Thursday, May 24, 2012

13 Things About Cuba

One of the gifts I left behind in Cuba.
Last week I was fortunate enough to have traveled to Cuba legally as a U.S. citizen.  So naturally, I thought it would be fitting to share a few things about Cuba and my experience there before everything changes.

13 Things About Cuba

1. If I'm going to talk about Cuba, I have to begin with the Malecón in Havana.  For our trip, we stayed at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba right on the Malecón.  All I can say is, what famous American from the early- to mid-1900s did not stay there?  Frank Sinatra, check.  Ernest Hemingway, check.  Ava Gardner - who eventually ended up swimming naked in Ernest Hemingway's pool - check.

Now, back to the Malecón, the boardwalk and break wall along the sea coast.  Not surprising, the first thing you notice are the cars.  These are not the shiny, classic American cars kept under tarps in your uncle's garage only to be rolled off of a flatbed trailer into a Cracker Barrel parking lot car show.  No, these cars are driven.  And just like everything else in Havana, the cars can be seen in various states of repair.  Being enveloped in black clouds of exhaust, you'll realize just how old some of these cars really are.

The Malecón is a boardwalk.  But much more interesting than the one in Venice Beach or Myrtle Beach.  I ran along the Malecón at different times of the day and always encountered the same thing: people.  People fish, walk, and hang out on the break wall.  In the evenings and weekends, vendors and artists set up stands.  While I ran on the old, pockmarked surface, I could only think of coral.  The Malecón teamed with schools of colorful people.  Beautiful.

2. Workers in the famous Cuban Cigar factories are allowed to have three cigars each day.  These are not the high quality items reserved for sale.  Inexperienced apprentices generally hand-roll these cigars using lower quality leaves with tears or imperfections.  Hand-rolling cigars takes practice, and practice makes perfect.  So why waste an otherwise good thing?

Although their three cigars may be rejects by Cuban quality standards, not all tourists know that.  While on the factory tour, a worker on a bathroom break peeked from around a corner and waved his three cigars at me.  It was clear he wanted me to make him a deal.

3. Many of the beautiful buildings in Havana are in dire need of renovation - and much has already begun.  The facades can be dull and colorless old concrete.  But like a flower pushing through the sidewalk, the vibrancy of the Cuba shines through.  From the pastel colored classic cars, to the lively clothing styles, to the bright artwork, Cuba will capture your heart - even on a cloudy day.

4. According to recent new articles, President John F. Kennedy ordered one thousand Cuban cigars before he signed the U.S. trade embargo into law.

5. During our visit to an elementary school in Havana, somebody asked about the graduation rate of school children.  The administrators were a bit perplexed because they claim that all students graduate.  

Prior to the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the literacy rate was about 60-70%.  Today, according to UNICEF, it is 100%.

6. Through a combination of the Embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union, organic farming is the only method of farming possible.  The lack of chemicals and farming machinery forced Cuban to innovate.  Necessity is the mother of invention.  (Since Cuba has been so successful with organic farming, it makes you wonder why produce at Whole Foods is so expensive.)

7. After Castro nationalized businesses and private property, most people argue that the best Cuban chefs fled to the United States.  If you want great Cuban food, stay in the United States.

But this wasn't necessarily my experience.  If you avoid the tourist restaurants in Havana - where these chefs try to cater to a warped interpretation of Western tastes - you will find wonderful food.  Make sure you eat in at least one paladar, a small restaurant set up in a private residence.

8. Many of the old American and Russian cars in Cuba have a yellow Ferrari emblem displayed on the sides.  Cubans are resourceful and creative.  They are proud of their cars but authenticity does not always factor in when it comes to maintaining their cars.

9. An American, William Alexander Morgan, fought alongside Che Guevara in the Cuban Revolution against Cuban dictator Batista.  Morgan held the rank of Comandante.  He was later executed by Castro.

10. In 2009, an open air peace concert was held in Havana's Revolutionary Square.  Our guide said 1.2 Million people attended and even the police enjoyed the free Latin Music concert.

11. Expect to tip a lot of people while visiting.  Local guides and hotel employees all work for tips.  Cubans in Havana are generally very friendly toward Americans.  But just like any tourist area in the world, beware of hustlers.  Everyone wants your money.

