I put off posting until the final day of this month because it coincides with the Christian holy day with the coolest name: Spy Wednesday.  Not in the sense of the Gospel According to Ian Fleming, unfortunately, though that would be fitting considering that when Jesus was called before the Sanhedrin (Jewish high priests) and then sent to Pilate (the governor), it was for political insurrection.

That’s pretty spy-worthy.

Except the spy part refers to Yehuda ex Karioth, now known as Judas Iscariot, who conspired with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.  More contemporary accounts hold that Judas was actually acting on the will of Jesus, which makes it the sort of double-cross Ian Fleming loved.

While I’ve always understood why Christians mark Easter Sunday as their most holy day, I’ve always thought today is more important.

Because Spy Wednesday is also the day Jesus became Christ.

***

I was raised Catholic, and remained Catholic until my junior year of high school.  At that time, I transferred to a public school and broke from the faith before, two years later, I enrolled in a Jesuit college.  I didn’t know what that meant at the time and I worried how that education might conflict with one in science (I was already a declared pre-med major); science and religion have always been strange bedfellows.

There were a fair amount of priests on faculty, however, and I made it a point to get to know them so that I understood, better, what being Jesuit meant.  Wikipedia notes that Jesuits are known colloquially as “God’s marines,” but none of the priests I ever met seemed in any way militant.  Seriously, imagine your grandfather.  Or better yet, your grandfather’s brother, and imagine him both drunk and too old to be creepy anymore, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the men I met.  They all had the sorts of smiles that stayed around their eyes long after their mouths were otherwise occupied, and they all seemed to wear cardigans.  They spoke softly, and sometimes called you “Son.”

To be honest, I still don’t know exactly what Jesuit means, as opposed to what Catholic or Christian or Free Presbyterian (or Locked-Up Presbyterian) mean.  So far as I experienced it, it means education, compassion, and service.

Now that I’ve begun to teach classes in colleges, now that students and colleagues call me a professor and I hope one day to actually become one, I find I measure my own classroom performance against my experience in one particular class I attended more than a decade ago.  On the cusp of 32, it amazes me that a class I took as a sophomore in college, when I was 19 friggin’ years old, could be so developmentally important, but every year I realize just how much impact it’s had on my life.

That year, I took six credits of an honors seminar in theology, as required by the college’s curriculum.  I dreaded it; I was going to be a doctor, after all, and medicine isn’t about prayer.  It’s about knowledge and skill and precision, names of veins and arteries and the singular confidence that is picking up a scalpel and using it to cut open another person’s body, knowing you can help them, maybe even save them.

I am not a doctor because I realized I don’t have that confidence.

I didn’t realize it in that class, though.  That class was about other realizations, the kind of realizations so deep and fundamental you’re still making them a decade later.  Or at least I am.  I’ve always been slow like that.

My theology class was taught by a man named Robert Kennedy.  Jesuit priest trained in Zen Buddhism.  Tall and Irish.  Quick, piercing eyes that glasses did nothing to blunt.  When Father Kennedy listened to you, it made you want to say something that could change the world, because for a moment you believed you could.

We read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, but we didn’t consider it as a religious document.  We looked at its historical context.  After we finished Revelations, we began to read literature, including More’s Utopia and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in more religious contexts, basically viewing each work through a lens of theological criticism just as we had applied feminist or sociological criticism in our literature classes.

When we hit the Gospels, they came as a revelation to me.  Not for content; I knew what they said.  I narrated the Nativity when I was in second grade.

What came as a surprise was the questions we raised about them.  Who wrote them?  Was Jesus a real person, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and on the third day rose again from the dead in fulfillment of the Scriptures?

Just asking those questions, nevermind the questions themselves, came as an epiphany for me; in those Catholic schools I’d attended, we weren’t allowed.  It could earn us detention.  Or worse.

***

When you ask questions in math or science, usually the answer is either an equation or an experiment away.  In literature and philosophy, five pages of well-argued bullshit do quite nicely.

History is different, though.  We want facts, evidence, citations, sources.  Or I do, anyway.  Maybe it’s the scientist in me.  When I consider life and its origins and evolution, nothing about it strikes me as so “convenient” that I require a deity to have initiated the process. There seems to be quite a bold leap from measurable, documentable evidence to “There must be an invisible dude in the sky.”

As with so many aspects of the Bible, problems with Jesus emerge when considering his life and story in the context of evidence.  There is, arguably, more circumstantial evidence of Jesus than of Shakespeare (four gospels versus a few signatures and a will), but Jesus didn’t write 30 plays.

