Experiencing Cuba

How my curiosity about Cuba inspired my book

Fidel Castro was a frequent guest at my family’s large Formica-topped kitchen table in the 1950s and 60s.

Prompted by the nightly news, my family frequently discussed Castro’s action and the resulting tumult with the United States over Mom’s meat and potatoes. She was a great cook. After dinner, we howled at the weekly antics of Desi Arnez, a Cuban-American actor, and his wife, Lucille Ball, who played a wacky redhead on the television show, “I Love Lucy,” now a classic still in reruns. So, for me, all things Cuban seemed natural, even though I have no other ties to Cuba.

But it wasn’t until the 1990s when my husband, Jack Coffman, repeatedly spoke of his desire to go to Cuba that I ever thought about going there. Unfortunately, he never made it. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 2008, leaving his cherished picture of Che Guevara on his mancave wall and a thick biography of Fidel Castro on the bookshelf.

My chance, however, arrived in late 2013 when a University of Minnesota Alumni Association flyer came through the mail advertising a trip to Cuba in March 2014. I did not hesitate to sign up. But a question soon began to plague me: Would I go as a curious tourist or an inquiring journalist? And, if I took notes, what would I do with them?

While I recognized it was presumptuous to assume I could spend a week in Cuba and write a meaningful book about a country, its people and my experiences, I decided during the trip to give it a go and took notes furiously. My goal was to write a cross between a travel memoir and a primer on Cuba. I figured a slim volume — about a two-hour read – would provide enough for people to get a clear picture. Though not an expert in anything Cuban, I am a practiced observer of people, situations and life from 26 years as a reporter for the Des Moines Register. I have learned to spot salient details and facets, record, analyze and articulate them; and, above all, question, question, question.

During my reporting career, I won various national awards and had my best work, a week-long series called Gay Iowa: The Untold Story, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.   In short, I have learned to spot salient details and facts, to analyze, articulate and provide enlightening context about them; and, above all, to question, question, question.

Writing this book, for me, also provided the best way to understand what I had seen and put it in context. To do that I researched what our Cuban guide told us. Guess what? I verified everything she said on such credible websites as the CIA Book of Facts and the World Bank.

What surprised me most in seeing Cuba firsthand, conversing with Cubans and doing the research after I returned was my own misshapen beliefs about Cuba and Cubans. This is why traveling is so broadening, isn’t it? I hope readers of “From Mango Cuba to Prickly Pear America,” delve into discovering what they didn’t know and will be the impetus to go to Cuba to see for yourself.


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Plain Languge certificate now being offered

Imagine that a certificate program in Plain Language has now been introduced. I confess I have mixed emotions about this. Encouraging more people to become proficient and to use Plain Language in communicating is a good thing. But gee whiz, do we really need a certificate program to do that? E.B. White and Miss Hall, a highly revered English teacher in the Des Moines public schools in the 1960s, would probably be laughing themselves silly if they were around. Isn’t it the job of English teachers everywhere to teach the value of plain language?

Now, I’m wondering:

  • What forces work against plain language?  Inadequate instruction in writing? Haste in writing?
  • Who writes confounding and confusing prose? Pompous academics? Unscrupulous marketers? Overly cautious lawyers?
  • What will it take to require Plain Language in contracts, laws, regulations and user agreements? Political pressure from enough consumers and citizens?
  • What actions can I and others take to promote the use of Plain Language?

If you have thoughts about any of these questions, please let me know.

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Do superlatives do lasting damage?

Here’s a fascinating look at the Use of Superlatives in Cancer Research stories published in the JAMA Oncology. Reporters, take care. Consumers, beware.

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NYTimes piece points out sneaky and pernicious use of passive voice

22rockmoreWeb-master675 This New York Times op-ed piece, A Texas History Lesson, by Ellen Bresler Rockmore, a lecturer in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric at Dartmouth, exposes how some Texas history books blunt the cruelty and ugliness of slavery.  Well worth a read.

