I’m a slow reader. It’s one of my personal challenges. As a child, I could read easily, but I didn’t take to it naturally like a fish to water. Instead, I took to water. It was Phoenix and over 110 degrees. I thought why find out about life from books, when you can have first hand experiences, like for instance, water? Besides learning the 3 Rs in school, my mentors were gaggles of neighborhood kids playing tag, kick the can, or some version of softball in vacant lots. Or jumping rope if there were only 3 or 4 of us. Tree-climbing or jacks if there were only 2. Alone, I walked to the public swimming pool to swim and practice my dives for a whole summer day, most summer days. Or, sat mesmerized in front of the latest technology, a TV set (Howdy Doody and Pinky Lee). A few years later, The Mickey Mouse Club (Cubby, Darlene, Bobby, Annette), then American Bandstand (Kenny and Arlene, Bob and Justine, Pat Molitari, Carol Scaldeferi). This is what I did instead of reading.
My first “grown-up” book I remember feeling proud of having read was “Gone With the Wind”, when I was sixteen. Then, for some reason, “Crime and Punishment”. Still, I didn’t read much. By the time I was nineteen, and active in the anti-war movement, it was suggested to me by fellow comrades, that I should be reading Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao. God knows I tried. I loved Mao’s short pamphlet “On Contradiction” (and still love paradox) and the even shorter – one page – “Combat Liberalism”, which my parents were horrified to find tacked to our kitchen wall when they visited.
It was 1970, and our funky, but cool apartment on Castro St. cost $240 a month (kind of a high rent at that time, but since four of us shared it, it wasn’t too bad). In the verdant and private back yard we smoked marijuana and sunbathed in the nude with members of the famous San Francisco performing troupe, The Cockettes, one of whom lived upstairs. I looked like a hippie, but thought like a radical, or tried to. I was in one or two Marxist-Leninist study groups over a few years. I don’t know how I managed to read through these books. Maybe I didn’t. I do remember two books I enjoyed about the anarchist Emma Goldman (her autobiography “Living My Life”) and Krupskaya (Lenin’s wife).
Always I opted for direct experience over books. I’d rather be out demonstrating, or volunteering as a nurse in the Los Siete free medical clinic, or having wildly free sex with my 60s & 70s era San Francisco friends and comrades who were also having wildly free sex with each other, supplying chaotic meaning to the-then feminist slogan “smash monogamy”. Not that many of us were married yet. (Later on, my now ex- and I would “smash” our own monogamous marriage the old-fashioned way, a result of drifting apart and poor communication. Hmm, is that too specific, or not specific enough? The truth is after 30 years, I still don’t understand what happened. The mystery remains, and thankfully, we remain, friends.) Direct life experience!
I was fully engaged in the proposition that we were casting off the oppressive, illogical, and unkind ways of the old order, just as surely as a fully formed butterfly casts off a chrysalis. Not that we knew what to do with our newly emerging selves. If the means becomes the end, endless meetings, marijuana, sex, book study, and demonstrations were what we did most, maybe best. I don’t have serious regrets but I do know our revolutionary zeal did not always protect us from racism, sexism, illogic, and unkindness from within our own ranks.
I probably would have been better off reading more.
On the other hand, maybe we helped end the war in Vietnam sooner rather than later. I hope so. We also participated in raising consciousness about racism, sexism, and homophobia. We supported Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers, including not eating a single grape for years. We tried to take responsibility for our interdependent world and to fight against certain things — US military aggression, racism and sexism — and for some things — solidarity with those fighting for their own liberation —wrongly incarcerated individuals and nations.
Cuba was one of those places I/we stood in solidarity with. I lived and worked there for a year, a year that coincided with the horrific Pinochet regime seizing power in Chile and torturing and murdering thousands of Chileans. Similar atrocities were being perpetrated in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua — all military dictatorships with relationships with the US government. What a terrible time that was!
Cuba was not without its own issues. But Cuba provided education to all children, free universal health care to everyone, and was providing free medical school to young people from many poor nations, as well as teams of Cuban doctors going to help in other needy countries. Cuba was also fighting its own history of racism and sexism. While I was there, the Federation of Cuban Women came out with a document “The Family Code” which everyone was seriously discussing, at workplaces and in the streets. One of its main premises was the sharing of household and childcare responsibilities between husband and wife. In Cuba’s hyper-macho culture, this was revolutionary. They also had a literacy campaign like no where else in the world. They were teaching every one to read!
Last week President Obama established full diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years of the US having a stranglehold on that tiny nation. The wheels of progress turn slowly, but still turn. As we used to say, it being more true than we could possibly have imagined it would need to be, La lucha continua!
ps. sorry this is so long. It’s my short version. next post, more on Reading.