No News: Watching Old Movies for the Sake of My Sanity

The news is driving me nuts. I’ve tried to avoid watching it the last few days. I’m at heart a news junkie but the obsessive attention to this presidential race is making me crazy. And still is, the morning after. I usually have the TV on while I’m working or doing stuff around home. But this week I’ve been listening to music (especially the new Bruce Springsteen album, Letter to You) or one of my playlists on Spotify or Pandora or even music on the radio!

Maria Dizzia in the Chicago staging of What the Constitution Means to Me

In the evening, I’ve been reading books (I’m in the middle of Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies: A Novel and just started Augustus by John Williams). And watching movies or a few great examples of virtual theater (Irish Repertory’s The Touch of a Poet was superb and I loved seeing What the Constitution Means to Me again).

Most rewarding has been seeing old movies, some for the first time. For years while I was a Netflix DVD subscriber, I had The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in my saved queue forever. Apparently it wasn’t on DVD until recently. I read about it being part of the UK Jewish Film Festival. I was going to sign up for that (just to see that film) when I discovered it was streaming on YouTube with very legible English subtitles. 

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is set in Ferrara in northern Italy in the late 1930s. The Finzi-Continis are wealthy, sophisticated Italian Jews. Wealthy enough to have a huge walled estate with miles of garden (or forest) and tennis courts in addition to their palatial mansion. Middle-class Jews in Ferrara think the Finzi-Continis are not real Jews, or that they don’t think they are Jews. But in the end, of course, they are all Jews.

The film is directed by Vittorio de Sica (Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine) and it’s truly beautifully filmed with gorgeous settings and glamorous people. It’s a non-love story about Micol (tall, blonde daughter of the F-Cs) and Giorgio, a handsome scholarly Jewish man who has been in love with Micol since their school days. He pines for her but she considers him a dear friend and nothing more. There’s much more to the story than that, and it’s played out against the background of Mussolini’s dominance in Italy and increasing restrictions against Jews in Ferrara.

Another old film I watched while avoiding the news is the 1987 docudrama, Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8, available on Amazon Prime Video. It features actors playing the roles of the leading figures in the trial with film clips inserted from interviews with the actual people. So we have Robert Loggia playing William Kunstler and Kunstler himself opining on the trial occasionally. The film was made for cable TV and it’s based on trial transcripts so there is a lot of real-life dialog and events (such as the horrific gagging and chaining of Bobby Seale). 

It’s basically a 33-year-old version of the new Aaron Sorkin film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, which I also strongly recommend. The Sorkin film has snappier dialogue but the outrageous and outraged characters (Hoffman, Rubin, Davis, Dellinger) are just as wildly manic and adorable in the older version. The 1987 film is set entirely in the courtroom while the new film is also set in other locations and makes use of news footage from 1968. The Sorkin film is available on Netflix and currently screening live in some cinemas (Landmark Century Centre in Chicago). 

While scrolling through my list on Amazon Prime Video, I discovered What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael. This is a great documentary about the brilliant movie critic. It made me appreciate her as much more than an insightful critic and writer. She fought fiercely for years to be recognized as a female critic and get a paying job in what was traditionally a white man’s world. Same old, same old, right? But she persisted–and so we know her today as the plainspoken, spiky, often iconoclastic film critic for the New Yorker. The 2018 film runs about 100 minutes.  

Another old film I watched recently is The Pianist, a WWII-era film (made in 2002) about the pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman, a Holocaust survivor, who lived through the war years hiding out in various places in the Warsaw ghetto.  It’s a great film with a fine performance by Adrian Brody and direction by Roman Polanski. (it was on Netflix until recently but you can rent it for $3.99 now on YouTube). The film was adapted from Szpilman’s book titled The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45, which he wrote soon after his survival. The book was published in Poland in 1946 and then suppressed. German and English translations were finally published in 1998 and 1999. Both the film and the book are worth your time for the author’s first-person accounts of seeing his family members being loaded on trains and sent off to Treblinka and his own survival, helped by friends and strangers and finally by a sympathetic and music-loving German officer.

Poem for Today: November 9, 2016

Not writing about pop culture today. I felt it was important to put some thoughts down about election results and our future. Everyone else is writing long, painful, sometimes smart and insightful, essays so I decided to just write a poem.

November 9, 2016

Another date that lives on in infamy

Like December 7, 1941, and 9/11.

81 percent of Americans live in urban areas

19 percent in rural areas.

How could there be enough old, rural, poor and uneducated

To be taken in by the orange pirate?

While the urban, young, diverse future of America

Protests “Not my president”

On the streets of our cities.

Is this “America the mean,” as my friend Charles wrote today?

Now I fear for the future of my grandsons and nieces,

All the young people who woke up today to find

They’d been abandoned by their grands,

Just like the Brexit orphans in Britain.

The question is, how much damage

Can he do in four years?

Is our Bill of Rights in danger?

Most of the world’s despots started out

Being elected to office.

Is the only date we can look forward to

November 2, 2020?

PS to the Founding Fathers:

All respect to you, Sirs, but your idea

For the electoral college should have been left

In the inkpot, never to besmirch your parchment

And our futures.

No Pasarán! The Spanish Civil War in My Dreams

This year is the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, an important moment in history that has never received the attention it deserves as a prequel to the geopolitical changes of World War II, the Cold War and the culture wars that continue today.

The following essay is adapted from the reading I gave at Third Coast Review’s Kill Your Darlings live lit and improv series last month.

lit-nancy-1-no_pasaran_madridDid you ever feel you were born at the wrong time? I’ve always wished I was around in the 1930s when people were excited about politics and leftwing activism. I suspect that many of us—at least those who consider ourselves liberals — would have been Communists in the 1930s. Most liberal intellectuals and working class people did at least sympathize with the Communist Party USA then because it seemed as if they presented solutions that would help our country. And we were naïve about the cruel and violent aspects of the party in Russia. (It was not until 1956 that American leftists learned the full story of Stalin’s criminal legacy, when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin.)

