What have we become?

I’ve long been a political junkie and intrigued by current events. Even as a child, I loved watching the news and programmes like MacNeil/Lehrer Report, News Hour and 60 Minutes (when Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, Diane Sawyer and Morley Safer graced the screen) were the highlights of my weeks and treats after finishing my homework and chores. NPR remains both a trusted friend and guilty pleasure, depending upon my to-do lists and the time of day I’m tuning in.

Most likely, even before I understood the divisions between political parties, I leaned left. As a lone liberal in a family of conservatives, I learned early to expect heated discussions when it came to things like public education and social services; health care; interventionist wars and the US’s place and role within the United Nations; women’s rights; LGBTQ rights; guns and gun regulations; and, everyone’s favourite, taxes. Little did I know our discussions of immigration would become so personal later in life. But, that’s a separate issue entirely.

I’ve always been and probably always will be left of centre—to some, far, far left of centre. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the necessity of healthy opposition. Nor does it mean that I have no respect for certain historical members of the Grand Old Party—I greatly admire figures like Presidents Lincoln and Eisenhower, and more recently Senator Olivia Snowe and at one point Senator John McCain. But, finding any member of the GOP today with whom I can agree is increasingly difficult if not altogether impossible. Not just because of their policies. Because of their complicity. Because of their insistence on putting party over principle or integrity or country. Because of a basic lack of decency. Because of their silence in the face of absurdity.

What happened to the GOP? At what point did punching a journalist who asked a policy-related question that affects voters become ‘okay’? And, why did no other member of the GOP immediately and quite clearly condemn this act of violence?

Even as a leftist snowflake, I assure you, had a Democrat or Green or beloved leftist liberal slammed a reporter to the ground, punched him/her and then lied about it, I’d certainly never support said candidate. I’d demand those in leadership positions within that party immediately and unequivocally condemn such acts and force said individual to resign. A person who resorts to violence in the face of opposition has no business serving as an elected official nor does s/he belong in public service.

We need healthy discussions. We need healthy debate. Asking a candidate his/her position on a bill—any bill—that affects those they’re ‘representing’ is not beyond reasonable nor does it come close to being antagonistic or harassing. Yet, increasingly, conservative officials, elected and appointed, are doing exactly what the leader of the GOP has encouraged its members to do: attack or arrest journalists who ask questions they simply don’t like.

Greg Gianforte

By Adam Zyglis: Greg Gianforte. From The Buffalo News, published 26 May 2017.

This is not the Grand Old Party I admire and respect, nor is it the Grand Old Party we as a country need.

President Eisenhower, the last Republican President I truly admire (despite disagreeing with him on various issues), had this to say about leadership:

You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.

Indeed.

When the leaders of one party let alone the leader of our country dismiss such acts of violence, people listen and individuals act.

Whilst not necessarily directly related, events in Oregon last night are far more troubling. Two men lost their lives simply for standing up and defending fellow passengers enduring racists slurs from a man empowered to voice his hate-filled vile.

What happened to us? At what point did we decide that we can end disagreements with and through violence and that this was now an acceptable option? And, at what point will we wake up and demand better for ourselves and those who ‘represent’ us?

The greenness of spring

It seems like we wait all year for spring to arrive in Helsinki. This year in particular — a mere two weeks ago we endured days of snow flurries and living in a giant snow globe when our feet should have been enjoying the freedom of sandals. But, whenever that shift from winter to new growth arrives, there’s an unnatural greenness to the landscape which never ceases to surprise, delight and amaze me. Each and every year.

I don’t know if it is simply the newness to the green leaves or the sudden explosion of them everywhere. Leaves seem to grow overnight, transforming from tiny buds to giant leaves so, so quickly. But, this green. This green against the darker trunks of some of the indigenous trees becomes fluorescent. Add in the budding green shoots of the grass, the insanely loud cacophony of the birds screaming for their mates and the lengthening days and shadows of those long summer evenings, and you can’t help but smile and feel alive.

