Wednesday, April 29, 2009

El Mundo Alucinante: Notes on Cuba, Part 3

I was all set to post yesterday's new poem with commentary and my Obamatude post today, but after two meetings this afternoon my eyes started to give out (so much stuff to read these last few days), then a headache entered the mix, and I ended up by the early evening lying down and listening to "Brother President," as Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell described him recently, work his magic with the press corps. So perhaps some Obamatude tomorrow. Overall, as I said on Monday, concerning Mr. President Obama, todo chévere (and don't think I've ever uttered this word even once in a Spanish-speaking country. Excelente or chido always come to mind first...).

El Mundo Alucinante: Notes on Cuba, Part 3

Another post on the still energizing and unforgettable Cuba trip.


Let me mention one point that I forgot in the initial post, which concerns connectivity. I consider myself a reasonably hyperconnected person. I don't talk on the phone all that much, but I do use my cell phone, an iPhone, to text, check and send email, listen to music, and use numerous applications/apps. I almost always carry my laptop with me and often check my various email accounts several times a day, except when I'm teaching or writing; I visit a number of news and blog sites, forums, social networking sites, and so on every day, and as is clear here, I blog when I can; I often read magazines online; and I frequently either listen to or download podcasts and radio programs from the Web. While I imagined that things would be different in Cuba, and that I would not be able to access the net as readily as I can in the US, I was a bit surprised and chastened by how limited the options were. In 2 of the 3 hotels we stayed at, the only net access was via very slow PCs, at the rate of $7-8 CuCs per hour (about $10). [If you are in Havana, I recommend going to the business center at the Havana Libre Hotel, 2nd floor, where the computers are a lot cheaper and a little faster. I was able to upload some university work using a flash drive without any problem.] I had this fantasy that I was going to upload pictures every day with microblogposts, but the reality was that in the first hotel, and sometimes use emailing and Skype as ways to chat with C, but there was barely even an adequate outlet to keep my computer charged, let alone my phone (+camera); in the second hotel, in Pinar del Río, I was able to charge my computer and phone, and the hotel not only didn't have net access. In the third hotel, there were several outlets, but only a two net-ready computers, and they moved at a glacial pace. In the various schools we visited, we learned that internet access was mostly nonexistent, though various Cuban intranets did access. Our guide Tati explained that one of the problems was a lack of broadband wiring and an updated grid, which cost lots of money, financed here in the US both by governmental and private funds. Let me also add that Bernardo suggested I go to the International Press Center, which he was pretty sure had computers, phone access and cards, and so on. So I dropped by there on a particularly muggy day, and was shooed away by an officious official who promptly went back to chatting on the phone with who knows. I stood my ground and said I was a visitor, blah blah blah, and he kindly sent me on a wild goose chase for net access and a phone card (see below) that I described that evening to C as "Kafkaesque." Oh well--at least I did get to walk through the sweltering streets of Havana. One of the things I imagine that will happen over the next 10 years in Cuba will be the development of its data and communications networks, especially if any sources of private funding are allowed in.

One of the letters thanking Fidel for the literacy campaign, Museum of Literacy

Then there was the issue of telephony. I am not a telephone person, let me state that at the beginning. I have always found using telephones in foreign countries baffling, and Cuba was no different. We were told that we could rent cell phones, but I was unable to find any spot that would rent them. From my experiences in other countries (cf. DR, France, Brazil, etc.), I knew I could use phone cards. Hah! The first problem was getting a phone card. Bernardo, knowing such things, urged me to go to an outlet of ECTESA, which is the state phone company. He specifically told me to ask for a phone card priced using the national currency, and not CuCs. So I went to do so, and lo, she requested far more CuCs, not the national currency, than Bernardo had said. Then she and the other people in the little kiosk-sized office proceeded to have a good laugh at my expense in Spanish, until she realized that I was staring at her and listening intently, and then asked, "Me entiendes?" and I said yes, which immediately provoked more professional behavior, and a nice(r) send-off. Truthfully there were speaking so fast I had no idea what they were saying, but I've learned that it's best to appear as though you have half a clue if you want to preserve any dignity. I got the phone card, which was 15 CuCs ($17), and tried several times to call C and several Cubans for whom I'd brought books from a friend, finally getting through briefly before it canceled out. The next day we headed to Pinar del Río, so I couldn't go back to ECTESA for another card, but Bernardo sold me his. I tried repeatedly to use it at the hotel we were staying out, but it wouldn't work, so I tried to use the hotel's main phone to call the US. They told me they couldn't do it, so that led to a late evening attempt to find a phone in the town at which I could use the card. I ended up taking one of the bike taxis, pedaled by a man who might have been 100 years old but huffingly did manage to get us into Pinar del Río's downtown, but I couldn't find a single public phone, including the one used by the "foreign students," that would go through to the US. So finally I walked another 10 blocks and found a charming, small hotel to make even a short call to C. When we returned to Havana, I experienced the encounter at the International Press office that I mentioned above, which included my trolling every hotel and store in the area for a "tarjeta telefónica" before I returned to the ECTESA office (which sits right across the street from the famous ice cream stand Coppélia), and they were completely out of phone cards. The woman whom I'd encountered a few days before was taking cash for people to call at the phones in the office, and I thought I was encountering a scam, so when I protested, I received a nice "mi amol" and was told that, no, they didn't have any cards. And was promptly sent off to one of the many hotels that of course did not have them. I never got to inquire at the Hotel Nacional, which is the largest and grandest hotel in Havana, but I'm told they had everything, including the best cuba libres in the city, so I'll have to try them out next time. At any rate, my expectations for connectivity dropped radically, and I felt that this was excellent preparation for any potential future trips into the rain forest, the desert, or some other spot where the webs of communication I've become so used to, to dependent upon, do not exist.

Entering Casa Fuster (Alex Fuster at bottom left)


The main reason for the trip, of course, was educational research. Both groups visited a range of educational institutions, from elementary schools (in Havana and the rural district of Pinar del Río, quite comparable in many ways to public elementary schools in the US) to college and university-level institutions (such as the Institute of Higher Arts [Institute de Artes Superiores] built on what was once the largest private golf course of one of the most exclusive country clubs in the Americas, in Havana). Given that, as I said before, the tour was listed as a "research" trip, the terms of our license--the visa which all Americans are required to acquire to visit Cuba legally--mandated that we spend a sizable portion (somewhere around 60-70% of every weekday) visiting institutions or organizations for research purposes, and we did. We even went to meet with a retired teacher who volunteered at the Cuban Pedagogy Association, which seeks to disseminate best teaching practices (primarily via DVD and TV) to teachers throughout the country. I was put in mind of MIT's open-courseware efforts, which include online classes and materials, and other online-based pedagogy projects aimed at elementary and secondary school teachers in the US, and thought about how useful such efforts are, at all levels, to teachers anywhere.

Performance by children at school in Pinar del Río

As part of the tour, we also met with education-related organizations and groups, such as the Cuban Student Union (FEU), a union structured as a quasi-parliament, with members participating in and linked to the government, for university students; and we heard from Cuban social work students and officials. The tour took us to governmental spaces, like Revolutionary Square, constructed originally during the Batista dictatorship in Fascist style, but since the Revolution reformulated as the site of major governmental institutions; the government-focused institutions, like the Museum of the Revolution, which was housed in the former presidential building; the Museum of Literacy, which celebrated the Revolution's striking early and swift success at overcoming the problem of illiteracy, and which featured one of the most moving artifacts I saw all trip, a book of letters written to Fidel by former illiterate people, many of them from the countryside, many women, many mixed-race or black (we learned that the oldest person who learned to read [alfabetizado] during the literacy campaign was 106 years old, and the youngest reading teacher [alfabetizador] was 8); cultural institutions like the national Museum of Fine Arts, whose "Cuban" exhibit sections we saw, including a room dedicated to the marvelous Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam, and a privately established social service organization in Pinar del Río, run by artist Jesús Carrete that provides structure and arts opportunities for people with Down Syndrome.

The focus on the arts encompassed several other community-focused projects, such as the Callejón de Hamel project in Havana's Centro district, in which artist Salvador González Escalona, whose sculptures, paintings, installations, and multiplatform works were the first murals in Cuba to celebrate and synthesize Cuba's four-major Afro-Cuban religions (Abakuá; Arará; Reglas de Palomonte; and the best known, Santería--and all the orixás were present in various forms throughout the space), created an expanding, open-air workshop along an important side street in Havana's cultural history; we were unable to attend the all-day Sunday rhumba parties that are acclaimed across the city, but we did get a brief taste of the opportunities that the space provided for people in the neighborhood and city. A different analogous site we visited was Casa Fuster, a fantastical estate developed the internationally renowned artist José Fuster, who we learned created workshops and projects for the people in the surrounding neighborhood, Jaimanitas. But then, as one of the deans at the Institute of Higher Arts put it quite succinctly, in Cuba "every artist is a teacher," and it became clear to us that this was more than a mere statement--if artists were not teaching in schools (at any level), the societal expectation was and is that they somehow will and must interact with their surrounding communities, a very different approach from the generally cloistered, market-based focus and perspective in the US.