We certainly would have supported the anti-fascist, Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. The democratically elected government of Spain was anti-fascist, anti-clerical, anti-royalty, pro-education and yes, pro-communist.

in those years, we sat in saloons and union halls — in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, near stockyards and steel mills on the south side of Chicago – talking about unemployment, the evils of capitalism, the rise of fascism in Europe and the hope we saw in Spain. And some of us did something about it. Some of us went to Spain.

The Spanish Civil War was fought from 1936 to 1939. The novel thing about this war was that volunteers from America and around the world went to Spain to fight for the good cause.

Children giving the Republican salute in Madrid.

Children giving the Republican salute in Madrid.

That good cause was our support for the legal, democratically elected, left-wing Republic of Spain, which faced a military coup by the fascist Spanish military led by Francisco Franco. The slogan was No pasarán and a raised fist. They shall not pass.

If I had been a young woman in the 1930s, I would have wanted to be on the ship that left New York harbor in December 1936—80 years ago. That was the first ship that took American volunteers to Spain. The people who went left without telling anyone their destination or talking to anyone about it on board ship. They knew they were committing an illegal act—because the State Department had banned all travel to Spain and those who went risked losing their citizenship.

A total of 45,000 volunteers from 53 countries formed the International Brigades who went to Spain in late 1936 and early 1937. Most of them traveled by ship to France and then had to travel by train to southern France and on foot during the night across the Pyrenees to Spain.

From the US, 2,800 left but a third of them didn’t come back. The American section of the International Brigades was known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Two hundred Chicagoans were among the volunteers. I’m sure I knew some of them.

They were men with names like Paul Lutka, Sid Harris, Milt Cohen, Sam Gibbons, Charles Hall, Ed Balchowsky, Steve Nelson. And Oliver Law, an African-American who couldn’t serve as an officer in the Jim Crow US Army in World War I, but was a battalion commander in Spain. He died in battle a few months later. Aaron Hilkevitch, the last Illinois survivor of the Lincoln Brigades, died in 2008. A psychiatrist by profession, he remained an activist for left-wing causes throughout his life.

You can see some of them interviewed (and Balchowsky playing the piano) on the excellent 1984 documentary, The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, narrated by Studs Terkel. The film is available to see and stream on Vimeo.

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If I had gone to Spain, I would have been a photographer or a journalist, or perhaps a driver or nurse. Very few women were in combat. Most of the volunteers I would have met were from New York or San Francisco. They were mostly urban working class. About a fourth were Jewish, about 90 were African-American. Many were the children of Eastern Europeans who came here after World War I. They left to escape political repression and economic distress in their home countries.

In many ways, the Spanish Civil War was a culture war—urban against rural, modernity against tradition, freedom of expression against repression of ideas.

The International Brigades were sent out to the front lines with poor quality equipment, no uniforms—often little food or water–and little or no training. Some of them had never handled a gun before.

But the internationals were shock troops for the Republic. That’s one of the reasons their death toll was so high. Their remains are on battlefields named Jarama, Guadalajara, Brunete, Belchite, Teruel, the Ebro River.

Fascist Germany and Italy contributed weapons, warplanes, warships and 100,000 troops to the Nationalist cause—the fascist or Franco side. Russia and Mexico contributed some weapons and advisers to the Spanish government—the Republican side–but it was minimal compared to what Germany and Italy did. What did the US do? Nada. The US, Britain and France refused to support the Spanish Republic. They wouldn’t even sell them munitions or oil, even though Spain had plenty of gold to pay for them.

The war ended in 1939 as the fascists gradually rolled over all of Spain. Barcelona and Catalonia, the heart of the Republican cause, fell in January and February–and Madrid in March. Franco declared victory; his government was recognized by the good old USA. Democracy died in Spain. Franco ruled as the dictatorial Caudillo until he died in 1975.

The veterans of the Spanish Civil War continued to be political activists who later supported the civil rights movement and antiwar movements. The last American veteran died in February. He was Delmer Berg, who died at 99.

Part of my Spanish Civil War library.

Part of my Spanish Civil War library.

I tell this story because I believe we need to remember the Spanish Civil War and teach our kids about it. Why was it important?

  • It was the prequel to World War II and the Cold War. And it prefigured the culture wars of today.
  • The American volunteers went on their own dime to Spain. And most of those who returned were ostracized and threatened by the US government, the FBI and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee for the rest of their lives.
  • The war inspired many artists, writers, journalists and photographers. George Orwell wrote a memoir Homage to Catalonia about fighting with the POUM, the anarchists, a splinter group of Marxists. Ernest Hemingway covered the war for the North American Newspaper Alliance and gathered material for his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.
  • Photographer Robert Capa shot some memorable images, including the iconic image titled “Falling Soldier,” which shows a Republican soldier being shot down.
  • Poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, a Spaniard, was kidnapped and executed by the Franco thugs. His body was tossed in a mass grave and his remains have never been found.
  • There were many others. Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Andre Malraux, Salvador Dali, Martha Gellhorn, Willy Brandt, W.H. Auden, Arthur Koestler, Emma Goldman, Lillian Hellman and John Dos Passos were involved in various ways.


Guernica by Pablo Picasso.

  • Picasso’s famous painting, Guernica, captured the aftermath of the vicious aerial attack on the Basque town of Guernica in April 1937 by German bombers flown by German pilots. About 1,650 people were killed, mostly women, children and old men, because the other men had gone off to fight the fascists. The bombardment of Guernica became a world symbol of the horrors of war.
  • Picasso had left Spain and refused to return or to have his art displayed there as long as Franco was in power. Guernica’s home for years was the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where I saw it in the 1970s. Then recently I saw it at the Museo de Reina Sofia in Madrid, where it is now permanently installed.