Winter—the long, dark, greyness of winter—often seems never-ending and at times unbearable. So when spring comes, perhaps my mind simply doesn’t recognise the loveliness that is this new growth, leaving me confused and processing that colour as something almost other worldly.

Whatever it is about spring and this green we experience in the far North, I welcome it. It is truly glorious and I’ll soak it in for as long as it lasts. After my class this morning, I was standing at a bus stop marvelling at the dark blue, stormy sky of summer as the backdrop to those bright green leaves of new growth. Those are the moments we carry with us as we suffer through the darkness. Simultaneously, those are the images we forget on the darkest days as a way of perhaps protecting ourselves from the darkness. And, those are the images we delight in each spring.

It takes a specific mindset to survive in this environment and not lose all hope of the sun returning to it’s brilliant glory. And, looking at trees in winter, it’s hard to imagine them ever living again. Perhaps this is what makes summer so incredibly glorious and wonderful.

Whatever makes the leaves this green, I’ll take it.

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All that I need….

In the lead up to today, my 47th birthday, my husband has asked me nearly daily what I want. My response has been the same each and every time: ‘I don’t know. There’s nothing I really need or want.’ And, it’s true. I genuinely want for nothing for perhaps the first time in my life. At least, the things I want aren’t necessarily material goods or even things which impact my daily life. (Although, I’ll never turn down a new Marimekko frock or office supplies or chocolate. But, I don’t want need them.)

My life—my little, seemingly insignificant life—is rather comfortable and free of conflict. I have a husband and best friend I adore more with each passing year, a cat that is thoroughly cat-like and lovely at once, a job I never thought I’d love more and which rarely seems like ‘work’, more books and yarn than I will ever need and a collection of kind folks scattered across the globe to catch me when I stumble or with whom I can share the good times. Certain elements of my life may not be perfect, but I don’t need them to be. I don’t know that I want them to be. I rather enjoy challenges, perhaps more than I should.

At 47, I don’t feel the need to look behind me so much as I look forward to what’s to come. Goals are more realistic and simple these days, and what I hope for isn’t for me as much as it is for those around me. For the world around me.

This past year or so seems like some sort of wicked nightmare we’ve collectively imagined in some ways. After battling my own demons, and finally feeling as though I can live with them, current events in various regions have provided far too much surrealism and sleeplessness on occasion. It’s relatively easy for all of us to lose hope given some of the ugliness that screams more loudly than the kindness I know to exist. Yet, here I am, still full of hope for all of us and still firmly committed to the belief that what binds each of us to one another is far, far stronger than that which divides us.

At 47, this is what my life has come to mean: I won’t change the entire world, but hopefully I can change someone’s world just a little bit for the better. I won’t fix all the problems in this world, but perhaps I’ll help at least one person overcome some problem that consumes their world. I can’t love everyone, but I hope that I can provide love to someone who needs it in the moment when they need it most.

So many of you have done exactly that for me, both when I was acutely aware that I needed help and at moments when I didn’t. You have provided me with all that I need, and so much more. I am immensely grateful and I thank you, and I hope that I live up to your examples.

Me at 47

Me captured by The Cuban at the Espoo Museum of Modern Art, 6 May 2017, Espoo, Finland.

If you’d like to help make the world a better place, please consider making a donation to any of the following organisations. Above all, please be kind:

Chicken!

Cuban idioms

No comas de lo que pica el pollo [Don’t eat what chickens peck]

Al cantío de un gallo [next to the rooster crowing or not that far away]

Otro gallo cantaría [if true, another rooster would sing]

A gallina vieja dale candela [give fire to an old chicken or give it time and it’ll work

Gallina vieja da buen caldo [an old chicken yields good broth or older women are better than young chicks]

I still don’t understand why. But, chickens feature prominently in Cuban life. Even within the heart of Havana, you’ll either hear a distant rooster, often confused, crowing at any time other than dawn or see a few hens pecking away for whatever crumbs they can find. It never fails when we’re fresh off the trans-Atlantic flight and losing our battles with jet lag and surrealism, some crazy rooster will signal morning in the dead of night. Cuban chickens — they are entirely odd to me. And, yet, I love them.