Tati showing us a blackboard damaged by machine gun fire during the Bay of Pigs (Playa Girón) Invasion in 1962, Museum of Literacy

I could write quite a bit about the primary schools we visited, basing most of it on my notes, but I'll only say that I was quite impressed both by the teachers we encountered and by the students, who were incredibly adorable and sharp. We witnessed 5th grade students not only describing with great sophistication why José Martí was a favorite historical figure, but also very diplomatically breaking down for us one of the few Americans who'd supported Cuba's early attempt at liberal, in the late 19th century. A fifth grader. As I said in an earlier post, I did and still do wonder whether we were taken only to model schools and what other schools are really like, but seeing how these institutions operated, particularly given the economic constraints we witnessed, I was impressed. To give one example, since the state cannot afford laboratory equipment, students learn chemistry via videotapes and the intranet. To give another, primary through secondary level teachers earn only about 300-500 Cuban pesos, not CuCs, per month. (Remember, 1 CuC = $1.08/$1.20 with taxes, and there are about 25 Cuban pesos = $1/CuC.) I and others were quite curious about Cuba's secondary schools; education is compulsory through the 9th grade, after which Cubans have several choices. For 10-12th grades, they can either try go find jobs, or select from several educational options. There are technical schools focused on the sciences; there are military schools; there are vocational schools; and then there are schools in the countryside, where students devote a portion of each day to agricultural work. As there are no private schools and as the admittances to the other schools listed above are limited, the majority of 10-12 level students, including all who live in and around cities, either attend these country boarding schools or attend schools in the city where they have to dedicate a portion of their time working in city gardens and the like. As one Cuban told me, the education is very good, but the farmwork immersion and related chores are far less appealing, to put it in nice terms. Naturally, I really wanted to see one of these schools, but we didn't have the opportunity to do so. We did, however, see students in Pinar del Río who appeared to be heading back from vacation (it was around the time of Easter) to their schools, but we (I) didn't get an opportunity to chat with them.

As many (most?) decent jobs require a secondary school diploma, a sizable portion of students pursue this three-year option. I picked up that there was a problem, however, in terms of some students not continuing in school after 9th grade, and so the government and educational authorities were trying to improve the rates of continued school and graduation. At a certain age, all men must serve a period (depending) in the military, 2 years if not attending college or 1 year before college, while all women must participate in a 2-year public service project. To attend college, educational officials look at students' grades and test scores, and depending upon where they fall, they are given an option to attend certain universities or colleges. All education at all levels is free. (The state has also opened an array of what we might consider community colleges that provide people with the option of studying towards a high-school degree, vocational training, what would amount to associate and bachelors degrees, and even professional study.) Studying certain fields, such as the arts, was more difficult than others because of the limited amount of spaces. We also heard that one pending issue was the large number of students studying the journalism, humanities and social sciences (especially psychology) versus the hard sciences (and agronomy, I would add), and how the government was trying to nudge students towards the latter. In the US, of course, parents, the marketplace, colleges' and universities' course offerings and faculties, and our culture in general have a determinative effect, whereas in Cuba, personal choice (to a degree) combined with the government's (and society's) needs control what people study. As someone working in the arts and humanities, I thought about this quite a bit, particularly in relation to the constant and growing discourse about the "uselesness" or lack of utility of not only the arts, which has manifested itself in the stripping away of arts programs in many K-12 systems and the concern of some students with parental approval for taking arts and writing classes, etc., but also of the humanities. Even some very famous humanities scholars have advanced such arguments, to our national and international detriment, I would argue. Ignorance is not bliss, and scholarship is important both on its own terms but also because it often has profound effects in the world, in ways scholars might or might not imagine.

But back to the arts. One of the highlights for me was visiting Havana's Institute of Higher Arts (ISA), which would be equivalent to a state version of most of the US's top art schools combined. Admission is selective, and follows prior study in artistic fields at other institutions. It is the only higher arts school in Cuba, and students from across the country attend to receive a more humanistic training, that is, to receive grounding in aesthetics, philosophy (including Cuban Marxist-Leninism), art history, psychology, and cultural studies and appreciation, and to "experiment." The institute representative told us that students at the Institute could study music; visual and plastic arts; theater (including playwriting) and dance (as is the case at many US arts schools, i.e., NYU's Tisch School of the Arts); and audiovisual communication arts (which I imagine would include photography, film and video production). When we walked up to the spot where we were going to meet our rep from the school, we saw students strolling about the grounds playing instruments, memorizing their parts in plays, and just enjoying themselves by thinking. When we reached the little patio area, we received an impromptu jazz performance by several student musicians. At this point we were able to ask questions, and I had to inquire about creative writing, or the formal study of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, including journalism. (Playwriting and screenwriting, as well as cross-genre writing, should be part of this mix, but in most institutions are not.). The representative told me that there was no such thing as a creative writing program. Quoth she: "People write who are called to write." No MFA (and now PhD) as the stepping stone for literary projects or production. Nada. She went on to say that people who wanted to become writers usually but not always studied "artes y letras" (arts and letters) at the University of Havana, which was only steps from our first hotel, and then practiced and refined their art. Of course this is how writing training and as a career unfolds in most countries outside the US and Anglophone world; although some countries in other parts of Europe (like Norway and the Netherlands, I think) have writing programs, it is really only the USA, Canada, the UK, and Australia for the most part that people can and do study and get degrees in writing. And of all these countries, the USA far away has the most writing programs, in no small part because of the large market for them.

José, an artist at the Callejón de Hamel

There were several writers on the trip, and we discussed this a little; it also brought to mind a discussion Harvard scholar Marjorie Garber led a few years ago concerning her study of the role of arts at Harvard, which became a fascinating little book. One question she posed was whether the arts ought to be together in one school devoted primarily to the arts--as at Pratt Institute or RISD--or one division of a major institution--as is the case at Columbia, for example--or distributed throughout a university, as is the case at Stanford, say--or linked to certain schools and departments, as is the case at the university (where undergraduate creative writing study in poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction is part of the English department of the College of Arts and Sciences; graduate creative writing in those fields is housed in the School of Continuing Studies and formerly in the Graduate School; undergraduate and graduate journalism is in the Medill School of Journalism; and playwriting is in the Theater department, and screenwriting is in Radio/TV/Film (RTVF)); or present only in a limited sense (with a department of Visual and Environment Studies, i.e., studio art, and a few creative writers on the English faculty or teaching writing and composition more broadly), as at Harvard. Personally, I believe that all the arts, including computer and online arts, gaming, architecture, graphic design, fashion, and performance arts, should be together, but also part of a larger institution in which the humanities, social sciences, natural and applied sciences, and professional-level studies are present. The divisions strike me as artificial and problematic, but that's for another discussion.

One of the International Arts Biennal outdoor installations (giant roaches crawling up the side of the building!) at the Museum of Fine Arts

I will say that the experience also got me thinking personally about the formal study of creative writing and its usefulness, whether and to what extent writing can be taught, what my and others' real aims are in the classroom, and so on. My experiences at the university and other institutions has proved year and year out that students can and do learn to write better than they did before they began, in no small part because of the focused emphasis on practice, on the technical aspects of writing, on learning to edit their own and others' work, on offering critiques and thinking about how critical reading opens up how works of art function, on modeling based on reading--on reading itself, and its role in changing and enriching one's writing. I see the results in undergraduate and graduate students' work, so I know the programs justify themselves, and yet I worry about the increasing notion that you must have an MFA or even PhD to write and teach writing, or that they're even necessary to be a writer at all. The question to the Institute rep about creative writing led to a lovely moment, however. The dean of the Institute, Jorge Braulio Rodríguez, presented two of us writers with copies of his book of translations of Richard Wright's haikus! It was an extraordinarily thoughtful gift, and for me took on great importance because it was Wright's work, I'd only read a few of his haikus, and I wasn't able, as per my usual fashion, to buy any other books during the trip (the main and famous bookstore in Havana had been closed, and I didn't pick up any books at the outdoor book market or used bookstores as I'd wanted to.)

Ana Laura's visual diary

We later had the opportunity to view some student art exhibits, which were very promising, and chat with some of the students. I also peeked in at a print studio and some classrooms, and snapped a few pictures. In preparation for the trip, I'd made up Spanish versions of my Emotional Outreach cards, and I handed them out to students and faculty. This led to one student who was there to view the art exhibit to assume, based on the Spanish on the card, that I was fluent, and a conversation with another, first-year student Wilber Aguilera, whose powerful ceramic wall sculpture, based on Edvard Munch's "The Scream" I featured several posts ago. I and another person in the first group chatted with student artist Ana Laura Tamburini, who had created a visual diary, comprising months' (a year's) worth of drawings, paintings and mixed-media works, which covered several walls, as well as a diary book that she was displaying. Along with Callejón de Hamel and the Museum of Fine Arts, is one of the places that I really would have loved to spend more time at, and I also would love to return and spend a quarter or term, or some length of time, teaching and learning there myself. One final thing I'll say about the Institute of Higher Arts is that its architecture is worth seeing. The visual art exhibit was in one of the main buildings that had been designed, we were told, by avant-garde and Revolutionary supporters Cuban architect Ricardo Porro and Italian architects Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi in the 1970s, after Fidel Castro created the institution in 1976 by consolidating and expanding several higher arts schools, including the original post-Revolutionary National Arts School of 1962. The buildings are quite futuristic, in an almost Star Trek-ish style, though using distinctive local red bricks and tiles. Among the more interesting architectural effects they created was an open plaza designed to appear if viewed from the air as a clitoris. (I kid you not.) I heard that while many of the structures were completed, there were a few that had not been built, though this wasn't apparent from a walkthrough. The overall effect was of striking, futuristic buildings that probably do have a beneficial effect on the creation of works of art.

