Sunday 19 December 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Christmas and New Year Reflections and Music

Self-deluded, indulgent, (over)exposed, arrogant, "inadequate, pimpled and single" (the last three epithets courtesy of Andrew 'Bah, humbug!' Marr of the BBC). When it comes to describing bloggers, there's no shortage of insults to hurl at us. How unfair. And pathetic.

I joined Blogland in 2007. I'd just had an article published in a national newspaper and realised that I didn't have a platform on which to continue to discuss the issues about which I had written. Since my column had been on dance, it was logical to open a forum about this art form. Thus, I spoke to the designer who'd created my website a couple of years before about opening a space for debate, but she told me that online talkboards, fora and blogs cost money. It was then that I discovered

I'd heard about blogs before but wasn't very sure about what to expect from blogger (in the back of my mind I probably had a similar prejudice to Andrew 'Ebenezer' Marr's about online posters). Since it was a free service, I had nothing to lose and in June 2007 (cue drum roll) 'A Cuban In London' was born. The name was not easy to choose. I first thought of a catchy one like 'Our Cuban In London', echoing Graham Greene's Cold War novel. But it'd been such a long time since I'd read about Wormold and his web of deceit that I gave up on the idea almost immediately. Around that time one of the British television channels showed 'An American In Paris' and I knew there and then that I'd found a good alternative for the name of my little online nook. Still doubts kept creeping in. It's all right if your blog has a generic name (including your real one), or a title that is closely related to the issue(s) about which you write. But when you define yourself by your nationality, gender, or political leaning, you might, unintentionally, be courting controversy. After all, what is a Cuban, besides the obvious answer: a person born in Cuba? And in what way, I thought at the time, would I be contributing to people's notions of what my countrywomen and men were like? Then, there was the most important question: what did it mean to be a Cuban in London?

After some weeks of - aimless - blogging, I realised that really and truly, besides dance, I had a lot of topics to write about, issues that I had not even contemplated addressing before, matters that had last been discussed to the soundtrack of an empty bottle of rum rolling down the floor of a desolate school dormitory in the small hours. I'd acquired some experience writing for the now defunct monthly newspaper "Noticias", a publication aimed at the Latin community in London. I had also written a few music and books reviews for websites. I put those skills into practice. Dance was not the only subject on which I could wax lyrical. Cultural, social and the occasional political post could well be woven into my online threads. I'd finally found my blog's mission statement.

And friends. During the first few weeks my comments section looked as arid as the Sahara Desert, but little by little, fellow bloggers arrived. My compadres and comadres from Cuba and other Ibero-Latin countries were the first ones on board. They were quickly followed by a coterie of US-, and later, UK-based posters, who were sometimes acquainted with Cuban culture. Eventually the list of international contributors to my comments section grew enough to resemble an ad for Benetton, not only due to our ethnic mix, my darlings, but also to our glamour. Credit where credit is due (smiles and flutters Penélope Cruz-style eyelashes). These fellow posters gave me the encouragement I needed to go the extra mile, to make an effort.

Online friendships work differently from real, physical ones. I think that on that point we all pretty much agree. But our cyber-social interaction needn't be cold and distant. After all, we (I, at least) do spend an awfully long time in front of my PC, reading posts by fellow bloggers, oohing and aahing at their creative output, or at the songs they upload, or at the images they choose to illustrate a particular topic. This exposure to other like-minded folks, even if it was just from the comfort of my computer, led me, shortly after I began my own journey through Blogland, to shed any vestige of prejudice I still had (attention Andrew 'Scrooge' Marr, you'd do well to heed this message).

This is not to say that there are no bloggers for whom my opening words would be a perfect match (thankfully, none belong to this parish). At the last count there were roughly four million blogs in the UK alone. Many times, I've come across websites that are pure vitriol, or are trying to sell something (quick tip, always check your followers' list), or were last updated when Henry VIII was having his little tussle with the Pope. But what I've also realised is that on Blogland, equal attracts equal and after more than three years as a blogger, I count more successes than failures. I especially single out those who've stuck it out with this space for that long.