During our last trip, we sat at a cafe in the old botanical gardens in Varadero, which supposedly featured ‘the best piña coladas in Cuba’ [they were not; and anything that is ‘the best’ is typically crap]. As we sat sipping our overly boozed-up cocktails, made somewhat more palatable because of the amount of rum in them, an older gentleman sat down at a nearby table. Out of nowhere, a herd of chickens flocked to this man. He had brought the magical bag of stale bread and the chickens could not have been happier.

Amongst these happy hens, the cockiest rooster I’ve ever seen strut about and occasionally pecked up the treats on offer ignored by his brood of hens. This rooster though — he was a thing of beauty, almost too gorgeous to be hidden behind walls and at the end of a bit of a winding driveway away from the rest of the peninsula. As long as the bread lasted, he was all about the puffing up of his chest and strutting his stuff for an audience of six.

But, chickens. What is it about chickens in particular that they feature so prominently in Cuban life? For every idiom my husband attempts to translate for me, there is some relation to a rooster or old hen or chick in some way shape or form. For whatever situation we are discussing, be it political, social or economic, chickens provide the answer or punchline. The early bird may get the worm, but the chicken spotted that worm long ago and decided it was too skinny. Or something like that. [NB: This is not a Cuban idiom to my knowledge, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.]

Perhaps if all chickens were this lovely, I’d get it. But, many of the chickens scratching about in Cuba look rather…unappetising. But, this guy… Cock-a-doodle-doo, indeed.

Cock-a-doodle-doo 2

Rowdy rooster at a cafe in Varadero, December 2016

Giving voice to survivors of sexual assault

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College TownMissoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You’d have to be living under a rock this year to avoid stories of entitled, young male athletes sexually assaulting young women and serving little or no jail time for such crimes.

Missoula, Montana may not be unique in the number of young women who are vilified or simply not believed when they step forward naming their assailants. Jon Krakauer gives those young women who’ve survived rape a powerful voice, one we should all listen and respond to.

Whatever we are teaching young men, it shouldn’t be that they can get away with rape. From prosecutors to communities, we all have a responsibility to clearly and definitively say, ‘this is not okay’. Perhaps, we’ve woken up in the wake of cases like Brock Turner’s outrageously light sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious young woman. Judging by the reactions and words of his father — diminishing rape to a mere ‘20 minutes of action‘ — as well as some of the reactions and character assassinations all too common in Missoula and elsewhere, we have a long way to go.

Whilst Krakauer pens a particularly difficult book to read given the understandably horrendous descriptions and details throughout, it’s an incredibly important read. We need to listen to those who come forward after being sexually assaulted. We need to approach their assaults from a place of belief and seeking truth and justice rather than giving their attackers the benefit of the doubt. Otherwise, the shame and guilt and fear each woman experienced in the immediate aftermath of their living nightmares will never heal. They will never find peace.

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Read to write

Style guides of various sorts from my own library.

Style guides of various sorts from my own library.

In my Academic Writing class, my students often ask what they can/should do to improve their writing aside from learning grammar and stylistic conventions in English. Aside from referring them to the various style guides around, my answer never waivers: ‘Read. Read as much as you can from writers who write well and writers you admire and enjoy.’ The clever sods typically follow-up my response with a question that inevitably stumps me: ‘Who should we read? What books do you recommend?’

