Sunday, February 05, 2006

Cuba Diaries


It always astounds me how my prose leaves me on vacation. I cannot find the words to describe the little moments, the vignettes, of the beach in Varadero—

  • the little blonde girl, about five years old with curly hair who frolics naked on the beach and builds a sandcastle with her father,

  • the bumbling old man, knuckles to the ground, grumping about in his Speedo,

  • the small pleasure crafts and amateur windsurfs that dot the water before the horizon,

  • the spongey Latino man in hot pants who holds his arms away from his sides like a human peacock, claiming territory…

All of these are before me as I decompress into vacation-mode on the beach. And I know that none of these moments are authentically Cuban. These are all tourists. I know soon my heart and my feet will long to find the authentic Cuban experience. But this phase, this decompression, is necessary to bring me to that meditative Caribbean state of mind. When I am ready, I will find Cuba.


The gardener’s name is J-L. Yesterday he played peek-a-boo with me from behind the shrubs of the front lawn while the girls and I waited for a bus to take us to swim with the dolphins. Today, he gave me flowers.


Last night, dressed all in white with the gardener’s flowers in my hair, I went to Mambo Club with the girls and J-L. His arms are solid and his skin is smooth. He smells of Cuba: sea salt and sweet, unlit tobacco.


J-L sits on the edge of my bed and stares rapt at the television, almost childlike. I curl myself behind him and just observe how happy he is to watch ESPN – soccer and basketball. He doesn’t like baseball. Perhaps they just tell the tourists that all Cubans love baseball because it’s become part of the romanticism of the island. Every once in a while I let a hand glide gently over his back.

On commercial breaks, he turns back to me and kisses me and I giggle happily. I ask him if he has a television at home. He says yes, but Cuban television is boring – no sports, no movies.

When a commercial for a movie comes on, he turns his attention to the screen. The commercial is in English and it’s for Jodie Foster’s movie from last year, available now on DVD.

J-L makes a face of disgust and kind of half-heartedly throws his arms in the air. “Ugh, DVD,” he says and frowns. He asks me if I have a DVD player. I nod. I don’t have the heart to tell him we have three in the house.

Later in my readings I find that a few years back, VCRs and the like were banned entry at customs by the government. This is a part of the Cuba that the gardener lives in every day.


The guide on the bus to the resort seven days ago specifically told us that Varadero was not Cuba, and that if we wanted to see Cuba we should really go to Havana.

But on the bus tour in Havana we are given half an hour at the Capitolio – a grandiose parliament building that really hasn’t been used since the Revolution. We’re given only five minutes in Revolution Square, where we are not even allowed to cross the road and stand at the steps where Castro addresses Cuba. And we are given fifteen minutes at a cemetery that holds no real Cuban life. We don’t even get to stop at the Granma to see the boat Fidel and Ché stormed the beaches in. Later that night at the Tropicana, I look around and know there are no Cubans watching in the audience. And really, since the cabaret opened in 1939, have there ever been?

I still don’t feel like the day trip to Havana let me experience Cuba. I feel like they held my hand and pointed me in the prettiest direction for short periods of time and cut me off before I got a chance to let the important questions even occur to me.

And maybe that realization that I have not been allowed to know everything is my authentic Cuban experience. Here’s what it feels like to me. It feels like Fidel was in love with Ché Guevara (consciously, subconsciously, pseudo-consciously, I don’t know…) Together they battled to wrest Cuba from the hands of the dictator Batista. Hand in hand they ousted Batista, the Americans, and tried to mould the island into a utopian socialist society where everyone was equal and no one climbed the backs of other Cubans to rise above. And when Ché died after he left Cuba to bring socialism to the rest of South America, Fidel was devastated.

It feels like Fidel made a promise to a dead man that he loved to carry out his ideals, no matter what, until the day he died.

So that’s what he continues to do. Despite the trade embargo. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union. Despite the collapse of the Cuban economy. Despite the dual currency the island has had to adopt. Despite the black market, and the information explosion, and the fact that most Cubans seem to want better for themselves and for their families and for their neighbours. Fidel made a promise to Ché, and he will keep it until he dies.