Facts are hazy.  We know Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John by Anglican names—they were probably Matthaeis and Yuchanan, for two, and Marcus and Lucas, I suppose—but we’re not precisely sure who they were, when they were writing, or why.  By most modern academic agreement, the earliest gospel was Mark.  Mark was not an apostle, and he didn’t write until decades after Jesus’ crucifixion; most believe he was basically Peter’s secretary—Peter being Simon Peter, on whom Jesus declared he would build the Church, the building of which seems to have gotten in the way of Peter ever actually recording anything.  Most scholars in addition believe that two of the three other gospels—Matthew and Luke—were based on Mark and another source, called Q, and written several years later.

Those three—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—are the synoptics, meaning they summarize the life, ministry, and execution of Jesus of Nazareth.  None of the authors actually met the man in question.

John’s is an oddball gospel; not only is it written in a completely different style, but John’s record of events don’t always coincide with the others’, to the point that he places the date for Jesus’ crucifixion in a different year.  John’s also the guy who wrote Revelations.  I’ve also heard that John is the guy who wrote while fasting on an island on which he consumed nothing but hallucinogenic mushrooms for a while.

I can’t argue the veracity of that claim, but it would certainly explain a lot.  Especially considering Revelations.

But the veracity of the Gospel accounts overall is something that’s fascinated me for years.  Some studies have claimed the most recognizable brands on Earth are Coke, McDonald’s, and Disney, but they seem to completely ignore Jesus (TM).  The Bible is the greatest-selling book of all time by several orders of magnitude.  Lately it seems like social media gurus have been talking endlessly about personal branding, and here’s the guy with the most powerful personal brand in history.  “Love your neighbor.”  “Blessed are the meek.”  He spoke in soundbites ready for mass consumption.

Except, of course, he probably didn’t.

Which is the part that’s fascinated me.  The separation of the man from the brand.

His appearance, for one.  A quick scan of IMDb lists numerous actors who’ve tackled the role: James Caviezel, Jeremy Sisto, Christian Bale, Max von Sydow, Willem Dafoe to name arguably the most famous (and I have no idea why I always think of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, but I could have sworn O’Toole gave the role a shot).  What you’ll notice is a bunch of white dudes of mostly European heritage.

Which, of course, Jesus was not.  The big geographical points of his story are Bethlehem, in Judea, and Nazareth, in Galilee.  Most of his ministry occurred in the latter until he traveled to Jerusalem, which was where he ran into all the trouble and was crucified.

The most famous aspects of the Judas story are the pieces of silver and the kiss.  The silver is incidental, but the kiss is important; without it, chances are the soldiers arresting Jesus wouldn’t have recognized him.  Because he was just a regular bloke, and being a regular bloke back then meant he was short, probably under 5’5”.  He was also Jewish, which meant he probably had a darker complexion, and while most accounts refer to him as a carpenter, he was actually a tekton, which is closer in meaning to builder, and probably a stone mason.  So he was a short, muscular, Jewish guy.

Not Christian Bale.

***

I think the more important aspect of the Spy Wednesday story, however, at least in Christian terms, is that it is the day Jesus became Christ.  The two words, nowadays, are so inseparable people sometimes confuse Christ with Jesus’ last name.

It’s not, of course.  They didn’t really have surnames then, not like we do.  There wasn’t a Jesus Jones and a Jesus Smith and a Jesus Washington.  People were identified, mostly, by where they came from, their parents, or their occupation; Jesus would likely have been Yehoshua ex Natzeret or Yehoshua bin Miryam—that is, Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus, son of Mary.  That latter because, remember, Jesus would have been an illegitimate child, and had no father.  This little factoid is interesting considering that, when Pilate offered the crowd a choice between Jesus and the other prisoner, that other prisoner was Jesus bar Abbas, literally “Jesus, son of the Father.”  Make of that what you will.

Christ, however, is not a name.  It’s a title.  Like doctor, or professor.  An honorific.  It means annointed, which is what Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, with whom Jesus was staying on the outskirts of Jerusalem, did on Holy Wednesday.  She annointed Jesus with a luxurious oil.

This annointment is what made Jesus both Messiah and Christ.  Both terms simply mean annointed.

***

I think about all this right around now every year for obvious reasons, not least because I still wonder about that account.  I can’t break from my scientific mindset; like Thomas the Doubter, I need more evidence to be convinced of any of the supernatural aspects of the story of Jesus.  I find the evidence he existed, and preached, and was crucified, reasonably credible.  There are enough accounts by enough writers that I can say I think it’s pretty likely a man named Jesus lived during the early part of the first century, and preached about love and our neighbors and had some relaxed and groovy philosophies.  I’m reasonably convinced he was a bit of a socialist and believed in judging not, and for that he got on the wrong side of the government, who didn’t know what else to do with him besides crucify him.

And that’s about it.  Virgin births and miracles and resurrections from the dead: not only am I not even a little convinced any of those things occurred, but neither am I convinced they matter.  In fact, most days, I go so far as to note I think that the supernatural aspects of the story cloud the truth of the man and his ministry.

Then again, as Pilate so famously asked: “What is Truth?”