So many amazing writers , both contemporary and historical, provide excellent examples of clear, clean and crisp writing it’s a challenge to come up with a list of any kind. Given that so many others have created their own lists of ‘must-reads’, it feels weird providing my own answer this question let alone that anyone is genuinely interested in my response. But, as their guide in all matters related to Academic Writing, I have thought about this quite a lot since returning to the classroom. At the very least, here’s hoping I’ve added to their holiday reading list and possibly provided them with a few gems previously unknown to them.

Given how often I get this question, I decided to put together a list (and link) that I can refer them to.

So, who should my students read?

Typically, when I’m asked I immediately respond with John Irving. To me, anything written by John Irving is a) brilliant; b) weird and slightly surreal; and, most importantly, c) exceptionally well-written. I tell my students to read anything he’s written (because I love him), although my favourites consist of The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve read each of these books over the years. I love them each time. His characters are always tragically and bizarrely flawed. But, it’s the writing that astounds me anew every time. Mr Irving’s use of language and style combined keep me reading him, even when the stories fell well short of my hopes. In short, I love his writing—stories and characters aside.

In terms of other writers who provide excellent examples of style and language, here’s my full list (I supplement my own list with recommendations from friends gathered in Facebooklandiastan below). This inventory is in no particular order.

  • John Irving: A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules, but anything really.
  • A S Byatt: Possession.
  • Haruki Murakami: Anything goes. Despite being translated into English, because Mr Murakami knows English so well, I suspect he plays a significant role in the translations of his books and short stories into English. He’s a masterful story-teller, and has a brilliant translator.
  • Alice Walker: The Temple of My Familiar.
  • Vikram Seth: An Equal Music is perhaps one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. This book moves me to tears, quickly advancing to uncontrollable sobbing during several passages. Absolutely incredible writing and an exceptionally example of carefully placed phrases, words and punctuation.
  • Ernest Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man & The Sea are my favourites. But, just about anything Papa ever wrote is worthy of reading and demonstrates simple eloquence in all its brilliance.
  • Maya Angelo: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
  • Norman Rush: Mating — another incredibly beautifully crafted piece of writing which earned Mr Rush the National Book Award.
  • Ian McEwan: Atonement.
  • David Sedaris: Just about anything ever written as well.
  • Edward Abbey: Dessert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang.
  • Toni Morrison: Beloved.
  • Alice Munro: Just about anything she wrote.
  • Paul Farmer: As my discipline-specific idol, I love his entire body of works. But, he’s also an exceptional writer, academic or otherwise. AIDS and Accusation was one of the most important works of his which still resonates with me roughly 20 years after I first read it.

Now, the recommendations from others. Friends from all walks of life provided the following list. I’ve placed an * next to those I fully agree with and neglected to include in my list. If you have additional writers or titles that you think belong here, please share them!