And so my first trip to Cuba is filled with moments of tourist apartheid. But there are things I am grateful for: the moments stolen with the gardener. The fresh flowers, the dancing, the kisses in the quadrant, the jokes we both laughed at despite the tremendous language barrier, the immense generosity of his birthday gifts to me, and the letter he wrote that I’ve read hundreds of times over already. These are what I take home with me of authentic Cuba.

And I will be back.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Politics on the Brain

The Canadian federal election is on January 23rd, 2006. Because I will be in Cuba (whoo!) on that date, I had to vote on Monday in the advanced polls. I love voting. I’ve never missed a vote. I like the mini-golf pencils, and how the Elections Canada staff are so polite and happy to see me, and I love reading the unknown candidates names (hmmm, who is this “Bob” from the Marxist-Leninist party?) I like the simple feeling of empowerment I get from putting an X in a circle, folding up my secret ballot and stuffing it in the ballot box. But this time around, I could not get jazzed up about the whole ordeal. Not jazzed up. More like crazy, loathing, disbelieving and irate. For a lot of reasons.

Reason the first: the last federal election was only 565 days ago! It elected Paul Martin’s minority Liberal government. The balance of power split between Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc and Jack Layton’s NDP. And all the leaders promised they’d play nice in the sandbox and get down to the business of, you know, governing. It took two votes of non-confidence to dissolve parliament. And I get the feeling that that had been the plan all along. A minority government that won’t form a coalition is doomed to be defeated. Not in the best interests of its citizens, but in a mad grab at more power. As Liberal support wanes and the public’s patience wears thin with all this Gomery sponsorship madness, Harper and Layton rub their hands together all Mr. Burns “excellent”, carrion waiting for a feast in death. The 2004 election cost $277.8 million. How much do you suppose this Harper ego-stroke is going to cost?

Reason the second: nothing has changed. No major party has elected a new leader. We’re just re-running Martin vs. Harper with Layton pounding his fist insisting that there is another option and Duceppe yawning in the background knowing his exclusive Quebec electorate will put him back on the government pension plan. Even if we shuffle up the house of cards that is the 308 seats of the Commons we’re still getting the same people, the same parties, the same platforms. I know that the pollsters are all gangbusters on reporting an imminent majority government, but I don’t see that happening. The Conservatives may make up enough ground to buy themselves a minority government, but with no real change in the MPs making up the Commons how do we expect these people to get along long enough to govern? They won’t! They hate each other! The Conservatives are even less likely than the fat-cat Liberals to find another party to form a coalition with. The Bloc and Conservatives might agree that Quebec has no business in Canada, but the Bloc’s politics outside separatism are so off-the-scale-socialist that it’d be outrageous to think of Bloc MPs helping to pass Conservative cutbacks. More than likely Martin would go groveling to Layton to form that Coalition he should have formed last year and a non-confidence vote would topple the Conservatives in short order. Can you imagine the public outrage?

Here’s the problem. I hate Stephen Harper. I think he’s creepy. I think his blood bleeds deeply Reform. Alberta is Canada’s own red state. Call me a traditionalist, but Canadian Prime Ministers ought to have their home ridings in Quebec like decent folk! You can’t trust a Westerner! Trust me, I’ve lived there. They’re weird. The Conservatives would make an issue of gay marriage, gay rights, a woman’s right to choose, complying with the United States’ paranoid anti-terrorist sentiments. They’d cut back social programs that help out our poor and infirm to support tax cuts for the upper-middle class. They’d bring religion back into our House of Commons and back into our classrooms. Next thing you know, our children would be studying intelligent-effing-design. Listen, I don’t have a problem with people of faith at all; I have a problem with people of unbending dogma. I have a problem with society moving backwards. It’s the hallmark of the fall of an empire. Sitting at a table with four of my enlightened friends I was shocked (shocked!) when three of them piped up for voting Conservative. I understand the choice is difficult. I’m going on for pages and pages about how difficult the choice is. But to vote Conservative? Sorry. It’s against my religion to eat my own soul.