ISA buildings, from a distance

I've written a lot, so I'll stop here. I still have not said anything about discussions with Cubans about politics vis-à-vis the US, gender issues and homo/sexuality, and a few other topics, including those that remained a mystery, like the prison system, so I'll aim for those in my next posts.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Iowa's Big Day + Barackatude + Cards On Roll + Davis on Swine Flu Blues

Congratulations to Iowa and all the Iowans set to join in long-term union on this history day! Next up, Vermont!


Barack Obama and Hugo ChávezWe're approaching the 100th day of President Barack Obama's tenure, which sometimes feels to me like 10 days and others like 1,000. On such latter days, I have to remind myself how fanciful his election seemed two years ago this time, and how tense things were at times throughout much of 2008, when the W Gang were still in office and the GOP really brought the crazy with the McCain-Palin ticket. (I also realize on such days that having had him as one of my almost-Senators for 4 years, I got very used to thinking of him in office, though serving in the US Senate is of a different order than being President of the United States.) I intend to write a brief titled "One Hundreds Days of Obamatude" soon, once I'm out of the new thicket of university tasks, he's been as good a leader as I imagined, in some cases far better (signing the Ledbetter law and the stem cell ban right away, appointing some true progressives like Hilda Solís, Harold Koh, and Dawn Johnsen, the Cuba overtures), and in a few far worse (that horrid financial team of his, the continuing drone attacks in Pakistan, the coddling of the Bush Crime Syndicate's state secret claims and treatment of prisoners). But on balance, he's been quite good. I was expecting a more liberal Clinton 2.0 or Eisenhower, but we're much closer to FDR+, which what we desperately need right now.


I didn't believe it was possible, but the St. Louis Cardinals are in first place in the National League Central and are tied for the best record in the NL with a 14-6 showing so far. Although they always have a trump card in future Hall of Fame first baseman Albert Pujols (at right, AP), they did little over the winter to boost the team compared to a number of other squads in both the AL and NL. Yet so far, despite the loss of their best pitcher, Chris Carpenter, to an oblique strain/tear, they have cobbled together decent performances from their starters, especially Joel Pineiro (now 5-0 as of tonight), and decreased bullpen meltdowns, while the heavily farm-team stocked lineup has provided enough runs to put them ahead. They even ran the board with 9 straight at home just recently, including 3 straight over the New York Mets. One pressing weakness is the high number of errors so far: they have 20 errors in 20 games, a rate they'll have to lower if they want to stay in the lead. Pujols, sterling in every other regard, with 7 home runs, 20 runs (for 1000 in his career), and 25 runs batted in thus far, has made 4 all by himself. In the rest of the league, only the Los Angeles Dodgers are having a breakout year so far. The project NL leaders, including last year's World Series winner Philadelphia, the Mets, the Cubs, and the hot-for-a-minute Florida Marlins, have played middling ball at best. Can the Cardinals sustain their success? I for one hope so.
Albert Pujols
Pujols after hitting his grand slam against the Chicago Cubs, Sunday, April 25, 2009


Pigs in penHere's another take on the swine flu epidemic, by Mike Davis in the Guardian Online. He lays the blame for what we're facing at several different doorsteps, including that of the industrial food complex--the industrial pig farming industry in particular--Big Pharma, and wealthy nations that seek to erect a pharmacological and public health moat around themselves. As the last few weeks have shown, pathogens can travel as easily as human beings, across every possible border. (Why am I sneezing as I type this?) But neoliberal ideology is also under indictment here. After you read the following quote (and the article, I hope), ask yourself, have you heard any of the people on TV or in our papers of record here advancing any of the discussion that Davis is broaching here?
But what caused this acceleration of swine flu evolution? Virologists have long believed that the intensive agricultural system of southern China is the principal engine of influenza mutation: both seasonal "drift" and episodic genomic "shift". But the corporate industrialisation of livestock production has broken China's natural monopoly on influenza evolution. Animal husbandry in recent decades has been transformed into something that more closely resembles the petrochemical industry than the happy family farm depicted in school readers.

In 1965, for instance, there were 53m US hogs on more than 1m farms; today, 65m hogs are concentrated in 65,000 facilities. This has been a transition from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, containing tens of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems suffocating in heat and manure while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates.

Last year a commission convened by the Pew Research Center issued a report on "industrial farm animal production" that underscored the acute danger that "the continual cycling of viruses … in large herds or flocks [will] increase opportunities for the generation of novel virus through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human to human transmission." The commission also warned that promiscuous antibiotic use in hog factories (cheaper than humane environments) was sponsoring the rise of resistant staph infections, while sewage spills were producing outbreaks of E coli and pfiesteria (the protozoan that has killed 1bn fish in Carolina estuaries and made ill dozens of fishermen). [H/t to my cousin, Lowell Denny]

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Poem: Alice Notley

Alice NotleyI was late in hipping to Alice Notley (1945-), whose name I used to hear bandied about for years in Boston and New York; it wasn't until I wandered into the St. Marks' Bookshop (still there, thank the gods) and purchased a copy of the Exact Change Yearbook, No. 1, 1995 (one of my favorite book purchases ever), that I finally came into contact with her work. In addition to the text, the book included the then-newly fashionable CD (I know, how 1990s!), which featured audioclips of poets ranging from Kamau Brathwaite (soon to be one of my teachers) to John Ashbery and Robert Creeley (each reading one of my favorites of their respective poems), to Mei-Mei Berssenbruegge and Bernadette Mayer, to Alice Notley. (Thanks to PennSound, you can hear all of these clips here.) That really was my first exposure to her writing. You know how it is; you finally hear poet read or see one of her poems somewhere, and then you start finding them in a variety of lit journals and checking out her books. (It wasn't until even later, when Chris S. schooled me that her late husband was poet Ted Berrigan, meaning that poets Anselm and Edmund Berrigan are her sons.) She's authored, coauthored or edited around three dozen chapbooks, books and readers since 1971, at one point producing almost a book a year in the 1980s. Oh the prodigious ones! One of her most recent books is the collection In the Pines (Penguin, 2007). If her early work was very much identifiably of the second-generation New York School variety and reflected her exciting youth and longtime life on the Lower East Side, I'd say the newer work is freer, still full of sharp images and incident, sometimes incantatory rhythms and sometimes very abrupt ones, but falling into no set school or style, though in conversation with many. Here's a poem from the end of this newer collection that I like reading aloud. It's called "To the Poem," and it reminds me of Xavier Villaurrutia's poem, "Poesía," so very different in many ways but whose spirit speaks directly to Notley's lines here. Enjoy.


I need some light in my right shoulder.
My hand remembers you, writing.
I ask, what's been going on? I
have to write it down. Next to a tamed
Cerberus is where we are.

This is my body, they say: but no man
knows my name; the powerful
homicide lieutenant, or any character type
will continue to gun down someone's
potent trees. I've lost fact of who to notify.
Is this that?

Even in the fallow, there's no one to implore,
'See for me.' It's my eye--and with back to wall
it's still mine. I don't even hear the voices
in which I could fall down, just to be rescued by man.

Copyright © Alice Notley, from In the Pines, New York: Penguin, 2007. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

De donde son los cantantes (Notes on Cuba, Part 2)

As I mentioned in my previous post on Cuba, I visited that country as part of an educators' tour, sponsored by the Center for Cuban Studies (CCS) in New York, and the Cuban Institute of Friendship among Peoples (Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos-ICAP). In this post, I'll write about housing, businesses, the farms, and the propaganda. Please note that these are unedited thoughts, and some may require correction. Let me also note that what provokes my beginning with them are the most common questions I've gotten since returning, which are: "What was Cuba like?" "What was best about it?" "What was dealing with the government officials like?" I've tended to answer these questions respectively with, "Amazing and complex"; "The educational system, the fact that health care and education are free, and that a basic safety net exists for everyone"; and "Complex and worth a long discussion." What I'll discuss in my next post are some other issues, including what I observed about the educational system, the arts, and three others I was curious about, race, gender and sexuality (and homosexuality).


On our tour, we saw not only a number of Havana neighborhoods (Vedado, Centro, Habana Viejo (Old Havana), Miramar (once a very wealthy waterfront suburb to the west of the city), Kholy (another formerly wealthy waterfront neighborhood), Jaimanitas (the location of the Casa Fuster and its taller [workshop]) and Habana del Este (more exurban in feel), but we also rusticated in the neighboring, rural, mountainous province of Pinar del Río, with its capital of the same name, and its almost unearthly beautiful town of Viñales, which was truly bucolic. What became clear was that, as my and all the photos you've probably seen of Cuba show, a great deal of the housing stock and architecture date from before the Revolution (pre-1959/1960), and in many cases, they are in a dilapidated and deteriorating state. This was particularly true in the Vedado (a nice district, with lots of things to see, lots of important institutions and sites, etc.) and Centro (really more of the 'hood) neighborhoods, but we could see it even in Miramar and Kholy. (There was another hidden neighborhood we passed on the way to Miramar, not far from where Fidel Castro's house was rumored to sit, that had also been a rich suburb, but it was situated down a road and we didn't venture into.) Outside of Old Havana, which was beautifully maintained, it seemed only the newest buildings in those neighborhoods, buildings constructed primarily or recently for tourism, and government buildings, were in very good to excellent condition. In many cases, as we learned, the lack of maintenance was the direct result of the government's and home occupants' inability to finance rehabs, the scarcity of materials (like paint, concrete, bricks, etc.), and deterioration related to the climate (especially for buildings facing the Straits of Florida or, to the south, the Caribbean). When the Revolution succeeded in 1959, and many wealthy and middle-class people left, the government seized their homes and land and then distributed it to the people who left. That is, all housing was redistributed; while people were allowed to stay in some houses, many of the grander homes (and believe me, there are quite a few) were turned into schools, community centers, and so on. We heard a story about how a former domestic for a rich family received the family's home, but it eventually fell into disrepair because she and her family didn't have the finances for the upkeep. In other cases, what had once been single family homes were now divided up into dwellings for multiple families or multiple parts of a single family, in part because people from outlying and rural areas moved to Havana and other cities. In principle--and the gap between "in principle" and "in reality" was key throughout the visit--there are no homeless people in Cuba, because the government provides everyone with housing, but what we learned was that the reality was more complicated. Everyone is guaranteed a home, housing is "public" in the general sense, untaxed and affordable to a degree we can't imagine in the US, and you can leave a home to your heirs (or the government will appropriate it).