Back to the present, I think we should vow to celebrate this moment in history by becoming knowledgeable about the Spanish Civil War. Here are my suggestions for how you might do this.

First of all, explore the resources of ALBA, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting social activism and the defense of human rights, as well as the history and legacy of the Spanish Civil War. You can sign up for ALBA’s mailing list here. 

Readings about the Spanish Civil War

  • Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). The story of Robert Jordan, an American, who goes to Spain to fight with the International Brigades.
  • Helen Graham, The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction (2005). A good resource for a basic history and timeline of the war.
  • kyd-lit-nancyhochschild-coverAdam Hochschild, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War (2016). An engrossing history drawn from the letters and diaries of the participants.
  • Peter Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War (1994). Carroll had the advantage of interviews with some of the living veterans of the war.
  • George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938). Orwell’s memoir about his time fighting with the POUM in Spain.
  • Cary Nelson, ed., The Wound and the Dream: Sixty Years of American Poems About the Spanish Civil War (2002). An excellent collection of poetry edited by a UIUC professor and published by the University of Illinois Press.
  • Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (1961, rev. 2001). This is the definitive history of the war by the distinguished British historian.

Films about the Spanish Civil War

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls, dir Sam Wood (DVD, 1943). It was a box office hit and nominated for nine Oscars. The bridge-detonation scene is based on Hemingway’s actual experience.
  • The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, dirs Noel Buckner and Mary Dore, narrated by Studs Terkel (Vimeo, 1984).
  • Into the Fire: American Women in the Spanish Civil War, dir Julia Newman (DVD, 2002)
  • Land and Freedom, dir Ken Loach (parts are on Vimeo, 1995). This is a dramatized history of the war with actors portraying participants but also making use of documentary footage. I have not been able to find this film in one piece (probably because of copyright restrictions) although it’s possible to watch 9- or 10-minute sections of it on Vimeo.
  • Plus Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, The Butterfly’s Tongue, Hemingway and Gellhorn, The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca and more.

In conclusion, remember this for today’s protests: No Pasaran!

Art and the poetry of solitude: Stuart Dybek and Edward Hopper


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Stuart Dybek at the Art Institute. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Last week I spent an hour wandering around the Art Institute’s Modern Wing with Chicago poet Stuart Dybek and a bunch of other poetry fans. As I described in my article on Third Coast Review, the Pop-Up Poetry event was designed for a poet to discuss works of art that influenced him—and how they related to the writing to be discussed.

Dybek talked about a period in his life when he was interviewing for jobs and used the Art Institute as a place to hang out between interviews. Its pluses were that it had phone booths and clean rest rooms, but it also had light—light streaming in from skylights, but also the light glowing from the paintings of the Impressionists. He read a section from his book of short stories, The Coast of Chicago, called “Killing Time” about that experience.

He talked about standing in front of those paintings and feeling that he could walk into them. He wrote, “I wanted to be somewhere else, to be a dark blur waiting to board the Normandy train in the smoke-smudged Saint-Lazare station; I wanted a ticket out of my life, to be riding a train whose windows slid past a landscape of grain stacks in winter fields.”

But he would always end up standing in front of Edward Hopper’s iconic “Nighthawks,” because he felt he needed the darkness to balance the light of the Impressionists.

While talking about Hopper, he mentioned a book I was not familiar with. It’s The Poetry of Solitude: A Tribute to Edward Hopper, with poems collected and introduced by Gail Levin. He mentioned that the works of many well-known as well as obscure poets created word paintings that brought new meanings to Hopper’s imagery.

Hopper’s work is quiet, even when several people are in the space within the picture frame. Are they lonely? Not necessarily. Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean loneliness. Lovely solitude.

NSBJ-HopperbookThe book sounded fascinating and I looked it up when I got home. Nope, it was not in any bookstore I could find. Since it was published in 1995, I was afraid it would be out of print. But not so amazingly, I found it on, for sale from one of the Amazon Marketplace vendors. I’ve had very good luck buying quirky, hard-to-find books that way, so I immediately ordered a copy that was described as being in very good condition. I was thrilled to find it in my mailbox yesterday and it is a treasure. It’s hard cover, a slim 80 pages, with a dust jacket. The size is 7.5 x 7.5 inches.

Levin’s introduction is a lovely essay on the themes of poetry and solitude and the public awareness and appreciation for Hopper’s work. (The Art Institute’s 2008 exhibition of his work was beautifully curated with thought-provoking legends about his life and his work.)

In The Poetry of Solitude, poet Larry Levis tells a story about the woman in the 1931 painting titled “Hotel Room.” He suggests she has just finished arranging her mother’s funeral and her small estate.

Her face, in shadow,
Is more silent than this painting, or any
Painting … .
You sell the house and auction off each thing
Inside the house, until
You have a satchel, a pair of black acceptable
Shoes and one good flowered dress. There is a check
Between your hands and your bare knees for all of it —
The land and the wheat that never cared who
Touched it , or why ….

Four poets reflect upon the 1942 painting, “Nighthawks,” and the stories of the four people in the painting. Joyce Carol Oates writes,

The three men are fully clothed, long sleeves,
even hats, though it’s indoors, and brightly lit,
and there’s a woman. The woman is wearing
a short-sleeved red dress cut to expose her arms,
a curve of her creamy chest, she’s contemplating
a cigarette in her right hand thinking
her companion has finally left his wife but
can she trust him?