(Image from here, after a BBC program and subsequent Popular Mechanics issue that explored forensic imaging of Jesus. Fascinating stuff.)




I was a bit lost after college and had no idea what I wanted to do other than hang out with my boyfriend, drink mochas while reading the thick Sunday San Francisco Chronicle, and travel around Europe sitting in bustling cafés where I could look at people. This isn’t to say I wasn’t a hard worker, I’ve always worked hard, it’s in my bloodline. I just didn’t have an interest in anything that might be called a career. And then I thought of the airlines: fly free to anywhere in the world, meet interesting people, layovers in Paris and Rome, or Oklahoma even!

I sent the two largest American carriers my resume and was granted interviews—in Atlanta and Dallas—right away.

On the flight from San Francisco to Atlanta, I was seated next to a girl who was also interviewing. She had short blond hair and was cute in the universally accepted meaning of the word.

“I’ve only eaten five-hundred calories a day for the past two weeks!” she said.

“Why?” I was astounded. My sister had had anorexia as a teen and it was so gruesome to witness that I’d never taken much to starvation.

“To fit into the height/weight chart!”

The airlines had sent a packet of information that included a height weight chart. I am five feet two inches tall. For my height I wasn’t allowed to weigh more than 112 pounds. I didn’t own a scale so I bought one, and sure enough, there I stood at 112 pounds. One pound more and I’d be too fat for the airlines.

“And I’ve been doing an hour of aerobics every day!” the girl said.

The only exercise I’d been getting was using a left-hander golf club to hit a single ball in my apartment courtyard, or, when we were feeling ambitious, my boyfriend and I would take turns hitting the ball in the park down the street. We had inherited the club after rummaging through the empty apartment of the recently deceased ninety-year old woman who had lived across the hall from us. Her middle-aged children came and cleaned out her belongings leaving only two things behind: a battery-operated “personal massager” and a left-handed golf club. We took the club and left the massager for the cleaning crew.

All the interviewees were staying at the same airport Marriott in Atlanta. The interview wasn’t until the next morning so there was an entire evening open where I planned to lie on the hotel bed and read while watching TV (if TVs boring, you eventually forget it’s on, if it’s riveting, you read during the commercials). I didn’t have a TV at the time, so a bed with a remote control was a true luxury. Before I could settle in, there was a knock on my door. It was 500 Calories, my aisle-mate from the flight. She had a guy and a girl with her, both Southerners with huge white smiles and shiny hair. The guy looked like a shorter, stockier Ken doll. He could have won Miss Congeniality at any beauty pageant. He stepped into my room, stuck his palm out and pumped my hand.

“I’m Barry! Y’all wanna come out to dinner with us!”

I stared at the gleaming faces. I wasn’t used to such intense sunshine and cheer. The girl standing beside Barry looked like young Brooke Shields on ecstasy. I had been living in Northern California for a few years already and had grown used to ashy eyes, brooding men, dank hair. But, truthfully, I was sick of the mopers, the over-thinkers, the kvetchers. I was ready for cheerful!

“Come on!” 500 Calories said. “You’re not going to sit here alone!”

“Y’all gotta come with us!” Brooke Shields said. Her hair was so perfectly thick that it rested over her shoulder and down to her chest in a giant letter J.

“I’m comin’!” I said.

We piled into a cab together, all four in the back seat. I was wedged between Barry and Brooke. Together they smelled like the perfume counter at Macy’s. Barry announced we were going to T.G.I.Fridays, a place I had never been.

At the restaurant we were given a horseshoe shaped booth. I was the only one who glanced at the menu, everyone else seemed to know what they wanted, and what they wanted was a salad with dressing on the side. I ordered the potato skins with cheddar cheese, sour cream and bacon. Barry looked at me and said, “Are y’all sure you wanna eat that before the weigh in?”

“What’s the weigh in?” I asked.

Brooke, Barry and 500 Calories had all read the same book on how to get a job with the airlines. The book explained that each applicant was weighed before the interview and if you were overweight, well, that was the end the line.

“Y’all brought a suit the color of their uniform didn’t you?” Brooke asked.

“Uh,” I said. “I’m wearing a white skirt and a white cotton jacket with a brown silk blouse.”

They looked at me with sad, wet eyes.

“It’ll be okay!” 500 Calories said, “I’m sure you’ll make up for it with your winning personality!”

When the potato skins came everyone watched me eat while they aimlessly forked at their salads. And although I offered a skin to each of them, no one dared take me up on the offer.

Barry said, “I can’t believe y’all are brave enough to eat that. I’d gain, like, fifteen pounds tonight if I ate that.”

“Can I just have, like, a tiny bit of bacon?” Brooke asked. I took a spoon and scooped off a cheesy-bacony dollop. With her long pink nail she plucked a booger-sized crumb from the spoon and stuck it in her mouth.

