Leave ‘Em Laughing

I love ethnic jokes. I hate racist comments or epithets, but I can’t resist a good joke, even it includes racist epithets. Emphasis on good. It has to be clever; otherwise, it’s just hateful. And, I’ll lay this out upfront, I’m always on the lookout for jokes that make fun of us Cubans. I haven’t heard that many. Sure, there’s the one about the Cuban in Puerto Rico looking for a good arroz con pollo like the ones we ate back home. And another about the Museum of Rare Latin American Specimens that manages to insult a number of nationalities. Interestingly, they both end with the word mierda. 

Here’s one I can tell in this semi-public space. How many Cubans does it take to change a lightbulb? Three. One to change the lightbulb. One to hold the ladder. And one to stand on the side saying: these are not like the lightbulbs we had in Cuba, those really were bright.

You didn’t laugh? OK, OK, it’s not that funny. Maybe because it doesn’t end with the word mierda.

I used to justify my fondness for blatantly racist jokes by arguing that it was better than going around shooting and bombing one another. I no longer do that, and I simply admit my like probably comes from some ugly corner of my soul. As with so many things, mea culpa.

There are ethnic jokes that make fun of the Other, which are often mean-spirited, though that doesn’t mean they’re not funny. And there are ethnic jokes that make fun of one’s own. At some point, comics learned that they could get the crossover market by sharing that humor with the dominant Other. Crossover Jewish humor is not always explicitly ethnic. When it is, it requires some cultural savvy. Mel Brooks as a Yiddish-speaking Sioux chief in Blazing Saddles.

Black comedians push the envelope. Their standup for a crossover audience makes fun of their culture’s foibles and uses epithets without restraint for white audiences that eat it up. Here I wasn’t far off the mark with my hypothesis. White folk are laughing because it’s a guilty pleasure to laugh at blacks — though black comedians make fun of whites as well — and that pleasure is authorized by the comic’s black skin and exaggerated ethnic language and demeanor. Minstrelsy? I’ll let others judge.

There is Latino standup, of course. Sometimes I find the ethnic self-deprecation forced, but probably a black person would say that about black comedians I find hilarious. It can be brilliant. I once saw Paul Rodriguez do a bilingual set for a mixed crowd of Spanish and English speakers, the former all bilingual themselves, the latter primarily monolingual. He claimed to be translating faithfully, while he spoke about mutual understanding in English and launched into a militant Latino rant in Spanish. The best.

I had a friend, now gone, who would email insider Jewish jokes. To me they were funny. To some Jews, particularly Jewish women, maybe not so much. They sounded genuine. But what do I know from genuine?

Gay humor can have a poisonous sting. Still, I laugh. Though maybe it’s because, as with my friend’s Jewish jokes, I’m doing so because I’m enjoying the privilege of an outsider allowed inside the culture for a moment. One thing I learned, though, is not to share identity humor other than my own’s. I just come off as a racist, misogynistic, anti Semitic homophobe with absolutely no sense of humor at all. 

So I’ll stick with Cuban and other Latin American jokes. El subdesarrollo slows down political correctness, which in itself is a politically incorrect statement. ¡Mierda!



I used to think the Old Testament was really neat, what with all the sex and warring of the rousing adventure movies I loved. And indeed, some Biblical stories were turned into the movies I saw as a kid, all about what Philip Lopate, remembering these movies, once called “the great Jewish lovers.” While the New Testament was a bummer. A sweet, innocent and apparently celibate man is calumnied, arrested, tortured and cruelly executed. Sure, he rises from the dead, but what sticks in the mind is the crucifixion, the Sign of the Cross. Many movies about this as well, including Mel Gibson’s grisly version.

Only recently, I watched a video of Franciscan friar Richard Rohr (gracias, Cristina) explaining how it was the founder of his order, Francis of Assisi — that poet, saint and high aesthete of poverty — who shifted the emphasis in Christian tradition from Easter, which includes the gory fate of Jesus, to his birth. To Christmas. Sure, he died for our sins, he rose triumphant from the grave, but what matters most is that he was born. Joy to the world.

What am I now? A lapsed Catholic? A slowly born-again one? My friend and colleague Peter Occhiogrosso included me in his book Once a Catholic: The title tells it all, Catholics never stop being Catholics. It’s not exactly in my DNA — on both sides, the generation before me was not religious and some were virulently anticlerical — but it’s in my schooling and also in some corner of the structure of my personality. 