Of the 1930 painting, “Early Sunday Morning,” showing a row of storefronts, John Stone writes,

Somewhere in the next block
someone may be practicing the flute
but not here

Where the entrances
to four stores are dark
the awnings rolled in

Nothing open for business
Across the second story
ten faceless windows

In the foreground
a barber pole, a fire hydrant,
as if there could ever again

Be hair to cut
fire to burn ….

As I described in my post about my hour spent with Stuart Dybek, he read his own poems and the work of other poets and reflected on the nature of words and images. The book gives even broader meaning to the relationship of words and images, narrative and abstraction.

A note on the paintings mentioned here. You can see “Nighthawks” at the Art Institute. “Early Sunday Morning” is at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. “Hotel Room” is at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.

If you do a search for “Edward Hopper paintings” online, you can see and enlarge thumbnails of all of them.



Celebrating the life and music of Joe Hill, executed 100 years ago

Songwriter and labor activist Joe Hill was executed in Salt Lake City on November 19, 1915, framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Because he didn’t “want to be found dead in Utah,” his body was transported to Chicago by the IWW (the Industrial Workers of the World or Wobblies). His last will included the famous entreaty, “Don’t Mourn But Organize.”

Some 30,000 people viewed the funeral procession and attended the lively funeral service at the West Side auditorium (Racine and Harrison) on that November 25 (Thanksgiving Day) and his body was cremated at Graceland Cemetery. What happened to his ashes? That’s another whole story.

NSBJ-littleredsongbookChicago fans of Joe Hill, a Swedish-born itinerant laborer, celebrated the anniversary of his life and music on several occasions in November. I attended two excellent events, highlighted by great performances of Joe’s music. He wrote dozens of songs that lambasted capitalism and bosses, but his most famous lyric was “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”

The Hideout, a 19th century working men’s saloon on Wabansia, was standing room only the night of the main Joe Hill celebration. My Gapers Block story describes the agenda and list of speakers, which included a funeral oration by Larry Spivack of the Illinois Labor History Society and a rousing description of today’s IWW by Alison Olhava and Randall Jamrok. (The IWW is organizing successfully today, with branches at companies like Jimmy John’s, Starbucks and Pizza Hut. See their website for other industries and companies where the union is active.)

The evening started with a rousing set including “The Preacher and the Slave” by Bucky Halker and his amazing guitar, and closed with songs by a group including Jon Langford and Sally Timms of the Mekons and Martin Billheimer on accordion. Their closing number was “Workers of the World Awaken,” in which the crowd joined in. Psalm One and Fluffy performed a terrific hiphop version of Hill’s “Rebel Girl.”


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A funeral march and procession closed the evening and Joe Hill’s coffin was carried outside by pallbearers and burned over a bonfire. The ashes were our burned notes describing why we believe Joe Hill lives today. Anyone who wanted to replicate the 1915 distribution of ashes had only to leave a self-addressed envelope. (In 1915, Joe’s ashes were divided up into a bunch of small envelopes with his picture on the front with the caption, “Murdered by the capitalist class.” The envelopes were given to IWW delegates and guests so Joe’s ashes could be scattered in every state except Utah and in other countries too.)


Bucky and the Big Shoulders Brass Band

Bucky Halker, a singer-songwriter and PhD in labor history from the University of Minnesota, just released his new album, Anywhere But Utah: The Songs of Joe Hill, at an album release party at the Filament Theatre in the Six Corners neighborhood. Bucky played with the Big Shoulders Brass Band, featuring two saxophones, trumpet, tuba, trombone and drums. John Abbey sat in on upright bass on several numbers. Bucky and the band played two sets, including “Scissor Bill,” and concluded with a procession around the theater.

Here’s Bucky performing the Joe Hill song from the Little Red Song Book of IWW Songs.

My week in Cuba: Land of hope and dreams?

Cuba has always seemed a land of mystery, glamour, music and passion. The desire to visit lurked on the edges of my memory as I read books like The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (by Oscar Hijuelos), Dreaming in Cuban (Cristina Garcia), To Have and Have Not (Ernest Hemingway) and Los Guisanos (John Sayles). Films like Our Man in Havana, The Mambo Kings, Before Night Falls and even Chico and Rita, the 2010 animated film, enhanced my yearning for this exotic city. So I had my vision of Havana and Cuba and somehow, it took many decades before I finally achieved my Cuba dream.

I spent last week in Cuba with a group of about 30 charming and interesting travelers as part of a Smithsonian Journeys tour. The week was fascinating and intellectually invigorating while also being tiring and enervating. Cuba is beautiful, its people are warm and welcoming, and its economy and infrastructure are in desperate need of investment and some good old capitalism. Here are my thoughts after being home for a few days.

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First, the basics

We may have renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba but the trade and travel embargo are still in place. You can’t go to Cuba by buying a ticket from Miami to Havana. US citizens risk prosecution if they travel directly to Cuba until Congress lifts the trade embargo, which requires action. (Congressional action; that would be an oxymoron.) You can travel to Cuba now with an educational or “people to people” mission, organized by a licensed tour organization.

Besides your passport, you need a tourist visa to travel to Cuba. There’s a rumor that a bootleg trip to Cuba wouldn’t be tracked because the Cuban immigration officials don’t stamp your passport. That may have been true in the past, but our passports were all stamped on arrival and departure at Jose Marti International Airport.

Smithsonian Journeys arranged our trip and all arrangements were managed extremely well. The Smithsonian tour manager (the saintly Claire) was extremely competent and attentive to our needs and schedule. Our local tour guide was Yoandry, a Cuban charmer who is very well informed but never strays from the party line. In addition, Enrique, an emeritus professor of Spanish from the University of New Mexico, was our study expert. Bernardo was our bus driver and maneuvered floods, 500-year-old cobblestone streets, and Havana traffic with skill. The coach in which we traveled around Cuba (far too much coach time) was comfortable, air-conditioned and equipped with vast quantities of bottled water.