  • Charles Dickens for his beautiful eloquence. (Interestingly, John Irving loves Dickens; Dickens is not a favourite of mine).
  • Kurt Vonnegut*: I haven’t read any Vonnegut since high school, but I love him still. 
  • Stephen King: Despite borrowing from his own book on writing for my class, specifically his insistence on the active voice, I don’t find his writing that compelling. But, it is incredibly sound technically, and, undoubtedly the man has a wicked imagination.
  • Ursula la Guin
  • Richard Dawkins* ‘makes science easy to read without trivialising it’, commented one friend. I fully agree. I haven’t read much of him since I left graduate school. He’s incredibly eloquent as a speaker and writer both, and bloody brilliant.
  • Vladimir Nabokov
  • Anne Rice for her prose. Again, not one of my favourite writers, but that’s mostly because I’m admittedly a snob.
  • Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor and chemist. I’ve not read anything by him, but will do.
  • Flannery O’Connor
  • George Orwell*
  • David Lodge: Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work.
  • Julian Barnes* — I can’t remember which book it was that I read first. But, I love Julian Barnes. Amazing writing.
  • Jane Austen: just about everything. 
  • PG Wodehouse
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Isaac Asimov
  • TC Boyle*: I’ve read both Drop City and A Friend of the Earth and loved both.
  • P J O’Rourke
  • Barbara Trapido
  • Christopher Hitchens*
  • Mark Twain: Rather embarrassing that I neglected to include him in my list, given that I adore him and grew up not far from Hannibal, Missouri. 
  • Henry Miller
  • James Joyce: Dubliners
  • Christopher Brookmyre
  • Arundati Roy*
  • Salman Rushdie*
  • Marmon Silko
  • Michael Chabon
  • Margaret Atwood*
  • Donna Tartt: The Secret History seems to be a favourite amongst others.
  • Hunter S Thompson*
  • Douglas Adams*
  • Terry Pratchett: According to one friend, you should start with Guards! Guards! and move onward through his catalogue.
  • Spider Robinson
  • David McCullough
  • Gina Berriault
  • Joy Williams
  • Richard Yates
  • John Cheever
  • Virginia Woolf*: A Room of One’s Own
  • Oscar Wilde
  • Bertrand Russell*
  • Harold Pinter
  • J M Barrie
  • Alan Bennett
  • Jean Paul Sartre
  • Albert Camus
  • Conan Doyle
  • Russell Brand
  • Truman Capote*: In Cold Blood. What an absolutely amazing piece of writing.
  • Richard Feynman: QED and Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman were both recommended.
  • Gloria Naylor
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • James Lee Burke
  • Marilynn Robinson
  • Sherman Alexie
  • Nicholas Kristof
  • David Brooks

La vida en Cuba no es facil

[NB: We’re still recovering from the transition back to reality and life in Finland. So, uploading and posting various missives and random musings from our most recent misadventures in Cuba is taking more time than I’d like. I began writing the following missive around Christmas day, which is sort of celebrated in Cuba, albeit with a healthy dose of kitsch and relatively little reference to the birth of Christ or obscene gift-giving commonplace in the US and other countries. I’ve revised and reworked this missive based on our experiences during the weeks that followed. Enjoy, and thanks for reading!] 

Our trips here are nothing if not idyllic. Primarily we use them as an escape to sunshine and warmth, generated both by the sun itself as well as from the Cubans we know and meet during each visit. Yet, as idyllic it is for us, we cannot ignore the facts of daily life in Cuba lived by everyone we know and love.

When President Obama announced a year ago that the relationship between the United States and Cuba would open up and improve, he used the phraseno es facil, which delighted and humoured Cubans in equal measure. A phrase I now understand and hear dozens of times a day, it captures (perhaps historically) life in Cuba. Quite simply, it translates to ‘it is not easy’.

Indeed.

The Cuban and I are fully cognisant that, as temporary visitors, we arrive in Cuba possessing both an end date and the precious documents we need to leave (e.g., passport, exit visa, ticket, residence permits elsewhere, etc.). These documents are perhaps more meaningful and precious to The Cuban. But, undoubtedly, this makes any inconvenience we experience a bit more palatable and somehow less annoying.

As idyllic as Cuba proves to us, it is not an easy place to live. To the casual tourist staying in one of the posh five-star hotels on offer, many of the difficulties faced by the average Cuban every single day remain deeply hidden. As I write this 11 days into our seven-week stay, this is what we’ve experienced in our family’s flat in Alamar, a rather poor, working-class neighbourhood to the east of Havana: power cuts = 2 (one each at night and during the day, lasting less than an hour each time); number of days without water = 4+, albeit not consecutively. (As our time in Cuba progressed, the number of days our relatives survived without water in the flat increased rather alarmingly. It almost seemed more normal to be without water than to have it.)

This last dose of reality is rather difficult to grasp given our experiences in Finland, and a royal pain in the ass. Quite literally. But, it’s evidently become a regular occurrence for our relatives over the past year.

