For boxing fans, Cuba holds an outsize mystique. Since Castro took power in 1959, the island has won more Olympic gold medals in boxing than any other country, but its fighters have for the most part resisted the temptation to defect to the United States, turning down multimilliondollar offers in apparent loyalty to the revolution. Mr. Butler found the paradox worth exploring, and his book argues that the sport is as entwined with Cuba’s narrative of defiance toward America as much as anything else.
His adventures over the years were plentiful. He interviewed Cuba’s most decorated boxers, finding them living in poverty: Several had sold their gold medals because they needed the money; another agreed to train him for $6 a day, and another decreed he chug a glass of vodka as a test of character. The book chronicles Mr. Butler’s fling with one of Castro’s granddaughters and the time he bet his life savings on a fight (he won). He also retraced Hemingway’s footsteps, talking his way into his literary idol’s home and traveling to a small fishing town to find the old man who inspired “The Old Man and the Sea,” who was then 102.
These days, you can find him in Central Park. Another tune started to play as his student agonized through pushups. “You’d see these boxers dominate at the Olympics, and then they’d just disappear,” he said. “They were fighting for something more important than money. I had to go find out why.”
Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped — in his life, convictions and outlook on the world — by reading and writing as Barack Obama.
“At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted,” he said, reading gave him the ability to occasionally “slow down and get perspective” and “the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.” These two things, he added, “have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.”
Writing was key to his thinking process, too: a tool for sorting through “a lot of crosscurrents in my own life — race, class, family. And I genuinely believe that it was part of the way in which I was able to integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole.”
At The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani reports on how reading and writing helped President Obama to “slow down and get perspective” from novelists, memoirists, and historical figures during the eight years of his presidency.
In The New York Times Magazine, Jon Mooallem has a moving profile of doctor B.J. Miller, a triple amputee since an accident in his sophomore year of college, who’s now developing something he’s calling The Center for Dying and Living. Layered into the piece is a secondary profile of Randy Sloan, the late 27-year-old motorcycle builder who became a patient of Miller’s three years after he tricked out a bike for the doctor’s special needs. The former executive director of The Guest House, a Zen hospice center in San Francisco, Miller’s approach to palliative care is informed by his own near-death experience, and finding his way back to living.
It wasn’t that Miller was suddenly enlightened; internally, he was in turmoil. But in retrospect, he credits himself with doing one thing right: He saw a good way to look at his situation and committed to faking that perspective, hoping that his genuine self might eventually catch up. Miller refused, for example, to let himself believe that his life was extra difficult now, only uniquely difficult, as all lives are. He resolved to think of his suffering as simply a “variation on a theme we all deal with — to be human is really hard,” he says. His life had never felt easy, even as a privileged, able-bodied suburban boy with two adoring parents, but he never felt entitled to any angst; he saw unhappiness as an illegitimate intrusion into the carefree reality he was supposed to inhabit. And don’t we all do that, he realized. Don’t we all treat suffering as a disruption to existence, instead of an inevitable part of it? He wondered what would happen if you could “reincorporate your version of reality, of normalcy, to accommodate suffering.” As a disabled person, he was getting all kinds of signals that he was different and separated from everyone else. But he worked hard to see himself as merely sitting somewhere on a continuum between the man on his deathbed and the woman who misplaced her car keys, to let his accident heighten his connectedness to others, instead of isolating him. This was the only way, he thought, to keep from hating his injuries and, by extension, himself.
I’ve found it hard to think of little else other than our country’s future, by which I mean the futures of my friends of color, my queer friends, my disabled friends—the list goes on. I am grateful for Twitter, where writers and activists I admire remind me that what is happening is not normal, that we must resist as long as it takes. There are stories here about the Native-led protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, folks standing up to Donald Trump and his white supremacist cronies, and prisoners striking against their miserable living conditions in a racist system. As journalist Masha Gessen writes, “The citizens have posted guard.”
Masha Gessen is one of the writers I’m thankful for. Yesterday I read her essay in the New York Review of Books, “Trump: The Choice We Face.” Gessen writes about her great-grandfather, a member of a Nazi-appointed Jewish council in his home ghetto, relating his position to the complicity we Americans may come to understand sooner than we think. I cried as I read. The NYRB essay led me to the one I’ve highlighted here, where Gessen examines and defends protest for the sake of protest. Read more…
Limiting access often increases desire. I call this the velvet rope effect. Some of the appeal is psychological. Some of this is a quality differential. On The New York Times Style Magazine blog, Rafil Kroll-Zaidi writes about proxy services which help Western shoppers navigate the Japanese online marketplace and buy the goods retailers refuse to sell outside Japan. Language is only one of the barriers here. The other is disinterest. Many Japanese clothing and lifestyle companies simply don’t want to sell their products overseas, and not just the boutique limited edition items either, but, as Zaidi put it, “a single pair of the 20,000 available units of the megabrand’s standard-issue jeans.” Zaidi’s piece ran in May 2015.
I turned up a number of forbiddingly impersonal and expensive proxy services before seeking direction from nerds on sneaker forums. The proxy service I chose is called SpeBid, run through a creaky community-style message board by a half-Japanese half-Nigerian man named Spencer (or Spe). For $30 a year plus arcane surcharges, Spe buys, bids on and reships wonderful stuff to “subscribers” all over the world. Per Jay Gatsby, “I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall”; but a proxy never proffers anything you don’t already know you need.
When “the big one” strikes California, the state isn’t going to fall into the Ocean the way so many Arizonans who want beachfront property like to imagine. But there are many ways to die. In The New York Times, author Daniel Duane writes about what he calls the Golden State’s “sense of unraveling” and its associated “profound mood of loss.” Drought. Forest fire. Air pollution. Gentrification. Loss of open space. Skyrocketing real estate costs and traffic and sweeping changes in values. The California Duane and many natives love is rapidly disappearing, but it always has been. For everyone who feels conflicted and paralyzed about loving a place that’s being loved to death, Duane offer a reappraisal of California, change, and the way we think about place.
Confusing one’s own youth with the youth of the world is a common human affliction, but California has been changing so fast for so long that every new generation gets to experience both a fresh version of the California dream and, typically by late middle-age, its painful death.
For Gold Rush prospectors, of course, that dream was about shiny rocks in the creeks — at least until 300,000 people from all over the world, in the space of 10 years, overran the state and snatched up every nugget. Insane asylums filled with failed argonauts and the dream was dead — unless you were John Muir walking into Yosemite Valley in 1868. Ad hoc genocide, committed by miners, settlers and soldiers, had so devastated the ancient civilizations of the Sierra Nevada that Muir could see those mountains purely as an expression of God’s glory.
Halloween, All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days represent a friendly (if bony, skeletal) handshake between Paganism and Christianity, an exaltation of escape and revelry, as well as somber respect for death and those whom it has claimed. I still love graveyards, rattling chains, black cats, black velvet, and all manner of spooky things. And I adore the blessing of sacred serendipity — that you can discover yourself while pretending to be someone else. That you can pray for a guiding angel and God will send Alice Cooper.
-From an essay by Lily Burana on The New York Times’ Women in the World page, about trying to reconcile her love of Halloween and all things Goth with her “surprisingly Jesus-y” faith, plus the time she asked for a sign from God that she was in the right church and looked up to see Alice Cooper dressed in “Goth golfer casual.”