“Yummy,” she said, then she smiled and it was like a Polaroid flash bulb had gone off.

Later that night, when I was in bed, blissful with a TV blaring in front of me, there was a frantic rapping at my door. It was Brooke.

“OH MY GOD,” she was panting. “Do y’all have an iron?! I know I packed mine but I can’t find it anywhere!”

I didn’t even have an iron at home. My preferred method for straightening clothes was to hang them on the curtain rod while I showered.

“Isn’t there one in the room?” I asked, and I went to the closet and looked around. There wasn’t one. Brooke rushed away and knocked on the door next to mine. I could hear them talking out in the hallway. Yes she had an iron. Who would come to an interview for the airlines without an iron?

“That girl in the room next to y’all,” Brooke said, “she didn’t bring an iron and she isn’t even wearing the right colors!”

She was right, there was no arguing with the facts. And when Brooke hugged me the next morning and blessed me before I got in line for the weigh-in, I swear I felt like something golden and shiny in her had rubbed off on me.

Everyone took off their shoes and lined up to step on the scale. I came in at 112 again, although I have to admit I was a little worried after seeing the horror on their faces at TGI Fridays when I devoured those skins. There were a few people who walked away from the scale teary-eyed.

The interview was done in groups of twenty, none of my dinner mates were in my group. My interviewer was a nice looking man the way politicians are nice looking: neatly dressed, perfectly square front teeth. We sat in a circle of desks and were given a five-page questionnaire. When my pen didn’t flow well, I asked the leader for a new pen. He responded as if I’d demanded a pint of blood, but finally gave one up. When I retold this part of the interview to my father he said, “Jessie, there are some men who when you walk into a room, their balls shrink up into their stomachs. He was one of those men.” I was twenty-two years old and didn’t feel comfortable discussing ball positioning with my father, so said nothing. But I wondered, who were these men whose balls shrunk up? And, what made me a ball shrinker?

The questionnaire wasn’t surprising (How much weight have you gained and/or lost in the last ten years? What is the most you’ve ever weighed in the last ten years?) until I got to the page where I was asked about the quality and duration of my periods, if I had ever been pregnant and if I had vaginal discharge. There was even a question inquiring about the color of my discharge. Crossed out with a ballpoint pen, but entirely legible, was, “Have you ever had sexual relations with someone of the same sex?” I had visions of spiriting away the questionnaire under my skirt, sending it off to Gloria Steinem or the San Francisco Chronicle. But Shrunken-Balls had his eyes on me, as if he knew what I was thinking.

After the interview people congregated in the lobby to exchange stories. There was a tingling energy in the air—the relief of being done, the excitement of what might be next. Brooke asked me how it went and I told her about Shrunken Balls clear dislike for me.

“If y’all get called back,” she said, “pull your hair back like this.” She took the front strands and pulled them back so my hair was off my face but still long in the back. “It will make you look better groomed.”

Just then, I wished I were Brooke: someone who travels with an iron, knows to wear the airline uniform color, and has ideas about grooming. I vowed that if were called in for a second interview I would do it all right, I would order salad with dressing on the side, I’d try not to be one of those women who makes a guys balls shrink up, and damn if I wouldn’t smile a whole lot more.

Surprisingly, I was called back for a second interview. Even more surprising was that I had lost interest in the airline by the time I’d landed back in San Francisco. As much as I thought it would be fun to be perky and well-groomed, I just couldn’t fathom working for a company who seemed to be sniffing in my underpants.

 

I have a friend at a non-profit in Hartford that does what is called international capacity-building work. This means that they help create systems meant to strengthen democracy – anti-corruption campaigns, electoral transparency, things like that. Last summer, they were putting the finishing touches on a book that outlines all the changes needed in current Cuban law to permit free, fair, multi-party elections (there are a lot of changes). The final step in the project was to send a Spanish-speaking lawyer to Cuba to meet with dissidents there and get their feedback on the book. Lucky for me, I am a Spanish-speaking lawyer and I had some vacation time, so I took a week-long, all-expenses-paid trip to Havana – with the blessing of the State Department, no less. What follows are some observations from that trip, and a pair of letters that I wrote to my wife but never got to send.


25 May, 2009

Anna,

I am in the air, somewhere. I don’t know how much longer until we land in Toronto because my cell phone is turned off. I usually scoff at the notion that cell phones interfere with planes’ navigational equipment, but this plane seems insignificant enough to make that a concern: twin propellers, seats for 36, one bathroom. When the flight attendant did his string of announcements over the P.A., he tucked himself into a little curtained booth as though he were on a much larger plane. I wanted to say, “Hey! We’re right here – all 16 of us! Just come out and talk to us directly!”