There're risks, though, in confusing your online life with your real one (if you notice a cautious tone in my words, it is the guarded Scorpio talking). What happens when your fellow bloggers/regular readers unexpectedly disappear? How is one meant to feel when all of a sudden they stop commenting on your posts? Even worse, what about when you pop by a "mutual friend's" blog and you read his/her comments there? Published after your own column went online? How to react? Whereas in real life friendships can either end abruptly (after an awful fall-out, for instance) or peter out slowly, in the wide web world there's no way to arrest the demise of acquaintanceship. All you have is an empty comments box to mull over. Then the questions begin: was it something I wrote? Have I offended him/her? Human emotions on a virtual medium. We homo sapiens surely know how to keep life interesting.

The second risk is the actual, physical disappearance of a fellow blogger, especially someone who has had a big impact on you, be it because of their writing or the thoughtful comments they leave in the feedback section. I still can't get over the death of fellow blogger Renee, who sadly passed away earlier this year. The pain is as palpable as if it had been a friend in real life.

But as I mentioned before the triumphs outnumber the setbacks. In three and a half years as a blogger, these are some of the issues I've discussed and to which I've been introduced, and the writing/photography/art to which I've been exposed:

- Museums I've always wanted to visit and on whose floors, thanks to the existence of blogs, I've left my virtual footprints.
- Musings and observations on the mysteries of life, written with the linguistic flair of an 19th century écrivain.
- Floristry.
- Disability, awareness of it and its effects.
- Books, music and films reviews and recommendations.
- Multilingualism (a topic in which I have a special interest and which never ceases to generate debate).
- Illustrations (and collaborations with caricaturists).
- Travelogues that have taken me from St Kitts to Belgium, from Greenland to Malaysia, from Mexico to Maine. The list is endless, the writing and images are always superb.
- A network of like-minded Cubans, scattered throughout the world, but united by the same desire to be seen as individuals, rather than being defined by a political figure (well past his use-by date, mind you). Incidentally, my blog has just been featured in a book about the Cuban presence in Cyberland called, 'Buena Vista Social Blog'.
- Epic poems whose lessons are still relevant today.
- Discussions about religion and multiculturalism.
- Serious analyses about literature.
- Well-crafted poems, either prompted by a mischievous magpie (isn't that a case of iteration?) or landing on my virtual lap courtesy of a weekly bus.
- Exploration of the subconscious mind through autobiographical writing.
- Cookery columns.

I could carry on forever, but you probably get the gist: like our real human selves in our real human lives, bloggers come in all forms and guises. I consider myself to be one of the luckier ones for having so many online friends with whom I share similar interests. And for that reason, I raise my glass of (insert name of juice here) to you today. As for Andrew 'Fence-sitter-in-chief-at-the-BBC' Marr, well, Andie boy-o, how to put it into words? You know one of those of things that they give you when you're born, it starts with 'l', it has four letters, ends in 'e', you give it back when you die, and it has a lot of stuff happening in the middle? Well, get one, mate. In the meantime allow me to praise my 'bredrin' and 'sistas' from Blogland. May you all have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 9th January at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 12 December 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The first seven lines creep up on you like a stalking tiger. They, then, wrap around your legs like an evergreen shrub and climb up your body until they reach your head. Finally, they break in. Chaos is about to ensue.

When/if the times ever comes to decide upon a melody that perfectly captures a lover's feelings of dejection (and rejection) Nick Cave's "There She Goes, My Beautiful World" must be placed either near or at the top

With this post I am not intending to steal Laura Barton's mantle. The author of the 'Hail, Hail, Rock'n'Roll' columns I thoroughly enjoy every fortnight is inimitable. Nick's song, however, deserves to be dissected because it calls to a different part of me. A part you could say that is rooted in the hopeless, hapless romantic fool I have been at times in my life (not for many years, fortunately, I hasten to add). But, say, dear fellow blogger/reader, who hasn't ever penned a love letter after being dumped?