Like most of the rest of the world, the effects of climate change are hitting Cuba. This past year, temperatures soared, reaching highs of 38C in Havana, mercury readings previously never experienced in the capital city and more common for the eastern end of the island. With 100% humidity and precious little relief from the summer sun and heat, newsmen and women warned habaneros to drink plenty of water and stay out of the afternoon sun. Simultaneously, the rainy season brought drought conditions and precious little relief. Not exactly a great combination for a country with somewhat limited resources as it is. Even during our visit this year, it’s been hot and humid, much warmer than previous years.

Since the warmest months in Cuba, however, our cousins in Alamar have experienced water cuts at least once a week. Some days, the water is off for a few hours before returning, which we’ve experienced. On others, it remains off the entire day only returning the next morning. We’ve also experienced this. And, unlike those who live here permanently, we fled to another friend’s flat. It isn’t their entire neighbourhood; just their building. But, living elsewhere, where water flows consistently and cleanly, you forget what it’s like to go without. (Yes, we were missing Finland for a change.)

Most if not all Cubans are accustomed to water cuts, and well-prepared for them. Sadly, they are not rare, and nothing new. It’s more akin to life as it’s always been in Cuba. My father-in-law’s house in Altahabana, another suburb of Havana, features a rather sophisticated system to work around such realities. A motorised tank sits on top of his roof, which is kept constantly full and ready to take over when the city / neighbourhood water supply is cut. His sister’s house in Artemisa, a farming community about 90 miles to the west of Havana, also features such a system. Back in Alamar, our cousins have a large plastic barrel on one balcony just off the kitchen which they replenish after such water cuts. They also collect more water in various empty bottles ‘just in case’. Buckets help move water from the barrel to the bathroom or kitchen or wherever. A sufficient supply for flushing toilets and washing hands and for a splash bath is kept at the ready when needed for the two permanent occupants of the flat. But, that supply probably wouldn’t last more than a day given the 6 people currently living here.

As you can imagine, when the water is on, all of the laundry is done, everyone showers (and rapidly in case the water is cut once you’re all soaped up), and a frenzy of cleaning of all sorts ensues. Not just in our flat, but in all of the flats in that particular building. You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief when a tap is tested for water first thing in the morning and the water flows freely.

At another friend’s flat, one which is in a better neighbourhood, water cuts happen as well. For example, The Cuban relayed a rather frustrating time when he lived in that same building before leaving Cuba. At one point, they went days without water. At the time, he lived on the top floor of the building. He would lug buckets and buckets of water up the stairs after walking down to a water spigot near the building. Given the heat and humidity of December we experienced this year, I cannot imagine that chore in the heat of the Cuban summer.

Aside from these cuts, however, there are many other daily nuisances for us which Cubans power through. All of the households we’ve been to thus far feature a large cooking pot on the stove covered in calcium deposits. Despite the varied interiors of these homes, each of these pots looks exactly the same. And, each morning and night, the pot is filled with tap water and then boiled to remove all impurities. (We tend to buy bottled water, but the habit amongst our friends and family run deep.) Depending upon the household, the boiled water may or may not be filtered or further purified with iodine tablets — that, as far as I can tell, depends on the wishes of the occupants. I find myself missing Helsinki tap water a little more each day.

Another facet of Cuban life we know well and tourists never see is the reality of showers in Cuban’s homes. Faucets outside the various hotels that cater to us foreigners rarely feature more than a single on/off tap. There’s no need for a hot or cold water tap—there is only one temperature for all water. But, those who can afford it invest in a hot water heater for use in the shower. I’ve only seen two types thus far, with the simpler one costing about CUC100 (~€100). Yet, this contraption always instills a very real fear of electrocution in me. Indeed, most times when flipping the on-switch, I feel a slight jolt. Among those without the resources to buy a simple hot water heater (and there are many), cold showers reign supreme.

As we forego our standard extended stay at a resort on the beach and choose to live amongst and as Cubans, that phrase — no es facil — rings true. Difficult, absolutely. And, beautifully complicated, exhausting and exasperating for those who live it every day.

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