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My New York Times Word of the Day: monopsony

“Monopsony” wins hands down for today’s title. Used in “How Book Publishers Can Beat Amazon,” “monopsony” is defined in the enlightening piece by Bob Kohn as when a buyer of goods has the power to unlawfully lower the prices of what it buys. “Monopsony” is the mirror image of “monopoly,” which is when a seller of goods has the power to unlawfully raise prices. Seems to me we have a lot of situations these days that sure feel like monopolies and monopsonies. Take the airline industry, which has three or four major carriers that keep finding new ways to wrest money from their customers. And Walmart, which seems to control its suppliers perhaps more than it should. Anyone up for creating a game called “Monopsony”? 

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My New York Times Word of the Day: zettabyte

How high can we go? “Zettabyte” is a recently invented term to describe an extremely large amount of digital data, according to James Gorman in an article, All Circuits are Busy27BRAI1-articleLarge. A zettabyte equals about a trillion gigabytes or 75 billion 16-gigabyte iPads. Wow. And I thought a million was unfathonable. Photo by Eyewire

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FDA steps forward in requiring clear nutrition information

Three cheers for the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed nutrition label. (Wall Street Journal: Food Nutritional Labels Set for New Look). Consumers want clear, realistic and easy-to-understand information. Unfortunately, the processed food industry is not as interested in letting us know how many calories we consume and the extra sugar they put into so much food unnecessarily. I don’t understand why sugar needs to be added to peanut butter, for example. Even if relatively few consumers read this information, its presence puts pressure on the food industry to pay more attention to nutrition and health.  I hope consumers’ interest will win out on this. What do you think?  

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My New York Times Word of the Day: terroir

Am still catching up with Sunday’s paper. The story, “Loss Leaders on the Half Shell,” about the current oyster craze, captured my attention today even though I am not a fan of oysters, raw or otherwise.  The writer, Karen Stabiner, quoted a Chicago restaurateur as saying about certain oysters: “They’re coming from great growers who are developing their own terroir, like wine growers.” Unfamiliar with the word, I raced to Webster’s New World Dictionary but it wasn’t there. A Google search immediately turned up a definition: “The conditions in which a food is grown or produced and that give the food its unique characteristics: grass-fed beef with an Idaho terroir.” Of course, I should have known, given that terre means earth. A search of the New York Times also turned up at least six previous uses of the word in the past two years. Where have I been? Oh, well, now I know. It’s a great word and will surely come in to more popular use given that all sorts of foods these days are marketed based on their terroir.


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My New York Times Word of the Day: blah, blah, blah

What consumer hasn’t listened to a medical professional and wondered: What the heck did that person just say? Too often, much of what a physician or other medical professional says sounds like “Blah, blah, blah, Heart Attack blah, blah, blah Cancer.” to the patient, notes Theresa Brown in her Bedside column,  “Lost in Clinical Translation.” I’ve certainly had those experiences as a patient. As she notes, “I don’t mean to blame doctors and nurses; it can be very hard to slow down and tune in to a patient’s wavelength when you have other patients and countless pressing tasks to get to.” I take her point not simply to heighten awareness of this issue within the medical community but to consider that everyone does this. When did you last notice someone with whom you were talking had a blank expression? What I realize about myself is that too often I have kept talking. I have not taken the cue that all my listener was hearing was “Blah, blah, And then Blah, Blah.” Noise and nothing else. Clear communication requires that the speaker makes certain the listener is engaged in listening. Something to ponder in my next conversation. How about you? 

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My New York Times Word of the Day: Othering

I couldn’t help but be struck by Charles M. Blow’s use of “othering” in his column today. He put it in quotes most likely because it isn’t a word, at least not according to the dictionaries I checked. Here’s how he used it in referring to how Republicans treat President Obama: “This lawlessness talk is simply another iteration of the ‘othering’ of this president.” I don’t remember seeing this as a word before but I didn’t have trouble picking up the meaning, which could be one criterion for whether it works as a word. A Google search turned up a lot of references, however. According to Geek Feminism Wiki, “Othering is a process or a rhetorical device in which one group is seen as “us” and another group as “them.” How about it? Should it be a word?

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