I was about to write that the geography below us is indistinct – the usual patchwork of towns, lakes, farms, and roads – but I just looked up and we are now flying parallel to the shore of some vast body of water – a Great Lake, I’d imagine. I am a little embarrassed to admit that my knowledge of Canadian geography is terrible, at least by my usual standards. Montreal and Toronto are east-ish, Vancouver is west, Windsor is across from Detroit, and Regina and Edmonton are out there in the middle somewhere. Basically, I don’t even know which Great Lake I’m beside, nor where I am at all. Far enough to miss you already, that’s for sure.

27 May, 2009

My contact here, an American from Nashville, is young, wealthy (by some lucky turn of events in the realm of software design), and impossibly serious. He finds the state of things in Cuba impressive for its intolerability, and speaks with a constant sense of urgency that doesn’t comport with the way people are actually living their lives all around him, which is to say, normally. It’s like he had his mind made up about what oppression was going to look like before he got here, and he’s not about to let firsthand observation change his assessment. It’s not that the oppression isn’t real – it is. But I somehow supposed that someone like him, well traveled in Latin America and born of very modest means, would be less urgently bothered by questions of privation, whether of resources or fundamental liberty. Then again, he may just be highly sensitive to injustice. He told me this story while we were walking in Habana Vieja:

“The other night when I was walking this way, probably around midnight, I found a tiny kitten right here. It couldn’t have been more than 24 hours old. So I was like, what do I do? [Me, internally: Um, nothing?] So I picked it up and brought it with me, but they wouldn’t let me bring it in the hotel, so I must have spent an hour walking around, trying to find some milk. Funny thing, when I finally found somewhere to buy milk at that hour,  I ended up near where I had found the kitten. So I took off my shirt, wrapped the kitten in it, and sat it down on the sidewalk with a little cup of milk, and started knocking on doors to get someone to take it.”

His story did not reveal, and I, diplomatically, did not inquire, whether he managed to find a Cuban family willing to shelter a kitten at one in the morning.

He is also very handsome. Yesterday, we were at a cafeteria on Avenida Italia, and there seemed to be some sort of commotion among the female waitstaff – they kept coming together in a busy, buzzing knot, some on each side of the window through which orders were delivered from the kitchen. His back was to them, but I noticed them watching us, and they noticed me noticing them. As is always the case when two parties are watching one another, there comes a point when any further attempt at nonchalance is absurd, so I finally smiled. The girl behind the kitchen window made a come-here gesture. “¿Yo?” I asked with an exaggerated thumb to the chest, moving my lips without speaking. “El,” she silently replied, pointing at my companion. I sent him over, and what ensued was something I would see several times during my trip: him, earnest, perplexed, struggling with Spanish. He returned shortly, unable to explain what was happening and utterly unmoved by their obvious romantic interest. I went over, stepping into the role I seem to have been born to: affable, in-the-know friend of swooned-over man. “Es que tu amigo,” our waitress said to me seriously, “es muy bello,” and when she said this, she imbued the word “muy” with such feeling, such carnal longing, that I was left somewhere between scandalized and deeply jealous.

28 May, 2009

Walking in Habana Centro, a shirtless kid, maybe eight, comes our way, flipping a ball off the wall of the building next to him and catching it in a lefty’s glove that he is using on the wrong hand. Just as he passes me, he catches the ball, sweeps the glove across his body, and lays a light tag on my knee, then grabs the ball in his right hand and cocks his arm, as if to throw on to first to complete the double play.

28 May, 2009

Anna,

I am drunk. My contact here has gone back to the States, so I met with two dissidents on my own today. Since I am stubborn / stingy / a firm believer in getting to know places by walking them, I walked about five miles from the first meeting to the second, then about seven to get to a fancy hotel with pay-by-the-hour internet access. Then I went back to my modest hotel, ate chocolate and leftover fish, and lay on my bed for a while, listening to street sounds and thinking about nothing. Then I came down to the hotel bar.

For the first three drinks, I sat alone, recording recollections from my meetings in my journal. For the next two drinks, I sat with a guitar player who would be playing for tips if there were any foreigners here (other than me), the bartender, and an old santero bus driver, dressed smartly in all white, who treated me to a coffee and much good conversation. (The usual things, mostly: women, baseball, philosophy.)

The meetings I am having are giving me a new perspective on this place. Like most of the left-leaning young Latinos in the Latin-American Studies department with me in college, I was always sort of a booster of the revolution. After all, a study of Latin American history and politics is largely an unflattering examination of two centuries of U.S. foreign policy, so to see a little nation to stand up for itself was heartening, and the concrete societal improvements (literacy, public health, racial equality) seemed to bolster the case. And of course, the Cubans are a beguiling people – welcoming, well-educated, gregarious.