Letters. Yes, let's talk about letters. Love letters, rejection letters (not of the job type, mind), unrequited love. Missives whose margins still lie firmly on the left. Spillages that owe more to fountain pens than to oil companies. Correspondence born out of different emotions: elation, annoyance, compassion and despondency. Despondency. Step forward Mr Cave.

For some reason, I imagine that the Australian singer wrote "There She Goes..." on a piece of paper, longhand, sitting down on a rock, with his right leg crossed over his left one. I can perfectly imagine him drafting up that second stanza: "John Willmot penned his poetry/riddled with the pox/Nabakov wrote on index cards/at a lectern, in his socks..." I love the way he likens the difficult conditions in which these authors wrote their correspondence to his own predicament:"Well, me, I'm lying here, with nothing in my ears/Me, I'm lying here, with nothing in my ears/Me, I'm lying here, for what seems years/I'm just lying on my bed with nothing in my head". He is empty. He has been emptied. By his lover. Can you empathise with him, bloggers/readers? How many times have you sat there, in your lounge, you, forlorn ex-, wanting to write the letter that will wash everything away, that will return your partner to you, and yet, you can't find the words?

The love letter has a long history. Whether written by jilted lovers or hopeful ones, there are so many examples in literature that picking one or two seems unfair on the rest. However who can forget Beethoven's romantic epistle to his 'immortal beloved'?

"Why this profound sorrow, when necessity speaks? Can our love endure without sacrifices, without our demanding everything from one another, can you alter the fact that you are not wholly mine, that I am not wholly yours?"

C'mon, play the 'Moonlight Sonata' whilst you're reading the words above. And then think of all those lovers who've had to face the stark reality: a 'Return to Sender' for their efforts.

But how many can conjure up the spirits of a German philosopher, a French post-impressionist painter, an English poet and a Welsh writer and still make sense of a sung plea to his lover? Or maybe not make sense at all, but at the same time making it? If you know what I mean. Does it make sense? Anyway, Nick pulls it off beautifully:

"Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles while writing Das Kapital/And Gaugin, he buggered off, man, and went all tropical/While Philip Larkin stuck it out in a library in Hull/And Dylan Thomas died drunk in St. Vincent's hospital"

But if Nick is heart, the piano in 'There She Goes... is soul. Especially as the song reaches its climax. Pity that in the clip below the keyboard is drowned out by the two guitars and bass. In my recording (commonly found on my mp3 player) the frenzy caused by the triumvirate of Cave, lyrics and piano is enough to send me on a sprinting run, especially as I normally listen to this melody whilst out jogging. The irony is that love letters from rejected parties are meant to be calm affairs of the heart. Your passion has been subdued, you can do nothing but give up. Cry your eyes out, drink your blues away, or eat a whole box of bon-bons with your friends. Yet Nick's insistence on becoming one notch up above a doormat borders on the insane: "I will kneel at your feet/I will lie at your door/I will rock you to sleep/I will roll on the floor/And I'll ask for nothing/Nothing in this life/I'll ask for nothing/Give me ever-lasting life"

Valedictory reflection from me today? Sometimes you don't want anyone to know what and how you're feeling. It happened to John Keats. He knew he didn't have much time left in this world on account of his tuberculosis, Yet, that was not deterrent to pen one of the most beautiful love letters ever written, in his case, to Fanny Brawne ("... The last of your kisses was ever the sweetest; the last smile the brightest; the last movement the gracefullest. When you pass'd my window home yesterday, I was fill'd with as much admiration as if I had then seen you for the first time...") The missive remained secret many years after the poet's death. Some other times, though, you want to shout out to the whole world: "I've loved and I've been loved!" Enter Nick again:

"I just want to move the world. I just want to move the world/I just want to move the world/I just want to move (...) So if you got a trumpet, get on your feet, brother, and blow it/If you've got a field, that don't yield, well get up and hoe it/I look at you and you look at me and deep in our hearts know it/That you weren't much of a muse, but then I weren't much of a poet..."