About half of the cars on Havana streets are beautiful old cars from the 1950s, most of them shiny and cared for. There are many new cars now too, however, especially Kias and Toyotas.

Cuba’s infrastructure is sorely lacking and they are definitely not ready for a flood of tourists, should the US travel embargo be lifted. Water and sanitation are serious problems. You can’t drink the water anywhere, many toilets don’t flush and you can’t put paper in the toilets. (At toilets outside the big cities, you typically are greeted by an attendant who hands you a wee scrap of toilet paper and then flushes the toilet with a bucket of water. You clean your hands with hand sanitizer.)

The climate is tropical, of course, and hotter than I expected. Beastly humid and hot, in fact. Hats and sunscreen are required as is bug spray in many places. Very few buildings have elevators or air-conditioning. (Our hotels had both.)

Cuba has little or no internet access so my smartphone was used as a camera only. It is possible to buy internet cards and get spotty reception at hotels, but I had decided I was just going to put my phone on airplane mode for the week.

The itinerary

We arrived in Havana early on a Saturday morning. The Havana airport is a zoo and I was happy to have Claire guiding us through the maze and people swarms. We spent three days and nights at the Melia Cohiba, a luxury hotel in Havana, then drove three hours to Cienfuegos, where we spent two days, including a side trip to Trinidad, the 500-year-old city. Finally, we drove back to Havana for a final night in a state-run hotel and departure the next day for Miami. Along the way, we made stops at sugar cane facilities, museums and the Bay of Pigs invasion site. (Yes, really.)

Tour highlights

 I’ll just say that the only time we spent on the beach was at the Bay of Pigs invasion site. Trust me, this was not a resort vacation. See travel embargo above.

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Ernest Hemingway’s estate in Finca Vigia, just outside Havana. We were able to walk around the house but mainly peer in to the rooms through windows and doors. I also walked up the stairs of his “writing tower” to see the room where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. The docent was kind enough to take photos for me, including the priceless shot of his typewriter.

A walking tour of Old Havana with a local architect, including a glimpse of the 1930 Bacardi building, a gorgeous art deco structure. We also visited Hemingway’s room in the Pink Hotel, where he lived with his then-wife, Martha Gellhorn, for seven or eight years. It’s on the fifth floor but the building has one of those cage-like old elevators. Hem got his exercise every day, going in and out to have lunch and drink daiquiris at the bar in Café Ambos Mundes.

I have now visited five of Hemingway’s homes. I’ve visited his childhood home in Oak Park, his Key West home and I regularly walk by the building at 1239 North Dearborn Street where he lived in Chicago with his wife Hadley in 1921 (on the fourth floor of a 19th century row house, now a single family home).

A tour of the University of Havana (founded in 1728 by the Dominicans) with Yoandry and university administrator Nestor as our guides. We met in the Aula Magna, the great hall, in the oldest building for a briefing and then walked around the campus. The university has about 12,000 students who receive their five-year undergrad educations and all services at no cost.

A briefing at the US Embassy with the impressive political chief, Justin Davis. He gave us a good overview of the current Cuban political and economic situation and US legislation that restricts trade and travel. The embargo not only restricts investment by US companies; it prohibits any company that invests in Cuba from investing in the US.

Cuba imports 80 percent of its foodstuffs, much of it from the US (agricultural products are excluded from the embargo) and most of its oil from Venezuela. Cuba exports only rum and cigars. About $2 billion of Cuba’s GDP is made up of remittances from Cuban-Americans. The average wage for a government worker is $25/month. He also discussed the political situation given the advanced ages of the Castro brothers. Raul Castro has said he will step down in 2018. The Cuban constitution allows only the Communist Party to stand for election. The likely successor to the Castros is the first vice minister, Miguel Diaz Canel.

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An economic briefing from a professor of economics at the University of Havana. I wasn’t expecting to hear economic data that contradicted government positions, but he needed speaker training. He read all the bulletpoints on his slides, with his back turned to the audience. Among the humorous things he said were claiming a 3.8% unemployment rate and a 4.1% projected growth in GDP. (The embassy official cited 2.4% as the projected 2015 growth.)

A meeting at Cuba Emprende, a church-supported nonprofit that trains and advises entrepreneurs. Raul Castro has loosened restrictions on private business and there is evidence of small business activity—especially in the paladars or privately owned restaurants and hostels—and this group offers workshops and advice for startups. We had a chance to visit a classroom where about 30 students were just beginning their four-week workshop on how to start and run a business. Most of them were starting small service businesses and many were hoping for capitalization, which is very difficult. Most entrepreneurs need their own savings or family money to get started.

Visits to artists’ studios and shops in Havana and Cienfuegos and the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. (I’ll write about the art and music scene in my next post, Cuba: Part 2.

A dinner and jazz concert at a magnificent private home filled with art and beautiful Cuban and Spanish antiques. (Clearly Cuba has its 1% elite population.)

A briefing on the beach at the Bay of Pigs invasion site and a tour of the nearby Playa Giron Museum. I have absolutely no doubt that the CIA planned and botched the Bay of Pigs invasion and it was interesting to hear about it from a Cuban point of view. The museum was filled with captured American weapons, photos, maps and humorous propaganda on the bilingual exhibit legends.

Farewell dinner. On our final night, we left the Hotel Nacional for our farewell dinner, expecting to be transported by our HavanaTur coach number 3779. Instead, a fleet of gorgeous 1950s convertibles was waiting for us and we cruised around the city like locals to the paladar where we dined. I rode with Miguel in a 1959 blue Ford convertible. On another occasion, I had a taxi ride in a 1973 Lada, with no window glass or seatbelts. The driver called it his Russian jalopy.