But for all the openness here, the easy camaraderie, there is tremendous, pervasive repression too, so well executed and for so long that its victims have become its most reliable propagators. It is a strange thing to see a people that is, at once, carefree and ruled by fear. The genius of the system here is that there is just enough freedom for most people to be content: People with a little hustle can, it seems, scrounge the money to outfit their Ladas and aged Chevys with gaudy knick-knacks, customized horns that make video game sounds, and stereos that boom reggaeton (if you closed your eyes in my hotel room and listened to the street, you could think you were in Brooklyn or San Juan). Young people can gather on the sidewalks after work, sip cheap rum, play dominoes, flirt, couple, break up, and generally carry on as young people do. Arguments can be carried on with equal openness whether the topic is baseball or international politics, provided a modicum of self-censoring restraint that seems to come frighteningly naturally to people who otherwise don’t hesitate to speak their minds.

But the people who test the limits of that freedom are punished: I spent the afternoon chatting with one of this country’s best-known dissident lawyers – a constitutional scholar. He received me in a modest second-floor apartment in Vedado, a shady neighborhood of mid-rise buildings in the mid-century Miami bourgeois style. From what I could tell, he shares this apartment with his brother’s extended family. He had the gruff, knowledgable manner of a law professor – accustomed to being listened to, and we sat in a pair of rocking chairs in the living room and talked about the law, the regime, the sorts of things a pair of lawyers might discuss on a lazy afternoon. But then we talked about him: disbarred without a hearing after he supported a referendum to change the constitution – a process that is allowed by current Cuban law. He has lost his faculty position and can’t take a case without the permission of the Minister of the Interior. He has been denied permission to leave the country and lives, as he put it, “off miracles.”

The sad thing is that there is a strange sort of liberty within the protective bubble of repression: where enterprise, avarice, and any other transgression are so thoroughly prohibited, humanity finds its only outlet in conviviality, generosity, and easy, earnest friendship. When economic and political control are gone, some of this uniquely Cuban kindness will surely perish.

I have made a friend, a guy our age named Frank who works at a printing press specializing in art prints. He is due to meet me here any minute, and we will go to a party to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Havana School of Design (several of the employees at the press are also adjunct faculty there). Tonight will be my night out, then tomorrow a meeting with another lawyer, and then home the next day. I think I will put down this letter and have another beer before Frank arrives. I miss you.


29 May, 2009

Sitting at a bar, watching a pair of prostitutes try to decide whether to make a pitch to me or not. They are standing in the middle of the street, pointing and gesturing toward me without even an attempt at subtlety, and anyway, I am the only foreigner in a sidewalk bar full of Cubans, so I’m the only potential business around. They argue back and forth with some animation but sadly just out of earshot. I make eye contact, partly because it is fun to watch them vacillate, and partly because they are a spectacle that is hard not to watch. Finally, somehow, they decide I’m not worth it and totter off into the night. Don’t know whether to feel rejected or relieved.


On April 5: Buy this magazine.

The April 12, 2010 issue of The New Yorker (out on newsstands April 5th) features a story called “The TV” by our own Ben Loory.  “It’s about a TV,” he explains.  This one is not to be missed.


April 6: The Rumpus presents “A Night Together in New York City”

The star-studded lineup includes Sam Lipsyte, Colson Whitehead, Dave Hill, Michael Showalter, and Lorelei Lee (who really would kick ass in a literary death match).  TNB’s Shya Scanlon will be on hand.


April 8: TNB-LE – Denver

Colonel Hector Bravado, employer of perhaps the greatest pen name in all of history, is your host for a night of drunken debauchery wholesome family fun.  On the docket: Erika Rae, Megan DiLullo, Ben Loory, Aaron Dietz, Alexander Chee, Tom Hansen, Erica Dawson, and Gina Frangello.  There will also be other TNB folks present for the post-event drinkfest singalong.


April 10: TNB-LE – Los Angeles

Rich Ferguson, Ellyn Maybe

Janet Fitch, and Steve Abee.

Who could possibly ask for more

Than an event co-hosted by Lenore

And Milo Martin, that features poets?

Go, it’s

Gonna be great.

I can’t wait.


May 19: Pianos – New York

One of many Gotham stops on the F train that is the Gina Frangello book tour, this evening also features Robin Antalek, Allison Amend, and Zoe Zolbrod (which means we have an AA and a ZZ…what are the chances?).  Kimberly Wetherell will be in the house, and Greg Olear will serve as Master of Ceremonies and token Y chromosome.


What if you could take a collection of short memories, weird and otherwise, and store them on your iPod? Then people could scroll through and play them back at their leisure. Would some play in loop mode? What would some of yours be?


Nick Belardes iPod Memory List:

Flock of fat green parakeets battle with a mockingbird over Bakersfield skies.

Tarantula walks on sweaty palm.

Rich Ferguson screams “Bones! Bones! Bones!”

Explosion behind rocket site mountain at Edwards Air Force Base.

Ghost in a chair with black eyes and screaming mouth.

Swim with a seal.