I’d say that I’d never return to the Church but perhaps the Church would return to me, knowing full well there was no chance in hell of that. Well, I’ll be damned, to stay with the Inferno conceit, if it’s not doing just that, thanks to the bishop who took the name of Francis, he who got Christmas rolling. My father, a youthful atheist and a mature practicing Catholic, was a devout Franciscan, and my home always had a number of images of the saint. It’s now my house and St. Francis is still around. So it turns out that I’m not only an evolving Catholic but a Franciscan.

I think I’m beginning to understand the New Testament, including the sweet man’s terrible fate. To Christians, the Son of God. To Muslims, a prophet. To Jews, an eccentric and possibly inconsequential rabbi. It would be an understatement to say that Christian treatment of Muslims and Jews has been and in many cases still is shoddy. Nonetheless, like all of us I inherited history. My role in it has been very minor, and I’ve tried and continue to try to act, well, Christian, in what I believe is the true sense of the Gospels. Love. And I try to be catholic in lower case: all embracing. In this season, I embrace you all.

It’s unlikely that the historical Jesus was born on December 25. It’s also hard to know what he actually said and did, since his scribes, the ones who actually wrote down the Gospels, did not know him. But though the New Testament lacks the stories of lust and war that made for thrilling action movies, it does have stories. Nuanced, enigmatic, defying common sense, coming from the lips of Jesus. A reliable narrator? Well, you got to believe a lot of impossible shit to think he’s reliable. Does that sound like modernist and postmodernist narrative? Did I need to study such narrative before I could appreciate the parables and the koan-like answers to questions? Possibly. 

No matter (all spirit). I wish you all, followers of the religions of the desert, lapsed and practicing; practitioners of the spiritual arts that flowed and flow from Mother India; children of the orishas; rapturous seekers from the plains and mountains and jungles of the Americas (pásamelo, hermano); ancestor worshippers; activists and contemplatives; fundamentalists of their respective Books who could use a little less literalism and a lot more literacy; agnostics and atheists; jokers and smokers and midnight tokers: a very merry Christmas!

Les Damnés de la Terre

Anxiety is the enemy of patience. Having retreated to a more solitary, hopefully even meditative, situation, I wait for the fast-stumbling selves of my past life to catch up and stabilize, like in that photographic trick where multiple exposures trail behind and in sci-fi comics movies accordion in until the superhero or super-villain becomes one image. Anxiety leaves those multiple exposures dangling. Exposed.

Are spirits responsible for anxiety or playing it to their advantage? I tend to believe so, but then I tend to believe that something spiritual, or to use a more structured word, religious, is at play in everything human. A psychiatrist friend of my family once told the story of counseling a santero who had no experience or knowledge of psychotherapy and wanted to know what kind of trabajo the psychiatrist did. I work with the psyche, the doctor told him. And what is that?, the santero asked. The spirit, the doctor replied, I work with the spirit. The santero agreed to counseling.

Anxiety and its cousin, depression, are inherited it seems, though they are shaped by life experiences. How much control do we have? Hard for me to say. Control in my case has consisted of seeking professional help, taking medications, certain practices like meditation and prayer, and just plain waiting till they passed. Could I cowboy up and through them? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Succumbing to a panic attack used to be called cowardice, the kind that got a slap from General Patton. Now we have psychiatric names for all kinds of behavior. Some righteous folk decry this, seeing excuses for lack of moral fiber. My righteousness doesn’t go there, for in that case I’d have to judge myself harshly. I too decry lack of moral fiber, but never aimed at who succumbs to a panic attack. There’s far worse behavior than that.

Like everyone else I read Frantz Fanon in the sixties. What stuck with me was not his text on oppression and liberation, but the case studies, not of victims but of torturers. They were thoroughly fucked up. Well deserved, one might say, but their mental pain was real and harrowing. Karma? Maybe. Compassion for them? I felt it when I read it. We are all the wretched of the Earth because pain haunts us, some of which we manufacture ourselves. There is pain around the corner, anxiety whispers to me, from the torturer or from those you dreamt of torturing or from the devil or from God. Be afraid. And take your meds.



It’s been my fate to live at this crossroads, not the kind where the devil teaches me how to be the best blues-guitar player in exchange for my mortal soul, a bargain given how badly I play. The crossroads where I stand is where women’s demands intersect the patriarchy.

Of course, my crossroads looks more like a Los Angeles freeway interchange, all knotted crisscrosses and loops. There’s the mayhem of the political moment, about which I need not add my comments. There’s that slight matter of nuclear war, which quite literally blows away the whole intersection. There’s the slower but just as destructive environmental crisis, which will also blot out all other concerns. There are the cries of “God is great!”, a noble sentiment when not accompanied by slaughter. There are the mass shootings at which neither God nor greatness is present. There’s a lot more, but what I’m addressing here is the toppling of male idols from all walks of public life, kings of kings now colossal wrecks.