In the 1980s, when the economic conditions were okay, people were allowed to sell their homes, but hte government ended this. Now you cannot "sell" a house; people swap them. You cannot freely move into unoccupied buildings, some people are living in hotels until housing frees up for them, and while you have claim to a home and are living there, there's no guarantee that you will be able to keep it up. (And some socially marginal people, suffering from addictions or mental problems, do live on the street.) With the house swapping, which is totally free (after fees for filing legal papers), has come middlemen and brokers, which means that people can earn extra money if they have valuable information about houses up for swap (in the US, we call it the real estate industry). In addition, people of all different backgrounds live beside each other, which is to say, the sorts of socially mixed communities that many US policymakers have aimed for have been widely achieved, though we learned that in fact while nowhere near the racial/ethnic, class and social segregation that marks nearly every part of the US, some disparities in terms of wealth and "class," at least to the extent that it exists in a post-Revolutionary de facto sense, do exist. I had thought that people could not own land either, but I learned that in fact, people can own up to a certain amount of land, especially in the countryside, on which they can build a house. But they could not sell that land to someone else or that house, as would be expected in the US. As in most major US cities, the pre-Revolutionary wealthy classes owned apartment buildings, multiple homes or vast tracts of land; the Revolutionary government appropriated entire buildings, allowing the owners to keep an apartment only, and, if my notes are correct, seized all homes beyond the limit of one urban and one rural dwelling. The aim was to free up property for the majority of people and equalize ownership, with the government holding the majority of land and the power to distribute it, but, as I've said, the difference between the revolutionary principle and the practice was sometimes quite evident. One other point to add is that some workers live in company housing; foreign companies that have Cuban divisions have constructed housing in Havana and other cities and provinces (Havana, like New York, being both), but the catch is, if a worker leaves her position or is dismissed, she must the leave the housing and, if she cannot find a swap or free housing, move into one of the waiting hotels until housing frees up.

I should note that the extent of Cuba's pre-Revolutionary wealth astonished me; it was if large chunks of Miami crossed with the Upper East Side, Chicago's North Shore, etc., had flourished along the waterfront up to 1959. We passed Beaux-Arts after Art Deco mansion after mansion, and later, when fellow group member Rachel and I walked to the outdoor rhumba party at UNEAC (the Union of Writers and Artists), I noted how beautiful and immense many of the houses in Vedado were. Our tour bus even drove past several major former country clubs, one of which we were told did not even admit the former dictator, Batista, because of his mixed racial ancestry; out of vindictiveness and visionariness, I imagine, Castro turned the most lavish one, once the largest golf club in the Americas, into the grounds of the Higher Institute of Art, one of the most remarkable institutions we visited, and you could see, on what was probably once its perimeter, the mansion in which Batista himself had lived. (I failed to take a photo of it.) One additional note was that the government forbids foreigners to buy homes or own land in Cuba (which includes, I supposed, Cuban exiles), but during the Special Period and the development of tourism, it allowed foreigners to rent homes and apartments, so in the Miramar section, we passed some exquisite and perfectly maintained rental properties, as well as some of the earliest tourist hotels, sitting right on the waterfront.

Looking at all those homes, I had the strange experience of feeling sympathy, to a degree, for the people who had built and lived in them before being they left for the US; while I understand, agree with and support the idea of economic, political and social equality and greater egalitarianism in all areas of life, I grasped how much anger the appropriation of those homes probably provoked. Even with all of the existing housing, however, there isn't enough to accommodate all the people who'd moved to Havana or who were already there because of natural increase. I did see newly constructed housing, some of it in what I thought was a stripped-down International style--or Soviet/Eastern European style, though our guide retorted "Chicago had buildings like this"!--throughout the city, but especially on the outskirts of Havana and Pinar del Río. In the case of Habana del Este, the government had run out of money for certain facilities, like a community center and sports center, so people were making do with whatever spaces were available. There were also some favela-esque shacks, not only in the rural areas, but even in Havana. Nevertheless, in both the capital and Pinar del Río, urban-suburban sprawl as we know it in the US, and luxury development, the metastasizing craze of the last few years, seemed to be in check. Even from the air we could see how delimited Havana province, and the city and its suburbs were, particularly in comparison to almost any other capital city I've ever visited (seeing northern New Jersey and then Chicagoland from the airplane window) was disorienting, to put it mildly. One thing that I and others discussed was what might happen if and when the US embargo (or blockade/bloqueo, as it's called there) lifted; in the US, private money fuels rehabilitation, so to what extent would the Cuban government allow this to flow in? How would the property be valued? And what would happen both with the buildings' current occupants, the millions of Cubans who've made lives in homes they gained as a result of the Revolution, and with the former owners now living in the US, Spain, and elsewhere?

Habana building
Street scene, Havana

I should note that we did visit a planned community, Las Terrazas (The Terraces), in Pinar del Río. Las Terrazas is a village built in and around reforested terrain, on a series of terraces ascending Pinar del Río's mountainous landscape. All the institutions that a well-planned town might have, down to a clinic and a disco (the Cubans don't play when it comes to music and dancing), were incorporated into the village; though it was very rural, with chickens and pea hens wandering about freely, we stopped at the main café and had delicious coffee, and met with one of the community's two doctors, who explained how he was incorporating non-traditional, natural indigenous and Asian medicine into his practice. To live there, we were told that you had to get permission from the government, that homes and spots were not transferrable or swappable, as they were in Havana or other cities, and if you left, your place might be given away. Because of people's interest in living there, the government had built new apartment blocks to complement the original housing, which initially caused me a moment of cognitive dissonance, as I'm not used to seeing apartment blocks (even mainly vertical ones) in a rural setting. They were fairly standardized in terms of (bright) color and style, however, so that the overall picture was of an appealing, organic community that was, despite the economic crisis, doing well.

This brings up the issue of the Cuban economy. It is a planned economy dominated by the Cuban government, and functioning completely under the shadow of the embargo/blockade. Whatever else one says about the historical economic failures of communism or the current problems communist economic policy are causing in Cuba, this cannot be bracketed out when discussing the situation in Cuba. One of the things that immediately became clear was the economic difficulty that most Cubans face on a daily basis. In the US, the richest country on earth by multiple measures, there are millions of struggling and very poor people, as there are in every country on earth (save perhaps small, wealthy countries with strong social safety nets like the Scandinavian countries or Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, etc.) and many people in the US fall through the cracks and are barely getting by. In principle, no one in Cuba falls through the safety net; everyone is guaranteed a bare minimum to live. Cuba's economic resources are so limited, however, that that bare minimum, though present, is still miniscule. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Bloc in the early 1990s, which meant the lost of $50 billion worth of subsidies, oil and 85% of international trade, Cuba suffered a severe economic blow, a period that is now known as the "Special Period." (Officially the country is still in the Special Period. The Cuban economy has improved noticeably because of Venezuela's support, but the US embargo is still wreaking great economic havoc.) With the US embargo limiting its ability to seek new trading partners in the hemisphere and Europe, the former Soviet bloc in transition, and low prices for Cuba's main commodities, sugar, tobacco, and coffee, Castro and the Cuban government took the for-them undesired steps of opening up the country to tourism, to garner hard currency, and of creating a dual system, one for foreigners and one for Cubans. As a result, visitors to Cuba use one currency, convertible pesos (or CuCs), which are (artificially) fixed at slightly more than $1 US ($1.08, or $1.20 with taxes and fees), while Cubans use another currency, Cuban pesos, which total about 25 or so to the CuCs or $1US. All US dollar-based remittances and conversions are taxed 10%, which is why euros are a better bet if you go to Cuba. During the late 1990s, the economic situation became extremely grim, and we were shown ration books, guaranteeing basic foodstuffs such as rice, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, some meat, etc., from that period that really demonstrated how rough things were. Beef was and remains a luxury for many people. One member of our group who'd visited Cuba in 1999 mentioned that Cubans were suffering so severely then that prostitution exploded at that time, and the social tension was visible on the faces of everyone if you walked down the Malecón. With the rise of a rich and independent Hugo Chávez-led Venezuela as a supporter and trading partner, however, and limited trade with other parts of the world because of the embargo, things have improved economically, both for the government and for a wide array of people, especially those working in the tourist sector, artists able to travel and sign contracts overseas (which is permitted), or people working in top government posts. Still, we were both told and witnessed the economic constraints repeatedly. Prices remain high, and many Cubans cannot afford much beyond the basics, and some of the Cubans we met voiced this to us directly. While people did sometimes ask for cash (or to exchange CuC coins for non-CuC coinage and money), or ask for US dollars, as is the case elsewhere, in some cases soap was the request (I had a woman ask me for my hotel so that she could come fetch some soap), or in others, clothes. One older gentleman had an entire shpiel ready to pry a CuC from me--and it worked. Many people on the tour did bring gifts (regalos) for the school children we visited, and these ranged from pens and pencils to paper to soap and toothpaste to toys. When we went to stores (about which I'll say more in a second), especially the littler stores or bodegas and bodegones, I noted the lines and limited number of goods on the shelves, as well as how most items were listed in general currency, which could either be CuCs (for tourists), or pesos (for Cubans). There were several moments during the trip when people in the group experienced some flimflammery concerning prices, including at the famous Coppélia, featured in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's landmark film, Strawberry and Chocolate (Fresa y chocolate), where Cubans actually do still line up for hours to buy ice cream and socialize, and I had an instance or two where people took an extra CuC (for an extra tip?), but I felt that it wasn't a big deal, especially once I realized how expensive things were. As I said in my previous post, Cuba is not cheap. This was one reason why Obama's lifting of the limit on visits and remittances by family members, though a baby step in one regard, was such a huge deal; for many Cubans with relatives in the US, any items from our land of abundance, and even a little extra money will be a huge boost.