The Cuban people

May I say the Cuban people are beautiful? The men are handsome at every age and the women are equally beautiful. They are warm and welcoming without exception and those who speak a little English like to talk to Americans.

Yoandry, our local guide, has a bachelor’s degree in Russian studies from the University of Havana (because Russian was what was on offer when he went to school) and speaks quite good English. He’s very well-informed on Cuban history and fairly well informed on economic matters. He brought his girlfriend to our farewell dinner and they share the career goal of being tourist guides, for which they earn about 30 CUCs (about US$30) a month. (The CUC is the Cuban convertible currency, which is tied to the US dollar in a one-to-one relationship. There’s also the national peso, a local currency, which tourists cannot use.)

The food

Do not go to Cuba for the cuisine. Hotel breakfasts were okay and we ate all our other meals in paladars, many of which are in remodeled private homes. A few of the meals included tasty entrees or soups, but for the most part, the food is bland and boring. The typical menu is black beans, rice, and a choice of sliced pork, beef or chicken. Occasionally fish or lobster was served and one night I had a flavorful lamb stew. With black beans and rice.

The Cubans don’t seem to have any herbs or vegetables for seasoning and don’t use much salt. About the middle of the week, I decided to ask for hot sauce (“Tiene usted salsa picante?”) and that improved the black beans considerably.

Some people thought the food would be spicy but I had been to Cuban restaurants in Chicago so I knew what kind of a menu we would have.

I was obsessive about not eating or drinking anything that would make me sick (having had a dreadful experience once in Mexico), so I drank only bottled water (as recommended), drinks sin hielo (and I love my ice), and no uncooked vegetables or unpeeled fruit. Liquor flowed freely and mojitos or other cocktails were routinely served at lunch and dinner; beer and wine were usually available too. Expresso was usually good but regular coffee was mediocre. I usually drank warm bottled water and was glad to get home to iced coffee and iced tea.

Government, politics and the economy: Cuba’s future

The end of the Castro reign over Cuba probably will not mean much change, given the governmental structure. Images of Che are everywhere and he’s clearly a national hero, 48 years after his death. There’s Fidelismo too, but images of Che predominate. There’s no reason to be optimistic about political liberalization.

However, the US trade embargo will probably be lifted in the next few years. The question is what kind of investment will result. I just hope that hundreds of golf courses don’t pop up on all that vacant farm land. But more foreign investment and more foreign visitors may well change the mindset and improve the financial wellbeing of the Cuban people.

Cuba, of course, does not have freedom of speech or press. Right now, access to the open internet in Cuba is limited to about 5% of the population, nearly the lowest in the world. Investment is sure to bring better telecommunications and internet functionality. But will the government allow Cubans to access world news and use social media to communicate? The likelihood of a “Cuban spring” is low, it seems to me.

Land of hope and dreams?

Some Bruce Springsteen song is always playing in my head. Last week it was “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a classic train song, with lyrics like this:

This train, carries saints and sinners
This train, carries losers and winners
This train, carries whores and gamblers
This train, carries lost souls

This train, dreams will not be thwarted
This train, faith will be rewarded

And this refrain:

Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams.

I feel that my week in Cuba was visiting a land of hope and dreams, but I’m not optimistic about when the Cuban peoples’ dreams will come true.

Coming up: It’s all about the art and music scene 

Please watch for my next post on the lively art and music scene in Cuba.

All photos by Nancy Bishop, taken with an otherwise useless iPhone 6-Plus. 

New York Report #2: Riding with the fishes + the art of history

It was a slightly overcast Friday morning and that didn’t make me unhappy. Down in Battery Park, I could walk along the water without worrying about sunburn. It’s an easy place to reach on the #1 train from midtown. Battery Park is a beautiful place with gardens and monuments and an excellent white tablecloth restaurant as well as snack and drink stands. It’s the place where you can board a boat to take you to Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty, but I’ve done those things before.

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I was interested in the new Sea Glass Carousel, which just opened in August. It’s housed in a circular building like a nautilus shell made of glass and steel that’s near the water and a short walk from the MTA station. The carousel is populated with many different types of fiberglass fish—a 14-foot-tall angelfish, a butterflyfish, yellow lionfish, triggerfish and a Siamese fishing fish, among others. 30 fish in all. For $5, you can sit in a fish of your choice and ride for about four minutes.

On another rainy day, I visited two interesting New York museums that I had missed on all my other trips. The Museum of the City of New York is housed in a grand building at 103rd and  Fifth Avenue, built in 1932 as a museum. I was particularly interested in several exhibits there:

Everything Is Design: The Work of Paul Rand, one of American’s pioneer graphic designers. Rand developed dozens of familiar logos and the corporate identity systems that supported them–mainly back in the day when an identity system meant a massive binder of instructions for every conceivable corporate application, from stationery and publications to trucks, signage and uniforms. (Today those guidelines still exist, of course, but not on paper.)

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Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival. An expansive exhibit of folk music in New York from pioneers such as Ledbetter and Guthrie to Dylan and famous venues such as Gerdes’ Folk City and Greenwich Village “basket clubs.”

Hip-Hop Revolution: Photographs by three photographers. I had seen Hamilton the night before, so of course I had to pay homage to the hip-hop artists who inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Activist New York. The drama of New York activist groups and issues over the years, from abolition (1830-65) and suffrage (1900-20) to civil rights (1945-64), gay rights (1969-2012) and bicycle lane advocacy (1965-2011). And a fascinating corner about the power of the pen: the Proletarian Literary Movement (1929-41).

The exhibits are all well curated and displayed. The three-story building also has a cafe. And there’s a beguiling door that displays this title: “This is New York’s most exciting stairwell.” And indeed the stair is lined with posters and billboards illustrating the city’s history and culture.