Little girl laughs on phone in conversation about hamsters biting belly hair.

Score hat trick in roller hockey game.

Train wrecks into coffee truck. Random opera singer on train holds out phone with Twitter photo of me.

Catch a shark.

Find a $20 bill.

Sergio Aragones draws a Mad Magazine cartoon of himself in a book that mentions him drawing Mad Magazine cartoons.

A dream about Bono being one of the pals.

Over the handlebars bike crash.

Stealing television.

Near swerving car collision through red light traffic.

Lightning crashes into mountain.

Desert rainbows everywhere.

*READ: Part One

If you ever want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

Woody Allen said it originally, but it’s my dad’s voice I hear when it echoes in my head. It was December of 2007, five days before Christmas. My father was going in for heart surgery the next morning and I was headed to our nation’s capital to tape a special for XM Radio. I called him from the balcony of my Los Angeles apartment. I shivered in the cold and smoked a cigarette as we talked.

“I have the flights all booked,” I said proudly. “I go to DC for the shows this weekend and then I’ll be in Texas on Sunday in plenty of time for Christmas.” My itinerary was perfect. “No,” I told him. “I can’t stay for New Year’s. I’m meeting Titus in Oakland and then we’re driving back to L.A. from there. I have it all figured out.”

“If you ever want to make God laugh…” he said.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, laughing. “Everything’s going to be fine. I’ll call you when I get to DC and see how the surgery went.”

“I love you, son,” he said.

“I know.”

* * *

My father and I had our ups and downs through most of my life. Some of my earliest memories were the sounds of my parents fighting loudly as I tried to sleep. When I was almost nine they divorced, and I can still remember sitting in my dad’s little blue truck when he told me. The black, plastic, fake leather seats were cracked and smelled like cigarette smoke. The engine idled as we sat in the parking lot that evening after soccer practice. I was too young to know what he meant when he said that he wasn’t going to be living with us anymore.

I went from eight to thirty quickly, and our relationship swung drastically throughout those 22 years. Some memories are stronger than others, but most are just flashes of moments, captured in still life like Polaroids.

I’m nine. I’m walking the top row of the bleachers like a high wire artist. My dad is at the bottom talking to the woman that would eventually become my step mom. I’m eleven. Willie Nelson and Ray Charles sing Seven Spanish Angels in the living room as my dad adjusts the knobs on his new stereo and I lay on the floor. I’m thirteen. I tell him that I’m not going with him when he comes to pick up me and my brothers for the weekend. “I hate your stupid church,” was the excuse I gave before running back inside.  I grew up a lot after that.

There are pictures in my mind with no dates on them. I could have been twelve, or twenty. He had dogs, one after the other. Fritchie, Beignet, Max. There was a kitchen table with a bench on one side. I ripped my finger open on the lid from a can of Pringles at that table. You can still see the scar. The ceiling of the game room upstairs was covered in models I had made, painstakingly painting them and straightening the decals. Airplanes of every sort hung like icicles over the pool table.

When I was twenty-one, my grandmother went into the hospital. My dad paced the halls there waiting on the inevitable bad news from the doctors. I couldn’t imagine how he was strong enough to face the death of a parent.

* * *

I landed in DC and made my way to the hotel. My phone rang as I unlocked the door to my room. “Dad’s in a coma,” my brother told me. “He never came around after surgery.”

“I have a flight in the morning,” I told him, then hung up the phone in silence. I slid down the wall onto the floor of the hallway, staring blankly in front of me. I had a show in two hours.

The club was packed with people when I walked in, and I hated every single one of them. I had spent my entire life mocking the general population, with their real jobs and their fluorescent lighting and their boring offices. That night I wanted desperately to hide in a cubicle, to peck away at some keyboard with no one staring at me. This was the trade off, I learned. Now, not only did I have to pretend to be happy myself, I had to make other people happy on top of it.

My grandmother, long before I ever started doing comedy, used to say how amazing it was that Jack Benny was able to perform while his son was dying. I understand it now. I stayed on stage for an hour and a half, somehow removed from, but still aware of, my sadness and fear. To this day the stage remains the one place that I still feel completely in my element, regardless of what is going on around me. Jack Benny must have gotten that.

I walked off stage that night and back into the dark reality that was now my life. I started canceling my 2008 dates before I even got on the plane the next day. I was going to stay in Houston indefinitely.

* * *

It was Christmas Eve, three days later. I had sent my brother home to spend the evening with his wife and daughter. I sat huddled in the lobby between visitation periods, aimlessly surfing the web on my laptop and waiting for the next opportunity to stare down at my father and hope for a response. I walked into the cafeteria late, hoping for something to eat.

“How are you today?” the lady behind the counter asked.

My question was a simple one, and the words fell out of my exhausted lips like leaves from a dying tree. “How late are you open?”

She repeated herself. “HOW are YOU today?”