One of the things people often also remark on concerning Cuban life today is the car situation. So here's what I learned--and I admit that I had started to zone out from exhaustion during the discussion on the cars, so I had to ask several people what I'd missed. The government does allow people to own and sell to each other those old 1950s American cars that often appear in photos of Havana and elsewhere. People who require cars for their jobs (doctors, government officials, etc.) are allowed to purchase and own cars, including newer ones. However, individuals cannot import newer cars into the country, though as the photos I've posted prove, there are not only 1960s-1990s models, especially European cars, in the country, but I even saw fairly new models, and we passed several car dealerships (Fiats, BMWs!). Several of us were curious as to who could afford to buy a Mercedes or BMW--certainly not the doctors we met! The government has the power to import and distribute new(er) cars, however, which is one way they end up in the hands of people. And there's a black market for cars. Most people do not have cars, however. In fact, it's the case that even if you can prove to the government that you can purchase a car and afford to maintain it, there's still no guarantee that you'll be allowed to own one. Artists who can travel outside the country, the best athletes, and a few others, however, have an easier time owning cars. During the most difficult days of the "Special Period," when oil was scarce and money to buy it was scarcer, the country received a large shipment (gift?) of bicycles from China, and I did see quite a few people riding bikes on the street. I also saw some horse-drawn or donkey-drawn vehicles in Havana itself, and more in Pinar del Río, as well as old machine vehicles (old tractors and so forth). I did not, however, see as many motorbikes and scooters as are common, ubiquitous really, in the Dominican Republic. With regard to all the vehicles, there were different colored plates for different classes of cars by ownership. Cars with certain colored plates were required to stop and pick up people along the road. Too there were different kinds of taxis and guidelines on who could take them. The 1950s American auto taxis were for Cubans, while the newer (say 1970s forward) European taxis were for foreigners. The buses ranged in style from quite old (1960s models) to some fairly new ones, and then there were guagua-style vehicles that picked up people for what I figured were very affordable prices.

Street scene, Pinar del Rio
Street scene, near Viñales, Pinar del Río

Which brings me to stores. So I noticed, in my shallow, aestheticist way, that the younger Cubans were quite fashionably dressed; their outfits would not be out of place in many parts of the US or, say, Kingston or Santo Domingo. The polos shirts, skirts, jeans, shoes, and so on, were what you would see 20 and 30-somethings in many other countries in the world sporting. (I'll add that when we hung out on our last night in Cuba at a salsa spot called Oasis, I was surprised to see so many men with dreadlocks, which was refreshing.) Even, our tourguide, closer to me in age, was quite fashionable. I wasn't the only person who noticed this, and several us asked about the stores, clothing and otherwise, and then had the opportunity to visit some. I happened upon a warren of stores attached to the Habana Libre Hotel (which had been a brand-new Hilton until the Revolution, and which is now one of the nicer tourist hotels in Havana), featuring brands you probably wouldn't find in the US and others, like Pierre Cardin, that you would, and then on our trip to a local restaurant Bernardo took us to another indoor mall (or arcade, rather, of the sort that would have set Walter Benjamin's heart aflutter) with stores stocking an even wider array of clothing, not all of it, I think, of Cuban provenance. What I learned was that people can own stores or any business, up to 49% or so; the government owns the other 51%. As a result, there are no taxes on clothes or any goods, because the government essentially taxes just over half of whatever is earned. For many Cubans, especially in the early years of the Revolution, this was intolerable, so they immigrated. The first restaurant we visited, the truly outstanding El Aljibe (the Cistern), in Miramar, had been nationalized (that dreaded word!), but several members of the family stayed behind and continue to run it, keeping their secret recipe for black beans alive; other members of the family, we were told, had left in the early 1960s. Now, this situation is more complicated with certain businesses, and I'll say more about that below, but this was a different situation than I'd imagined previously, because I thought the Cuban government owned 100% of businesses, which is a bit ridiculous, I know, but then when you think of how some foreign governments use tax policies on sales, wages and income to gain resources and redistribute wealth (more equitably or up or down the economic ladder), it struck me as less draconian than it initially sounded. I didn't inquire about the bureaucracy involved in setting up a business, though I should have, so I won't even venture a thought about how easy or difficulty it might be. In the liquor store, you could get almost any kind of liquor, but the brands were all government brands; the same was true of cigarettes, gum, you name it. No Poland Spring, Marlboros, Kools, Bacardi (their land and rum factories were nationalized and appropriated in 1959); only Cuban brands, as far as I could tell. The two types of beer, Bucanero and Cristal, were close in taste and appearance to Anheuser-Busch's (now AB InBev?) main offerings, Budweiser and Michelob, but I did wonder what might happen if and when the economy opened up, and Cubans had access to the range of offerings, and our accompanying anxiety about our wealth or even excess of choices, that we take for granted in the US. Would it be liberating? Bewildering? Enough to empower some of the Revolution's best ideas? Some combination of all three?

(I should add that Cubans can and do receive clothing and other goods from family members outside the US, and those who can afford to can travel to other countries to study and work (and shop), including Canada (we met a guy who was planning to study at the University of British Columbia), Spain and other European countries, Venezuela (of course), Dominican Republic and Haiti (where a number of Cuban doctors are working), Jamaica and the other English-speaking Caribbean countries, etc. I had to remind myself at one point that some Cubans do travel to the US, though acquiring visas became very difficult over the last 8 years, even for well known artists and scholars. And since some Cubans, such as artists and writers, can sign contracts in foreign countries and earn royalties or receive payment in those foreign currencies, they're able to purchase clothing and goods for others back home.)

Another little point related to this concerns some other goods. Cubans can purchase furniture directly from stores in the country if they can afford it, but because many cannot, some are living with what would be considered a great deal of antiques. This is the case also with appliances. To address energy use and improve efficiency, the Cuban government began a push to provide people with newer, more efficient Chinese appliances, and thus replace the appliances that were leftovers from the pre-Revolutionary period (and thus frequently American) or from the Soviet and Eastern Bloc. We learned that this had occurred in parts of many cities, but not everywhere. We also heard that the appliances weren't so great, though I had to laugh and point out that many "American" appliances were from China as well, and that the best ones still often came from Germany, Japan or South Korea.

This reminds me to mention the farming sector. We repeatedly heard that there was a crisis in farming, in the agricultural sector. In addition to the problems caused by governmental central planning of agricultural (which historically has been disastrous), we heard that are not enough farms or farmers, the government is trying to encourage young people to choose farming over other professions or immigration to the cities, and a great deal of the land remains unproductive. One problem, I learned, was that farmers simply cannot plant what they want, because, as I say, the government determines what they plant and when they plant, but also they do not participate in the global commodity markets the way farmers and the agricultural sector--and global agribusinesses, which we're always decrying in the US--do. For example, the government has told many farmers to plant tobacco, one of Cuba's major crops (the others being sugar and coffee), even in places where tobacco growing isn't a good idea (for climate, soil and other reasons). Then there's the issue of the wealth that farming can generate, and the threat that poses to the social order; I learned that at one point, in the early 2000s (I think, I may have the date wrong), farmers were allowed greater leeway to plant what they wanted, and given access to sell within the country, and this began to generate such wealth that the government clamped down on them. There was also the story about how one part of Pinar del Río (I think), the fruit trees were renown for their productivity, and as a result, the government cut them down because they gave the people harvesting them an unfair advantage. Another more basic issue is resources and materials. The sort of widespread, individual, subsidized farming that is so common in France, say, or the industrial farming that plagues the US and Brazil, would be difficult in Cuba, because of a lack of up-to-date mechanical equipment, seed stocks, and most importantly, capital investment and extensive and sustaining government subsidy. This was broached but not fully discussed, but I thought to myself how much small and medium-sized farmers in capitalist countries without strong governmental protection or with treaty obligations, like Nafta, that vitiate those protections, like the US and Mexico, struggle to survive, and it seemed to me this would continue to be an ongoing problem unless the government had the will and wherewithal to devote resources to make real agricultural development possible. Finally, there was the way that many urban Cubans are introduced to farming and rural life. Unlike in the US, there is no private education. None. No Catholic (or other religious) schools--though we did see some functioning churches, but more on that later--no private non-sectarian ones, nada. All Cubans are required to attend school through 9th grade, and then for 10th, 11th and 12th grade, a small number attend specialized schools (in technical and scientific subjects, for vocational training, in the arts), and the majority are required to leave the cities and attend boarding schools in the countryside, where they live in dormitories and work on farms. This is different from and precedes their national military (men) or service (women) requirement. The way one Cuban put it to me, the experience wasn't especially conducive to encouraging people to take up farming or rural life. In fact, it sounded like a bit of a free-for-all, though with the educational part being fairly sound. What I wasn't clear about was how these boarder-farmers fit within the existing agricultural system, who was supervising them (I gather it was minimal), and what they were learning from the land. It sounds like it could potentially be a valuable program, with adequate structure and supervision, though being forced to do it, and the Cubans traveling with us were, strikes me as the spark of all kinds of problems.

