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The Quixotic Appeal of Hamilton

26 Dec

I may never be in the room where it happens…and that’s ok.

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Like hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of other Americans, I am dying to see the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.” I’ve dutifully watched the PBS documentary on it’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Eagerly listened to the singles from the mixtape as they dropped. Applauded the cast for their appeal to Mike Pence during a curtain call at a NYC show.

I’ve got Hamilton fever. And it feels pretty good.

It’s something to commiserate with certain friends over—a game to talk about what we’d have to be able to give up just to score a scalped $500 ticket to a weekday matinee.

“If I just ate nothing but beans for a whole month, didn’t run the heat or AC, used just one solar-powered flashlight and donated plasma 6 times, I think I could totally swing it. I’d be so regular too!”

It’s a way to connect with higher rolling friends.

“I heard American Express Platinum Card Members can get face value tickets to two shows in 2017, but you can only buy those tickets if you’ve spent like $50,000 in a month with American Express. So can you hook me up?”

It’s opening up the potential to travel to places besides New York, Chicago, or San Franciso, and experience shows besides Hamilton.

“Season ticket holders to the performing arts center in Charlotte are GUARANTEED dibs on tickets to Hamilton. So if I just buy tickets to three shows I don’t really want to see in a city I don’t really want to visit, I can get Hamilton tickets!”

It’s encouragement to be charitable.

“If I donate $5,000 to Planned Parenthood, I could potentially win tickets to THREE Hamilton shows. And I get a signed CD!”

It’s helping me break my addiction to Facebook—instead of trolling my newsfeed and seeing what a bunch of people I don’t care about are doing, I troll Ticketmaster.

“Surely a Wednesday 2 pm show in the middle of August would have a ticket available for under $400….Nope. Hmmm…. Let me just try a few more searches. Just a few more hours.”

It’s making me consider using hoarded Skymiles to take multiple trips to New York City. And actually learn how to make statistical calculations.

“If I go for three days once every three months and enter the Hamilton lottery for every show while I’m there, then what are my odds of finally hitting the jackpot and getting those $10 front row seats?”

Since I’ve never seen Hamilton I can’t say this for sure, but the quest to try to see Hamilton seems like almost as much fun as actually seeing it. It feels like trying to get the Golden Ticket, but for an elaborate re-imagining of our nation’s history with rap battles and choreography instead of a chocolate factory.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see Hamilton, but I’m getting to the point where I’m so wrapped up in the quest, the desire to see Hamilton, that I wonder if there’s any way it could actually live up to the hype.

I’m sure I’ll see it eventually….I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m willing to wait for it and I’m sure that I’ll leave satisfied.

Cuban Coffee Never Tastes the Same in America

12 Apr

Cuban coffee never tastes the same in America.

Is it the quality of the water? How my cafetera hasn’t been being seasoned since the fall of the Soviet Union? Am I lacking the attitude as I prepare it, the ‘I may not have much, but at least I have coffee?’

Is it because it’s not percolating over an overpriced Chinese stove or perhaps a burner that hasn’t been replaced since the 70s? Is it because I didn’t mop my kitchen floor with a rag on a stick, because all I have to do to get eggs is get in my 2007 Prius and drive to the nearest grocery store?

Is it becasue my tongue still can’t roll those double rr’s, even though I can voy pa’ ‘lante y que pinga asere with the rest of them? Is it because the air isn’t thick with the exhaust fumes of six decades of failing transmissions, occasionally moved by a salty breeze from our own shores?

Is it because the spoon I use to stir in the sugar was so easy to acquire, a Target trip where I stocked my entire kitchen in an hour instead of cobbling together the necessities over years of searching and gifts brought to the island?

Who knows why Cuban coffee tastes different here, but the impetus to return to that singular flavor sits tauntingly on the back of my palate, part craving, part memory.

My friend and incredible artist Reynier Llanes gets the power of this stuff…check out his “Equilibrium” Cuban Espresso Coffee paintings here

This is what dying sounds like

15 Jun

A companion to “Pain Demands to Be Felt: An Homage to My Grandmother.” 

The rattle of the oxygen machine, white noise in the background humming day and night. The click of the medicine bottle cap opening, the rattle of a half-dozen pills as they clatter together in your shaking hands. Gentle slurping through a straw, because it hurts to eat solid food.

This is what dying sounds like.

The creak of the hospital bed as you adjust it’s height, the sharp intake of breath as you change positions. The tapping of the walker’s feet along the kitchen floor, the dull thud when you move across the carpet. The shrill ringing of the phone every few hours with friends and well-wishers.

This is what dying sounds like.