12. Ernest Hemingway is Cuba and Cuba is Ernest Hemingway.  In the village of Cojimar, the setting for The Old Man and The Sea, a bust is on display that was created from the boat propellers of local fishermen.  Cubans loved, and still do love, their Papa Hemingway.

13. As shown in the picture above, these Cuban children really appreciated gifts.  Baseball hats and baseballs are great gifts to give in exchange for a family's hospitality.  I wanted to give something unique and memorable.  Hopefully the few Rubik's Cubes I gave away won't frustrate too many Cuban children.

What comes to mind when you think about Cuba?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Maybe They're Just Not Interested

I'm a show-off.  I can't help it.  But I'm not alone.  Because I know at least once in your childhood you have said, "Hey Mom, look at me!"

Face it.  Everybody likes to be the center of attention.  Unfortunately, not everybody can be your Mom.  Therefore, some people simply won't be impressed.

I learned this lesson the hard way just after I learned to solve the Rubik's Cube.  Every chance I got, I demonstrated my new skill to everybody.  Well, the problem was that I didn't figure out how to solve the Rubik's Cube until adulthood.  Now, if I were still 8 years old, perhaps the story might be different, but most working adults have no interest in seeing another so-called adult playing with a toy.

Even still, I found a small percentage of people who were genuinely fascinated with my Rubik's Cube abilities.  They truly appreciated what I was doing.  They actually cheered me on.  I had found my ideal audience.

Find your target audience.

Now think about your writing for a moment.  At some point you need to accept the fact that you cannot please everybody.  This is a fact.  This is a guarantee.  But don't sweat it!

Some people simply are not going to be interested in your writing.  They are not your target audience.  Try to ignore the naysayers.

The great thing about writing fiction is there are so many different styles, genres, subjects, and lengths to write; you are bound to find readers to please.  When you do find your target audience, they will clamor for your writing.

Remember not every reader out there is going to be like your Mom, but they do exist.  So keep writing!

Have you ever felt discouraged targeting your writing to the wrong audience?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Boy With Thirteen Toes

Special Thanks to Serenity Photography on Flickr

The Boy With Thirteen Toes

A boy was born with thirteen toes,
No wetting mucus lined his nose.

He never grew to six feet tall,
And learned to walk before he crawled.

He lurched and hitched and dragged his leg,
One special shoe, soft as a beer keg.

Toes ached and bruised, shoved into that shoe,
What in the world do you think you might do?

To curse the sky would make much sense,
Yet this boy wore a bright smile as his defense.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Story Structure and the Rubik's Cube

What can the Rubik's Cube teach you about story structure?  Everything you need to know to create dramatic stories!  Here's how.

Using the rule of threes.

Most people learn a layer-by-layer method when they first learn to solve the Rubik's Cube.  Simply put, you solve the cube like stacking layers of a wedding cake.  Solve the first layer, then the middle layer, and then the last layer.  Poof.  It's solved!  Easy as 1,2,3.

Most stories can also be broken down into three main parts.

You probably know that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Obviously!  But, what this really means is that a story must have the following three fundamental elements:
  1. A conflict
  2. Character(s) struggling to overcome the problem
  3. The resolution (either won or lost)
That's it.  Include these basic elements and you have the most common story structure.

For example:

What is the conflict?
I must solve this puzzle, but there are 43,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible ways to further mess it up.

What is the struggle?
I plan to solve the puzzle one layer at a time.  Complications arise.  If I try to solve the pieces in the middle layer, I risk messing up the first layer pieces.

What is the resolution?
My actions bring me to a turning point.  I now have two layers solved.  Here, the stakes are highest.  With every move to solve the remaining pieces, I might have to start over from the beginning.  I am fully committed and must risk it all to move forward.  I will reach a final resolution.  

On the one hand, I may achieve my goal and solve the cube successfully.  On the other, I may not, and I chuck it against the wall in frustration.  Either way:  "The End".  The story is resolved.

You'll find these three elements in almost every classic story, from "Romeo and Juliet" to "Cinderella".  The amazing thing about Shakespeare is he didn't even have the Rubik's Cube as a guide and yet he still wrote masterful stories.

If you found this helpful, please comment below or share on Twitter or Facebook.