I Suck at This, But Will Get Better

I am good at some things: camping and roughing it; making deadlines; making conversation; not holding a grudge; eavesdropping. With some other things, I’m getting better: regular tai chi practice; checking my tongue when pissed; curbing my tendency to micro-manage; interacting with small children.

But there are still other things at which I’m terrible: handling stress with grace; confronting bureaucracy with grace; gardening; interacting with big children. Except for stress and bureaucracy (synonymous and perpetual here), none of this has significant impact on my daily life or prospects.

Still, there is one thing at which I am truly awful. Something that is detrimental to my financial health, trajectory and opportunities, growth and confidence: I cannot sell, promote or push any of my own projects or work. I was taught that ‘tooting one’s own horn’ is egotistical and base. I was taught that it’s unbecoming and narcissistic and probably unwarranted: who hasn’t done greater things, with more impact, more finesse? As you can see, I was raised on a diet of self-doubt by a loving, yet reluctant and perfectionist mother who instilled the desire and drive to be the best me I can be, with the tacit condition that I not let anyone know about it.

All in all it’s not a bad approach, unless you’re a freelance writer or founder of an organization. In this case, it’s an absolute disaster. And I am both: I write and I founded Cuba Libro. I have lived half a century without ‘tooting my own horn.’ That ends now.

I woke today and did tai chi (check!), held my tongue when my husband drank the last of the coffee (check!), and even let the cheese plate leave the Cuba Libro kitchen with a mint garnish in lieu of the standard basil sprig – without uttering one micro-managed word (check!).

So here I am, advocating for me, my work and my achievements. Sorry, Mom, but this can’t be bad, especially since my work—my good, hard work—pays off not only for me, but my family, friends, community and co-workers. After all, with more than two decades of good, hard work in Cuba under my belt, I have a lot of fertile ground for horn tooting. And I’m tilling this ground for you so that on your next adventure here—actual, armchair, virtual or astral—you can plug into our crazy Cuban context immediately, ethically, purposefully and positively.

_____

Some of you know me. Some of you think you know me. But unless you know Cuba Libro, you’ve only a partial picture. Over ten years ago now, as Cuba toe-dipped into the first phases of an historic economic restructuring (ongoing, complex and confounding), I saw an opportunity to create a unique kind of space in Havana; an opportunity to help mend the fraying social safety net; an opportunity to connect people, debunk myths about Cuba and disseminate ideas; an opportunity to share skills and (all-important) profits with some of my favorite young Cubans. Here was an opportunity to build something new and altogether different.

A decade on, I often think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. Several times I’ve threatened to give up. But I’m coming to realize that starting a community development project, alone, from scratch, was a way to channel the frenetic, heartbroken energy that consumed me after my long-time Cuban husband called our marriage quits. My friends counseled me as they would a Cuban: Dumped? Heartbroken? Go find another. So like Cubans do, I found another. To be precise, I created another partner that would lift up not only me and my family, but the neighborhood, our ommunity and beyond. Cuba Libro was born.

And it worked. As the world implodes beyond our garden gate and Cuba gets improbably more difficult, Cuba Libro has turned a corner. We survived COVID. We survived the emigration of beloved team members and café regulars. Blood, sweat and tears were spilt. Money was spent. A professional accountant joined the team. Yoan, Yeney, Migue, Alive and Emily joined the team. Different and more demanding responsibilities were added and delegated. Exciting new drinks (Johnny Sins! M&M Smoothie!) and edible treats (El Delicioso! La Tabla!) were invented. New community outreach initiatives were launched, along with healthy, educational and hyper popular trivia, dart and chess competitions. As a result, we’re now bursting at the seams and growing beyond our brick-and-mortar oasis.

Most importantly, after months of paperwork and meetings, and an intense licensing process that I navigated alone, Cuba Libro is officially a Local Development Project. More on that in a later post, but essentially, it means we are now able to support and grow our community in new and more targeted ways. Some we’ve already pilot-tested, like Cuba Libro Móvil, where we bring our 100% Cuban coffee drinks to local festivals, ferías and events. Others are dreams I’ve had percolating and which the team is motivating me to realize, like our forthcoming multi-lingual Little Free Library.

We are excited. We are energized and we are special. Drop by when you’re in town to experience it first-hand or wait for my forthcoming book about thriving and surviving 20 years in Cuba, wherein the best tales, foibles and follies will be revealed!  

_____

Friends tell me I’m a “bad ass.” I’m not a bad ass. In my world, the true bad asses are the Cuban doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, scientists and other health professionals and researchers who worked day and night, during lockdown, during blackouts, during civil unrest (and the rest), to deliver three safe, effective COVID vaccines in record time. Also, a hat tip to all the Cuban health personnel serving overseas—especially the Henry Reeve Brigade— who continue to deliver free healthcare in over 60 countries.