Unrequited love has never sounded so passionate, sincere and honest. Thanks, Nick.

© 2010

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Christmas and New Year Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 19th December at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 5 December 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Last week, I invited fellow bloggers and readers of this blog to take part in a discussion about the gender divide and whether our views, ideas and opinions about it are rooted in our biological make-up or our social interaction. I was very pleased with the feedback, both in the post's comments section and the written correspondence I received from readers. Three bloggers from different walks of life and nationalities (American, Canadian and British) accepted my invitation and today they will be sharing their opinions about this controversial issue. So, without any further ado, let the discussion commence!

Elizabeth Aquino (EA, left) blogs at 'A Moon, Worn As If It Had Been a Shell'. She is a writer living in Los Angeles, California raising a child with severe disabilities as well as two other "typical" children. She works in the health field as a parent support professional and currently have a fellowship at The University of Southern California's University for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. Elizabeth also guest-writes at the blog 'Mama Manifesto'.

Deborah Sudul (DB, right) writes the blog 'The Temptation of Words'. She is a post-feminist mother of two sons and a daughter, which gives her a first-hand view of the differences between sexes and a highly-unscientific opinion about whether those differences are due to genes or upbringing. As the younger, taller sister of two brothers, she was raised by a sensitive father and a strong mother – an experience that taught her that the barriers women – and men – face because of their gender are meant to be ignored.

Rachel Cotterill (RC, left) writes the blog 'The Thoughts and Travels of Rachel Cotterill'. She is a writer who's studying for a PhD in computational linguistics. She lives with her husband in an idyllic cottage in the Cotswolds, but still takes every opportunity to meander through different parts of the globe.

- In your opinion, how much of a role does biological determinism play in defining men and women's place in society?

EA: In my humble opinion I imagine biological determinism plays a big role in defining men and women's place in society but is easily maneuvered over with consciousness, if that makes sense. I always tell the story of my first son, aged two, who I brought to a toy store so that he could pick out a baby doll and prepare to be a big brother (I was pregnant and expecting another boy). My son picked out one of the babies and a pink stroller to put him in. When we got home, he took the stroller out of the car, placed the baby doll carefully inside and buckled the little seat belt over the doll. He then proceeded to shove the stroller as hard as he could down the driveway and watched it as it rolled and tumbled, clapping and yelling, gleeful. I remember wondering where that aggression had come from, wondering that since it hadn't been modeled by anyone in his too short life (at least I thought not), it must have been inherent. I didn't judge it as "bad" or "good" but rather thought it was interesting. And as I've continued to raise two boys and watched my friends raise their boys and girls, I feel like there IS some biological determinism but that biology doesn't actually trump consciousness -- meaning that yes, perhaps we're wired in a primitive fashion as males and females but that evolution, consciousness, etc. can alter that biology and sometimes even trump it.

DB: It’s undeniable, I think, that biology is a huge factor in determining what people are interested in doing, and that translates quite naturally into broad societal assumptions about where men and women ‘belong’. Anyone who has had children of both sexes has a story to tell about hard-wired feminine or masculine interests, however what has changed in the last few decades is the willingness of Western society to acknowledge that there is far more cross-over in gender roles than was previously thought. I’ll go out on a limb and say that while engineering schools might now admit an equal number of females as males, overall fewer women than men are interested, for instance, in things mechanical. So it’s not surprising that men and women are still funnelled, even if voluntarily, into what are seen as gender-appropriate professions. And that, unfortunately, has a huge ripple effect. Even though women have breached male-only professions with considerable success, and even though men had found gratification in traditionally female roles, a significant percentage of men and women still find themselves in gender-specific work and personal situations.

Place is still determined by worth, and worth is still determined, for the most part, by how visibly successful one is. And success is still measured in man-terms. If a woman is successful in theoretical physics, for instance, she is admired as much for the fact that she is not typical of her sex as for her intellectual prowess. A man who is successful as a nurse does not usually enjoy the same status, nor benefit from the same positivism.