 The slam of a car door as the nurse pulls up, the roar of the ignition as she leaves. Repeated the next day with a different car, a different model, and the next with yet another. The soft and steady cadence of a best friend’s voice as she prays for your relief.

 This is what dying sounds like.

The harsh sobs when the pain finally becomes too much, when the dam is released and a hiccupping flood is started. When the quiet agony is finally given a voice, when your internal pleading for respite is cried out. The silent tears rolling down my face as you hold me and I hold you.

This is what dying sounds like.

Is There a Doctor in the House?

20 May

I’ve had some pretty interesting experiences in the health and beauty department in Cuba. I’ve had my hair cut in four different places, including sitting on gym equipment on a rooftop and the back room of a house, had my nails done in a government institution, gone to a woman’s apartment at night for a wax, and can now add getting a massage in a privately owned salon to my list of adventures.

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            The massage was nice, but what it demonstrated to me was how much more lucrative the private service industry is for the average Cuban—more so than any other profession including being a doctor or a lawyer.

 

            Oscarito, a lawyer who is the son of the couple that I’m renting a room from during my stay, owns the salon I visited, located on the first floor of a beautiful early 20th century mansion in the Vedado neighborhood. He repainted the walls and trim in the high-ceilinged rooms and it has an airy front porch with white wrought iron rocking chairs where you can sit while waiting for your appointment. His wife cuts hair and the salon also offers pedicures, manicures, facial waxing, weight loss wraps, massages, and facials.

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            During a break in the tour schedule, I took two of the ladies to the salon and while they got their nails done ($0.50 for a manicure, $1.00 for a pedicure) I went for a massage, figuring that since it was only $10 CUC (which is basically $10 or $12 USD) I had nothing to lose. I was introduced to the masseuse, Yane a brunette dressed head-to-toe in fire engine red spandex, a la a Cuban Olympiad. We were already off to a great start.

            She led me into the massage room, a small space that had a massage table covered in a white sheet and a “Cuba” bath towel. She had the most professional manner of anyone I have met in Cuba, except for maybe one of the Cuba guides that I worked with last year who spoke English with a British accent (and maybe I only thought him professional because of that). She was courteous, telling me to get comfortable and leaving me to disrobe and hop on the table. When she came back in, I told her that I wanted a full body massage and she set up a playlist on her iPad mini and got to work.

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            I’ve met some pretty forcible Cubans (like my ballet and yoga teachers) but she was gentle, almost too gentle, lightly rubbing honey-scented massage oil across my back. I didn’t want to be a diva American and demand more pressure, so I just went with it. I was too distracted anyway by what seemed to be piano instrumental versions of all of the hits from the 40s through the 80s coming from her iPad to say too much. I mentally sang along with “I will always love you,” Lionel Richie, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” some upbeat renditions of a few Beatles songs, and I’m pretty sure “42nd Street” made an appearance.

            She picked up the pressure some on my arms and legs, and spent a solid amount of time massaging my face and head, which was unexpected but delightful.

            At the end of the hour, during which I almost fell asleep, she gently woke me up and told me to take my time coming back out.

            After the massage, I talked to Maira, Oscarito’s mother, curious how long Yane had been working as a masseuse.

           “She used to be a doctor. General medicine and really good. But she has a daughter and spent too much time taking care of her and this is better money anyways.”

            I was completely shocked. A doctor turned masseuse? Not to follow a long held dream of relieving muscular tension, but because the money is better. As crazy as it sounds, unfortunately stories like that aren’t uncommon. Like anyone working in a government job, doctors in Cuba don’t make much, somewhere in the neighborhood of the average $20 or $40 a month salary, so of course Yane would work as a masseuse where she could clear her doctor’s salary in just one day of work. Though the other beauticians saw a mixture of locals and tourists, Yane mostly works with tourists because few Cubans are going to pay $10 CUC for a massage since $10 CUC used correctly can probably feed a family for a week here.

            I spend that much money on one or two cocktails in Charleston and think nothing of it, and felt a little bit ashamed that $10 is such an easy amount of money for me to spend. To relieve my guilty conscience, I tipped Yane $5 and thanked her profusely. I didn’t ask about any of the other girls in the salon, but I wonder if the esthetician that does facials used to be a chemical engineer…

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A Place Which We Call The Twilight Zone…

14 May

I’ve been in Havana for a week and one of my most pressing goals for this trip was to see my old ballet teacher, Daniel. Some of you may remember my other posts about him—I’m not sure if I mentioned this or not, but once Daniel realized he would never make me cry in his class, we became great friends, and I couldn’t wait to see him and catch up.Image

I went by the ballet school yesterday and was directed to find him in the main Ballet Nacional building, where I asked the gap-toothed lady at the front desk where he was. She looked at me like I was crazy and carrying some kind of communicable disease.