On the tobacco farm we visited in Pinar del Río, which sat right across the road from the school we visited, it was clear that the farmer took great pride in his work. His vega, or tobacco-drying house, was in model form, as were his fields, and the cigars he offered for purchase (I bought one, and smoked it there, as I'm quite aware of the US sanctions) were the best I've ever tried. We did hear about pig farming, which was common in some regions, and we drove past what appeared to be dairy farms and some collective farms that grew produce. I inquired about and learned that these were encouraged. There was a story about how the government was trying to reintroduce the zebu-type of cattle that were acculturated to Cuba's tropical climate, an effort that followed an apparently disastrous attempt to crossbreed the zebus with northern European Holsteins, thus producing cattle that were neither suited to the climate nor productive either for dairy purposes or meat ones. When I inquired elsewhere about the (sometimes delicious) produce we were eating, I was told that much of it came--somehow!--from the US, or not from Cuba. How that happens no one was sure, but it raised many questions for me, such as, what was really going on between the US and Cuban governments, and any third party governments who might be serving as interlocutors? If Cuba is importing US goods, how does that process work? And how might that change if the embargo were lifted?

Inside a gallery, Old Habana
Art gallery view, Old Havana

I'll only post a little more, but let me now say something about the government, Communism and propaganda. From the minute we headed towards Havana from the airport, we noticed the state propaganda; it was impossible to miss it. One of the most jarring and yet fascinating things about the trip was seeing all the billboards, and murals, everywhere we traveled featuring not a single advertisement (no iPods, no Coca Cola, etc.) but political slogans, commentary about the US and the embargo/blockade, disses of ex-Prez W, calls for the release of the "Cuban Five" who'd been tried in a Florida state (as opposed to federal) court as spies, reminders about the Revolution's 50th anniversary, and iconography, from photographs to sculptures to mural paintings of and quotations by post-colonial Cuba's visionary first revolutionary, José Martí, alongside its glamorous, controversial Revolutionary icon Che Guevara. Imagery featuring the previous and current president, Fidel and Raúl Castro, was, from what I could tell, less common, though there were paintings of him on some murals, and in photos in many of the museums we visited. Just imagine this, for a second; no ads, just political sloganeering, some of it quite artful. Framed photographs of (and other imagery, along with quotations by) Martí and Ché were in all the schools we visited; Hugo Chávez also made an appearance in one classroom. (We were told that he was even in the country during our week there.) As might be expected, all of the government-affiliated officials gave us the government's line on thing, emphasizing most of all the successes of the Revolution. During visits to some of the institutions, government or party officials were present, but said little beyond offering introductions or simply joining us on our tour of facilities. (I did appreciate the time and consideration they gave us, and they were unfailingly friendly and patient.) We did hear unvarnished though usually politely framed criticism of the US's policies and actions towards Cuba, particularly concerning the embargo and the imprisonment of the "Cuban 5." (In the Museum of the Revolution, there were more overt critiques of the US's actions, such as the Bay of Pigs (known there as Playa Girón) debacle.) Some of us pressed our guides or hosts on various issues (which was controversial for some on the tour, and I respect their position), and I must say that the Cuban hosts did answer (or attempted to do so) in ways that exceeded what I'd expected. For example, at the FEU meeting, I was curious to know about whether faculty and students who, though they might be ideologically sympathetic to the Revolution and socialism/communism, decided to study or write about politically controversial topics, or took stands in their work, say, that might be interpreted as in conflict with the government's line, in any number of fields--and in the humanities or social sciences, such as history, say, or sociology, anthropology, classical studies--would be subject to dismissal (and state proscription). The first answer I received fell along the lines of, no, there are no dismissals. People debate, and things are resolved. But then, when I pressed the issue, I learned that, as I suspected, yes, students and faculty could and had been dismissed. This was effected, I learned, not by the university but by the government. I didn't ask this question for the satisfaction of getting the answer I was expecting, but rather in the spirit of inquiry; I also made clear in asking the question that in the US, where we supposedly have academic freedom, there have been a number of cases where faculty and students have been disciplined or dismissed for exercising their right to free speech and inquiry, and I noted for all present that this ran along all ends of the political spectrum, from right to left. After a short amount of time, the relentless of the government's line, the omnipresent visual propaganda, did grow tiresome, and I became skeptical that most of what I was seeing was merely a Potemkin show, though I pulled back from this view, especially after discussions with some Cubans themselves. Two things I realized in relation to this onslaught were: first, I read it as a (sometimes desperate) means of public discursive reinforcement to ensure the ideas of the Revolution, particularly in the face of the ongoing economic siege by the US; second, I thought of how propaganda works in the US, how utterly we are bombarded, from childhood on, by the people, the economic and social elites, who run the US, to the extent that we internalize all kinds of ideas, values, about money, race, class, gender, sexuality, social relations, history and politics, and so on, without realizing it. In fact, many people don't know that there are other ways of living in the world, other systems--perhaps not Cuba's, but others--that are more equitable in many ways. What's different, of course, is that in the US, if we're lucky or have the determination or some combo of the two, we can develop the means to understand our propaganda, and at least in an official sense, it's nothing like Cuba's, although it approached that during the Bush administration years. But I tended to view what I was hearing and seeing with negative capability, so to speak, understanding its sources, how it was functioning, why it was functioning, and taking it at times with a grain of salt, particularly the more perdurable platitudes, recitations and ranting, while also never forgetting that not a single word of what we were hearing had developed in a vacuum, or rather, the vacuum was one that had arisen from Cuba's long colonial history with Spain, and then the US, which took control of Cuba in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War, served as a marionetteer for Cuba's Republican government and the dictatorships that punctuated it, and hovered as the chief antagonist over the last 50 years, longer than I or almost everyone on the tour had been alive.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Torture Prosecutions + Book Machine + Bullies + Poem: Carl Phillips

I keep trying to remember to wear my glasses when I'm reading or typing on computer screens these days, because if I don't (and sometimes even if I do and my eyes are very tired, like today, because of so much reading), I suffer from increasing strabismus (a word I learned from reading Samuel Delany), and I experience something along the lines of dyslexia, with the words scattering before me, a puzzle to reassemble. The result is all sorts of typos, which I used to be very good at catching, though over the last 7 years, things have worsened. Coming across them makes me think my former days as an editor were nothing but a dream. Oh well--the glasses on are now...but please forgive the rash of typos that now mar far too many of these entries. I am trying to rectify the problem (the glasses are relatively new too), so bear with me.


Eric Holder and Barack ObamaI'm glad President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder are surely and steadily releasing the previous administration's secret and damning memos which outline the frameworks enabling the W Bush Mafia's sheer disregard for the Constitution and international treaties and laws, its utter criminality concerning the brutal torture of prisoners, illegal spying on Americans, and so much more. It also appears as though more of the long-suppressed photos documenting the torture that occurred will also be released. Though I have minimal faith in our Congress, especially the dysfunctional Senate, perhaps they will find the will, as I hope AG Holder will as well, despite what the president and Rahm Emanuel have to say or the Republicans' individual and collective testeria, to investigate both the lead-up to the war and how it occurred, and the entire system that made the torture system possible, along with the entire chain of command that authorized it, and to prosecute to the fullest extent possible, all who were culpable. Also, if the US Congress or an independent prosecutor feel incapable of doing so, turn these war criminals over to the Hague. Fling back the tarps, dig up the graves, let it all see the light of day so that we can do everything in our power never to let it happen again.


Today I read about Blackwell's new print-on-demand "Espresso Book Machine," which the Guardian Online is labeling a "revolution" in publishing. According to the article, by Alison Flood, the machine has already debuted in the US (since 2007), Canada, Australia, and Egypt, and offers a half-million books, any one of which could be printed and bound on the spot in about 5 minutes. Just imagine! (Where in the US are they? See On Demand Books' site here.) If I had the choice, I think I'd choose one of these books over the digital versions; I haven't handled a Kindle yet, but reading any of the admittedly free Stanza texts on my iPhone is a challenge because the text is so small. And I can remember when reading tiny print wasn't a big deal (I still write very small), but after a while it's a chore. While this new machine, the brainchild of US publisher Jason Epstein, places more power in readers' hands, in a way if it catches on, it--equal to "50 bookstores"--could spell the end of bookstores as we know them, which seems increasingly quite likely given the current changes in the publishing world. Just imagine if Starbucks devises a deal to place them in their stores! On the other hand, if handled right, such a machine could enhance a bookstore's offerings by making available the countless books that are out of print or out of stock, or which aren't physically available at a given store and which have to be ordered from a nearby store or warehouse. Thoughts?


