’s so much of the reason I ever did comedy at all.

 

Cuba is about my grandfather: a hard-riding, cigar-smoking country doctor, friends with Mongo, the overlooked third Castro brother.  He died before I was born, before I existed at all, but there are photos of him at my parents’ wedding and him with my brother and it is a miracle that he made it to the US at all — he stayed in Cuba after my mother and aunt and grandmother all left to tend to his sick parents and by the time they died he found himself wanted by the regime, and his escape is the stuff of legend. 

 

In eighth grade English class we had to prepare and present a short speech about an ancestor.  Most of our classmates spoke of German and Irish immigrants, hardworking people who sought economic opportunity along Lake Erie’s industrial shores.  My brother and I both, one year apart, brought in our abuelo’s whip and pistol and told a story of dodging assassination by one of the great villains of the twentieth century.

 

We were not, generally speaking, cool, but on that day — on that day, we were the coolest.

 

*

 

I have lived for thirty-one years in a Cuba that may or may not resemble the actual country.  This is what exile means: not only to be separate but to be severed, to subsist in suspended, impossible fantasy.

 

Do I want to go to Cuba?  I’ve ached for it for decades.  To stand in front of twenty-two thirteen-year-olds and tell a tale of derring-do was, like all boastfulness, an act of concealment; in 1997, I didn’t know if the possibility would ever be real, and in my desperation to encounter the man of myth a bragging retelling was the most I could muster.  Now I might soon be able to meet him as a native son; now my grandmother is gone, too, and so instead of her voice and her memories I can only hope to find their echoes amongst the bougainvillea and the mango trees and the sugarcane.  Going to Cuba is going home.  Of course I want it. 

 

*

 

I don’t think that is what they — or you — or they — mean, though, when they ask, and that is why my face falls and my jaw sets at the question.  The Cuba you want to see is worlds apart from the one that I’ve always known — but more than that, your Cuba is an erasure of mine, a pretty mask over my mother’s unanswerable pain. 

 

Yes, I want to go to Cuba.  And I will.

 

But although our passports might bear the same stamp, I will never visit your Cuba. 

 

*