Were I higher up the food chain, I too might topple. Mea culpa (Mea Cuba, to quote a writer whose quips on this matter I’d love to hear). But, mixing muddled metaphors, these issues are above my pay grade and, shamelessly carrying on with language if not with women, that was in this country, and besides, the stud is not dead yet but mostly out to pasture.

Sexual harassment. The most obvious is: sleep with me and you’ll get promoted, don’t and you’ll get fired. Or, as a woman told me after getting hired at one of those all Latin American and mostly Cuban enterprises in Miami, a male colleague let her know that aquí hay que templar — here one has to fuck. Simple.

From there things get foggy. Groping. Like it or not, one need socialize with colleagues, which often involves drinking, which lubricates mischief. Have I groped? Sure. Was it welcome? Often. Have I been groped? Yes. Was it welcome? Usually, though sometimes it was embarrassing, particularly if it came from a guy. The fogginess in these cases came from alcohol — and other shit.

Innuendo. There’s a thin line there. Some people of different genders and orientations generate a flow of innuendo, which if witty is mostly tolerated and even admired. Others lack grace, and some — the blatant harassers — are about as subtle as the guy who said aquí hay que templar, hoping for a response like yes, fuck me now. Then there are the ones who push it, who are not dissuaded by obvious rejection or even disgust. Though I’ve certainly indulged in innuendo, I've backed off quickly at signs of rejection and most certainly disgust. Political correctness? Nah. Ego.

Have I used the leverage of my rank for seductive gain? I don’t know. Honest. It’s in the nature of one’s standing in a hierarchy as embedded as male dominance that one doesn’t have to think about privilege. Same as race: of course all lives matter, but the point here is that black lives matter, fool; many white folk can’t and certainly don’t want to figure that out. So here I’ve been, a male, surrounded by comely females, with some programming urging me toward them. Do I stop to ponder gender and hierarchical inequalities? Didn’t I already pay my dues as a consciousness-raised man by changing diapers? I stop to ponder nothing. I don’t stop until stopped. I get stopped easily — that ego thing. Some men don’t.

Consider Harvey Weinstein, a gargoyle in (as he saw it) a harim. A veritable Quasimodo, but powerful. In a way, I pity him. I was never that unlovable, and I never worked in an environment full of females one of whose functions was to stoke male desire. All those women on the screen I’ve lusted after precisely because their presence was calibrated to excite me (Gwyneth Paltrow climaxing as Ethan Hawke strokes her pussy over her panties in Great Expectations, for example), those women are there, live, in the sweet flesh, at arm’s reach of the powerful gargoyle. He stretches his arm. What would I do? In my job as an entertainment journalist I’ve met some alluring women. For the length of an interview. I succumbed to their charms, but if I stretched my arm it was to take notes, and later, still bedazzled, I channeled the energy of my turn-on into my writing, holding the reins tight to avoid a misstep. No modesty: I did a fine job. Did I entertain propositioning them? You bet. Did I ever? No way.

The patriarchy crumbles around me. No worries. I’m a patriarch only in having progeny. Otherwise, I’m just an observer. Should I be summoned for past offenses, I’ll save my inquisitors some effort right now. Yes, I wanted all of you, and God knows what fairness I violated in the pursuit of. . . what? Happiness, for that’s what I always thought of sex. I’m too old to break at the wheel; the breaking is happening by itself. Carry on, female warriors. I sympathize, even though I must not always have been so simpatico. Men are getting their comeuppance and rightfully so. Me? I’m still trying to figure out those Robert Johnson licks, and no devil is coming around to teach me.





Village People

In the mid 1980s I fulfilled a lifelong fantasy I never thought would come true. I joined the writing staff of the Village Voice. Our editors were the best. They treated us all as important writers, giving us and even encouraging creative freedom while enforcing linguistic and intellectual (same thing really) coherence and discipline. They were brilliant individuals, none more than Ellen Willis, whom I used to read in the 60s, back when being a New York writer seemed as distant a dream as traveling to Mars.

She was tough. Being edited by her was not exactly a love-in. She called me on all my shit and I could not charm my way out of rewriting what was sloppy. She was serious and she took me seriously, which coming from someone I so admired was far more flattering than if she had thought all my writerly sleight-of-hand was cute. It was an amazing learning experience.