Eric Holder and Barack ObamaOver the last few weeks, there have been several stories about young people who've committed suicide as a result of being bullied and labeled and taunted as "gay." Most recent tragedy of this sort that I know about is the case of 5th grader Jaheem Herrera in DeKalb, Georgia, who hanged himself after being relentlessly harassed and demonized. According to accounts, the school did have policies in place to deal with bullying, but based on the news story it's unclear to me whether anyone, especially any teachers or other authorities, stepped in to stop the harassment. But Herrera is not alone: early this month, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, also 10 and black, committed suicide in Springfield, Massachusetts, after being incessantly railed with anti-gay slurs. In the ABCNews account, his mother protested to school officials, but it doesn't appear as if they did anything to stop the problem. Almost a month ago, the parents of deceased Ohio teenager Eric Mohat filed a lawsuit against the school where he'd been bullied, an unaddressed issue that probably led to his suicide in 2007--and, they suggest, the suicides of 3 other students at his school. But the problem of bullying and resulting violence, including suicide, goes beyond the anti-gay problem, as the horrific story of Aquan Lewis, a 5th grader in Evanston, Illinois, suggests. Just blocks south of where I work, this little boy was found hanging, on February 5, 2009, in his elementary school bathroom. In his case, his family is saying that they've heard that bullies might have been involved, and also are questioning the medical examiner's ruling in part because they don't think that the child was physically or logistically capable of hanging himself.

At least one of the above-linked articles states that suicides by children this young are rare, but that bullying may be increasing, though no answers are given as to why. Another article highlighted on the ABCNews page talks about the problems that young people who come out face, not only from peers, but from school officials, who if not hostile can be indifferent and offer little protection or support. Having known bullies and been a victim of bullies, I know how much despair children can feel, especially if they don't think anyone is taking their suffering seriously. But the problem isn't just dealing with bullies; it's multifold and the response needs to be as well. In addition to the anti-bullying systems and procedures, which ought to be standardized across districts if they aren't, that may be in place (and should be if they aren't), school officials at all levels may need better training to ensure that they will know how to respond, and rules to ensure that they will, especiall at the first sign of bullying. I'm not sure about the above cases, but I know from experience that one response teachers may have is that the bullying isn't that serious, that it'll stop, that the problem may be the child being bullied rather than the bully. In the case of the bully's parent(s) or guardian(s), they might not even know it's occurring or see it as a problem. In the case of the bullied child, the parent(s) or guardian(s) might not know about it, especially if the child is too afraid or ashamed to say anything (I felt that way), they may not think it's that serious a problem, or perhaps they may even think that the child will "toughen up." (In my case, I was enrolled in judo classes, and later used them on a neighborhood bully, whose mother then complained to mine!) Comprehensive counseling for the bullies and the bullied children should also be in place, something that was uncommon when I was a child but which is much more common now, and this should include mechanisms to involve the children's families and address any family problems that might be a source of the children's emotional crises, including bullying behavior. Also, comprehensive education about human diversity and sensitivity to difference, including discussions about LGBTQ people, should be part of the curriculum early on. This is perhaps the most controversial issue, but I think it's necessary nowadays. These steps and others might not eradicate the problem, but I imagine that they'd go a long way to helping prevent these and similar tragedies.


Carl PhillipsI've known Carl Phillips (1959-) since shortly before he published his first award-winning book, In the Blood; at that time, he was briefly a member of the Dark Room Collective, and already on his way to his stellar career. He has since published nearly a dozen books of poetry, some of them garnering and many of them nominated for the country's highest awards, and he has trained a number of new poets who've studied with him at Washington University in St. Louis, where's he's a professor, or at other venues like the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Provincetown Fine Arts Workshop, or Cave Canem. He is one of the important poets in contemporary American, African American and LGBTQ literature. Anyone who reads a handful of his poems will soon note his distinctive, seductive style, his careful and consistent use of enjambment, hypotaxis, extended metaphor, Classical allusions, metonyms; his impressive control of the line, the pause, the breath, and his command of lyric poetry's many possibilities, particularly its capacity to represent and show human desire's trajectory, its movement and stasis, when it flowers, curdles, or mere pools in anticipation of something unforeseen to come. There is also his wry humor, the deep spirituality in his poems, and his insistent candor in writing about sex; few people can write about sex toys without becoming graphic, but Carl can. Many poets I know have a favorite Carl Phillips line, poem or poems; I have a favorite book, Cortège, his second, which appeared in 1995. I can and have read this book again and again; the title poem alone is worth the price of the book, as are "I See A Man," "The Swain's Invitation," "Kit," "Toys," "Cotillion," "A Mathematics of Breathing," and so many other of the poems, including the exquisite title poem, which I will always think is one of Carl's best. Here's another one of my favorite poems from that volume, "Freeze." Note how it moves, its wistful air, read it aloud to hear his music, enjoy.


The only light in the room,
moonlight, was

gave to his body on the bed
the suggestion of
stone drawn,

in relief, up from the stone
rest of itself,
what art

always wants, to pull somehow
a life from what
isn't. At

the window, the first snow had
begun, early. Watching
its shadow

pass, slow, down his back, in
the same way my hand

does--that unnoticed, that
determined to, anyway,
do it--

I began thinking elsewhere, of
a life from before.
I wondered

if the snow fell there, too.

Copyright © Carl Phillips, from Cortège, Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 1995. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Notes on Cuba, Part 1 + Poem: Nicolás Guillén (Langston Hughes Translation)

Before I write anything about the trip, let me first thank poet Aracelis Girmay (author of Teeth, whom I've highlighted on here before!), who passed the email about the Cuba trip on to me via the Cave Canem listserve.*

What follows are undistilled notes; please forgive the roughness of what I'm posting, but I wanted to put some of these ideas down publicly before too much time had passed.


I went to Cuba as part of a 40-person (or thereabouts) educators' tour sponsored by the Center for Cuban Studies in New York City. The Center, which is four decades old, aims to increase knowledge about and research in Cuba, and to develop relationships between Americans who are sympathetic to Cuba's interests in the world. I hadn't heard of the Center before I received the email, but a friend of mine assured me that it was legit, and mentioned that he'd been on one of their tours before. He spoke highly of the director Sandra Levinson, whom I haven't met but hope to in the future. To participate in the tour, I had to submit my CV for consideration and acceptance, and was relieved when it was accepted.

One of the questions the application asked was knowledge of Spanish, and although I noted that I possessed it, what became quite clear to me on this trip was that while I can read and write Spanish decently, speaking it, especially the rapid-fire idiom spoken in Havana. I can say that speaking Spanish in the Dominican Republic was good preparation, however, as far it goes (and my trip by myself to the Book Fair in Santo Domingo in 2005 really was a good prep), but understanding some of the event speakers in Spanish required intense concentration, and even then in a few cases I was only picking up bits and pieces. It was much better one on one, when I could say "Otra vez" or "más despacio," and in stores and so on, where I found the Spanish simpler. (I did speak Portuguese with one of my fellow tour members, and French with a group of Swiss tourists, which did not help one whit in staying in a Spanish mode of thinking.) The experience underlined for me that one of the things I hope to do over the next few years is find language partners, particularly from the Caribbean and Mexico (whose idiom is predominant in the US) to practice my Spanish with on a regular basis. Facility in Spanish, especially a Caribbean idiom, will definitely prove a bonus if you go.

Speaking or not speaking Spanish was not really an issue, though, because while a good portion of the participants spoke Spanish as their first or second language, or had studied or lived or both in a Spanish-speaking country (Spain, DR, Nicaragua, Argentina, etc.), some participates barely spoke, read or wrote it at all, so we had translators throughout. These included both our official state-provided tourguide, Tatiana Rodríguez (Tati!) who was excellent, whether exhausted or not, and members of the group who would step in at times as well. I tip my hat to all of them.

The CCS divided the 40 or so participants into 2 groups, and I was one of the 20 people constituting Group 2. Jesse Alter, the tour's ebullient overall leader, also was the Center's designated leader for Group 1, while our Center representative and leader turned out to be my roommate for the trip; a young Havana native and visual artist now living in the US, Bernardo Navarro was a great person to room with and a font of ideas and information. He also knew all kinds of special places in Havana to visit, so though I didn't get to attend either one, he took small groups to some of the underground paladares, or private restaurants in people's homes, that the Cuban government allows to operate (more about private businesses later). People who went on either night could not stop raving about how amazing the hosts and food were. I did get to accompany him when he went to fetch a personal item from the home of the famous artist Zaida del Río, and though we only saw her for a hot second, she was a hoot. On the first night we were in Cuba, he and I ranged through a good swathe of Cuban literature and art, some of which, like the paintings of Wilfredo Lam and the constructions of Kcho, I later got to see when we visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana as part of our tour. This portion of the visit was quite significant given that Havana was hosting its international Biennal de Artes, and so there were art exhibits, including ones featuring US artists, at galleries, cultural institutions, and other spaces all over the city, including the Fine Arts museum.