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Over on Central Park West is the New York Historical Society, where I wanted to see the exhibit, Art as Activism. The exhibit asks the question: “How did political messages go viral before the internet?” and answers it in a mesmerizing way, showing 70 posters from the 1930s to the 1970s. They’re all from the Merrill C. Berman collection at the historical society.  The posters are framed and installed like paintings. They tell stories you wouldn’t have learned in your US history classes unless you were using Howard Zinn’s remarkable People’s History of the United States.

All photos by Nancy Bishop except where noted. 


The power of performance in two Lillian Hellman plays

Last week I saw two masterpieces of 20th century theater by Lillian Hellman, the great playwright and leftwing political activist. (I‘m a fan on both counts.) The two shows were extremely different in production values but demonstrated the power of performance.


Goodman Theatre image.

I attended Goodman Theatre’s The Little Foxes on opening night and reviewed it for Gapers Block. (My review also appears on and, by the way.) It was an excellent production with a sumptuous set and gorgeous, richly detailed costuming, especially the women’s gowns. As I said in my review, the production “stars a galaxy of Chicago’s finest actors and surely resonates with some of the current discussions about racism, sexism, domestic abuse and income inequality.”

The venal Hubbard siblings (Regina, Oscar and Ben) who fight over the family legacy and the spoils of a new cotton mill are played by Shannon Cochran, Steve Pickering and Larry Yando. John Judd plays Horace, Regina’s husband, and Mary Beth Fisher plays Oscar’s sweet and abused wife Birdie. The rest of the cast is equally excellent. The nearly three-hour play (with two intermissions) is not only a visual treat; it’s gripping from beginning to end.

On Saturday afternoon, the Goodman presented an amazing one-time only event; a free performance of a reading of Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest, the prequel to The Little Foxes, which is set in 1900 and was first produced in 1939. Another Part of the Forest is set in 1880 and was written in 1946. Both are set in a town in rural Alabama and are based on Hellman’s own family story.

Courtesy Wikimedia.

Courtesy Wikimedia.

The reading was held in a rehearsal room on the second floor of the theater and held probably 60 or 70 seats at the most. (Needless to say, it was a capacity crowd.)

It was a plain vanilla reading, not a staged reading where there is some blocking and action. The actors all had their scripts on paper and usually stood at music stands at the front of the stage area. When they weren’t reading, they sat on folding chairs at the rear.

The most significant thing about the reading is that the 12-member cast was fully equivalent to that in the fully staged production. The acting was superb with attention to accents, vocal intonations, gestures and expressions. Some of Chicago’s finest actors were here too (none of them from the cast of The Little Foxes). Deanna Dunagan (you saw her as the mother in August: Osage County) plays Lavinia Hubbard, the siblings’ mother, whose fading memory comes through in the end. The always superb Larry Neumann Jr. read the part of Marcus Hubbard, the father who made a lot of money during the recent war, trading with the enemy (the Union forces). That’s the real source of the siblings’ later wealth. Neumann is one of those character actors who you’ve seen many times. He played the doctor in the legendary Famous Door production of the two-part Cider House Rules, Richard Nickel in Lookingglass’ production of They All Fell Down: The Richard Nickel Story; and Samuel Finkelbaum in Writers Theatre’s The Puppetmaster of Lodz.

John Hoogenakker gave an excellent reading as Ben, the younger version of the character played by Larry Yando. (You may have seen Hoogenakker on TV in Chicago Fire or Empire or in Goodman’s The Iceman Cometh or Other Desert Cities. Steppenwolf’s Tim Hopper (Marie Antoinette, The Night Alive, Russian Transport) played John Bagtry, Birdie’s brother and the young Regina’s sweetheart.

I thought perhaps Goodman would abbreviate Another Part of the Forest, but no, the full script was performed: almost three hours with two intermissions. The story was gripping from beginning to end and proved that great actors make you forget what they’re wearing or what the scenery behind them looks like.

The Little Foxes continues at the Goodman Theatre until June 7. Sorry you missed the prequel. Also you can find 1940s film versions of both plays.

Lillian Hellman’s South—It’s really about the economy

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

Hellman based these two plays on the stories of her southern family, so there are some economic parallels. My published review of The Little Foxes emphasizes the economic aspects of the story, which make the play richer than just a family melodrama, as it’s usually characterized. I wrote:

Hellman’s play is set in 1900 “when the South was dying after the failure of Reconstruction, whose planners had hoped that the region would turn into a new industrial power. That didn’t happen. (In fact, slavery was detrimental to the southern economy. It inhibited manufacturing and technological innovation as well as the growth of cities.) And Hellman wrote the play in 1939 when the impact of the Depression on people and society was much on the mind of Hellman and her audience members.”

Now I’m not an economist, but I do have one on call. However, as a resource here I’m going to call on a poet instead. Stephen Vincent Benet wrote John Brown’s Body, the stirring book-length verse narrative of the Civil War (or the War Between the States, as the Hubbards would call it). Benet’s poem, published in 1927, characterizes the war as preparing the South for its future as part of industrial America, but his prediction is about 75 years off. After 372 pages of the romantic saga of the war, its soldiers, victims, fictional characters, and Abraham Lincoln’s death, Benet wrote this in his optimistic conclusion:

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave.
Bury the South together with this man,
Bury the bygone South.
Bury the minstrel with the honey mouth,
Bury the unmachined, the planters’ pride,
Bury the whip, bury the branding bars,
And with these things, bury the purple dream
Of the America we have not been,
The last foray of aristocracy
Based not on dollars or initiative
Or any blood for what the blood was worth
But on a certain code, a manner of birth.
Out of his body grows revolving steel,
Out of his body grows the spinning wheel,
Made up of wheels, the new, mechanic birth
No longer bound by toil
To the unsparing soil
Out of John Brown’s strong sinews the tall skyscrapers grow,
Out of his heart the chanting buildings rise,
Rivet and girder, motor and dynamo,
Pillar of smoke by day and fire by night,
The steel-faced cities reaching at the skies,
The whole enormous and rotating cage
Hung with hard jewels of electric light….