But I can’t vote for Gilles and the Bloc, and I think it’s patently unfair that Quebec gets to take a pass on participating in the federal elections with the very existence of a uniquely Quebecois party. I maintain that it’s the Bloc’s fault Canadian politics have become so regionally divisive. Quebec: you have seventy-five seats in the House of Commons. We know you don’t really want to separate anymore. We recognize that you are unique within our country. Show up for Canada already!

And then there’s Layton, the abrupt man who is ruthlessly on message: you have another choice. Although I think Layton has made great strides for the NDP, the orange party remains third in the country’s consciousness. They’re kind of like the check in our system of checks and balances – ensuring the governing party doesn’t forget about the little guy. I like the NDP. I just think they are more effective in a supporting role.

Unfortunately, I’m also not a big fan of Paul Martin. And not entirely because of the sponsorship scandal, either. I don’t like the fact that he bullied Jean Chretien out of office for his own personal ambitions. I suppose I should respect that sort of tenacity, because Chretien’s not the kind of guy you want to get in a street fight with, but I don’t like the way Martin went about becoming the next Prime Minister of Canada. I don’t like how he then ran all of Chretien’s friends out of the party. I’m still bitter over Lyle Vanclief’s decision not to run in my hometown riding in 2004. Seems he didn’t feel welcome in a Martin caucus. Martin is ineloquent and perpetually nervous on camera. He’s done everything to shake the shadow of the sponsorship scandal – complied with independent inquiries, fired old cronies left right and center – but he just can’t escape the fact that the Liberals have been in power for thirteen years and the sentiment out there is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It annoys me that the party needs to lie fallow to redeem itself. No other party’s platform matches my point of view quite like the Liberal’s. No other party comes as close to defining what I think it means to be Canadian. When a friend of mine set his msn screen name to “Abuse of power should not be rewarded when voting” it made me madder than a rabid pit bull being hit with a stick. Oh, golly! Thank you sir for simplifying the matter for me! I see it all so clearly now that you’ve set me on the straight and narrow path! You insipid foppish nightmare! You prancing self-righteous cad! It’s not that I don’t in some ways agree with his sentiment. But the problem as I see it isn’t so much an abuse of power as a lack of viable leadership.

None of these party leaders are charismatic, compelling, trustworthy, visionary. None of them are leaders. I’d have voted Rhino if I could have, but changes to the rules for candidacy in 1993 killed the party.

So I did what I had to on Monday: I spoiled my ballot in protest.

And until the Trudeau boys ascend to claim their legacy, I may just keep on protesting.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Brokeback Mountain and Third-Person Sanity

The roomies and I went to see Brokeback Mountain on the weekend, and I was going to do this up as a general film critic blurb for Happy Feet Movies, but then it got all tangled up in some critical-thinking, self-analysis, third-person-sanity, first-person-insanity thing I’ve got going on inside me, so now it gets the proper full entry treatment.

First of all: the movie.

The Voice of Reason said she expected more. After plenty of hemming and hawing as to “more what?” precisely she meant (more gay? more graphic? more epic? more ground-breaking? what more than Jake and Heath making out do you want woman??) we all settled on this: The Voice of Reason expected more angst. And I’ll tell you, I was surprised because I felt the angst.

Brokeback Mountain is what it is: a slow-moving character piece that tries to stab the audience through its emotional heart with as few histrionics as possible. It is soft and subtle (Sean Penn and Russell Crowe need not apply.) Heath Ledger has to get his point across with wrinkled eyes and tough worker’s hands and the slightest of smiles. He doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to lay it all out for you. Even the showier character, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist, has to hold it all back for the better part of the movie in the presence of the ever-removed Ennis Del Mar. The movie arcs quietly to its conclusion and it won’t hold your hand to get there. In fact, it almost asks you not to shed a tear for these two. They made their choices given the constraints of their world. You’re not there to sympathize. You’re there to plainly witness.

Brokeback Mountain is similar to last year’s Million Dollar Baby in this respect. It only wishes to tell a story about its characters. It does not wish to be controversial in and of itself. But like Million Dollar Baby and its coincidental discussion of life rights, Brokeback will inevitably bring out a discussion of homosexual rights. But Brokeback isn’t about homosexuality. Only the fearful and uneducated will make that assumption.