RC: This is a really huge question, and I think it can be profitably divided into two levels. So at the level of the individual: very little. I don't feel that being a woman has had much impact on the path I've taken through education and life, I've usually been in somewhat male-dominated areas (e.g. the sciences), and I've never felt that I'm less skilled than my male colleagues. But at a societal level, it's very hard to disown the biological imperative, because women by definition are the child-bearers. Given the length of human gestation and nursing, that's a huge chunk out of the life of any woman who wants to raise kids, and I think a huge amount of what we'd now consider sexist behaviour can be traced back to those very early roots. That's the fundamental reason that "equal" or "fair" treatment is never going to be the same as just treating everyone identically.

- In the same way that the woman, to whom I referred in my article, was said to be 'hardwired' to learn foreign languages easily, men and women are said to be 'hardwired' to behave in certain ways. Do you agree with that idea or not?

DB: When my first child – a boy – was born, I was determined to raise him in as non-sexist a way as possible. I wanted to prove that boys could be just as interested in so-called feminine activities and objects as girls were, so I filled his toy box with dolls and a whole lot of what I thought were gender-neutral play things – the stackable rings, the puzzles, the books and plastic animals. I vowed never to give him anything to play with that resembled a weapon and really thought I would end up with a sensitive boy in tune with his softer side, able to recognize the futility of violence and inclined to helpfulness and caring.

He wasn’t interested in the dolls. At all. I tried various kinds, shapes, colours, sizes, but none of them attracted his attention.

Anything that involved physical dexterity and construction was appealing, and as I whizzed down the aisles of the local hypermarket, he grabbed desperately at displays of toy cars. I began to realize that no matter what I might want my son to be interested in, he was having none of the ‘girly’ stuff. Toy guns were still out of the question, and I could console myself with the knowledge that, even if he was on a man-track, I would keep violence out of his world. Until the day, at about eighteen months of age, when he bit the corner off a rectangular cookie, held it by the whole end and pointed it at my forehead. Bang-bang!! The gig was up. I had a boy who was only interested in ‘typically male’ pursuits and nothing I did was going to make a blind bit of difference. Twenty-seven years later, that’s still true.

So to your question of hardwiring, I would say that it’s definitely the basis for most interests and abilities, although there is lots of room to introduce other options. I am most probably hard-wired to do my own plumbing, basic car repairs and simple building projects not only because I had the example of a very capable mother who wielded an effective hammer, but because I was just born with an inclination to do those kinds of things. Although, having two older brothers may have conditioned me to believe that I had to compete on their terms in order to be taken seriously!

RC: I've got a linguistic background and I'd say that almost everyone is hardwired to pick up languages (the exceptions being where there is brain damage or some other definite problem). People who think they're bad at languages have usually been taught badly, and almost certainly haven't had the chance to learn in an immersive setting. I'm not sure if it's safe to draw a direct parallel to the gender question, because there *is* a biological difference between men and women; we're just debating what the effect is. I only have experience of being a woman, so it's very hard to know in what ways I'd be different if I had a different set of chromosomes, but I can say with certainty that my personality changes - in a small but measurable way - over the course of each month, in a way that I assume is down to hormones. So I find it hard to believe that having a completely different set of hormones wouldn't make any difference. That's not really about skills and abilities, more about personality shifts: for example, there are a couple of days of each cycle in which I'm incredibly impatient. It's also important to keep in mind, when considering any question like this, that we're dealing with two massively overlapping sets: any inherent gender difference will express itself only as the difference in the distribution of characteristics across the whole of these two sets. The individual variation for any given characteristic seems, in my experience, to be sufficiently large as to overwhelm the group characteristics. Let's think about sport for a moment: the average differences between men and women in strength and speed are significant enough that most sports are separated by gender, but a female Olympic runner could easily outrun the average man. I think you're more interested in the mental angle in this debate, but the statistics work the same way. Unfortunately, statistics tends not to sell as well as big headline statements of the "Men Are From Mars" style.