Before I'd left, my cousin had asked if the trip was a "vacation," and I was hesitant to label it that, because while it would be and was a break from university work, which I've completely plunged back into now, the schedule, if we hewed to it at all, promised to provide an intensive engagement with Cuban educational, arts and cultural figures and institutions. And it did. While this was required by the terms of our visa--we had to spend somewhere along the lines of 60%-80% (correction?) of our days engaged in research--the tour and our guide, Tati, did not stint one bit. Whether we were in Havana or the mountainous, picturesque rural province of Pinar del Río, to the capital's west, we were either visiting or shuttling, to the extent that usually, by the late afternoon, almost immediately after we hopped on the bus, we were passing out. I joked that the officials were doping our food and drinks with a chemical that would turn us into diehard Fidelistas when we returned, especially once we popped the gift DVD on the Revolution into our DVD players, but the reality was--and is--that we really did make the most of every day, meeting officials, students, cultural figures, everyday Cubans, and diving into real conversations, which sometimes became bit sticky and uncomfortable, but which, I now think, at least given the short amount of time we were there and the constraints we or any other official tours operate within, brought us closer to a real sense of the situation in Cuba today.

As I noted, my group consisted of around 20 people; many were public school teachers, ranging from elementary school to high school. There were also several principals, a person who conducted diversity training seminars, a practicing professional photographer (there were several people who were photographic artists), several writers, a person who had worked as a writer and coordinator of video and multimedia projects, and a medical doctor. Most of the attendees across both groups were from New York City or the surrounding area, though a few were from other parts of the US, like Minnesota, DC, and California. In terms of age, most of my group was in the 23-35 age range, though a few of us were upwards of 40 (I was one of the oldies). Despite the relative youth of my fellow travelers, many had lived in other countries for extended stays, and had done quite a lot of travel. In addition to a few who had visited Cuba before, many have lived in Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. One person had lived in taught in Brazil; two others in Costa Rica; another in Turkey; and yet another had visited China many times. I realized about halfway through the first day that this sort of experience would draw adventurous people, but I continue be impressed by how many of my fellow tour members have explored the world, especially given how young many of them are, and, after discussions with them, how they have incorporated these experiences in their teaching and art practice.

In preparation for the trip, I took the advice of a friend, librarian and translator Herbert Rogers, who has traveled several times to Cuba, and I would suggest it to anyone who's thinking of heading there. First, take about $1,000/wk. if you can, because Cuba is very expensive. (I say more about this later.) Unlike the DR or Brazil, two other countries in the hemisphere I've traveled to, everything--especially everything that tourists might be interested in--but bottled water was costly, including meals at seemingly simple restaurants (except one we went to in Havana's Chinatown). Second, convert the dollars into euros (or Canadian dollars) before you arrive in Cuba, so that you aren't levied the 10% conversion tax on Cuban convertible pesos (CuCs, which we pronounced "kooks"). Even the falling euro was a better bet than the levy, and I returned to the US with some to spare. Third, set aside exactly enough euros or 25 CuCs so that when you get ready to leave Cuba, you can pay the departure tax. Otherwise, you will be sitting in José Marti International Airport and wishing you'd taken this little bit of advice. Fourth, keep a running tally of your spending, and unless you can't help it, splurge just before you leave (i.e., if you're traveling to Cienfuegos province in the middle of your trip and want to get stuff there, do so, but otherwise, make sure you have cash because there's no way to get money otherwise). Fifth, don't assume that you can haggle prices down. I found that only a single vendor, originally from the Ukraine, was willing to haggle anything down. Everyone else held out as if the concept were utterly foreign. And be prepared to see CuCs just disappear into thin air at times--more than a few times I think someone was exacting a tax I didn't know about, and no santeros were anywhere nearby.

I'll also say that traveling to any Caribbean country for a week with two bags (a suitcase, a backpack) also provides good practice for Cuba. Carrying too much would have become a problem because we had to weigh everything on the way to and on the way out of Cuba, and pay if we exceeded the 44-lb limit. (I didn't). We were forewarned--and it proved correct--thatthe style of clothing there is very casual. (This casualness operates even to the level of language, as I learned: after the Revolution, the familiar "tú" form was emphasized over the more polite "Usted" [the form you tend to learn in school] to show that everyone was on the same level--though the plural "Ustedes" appears to be in place rather than the comparative rare-in-the-Americas "vosotros.") Sneakers, flipflops, polo or t-shirts, shorts or capri-length pants, khakis, and so on were all appropriate. I did take a navy blazer and Oxford shirt just in case, but never wore either--not only was it too hot--but even at the dressiest events, a nice polo shirt and slacks were fine. Not a single one of the governent or institutional officials we met were dressed up, and some were dressed even more casually than I imagine would fly in the US. One thing that did become clear, however, was the scarcity of clothing many Cubans faced; because things are so costly, even for them, I'd recommend taking some t-shirts or other fashionable clothing to give away as gifts. Several members of my group did so (and I'll say more about scarcity and gifts in my next post), and it's a nice gesture on many levels, including the karmic.

In my next posts, I'll try to say something about Cuba's political and educational systems, larger topics like race, gender, sexuality, HIV/AIDS, and so on, but I will broach all of these in distilled form by noting that the Monday before I left, I went with some members of the group to the Cuban Mission in New York to meet with two members of the Cuban embassy, who provided us with an overview of the country and answer questions we had on specific topics. One of the tour members posed a question about race, and the response that we got was two-fold: on the one hand, the government had banned racism since the Revolution. That is, officially, there was no racism. Unoffically, we were told--and as became clear when we got to Cuba--racism dies hard--as it does in the US. The old attitudes had not been eradicated in just 50 Revolutionary years, let alone in only over a 100 years since Cuban slavery had ended. Some of the black and mixed-raced Cubans (whom I believe I read are a majority) told us that racism was alive and well, and one tour member also heard that African students studying in Cuba, whose universities are both free and renown for medical training, also experienced racism; and yet, both of the officials at the mission, and a number of the government officials we met, were black or mixed-raced. So there you go. As with so many things, the reality was more complex than a slogan. The same struck me with regard to gender and women's issues. At the mission, we were told that one of the first institutions created after the Revolution sought to address women's rights and equality, and over the years, women had achieved parity in employment, had won autonomy and equality in many areas, and played a key role in contemporary Cuban society. And yet, when pressed, one of the officials did note that there were still problems as a result of machismo; issues of violence against women, sexual harrassment, parity at the upper levels of various institutions, and so on, were still issues that the society was working through. What I noted was pretty much what we'd been told; women were directing or in leadership positions at the institutions we visited, and I believe the statistic we got was that women constituted 60% of the labor force (while being somewhat over 50% of the population), but as to the upper reaches of various institutions and other issues regarding gender equality and women's right, the reality was unclear or more complex.

I'll stop there, and post more tomorrow.


NicolásI haven't forgotten the poems! Here, in the Cuban spirit, is a poem by one of Cuba's greats, Nicolás Guillén (1902-1989), a major figure in Cuban, Caribbean, and African Diasporic literature, and one of the champions of Cuban culture's African roots. The following poem comes from his famous first collection Motivos de son (1938), which invokes, in its title, the African-musical form, "son," which lies at the roots of so much Cuban and Caribbean musics. The play on "son" also points to his playfulness around "sound" ("son"="sonido") itself, for one of the things his early poetry is best known for its rich and distinctively play with sonority, aurality, and orality. This is clear in "Negro Bembón," which, even if you speak zero Spanish, can and should be read aloud so that the playfulness of the music becomes clear. The third stanza, with the repeating phrase, "Negro Bembón," is particularly wonderful, as is the refrain, "Caridá te mantiene, te lo dá tó." Disfruten!


¿Po qué te pone tan brabo,
cuando te dicen negro bembón,
si tiene la boca santa,
negro bembóm?

Bembón así como ere
tiene de tó;
Caridá te mantiene, te lo dá tó.

Te queja todabía,
negro bembón;
sin pega y con harina,
negro bembón,
majagua de drí blanco,
negro bembón;
sapato de dó tono,
negro bembón.

Bembón así como ere
tiene de tó;
Caridá te mantiene, te lo dá tó.

Copyright © 1979, Nicolás Guillén, Nueva antología mayor, Havana: Editorial Letras Cubanas. All rights reserved.

And, here's a special treat: Langston Hughes's co-translation!


How come you jumps salty
when they calls you thick-lipped boy,
if yo’ mouf’s so sweet,
thick-lipped cullud boy?

Thick-lipped as you is
you got everything.
Charity’s payin’ yo’ keep.
She’s givin’ you all you need.

Still you go around beefin’,
thick-lipped cullud boy.
No work an’ plenty money,
thick-lipped cullud boy.
White suit jes’ spotless,
thick-lipped cullud boy.
Shoes two shades o’ honey,
thick-lipped cullud boy.

Thick-lipped as you is
you got everything.
Charity’s payin’ yo’ keep,
she’s givin’ all you want.

Translated by Langston Hughes and Ben Frederic Carruthers, in Cuba Libre (1948).

*I'd hoped that Aracelis and others affiliated with CC that I knew of would be participating, but it turned out that two of the wonderful people in my group, poets Christine Blaine and Ellen Hagan, not only are writers, but have a CC connection; Christine had participated in two of the city workshops and also been mentored by CC grad fellow Tyehimba Jess, while Ellen (and her husband David, a photographer on the trip), a close friend of Aracelis, was a student of CC grad fellow Kelly Norman Ellis, and is one of the Affrilachian poets, so CC was in the mix.