“You know…Daniel? He teaches the international students?”

I tried every combination of words I could think of to get the message across, but she kept giving me a very terrified look and adamantly insisting she had no idea who I was talking about. I understand the terrified look accompanying talking about Daniel, but since she didn’t seem to know him, I was a little confused.

I felt a bit deflated, so I decided to just sit outside of the building and wait for him to come out. A minute later, my former landlady, Jessie, a gorgeous principal dancer in the Ballet Nacional ran out, gave me a huge hug and kiss and I asked her where he was. She kindly led me through the crowds of dancers stretching and talking in the breezy courtyard and pointed me upstairs. I stole a peek at the dancers rehearsing a scene from the upcoming performance of “Coppelia” and made my way to the back studio, a narrow pink hallway of a room that seemed to have plywood for floors. Daniel was sitting in a chair at the front yelling at his only student for the day, a Colombian guy who was doing a complicated series of petite allegro.

I stood for a minute and he turned and looked at me. He took ten seconds to process that it was me and smiled.

“No kidding!” he wrapped me up in a huge hug and then pointed to the stairwell. “Sit. We have to talk.”

I took a seat and watched him put the boy through his paces.

“Mejor!” he shouted at the Colombian, “When you first came, I thought you were a disaster and I wanted to kill myself, but you’ve gotten better.”

I suppressed a laugh and watched the last 15 minutes of class. At one point, Daniel was explaining the physics of a pirouette and was telling the boy to not wind up too much with his arms. To prove his point, he stood up, prepped the turn, and proceeded to execute an octo-pirouette, turning eight times before neatly finishing the turn.

Show off.

The class finished soon thereafter and Daniel turned his attention to me. I gave him the Reader’s Digest version of my life right now and then asked about his.

“ I am so happy now!” he exclaimed, “I have made many changes in my life to be much happier.”

“Such as?”

“I am separated from my wife!” he announced triumphantly, with the type of smile that usually accompanies an announcement like “I won the lottery” or “My favorite team won the playoffs,” not “I’m getting divorced.”

“But it’s not an official divorce yet. It’s very difficult to get divorced here in Cuba.”

I called bullshit on that. I’ve heard that it costs something like 90 Cuban pesos to get married and 45 to get divorced and that it’s just a matter of getting some papers signed or something.

“Well, it would be easy, but I have to get a piece of paper first that proves I was married. And the problem is that I can’t get the paper because the office is only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:30 to 12:30, and that’s when I have to work.”

It was such a typical Cuban problem—offices being open during erratic and inconvenient hours and a pile of bureaucracy that prevents him from sending an emissary to pick up one piece of paper.

“People will ask me ‘How long have you been married?’ and I will say ‘Fifty years,’ and they’ll say ‘Oh that’s great’ and I’ll say ‘Yes, but I haven’t seen my wife in forty years,’” Daniel said and began cackling.

I knew he was a writer as well and asked him about his work. He’s written five novels, has a few of them published, and is working on another one. He proceeded to explain the premise of his books and I swear they are a Cuban version of “The Twilight Zone.”

In his books, people live in “The City,” and have supernatural abilities or find strange things happening to them. “The City” is a character in itself and is a metaphor for God or the Universe (OR THE TWILIGHT ZONE!). It’s neither good nor bad, but everywhere, and functions according to certain rules. He spent a good 15 minutes explaining the premise of one of his stories wherein a man discovers that he is a character in a novel and can hear the voice of the author writing out his story. The character goes to the tundra and leaves behind his world to go to “reality” and find the author of his story. When the character find the author, the author tells the character that reality is just what you make it to be, and that the author is a character himself in someone else’s story.

It was all very meta and Twilight Zone-y. After talking for an hour, I told Daniel to wait a minute while I went to grab my friend Grace, a fellow American ballet student. When we came back upstairs to the studio, Daniel was shirtless in front of the mirror doing Tai Chi to Madonna music.

“I always wanted to be a ninja. But I got stuck with ballet,” he said while gracefully moving through a Tai Chi sequence. “Also Madonna is very good for Tai Chi.”

Grace and I couldn’t handle Daniel anymore, so we bid him adios and went on our way for lunch, until, a few drinks later, we called Daniel and convinced him to come to lunch with us. It started raining and we were stuck in a bar with Daniel for a few hours talking about his relationships, but that’s a story for another post…

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Radio Talk: Salsa Date

1 May

Last night, I was invited to be a guest on “Love Bent and Adventure Bound,” a weekly radio show hosted by Ben-Jamin Toy and his co-hosts, Sparkle and Eric. The show’s main focus is adventure dating, and Ben asked me to talk about Salsa dancing and if Salsa makes for a good date.