EA: I do agree with it. I'm not a scientist but I'm fascinated by the idea that biology -- chemicals in the brain, its metabolism and structure -- can determine personality, predilections, etc. Why not sex as well?

- What is your experience of biological determinism and social conditioning? Do you think that the former has a bigger say in how we interact socially than the latter?

RC: On a personal level, I don't think I've been affected much by biological determinism - to date, I've even avoided the sense of a "ticking biological clock". Regarding social conditioning, however, I've had several strong rebellions as I really don't like to feel I'm being pidgeon-holed on any basis. I used to think I hated the colour pink, because of the assumption it was a "girly" colour (if you look at my blog, you'll see I've got over that!). It's almost too easy to say that social conditioning has more of an effect on social interactions, but I think that risks overlooking the fact that a lot of the social conditioning has roots in biology - again, we come back to the fact that women have to give birth to children, have to feed them, and therefore traditionally end up looking after them. The implications of this hit me really hard when, working on my first (fantasy) novel, I devised a society where women and men really were treated equally by the system. I had to redraft the whole thing when I realised I'd been so busy making sure that education and work were egalitarian, that I'd left no space for women to give birth!

EA: I'm not convinced that biological determinism has a bigger say in how we interact socially. However, I confess to being as guilty as the next in my sexist comments about the inscrutability of men because that's been my experience with them. The sort of social interaction I have with my women friends is vastly different from that with men -- is that because of biology and hormones or social conditioning? I don't know. Again, I imagine biological determinism can be manipulated by social conditioning but it's probably always present. I just finished a fascinating novel called "Room" -- I believe the author is British -- a story of a young boy who is raised for the first five years of his life in a small room with his mother, who is being held as a sort of sex slave/hostage. I know the premise is utterly creepy, but the book gives a fascinating glimpse of what it might be like to only be exposed to one room and objects within that room, to have one's paradigm of existence NOT be shaped by multiple influences and social conditioning. As this author wrote it, objects are only as significant as the names we attach to them -- and are they really the objects that are named or only the names? In the same way, I suppose we could argue about male and female as signifiers, but if we were to peel back their skin and probe into their brains would we find very different things -- male and female -- or is the brain shaped, neurons firing, pathways created by experience and conditioning?

Overall, in my experience I find the "male" and "female" mind distinctly different, so different that I fall on the biological determinism model, perhaps, out of frustration. It's a far easier answer.

DB: This is a tricky question – and a good one, Cuban. I’d like to think that I’m an example of biological determinism, as many of my interests tend to fall on the side of what is considered to be male territory. Anything to do with cars, how things work, physical problem-solving (dishwasher repair) and computers are a few of the things I can do and talk about with some degree of assurance and enthusiasm. I find that these conversations tend to be held with men, because few women are knowledgeable or interested in such subjects.

Socially, I often gravitate towards men not because I like to flirt, but because I feel I have more in common with them. What cultural conditioning I have has made me conscious of my femininity, and quite comfortable with it, but I consider it to be a far less important factor of who I am and what I bring to my social interaction. I have, unfortunately, a negative reaction to women who behave in ways that I consider to be typically feminine. Social conditioning has taught (many) women to consider their appearance and sexual appeal as having more initial worth than their intellectual, practical and philosophical abilities. There was once hope, I thought, for the daughters of the feminist movement, but if anything their perception of themselves as helpless ultra-females is more pronounced than for women of the pre-feminist movement.

I think that the cultural influences on gender roles of the last forty years or so have left their mark principally on men. In mixed gatherings, I hear men having conversations that their fathers wouldn’t have had, while the women’s talk revolves around much the same things that their mothers’ probably did. I do think we are far more influenced by our cultural conditioning than our biological imperatives when we men and women relate to each other, at least in the superficial phase of our interaction.

© 2010

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 12th December at 10am (GMT)


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