Benet’s book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929. It’s not really great literature, because it’s rather uneven and not a little melodramatic. But it’s a great way to read the Civil War story. The book is out of print, but you can buy copies online.


After 32 years, it’s time: Oscar Libre!

Huffington Post ran an article last weekend as a commentary on the death of Nelson Mandela. “But though Mandela, who died this week at the age of 95, eventually won his fight,” the article said, “many around the world today continue to fight their own battles, risking their lives and their freedom to speak up against injustice.”

HuffPost went on to highlight 10 political prisoners who deserved attention–and release. Prisoners listed were the Pussy Riot pair in Russia (of whom I have written several times), Liu Xiaobo in China, and eight more in other countries.  The article ignored political prisoners held in the United States.  (And by the way, Guantanamo is considered US property.)

Oscar Libre! Free Oscar!


Free Oscar! bracelets. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

The important name not mentioned was Oscar Lopez Rivera. Several commenters to the article did mention his case and I wrote a correction message to the editor, but HuffPost has not responded. It happened that the day I read this I had just returned from the annual National Boricua Human Rights Network pancake breakfast, held every December at  Casa Puertorriqueña to raise funds for Oscar Lopez Rivera and to generate support for his release. Each year, we write notes on Christmas cards for Oscar, hoping that next year he will celebrate the holiday at home with his family. And we sign petitions to President Obama, requesting that he consider Oscar’s case and release him.

Lopez Rivera, now 70, is in federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. He has been imprisoned for 32 years for sedition. He was never charged with causing harm to persons or property, just for planning and organizing in favor of Puerto Rican independence.

A longer serving US political prisoner is Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who is serving two life sentences for the 1975 execution-style deaths of two FBI agents. Peltier has maintained that he was framed by the FBI and has appealed his conviction several times but has been denied. The 68-year-old was last denied parole in 2009 and won’t be eligible again until 2024.

And then there’s Guantanamo, where we’ve held more than 150 political prisoners for 12 years. As Nicholas Kristof commented recently,  “There is a whiff of hypocrisy about the adulation for Mandela even as we simultaneously sell weapons to repressive regimes around the world.” And hold political prisoners unjustly within our own borders.

Oscar Libre! Free Oscar!

Channeling Mr Hemingway

There’s something eerie and exciting about walking through the home of a writer you admire. I recently returned from a family vacation cruise and our first port of call was Key West, where both Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams created significant works in their oeuvre. Many other writers lived there at one time or another too.

Williams first visited Key West in 1941 and lived at the La Concha Hotel on Duval Street. He later bought a house that remained his home until his death in 1983, although he traveled and worked in many cities. In Key West, he wrote Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, Night of the Iguana and The Rose Tattoo. The 1956 film of Tattoo was filmed in Key West with many residents acting as extras. It wasn’t possible to see the room where Williams wrote, so we passed the hotel on our trolley ride around the island.

Hemingway lived in the house in Key West from 1931 to 1940. (See my photos of the house exterior, coach house and his office.) A knowledgeable docent led us on a tour of the house, describing the art work Hemingway collected (including a painting of a cubist cat given to him by Pablo Picasso) and the heavily carved Spanish furniture that he had sent from Spain.

Yes, the six-toed cats are thriving at the Hemingway House. There are dozens of them, all descendants of Hemingway’s original polydactyl cat named Snowball. Cats named after famous authors prowl and lounge about on the patio and in the many little cat houses.

Hemingway turned the second floor of the coach house into his office. After touring the house itself, we were able to walk up the stairs of the coach house and peer into his office, which is restored to the way it was when he wrote there. Shivers down my spine. I felt just as I did walking through Carl Sandburg’s office on the second floor of his old farmhouse outside Asheville, NC.

During the Key West years, Hemingway spent time in Spain as a reporter covering the Spanish Civil War. That experience resulted in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, about an American fighting with the Republican forces in Spain.

If you’re not familiar with the Spanish Civil War, get thee to a bookstore or a website and read about it. To me, it was the last great war involving political passion. That’s why, without any support from their country, some 3000 Americans went to Spain to join the International Brigades and fight fascism. Because the US and other western powers refused to support the democratically elected Republican government, the fascists were able to take over, massacre thousands of Republican freedom fighters, and ensconce Generalissimo Francisco Franco is power for the next 30 years.

Hemingway also finished A Farewell to Arms in Key West and wrote To Have and Have Not, The Green Hills of Africa, Death in the Afternoon, and many short stories there. He moved to Cuba in 1940, where he spent almost 20 years. In 1959, he bought a house in Ketchum, Idaho, where he committed suicide in 1961.

Related posts

About me and the Spanish Civil War. Please check out my essay about how I came to be so interested (dare I say obsessed?) with this war. Also see the website for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, an organization dedicated to ensuring we remember the Spanish Civil War.

”¡No pasarán!” Two of the three Pussy Riot activists are still imprisoned in Russia for protesting the suppression of free speech. Here they are before their trial; Nadia (Nadezhda Tolokonnikova) is wearing a shirt commemorating the Spanish Civil War slogan, ”¡No pasarán!” They shall not pass!

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. I wrote about this documentary on the Russian protestors a few months ago. They are activists who use art to communicate and bring about political action and they are among the many political prisoners around the world. (Of which more later, in my next post.)