The real core of Brokeback Mountain is the choice the two cowboys are presented with. As star-crossed lovers they can accept that there is no choice but to live without each other, or they can sacrifice their whole lives to be with each other. Such is the crossroads all ill-fated lovers come to. One of the men is desperate to leave it all behind – the wife, the children, the myriad responsibilities – for the love that woke up one morning on Brokeback Mountain. The other cannot fathom it.

And neither option is perfect. Neither is correct. Neither is morally superior to the other. Neither brings with it the guarantee of elation. Of this, I am the expert of generations of knowledge. If you choose love, you guarantee the resentment of others. The wife, the family, the myriad responsibilities will all look upon your choice as abandonment. If you choose to abstain, you guarantee your own resentment of the life that becomes yours by default. What’s more important: your happiness, or the happiness of those to whom you are beholden?

It’s that feeling that life is not a fairy tale with happy endings that hit a tuning fork inside me. You can decide to be Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and throw all caution to the wind, or you can decide to be Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn and keep it quiet for propriety’s sake, but either way there’s the possibility you might be screwed. It’s the reason I’ve been playing Rilo Kiley non-stop on NanoBob, and it’s the reason I drown in a river of tears and kleenex when I hear Meredith say “pick me” to Dr. McDreamy on Grey’s Anatomy. And it’s kind of icky and absurd and as a third-person observer of myself I can see that. But as a first-person being myself I can’t quite make it stop, and if it did stop I’d feel like that was the last stop ever.

That’s why I felt the angst of Brokeback Mountain. When Jack Twist’s life of frustration led him to yell “Why can’t I quit you, Ennis?” Oh boy, I felt it. When Ennis replied that his life was nothing because of Jack, I felt it. They loved each other and they could neither move forward nor backward from that point. They couldn’t be in a place where that love never existed and they couldn’t be in a place where that love could exist. Brokeback Mountain is that tragedy at its finest.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

My Remote Control - Shocker

"I’m guessing that Duncan assumes it’s his child, given that he’s been pining away at the door of her intensive care unit for months now. But I… just don’t think it’s Duncan’s. Nothing in Neptune is that simple."

Settle into the couch and read more here...

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Nightly Routine

11:00 Put Ned out.

11:01 Tell Ned not to pee on neighbour’s lawn.

11:02 Tell Ned not to chase passerby.

11:03 Tell Ned not to pee on neighbour’s lawn.

11:04 Tell Ned to hurry up.

11:05 Tell Ned not to pee on neighbour’s lawn.

11:06 Ask Ned nicely to hurry up.

11:07 Shake numb fingers and yell at dog to hurry up.

11:08 Watch Ned run laps on the front lawn at breakneck speed.

11:09 Inform dog that he is a shih-tzu, not a greyhound, and that not even the most naïve of gamblers bets on the toy dog to show.

11:10 Console disillusioned race-puppy.

11:11 Usher dog inside.

11:11:04 Prevent dog from scrambling up the stairs to the apartment all wet.

11:11:15 Trip over dog.

11:11:45 Snag dog by hind leg before he scampers up the stairs all wet.

11:12 Dog kisses.

11:13 Dirty paw prints on pajamas.

11:15-11:18 Play peek-a-boo with doggie towel and Shih-tzu.

11:18:10 Apologize for embarrassing dog with baby talk.

11:18:15 Take vitamins before bed.

11:20-11:25 Attempt to teach dog to shake a paw with doggie treats.

11:26 Dog unwittingly succeeds at “roll over” instead.

11:27 Abandon “shake a paw”, attempt “roll over” again.

11:35 Seven doggie treats later, “roll over” proves unrepeatable.

11:36 Inform dog of the dangers of gluttony. Wag finger treacherously.

11:37 Bed time.

11:40 Lights out.

11:41 Growl at dog to stop chasing his tail while on the bed.

11:42 Kick dog off bed until he stops chasing his tail.

11:43-11:54 Dog attempts bed re-entry. Pick up dog and dump him on the floor. Repeat times one hundred.

11:55 Sigh and give up. Let dog back on bed. Administer stern warning that bedtime means sleep time.

11:59 Smile as dog nuzzles chin.


12:06 Remove dog from chin and place at foot of bed. Kiss dog goodnight.

12:18 Sleep.