Hmm…

I had to think about it before I went on the show. Personally, I would not use going to Salsa as a date and have pretty strong opinions about dating within your hometown Salsa scene (but I won’t get into that here). Also, I wouldn’t bring a guy that I’m just starting to date to Salsa, especially if he didn’t really dance (“Hey honey, sit down and watch me dance for three hours). However, I recognize that it’s different for me as an instructor and Salsa addict than it is for someone who has maybe never danced before.

So that caveat aside, yes, I do think that taking Salsa classes and then going out dancing socially would be an excellent date.

Probably not a first date, but if you’ve been going out with someone for a few weeks or months and are ready to mix it up a little bit, taking Salsa classes together would be great. You would be bonding over the shared experience of learning a new skill, have an opportunity to take your burgeoning (or established) relationship out of the one-on-one date realm, and be introduced to a whole world of passion and excitement that I think can sometimes be difficult to tap into (My buddy Richie discussed the passion that Salsa awakens in people here).

However, I would caution people who are taking classes as a couple to avoid falling into the trap of just dancing with your guy or girl.

For non-dancers, one of the most difficult parts of social dancing can be when your significant other (or date) is dancing with other people. But trust me ladies and gentleman, it’s for everyone’s own good.

You will never improve as a dancer if you don’t test yourself and dance with other people—if you get too used to dancing with just one guy, you won’t actually learn how to follow, you’ll just memorize your guy’s moves and it will get boring really fast. The same thing applies to leads—you’ll think you’re a great lead because your girl has memorized your moves, not because you’re actually leading them well.

So, if you’re planning to take Salsa classes with your significant other or someone you’re tryna holler at, be prepared to dance with lots of other people. For some, it requires a degree of trust that can be uncomfortable if you’re a jealous type of person, but when you realize that a dance can just be dance, it frees you up to enjoy dances with other people. Then, when you dance with your significant other or date, you can change the attitude and make it a little bit more sensual, flirtatious, silly, sexy—whatever your chemistry and style dictates.

I probably didn’t articulate any of what I’ve written here during the interview, but I did impart some wisdom that I think is invaluable to all Salsa dancers, whether on a date or not:

Ladies, test drive your skirts before you take them out dancing. Salsa wardrobe malfunctions are the kind of malfunctions.

Steve the Exterminator

11 Apr

    A vital component of living in Downtown Charleston is adequate and regular pest control. Otherwise, your living space will be overrun with “palmetto bugs” and other less-than-savory visitors.

            This morning was our scheduled quarterly fumigation, and Steve the Exterminator visited our apartment at 8 am. In Nike running shorts and, what I later realized, a backward t-shirt, I greeted Steve and chatted with him while he went about his work and I made the transition from zombie to human being with my morning caffeine hit.

            I’m pretty sure I had a brush with genius in talking to Steve.

            For starters, believe it or not, pest control guys make a pretty decent living. He said he can make anywhere from $500 to $2,000 in a days work, since he does a lot of commercial accounts, like office buildings and restaurants, and has a good reputation.

            But more interesting than the economics of pest control were Steve’s comments about how he occupies his brain.

            “I was watching that Enterprise show and they did that cloaking thing, and I was thinking about how you could do that with your clothes,” he said, as he stood against the mantlepiece. “You’d just need some clothes that had some fiber optics that could blend in with the background.”

            True Steve, that’s one way to do it. I’m pretty sure the US military already has something like that in operation.

            He said he likes to do math in his spare time, and will occasionally call up a brother-in-law if he gets caught up on a complicated physics equation.

            “That guy is like Sheldon from that Bang T.V. show my wife likes to walk,” he told me, “He’s still sour because I beat him in chess a few weeks ago. He said it was like a fifth-grader beating a college professor.”

            Probably my favorite part of our exchange was him talking about how he studies the bugs themselves.

            “I’ve got a pile of books about insects and microbes and all that stuff. My wife calls my pile of books the command center.”

            I just imagined Steve, a little taller than me with salt-and-pepper hair, in a wing-backed chair plotting his attack against household pests. It was like a real-life Ender’s Game. Him trying to get inside the Buggers’ heads so he could defeat them and defend humankind from certain xenocide. Getting inside the enemy’s head so he could completely annihilate it.

            Steve also spent a good deal of our conversation trying to convince me to get into pest control, because the money is good and having a college degree doesn’t really mean anything in this day and age. I have been considering a bit of a career transition, and I’m sure Steve would be willing to mentor me in commercial bug extermination…