At some point in our editing sessions the issue of machismo came up and she encouraged me to write an essay about it, which would’ve been, edited by her, an unparalleled opportunity. Alas, like other such windows that opened for me at the time, I was not ready for it, and we agreed it was better for me to pass on it than to write something trite — not that any triteness would ever get past her.

Well, Ellen, if there is an afterlife where you check up on those you influenced, I’m ready now. In memoriam Ellen Willis, here is my ensayo, which in Spanish means essay, ergo attempt, as well as rehearsal. To be posted here in installments. 



Chega de Saudade

West Lafayette, Indiana was nothing like Bloomington, where I’d lived during graduate school. The land was flat, unlike the foothills of Southern Indiana, and there were few trees. The campus of Purdue University, where I taught for a semester, was far from sylvan, while Indiana University had untouched woods and ivy-covered buildings at its oldest end; at the other, there was a more gardened forest and modernist piles of monumental attitude and size. By comparison, Purdue seemed like an overgrown public high school.

I didn’t like the look of the place, so unlike the coziness and historicity of Eastern liberal-arts campuses. But in a moment when the academic job market was dry, I had gotten this one. My new department had some talent, including a famous historian of literature, and some smart colleagues of my generation, including a Post-Structuralist Mormon! And they were set on gathering steam and prestige. It was a good career move.

I had landed there in the middle of winter, with permanent snow banks several feet high. My department had found me a place to live, a furnished studio apartment in a modern and insipid complex, all that was available at the last moment. I took a bus to work, riding in the cold early mornings with the local women, all country ladies of a certain age who did custodial work on campus. They were a chatty lot, particularly colorful the morning after the Winter Olympics, the hyperbolic name of an annual midnight race among fraternity brothers, who ran naked in the cold February air; this was, I believe, the reason for Purdue’s claim to have invented streaking. But what charmed my ear was these ladies’ ribald tone of voice as they imagined the naked men in the flush of athletic youth.

Eventually, I would have friends, including a girlfriend in whose spacious Victorian home I’d spend a bit of my time. And eventually spring came: the temperature and my spirits lifted. But these were not enough to mask the barrenness of northern Indiana or the graceless campus, so when Purdue offered me a permanent position, I chose instead an offer from an old liberal-arts college in Pennsylvania. But before then, before the snows had melted, I was racked with longing for a home with a patina of coziness. And I had found what I wanted, though perhaps only in my imagination.

I often walked back to my dwelling from the building where I taught classes, and in those walks I passed the house where I wanted to live. It was big and gracious, but no mansion. More like an old and attractive family home of generous enough proportions. I never did see who lived there, maybe a professor and his or her brood, maybe a group of students. There were lights on inside during the dark winter. There must have been a fireplace. The house emanated a warm glow.

I wanted to walk in, take off my snow-crusted boots, join everyone for a fine meal, drink wine and joke at the table, sit later by the fire. My move to Indiana from Connecticut, where I had been teaching at a prestigious liberal arts college, was more than just my grasping at a fortunate job offer. I was ending my marriage, and this move was the beginning of a separation, not just from my wife but also from my two young sons. I learned that it's possible to be homesick even when one had not been happy at home, and, in fact, I wasn’t longing for my home but for a home. A warm inviting house like the one I passed every day on the way to my temporary studio apartmen.

I went back to Connecticut at the end of the academic year and spent the summer there before I made a permanent move to my new job in Pennsylvania. It was a happy season, though I was basically homeless, sometimes not knowing where I would bunk for the night. I slept on friends’ couches and guest rooms, and for a few weeks I house-sat a lovely faculty home. It didn’t faze me. I was surrounded by good friends and the homes where I stayed were inviting and sweet, like that house off the Purdue campus that filled me with saudade, the word Brazilians say means nostalgia for something one never knew.

That house had been all unfulfilled promise, like Joyce’s “Arabia.” I didn't live in that house. I wasn’t even inside. But it has stayed with me during a long errant existence, a nomad in spite of myself, racked all my life with feelings of homelessness, with saudade. (Is that why when I visited Rio just walking around the city moved me to tears?) 

I live in a beautiful rural setting now, in my own place that was once my parents' and after their passing I have transformed into my home, next door to my sister and her husband, with whom I share much of my life. But I still nurse a longing for that house in Indiana, surrounded by snow but giving off a light from inside. 

My friend Sarah, a poet who has studied such things, told me once when I shared my longings with her, more from dreams than from memories but they were the same, she told me Buddhists say such dreams are how the soul prepares for death. Nothing sad about it, she insisted. And she told me this so long ago that obviously there was no forecast of imminent death, nor do I think there is now as I still long for the inviting house in West Lafayette, the one I couldn’t live in or even enter as I made do with a nondescript studio apartment in the snow-banked winter.