“How LATE are you open?” I tried again.

“I asked how you were today.”

“I am in the hospital on Christmas motherfucking Eve,” I said, bouncing my tray loudly on the metal rails. “How late… are you… fucking open?”

“Sir, you don’t have to use –“

“Maybe you should just slosh some mashed potatoes on the plate next to my chicken fried steak, pick up your minimum wage based check, and take your soulless body away from people that could not care less how fucking chipper you pretend to be around the holidays.”

My phone rang as I walk away. It was her. “Merry Christmas,” she said, and I thought to myself how much my dad would have liked her.

* * *

Days rolled by, and I spent every one in that very same lobby. It was a waiting game. Just wait. There are no other options. You can wait, or you can wait. For twenty minutes at a time, five times a day, seven days a week. Nothing you can do can change the situation. Friends call. “I’m sorry,” they say, but they don’t know.

My youngest brother was still in Hawaii. He had moved there on a whim, with one bag and nowhere to stay. He had gotten off a plane in Honolulu two months before and carved out a niche for himself there somehow. He wanted to come back now to be involved but he didn’t have a plan. My car was still at my apartment in Los Angeles, and the goal became to find a way to get him there so he could drive it back for me.

Coordinating a trip for that particular brother has always been like playing Plinko. No matter how much planning you try to do, that little plastic disc is just going to end up wherever the hell it wants to go. We sorted out his flight and I arranged to have him picked up in L.A. I had everything arranged actually – a place to stay, my car keys, and enough cash to get him back to Texas. All he had to do was get on the plane. Whether he got distracted by a shiny object or simply got lost I don’t know, but he missed his flight. To his credit he did try to come up with an alternative plan. “I can catch a flight into San Francisco instead,” he said.

“Of course,” I told him. “Go right ahead. It’s only seven hours from L.A. Great job, Magellan.” Eventually he did make it back, though I’ve never managed to find out exactly how. I was actually worried more about my vehicle than I was him. Not that I didn’t love him, but I had two other brothers; that was my only car.

* * *

Days turned into weeks, and the diagnosis grew more and more grim. There had been a series of strokes and brain activity was virtually nonexistent. On January 17, the decision was made. Family was gathered in the small, now private room. Goodbyes were said, tears were shed, and the breathing machine removed. He was gone. The tension hung like humidity in the air, thick and suffocating. My brother and I turned to each other and embraced, heads buried in each other’s shoulders.

I felt something move as we stood there – a vibration – down my upper leg. It was awkward as we both held each other.

“Tell me that was your phone,” he said.

“God, I hope so,” I replied, and in the most unlikely of places, we laughed hysterically.

* * *

I was getting dressed on the morning of the funeral.  How am I supposed to get through this?  I’m the oldest; I’m supposed to be an example.  I don’t want to do this, I told myself over and over again.  My phone rang.  Who would possibly call me on a day like this?  Moments later my voicemail beeped.  My friend Kevin’s voice came through the speaker as I checked the message.  His father had passed away a few years before.  “You are the strongest son,” I heard him say.  “You’re going to be okay.”

I smiled.  I hope you’re right, I thought.  I’m going to have to be today.

* * *

It’s been over two years now, and some things have faded. Sometimes I get disappointed in myself when I realize that I’ve let more than a day or two pass without thinking of him. How could I forget? Then, out of the blue, a day or so later, I’ll pick up the phone to call him. I’ll stop myself as I scroll down to the D’s. “Damn. He really would have gotten a kick out of that story,” I’ll tell myself.

Or maybe he will flash into my head over a bowl of cookies and cream ice cream covered in chocolate syrup. I use to eat it at his house on Saturday nights after everyone had gone to bed. Just me, sitting on his living room floor watching Star Trek: The Next Generation… God, I was such a nerd.

The comfort is there now though. I don’t have to carry it every day. The memory has disappeared and resurfaced enough times now that I know it will never go away for good. It seems like an eternity since I stood on that balcony with my big plans for the future. I was going to take over the world, and he was going to have his heart fixed. I’ve had to readjust my plans now though, to compensate.

And somewhere, I’m sure, there is laughter.

For my fellow misfits at The Nervous breakdown

 

To belong? What’s it mean? Is it creature of tense? Is it active or passive?
Is it cold set in bone, magma oozing to plate ocean floor, or explosive
Crackling reaction, plume clearing to flesh jacked into the massive?

My parents were wartime romance. “There was something in the air that night,
The stars were bright, Fernando…” For liberty indeed, and ten years prior, NOT
Fernando; to ditch the justice of the peace and priest’s decree of might makes names right;

They’d fought the Queen so that Gerald could be Uche, raised on Nigerian playgrounds
But when ancient wounds opened and national grass ran red, they fought for…Biafran greens.
Never thought that they could lose so they stitched their winnings into my ten birthweight pounds.