Death of Achilles.jpeg

música ligera:/La Sonora Matancera — Severo Sarduy

If I die from cancer — a real possibility but one I hope doesn't materialize until I'm, oh, 100 — please don't say I lost a battle with cancer. War is war and illness is illness. Don't muddle them by using belic imagery. It does a disservice to warriors and to us civilians who carry a disease.

I've never been in a battle. I respect those who have, as long as they behaved honorably. To deal with illness is another matter. You don't fight. Instead, you subject yourself to medications and procedures. Things are done to you that you hope will do you good. Not that you are entirely passive. Compliance is important — and often difficult. But it would be vainglorious of me to claim I'm being heroic. I am no Achilles, and no amount of wrath will make a difference,

"I want you to get angry with cancer", a well-meaning friend told me. But dear friend, I had to reply, anger has been drained from me precisely by the procedures I have undergone in this so-called battle. Oh how I would love to take those balletic leaps that Brad Pitt takes, sword in hand, as the legendary warrior. But one of the things that has been drained from me is precisely my ability to leap. Well, it wasn't just medical procedures. It was age, that enemy of leaps.

See, I have slipped into belic imagery. Age is no enemy. It is what is. Battling it makes no sense. Sure, one can be stronger and more supple as one ages if one engages in activities that could include, among many options, martial arts. The arts of Mars, who by now must be a very old god.

As must be Venus. Still, we continue to imagine her firm-breasted and alluring. Mars, Venus Aphrodite, gods that enthralled me in my early life when I first discovered them, read about them, saw their images in sculpture and painting — or rather the reproductions of such works, until the day I visited the Louvre and sweet mutilated Venus was surrounded by camera-clicking admirers from Japan.

Oh gods of violence and sex. Let this mortal who has worshipped you since pre-adolescence live a little longer. Without fighting, though perhaps one could stretch the meaning and say his physicians are.

So no belic imagery in my obituary. No battles lost. Say that I loved, not always wisely, but who does? Say that mostly I sang. Achilles died, even if Homer did not tell us. But Homer never died. He was a succession of singers, he was many. And without trying, he became eternal, like the gods. So let me disappear into his fold. Without a battle. Say that I never stopped singing. And never will.



Incroyables Florides

Heston - Jackson.jpg

Florida is an act of the imagination, I'm not saying anything new. Only California rivals it. But the western state looks solid (falsely, we know) while Florida seems to be floating. Which it is, damn wet here. Still, Florida has historical depth: la Florida profunda.

It was the Bush/Gore Election Day and I was standing in the voting line with my neighbors in our small beach town. I struck a conversation with one I didn't know, a lady of retirement age who I learned had been a teacher. And, unlike most of us in line, she was a native Floridian. In fact, she said proudly, she was a sixth-generation Floridian. Her I-forget-how-many-greats grandfather was governor of Florida. "He fought with Andrew Jackson in the Seminole Wars", she said, "and in the Battle of New Orleans. Which we won."

"I know", I said.

"How do you know?", she asked me incredulously. She already knew I was Cuban, like so many Miamians.

"I learned it in high school."

In truth, though the battle was taught in my American History class, it was the movie with Charlton Heston as Jackson and a toupeed Yul Brynner as Jean Lafitte I remembered. Somehow our chat landed on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings' black descendants, whom she swept aside saying DNA tests had proven the ones who claimed this were no such thing. I thought the results showed the opposite, but before I could riposte, she clinched her case: "He would have never done that to his wife."

How little you know men, or people for that matter, I thought but did not say. No point. She was as convinced of that as she was about voting for George W. Bush. She stepped out of line for a moment and I noticed a neighbor from my own building a few places behind me. "I just met someone who's a sixth-generation Floridian and descended from a governor of Florida." "I am too", he said to my surprise. "Twelve generations ago."

My neighbor was Cuban-American and he said his ancestor had also been governor of Cuba; both the island and the peninsula had been Spanish territories. When the lady returned to the line I introduced her to my neighbor. "Your ancestor of six generations was Governor of Florida. Well, his, twelve generations ago, was Governor of Florida. Isn't that something?"

She looked puzzled. This just couldn't be. "He governed Florida for the Spanish Crown", I said, to explain what she could not understand. She muttered something like, that doesn't count, I couldn't hear her clearly. And she did not speak another word to me as we waited, our votes and some local shenanigans about to change the course of history.