In 20 years as a health reporter for MEDICC Review, I’ve interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of these ‘white coat warriors.’ In post-quake Pakistan and Haiti, I lived in tents side-by-side with the Henry Reeve Brigade reporting on their work, even getting pressed into action in the operating room, during vaccine campaigns and as a translator. Being a Cuba-based health reporter has been a game changer for me and I bet some of you reading this didn’t even know I wear this hat. Proudly.

MEDICC (Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba) is one of those game-changing organizations—not only for individuals like me, the ELAM graduates we support, and people living in vulnerable US communities where we work, but also in the much bigger picture. MEDICC has helped broker Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) between US universities and Cuba’s National School of Public Health. MEDICC delivered a white paper to President Obama that led to bi-lateral cooperation commitments to improve the health and well-being of people on both sides of the Straits (unfortunately, the six-year Trump-Biden debacle derailed most of this forward progress). MEDICC was responsible for bringing an expert, international vaccine delegation to Cuba to observe results and exchange with Cuban colleagues responsible for developing, testing and deploying Cuba’s COVID vaccines.

Although US-Cuba collaboration has suffered since the halcyon days of normalization, MEDICC is a fighting organization. In the face of stricter sanctions, that incompetent 45th US president, global recession and restricted funding, blackouts, connection failures and mind-boggling bureaucracy, MEDICC fights and prevails. As I write this, we’ve rolled up our sleeves to scale up our premium program: bringing US health leaders, scientists, policy makers and students to Cuba to forge collaborative projects in health. MEDICC is the only US organization with this capacity. Biotech, genetics, clinical trials, social epidemiology, medical education, chronic disease, primary health care, nutrition, international medical cooperation and more: we tailor each program for each group, visit the institutions in which they’re interested and host exchanges with Cuban colleagues to hammer out concrete collaborations between US and Cuban health experts.

This is not at all easy. The logistics are complicated and the paperwork diabolical. Mainstream media reporting about Cuba presents a constant uphill battle. But we struggle on for our collective health, our collective future, and it’s working. MEDICC has already hosted three groups of health professionals this year and we have another half-a-dozen on deck for this year. Any scientists, health professionals, policy wonks, professors, deans or students interested in seeing Cuba’s health system first hand with a goal of future collaborations, please get in touch.

_____

Between founding and directing Cuba Libro, health reporting and keeping my family fed, clothed and housed, I wrote a new book. I don’t have much luck with my books. This is largely due to my lack of a knack for marketing. My poetry and prose collection TWATC is awesome. Unfortunately, I couldn’t manage selling it on Amazon from Cuba and the few copies I brought in my luggage are now with Cuban friends. The coffee table book I wrote on Cuba’s classic Harley-Davidson’s, with photography by Max Cucchi, is one-of-a-kind gorgeous and beautifully written if I do say so myself, but had no marketing or distribution budget. To boot, it was printed in Germany so few copies reached US and Canadian shores where its natural market lives. We have higher hopes for the second edition, now in progress, but still lack a publisher. Please drop a line if this is you!

I was more optimistic with 100 Places in Cuba Every Woman Should Go. I was approached and courted by a major travel book publisher. I was given all the creative freedom I wanted. When I asked: why only women?, I was assured that this is just a marketing niche and tactic. The publisher encouraged me to promote my passions while exploring the state of Cuban women, their contributions to and struggles within contemporary society. This was to be the travelogue of my dreams, chock full of solo travel, family travel, remote travel and secret spots. The publisher was supportive. The advance was decent. I was in. I was excited.

The research process was packed with natural wonders, wonderful people and electrifying road trips on a 1949 Harley. My admiration for my ‘media naranja’ (travel partner and co-conspirator)deepened. I discovered off-the-beaten track pockets and learned something new every day. I’ve been out of the travel guide writing game for a while, but this was no ordinary guide and I exalted in writing it.

Editing was a breeze and I was pleased with the cover choice (rarely the case and not just me: on your next outing with writer friends, ask about cover selection—it’s a tricky and sometimes nasty business). I hired a publicist. I wrote marketing copy. I contacted reviewers and press and mailed them copies at my own expense. I took to social media. I was energized. I was hopeful.

Then Trump happened, flogging Cuba with stricter sanctions thanks to his quid pro quo with those wacko Floridians. Under Trump, US folks could no longer travel “legally” to Cuba. The media added fuel to the fire. US visits to Cuba plummeted. Then the global pandemic happened and international travel ground to a halt in a way we’ve never before seen.

Perfect timing: my book had just been published. Now it molders. Too few copies have sold to even pay back the advance so in essence, this book has landed me in debt. I love this book. Many people have written me telling me they love this book. Writing 100 Places was another transformative experience that will forever live in my memory. But you can’t eat memories. You can’t pay electric bills or the phone company or rent with memories. 

The whole thing makes me sad and wary. Sad because I truly believe in this book and it’s not reaching enough people. Wary because I’m embarking on a new, bigger, scarier book: a memoir (of sorts) about learning to be Cuban. For this one, I promise to be better at tooting my own horn. 

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18 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Busting myths about Cuba, Cuban economy, Expat life, health system, Here is Haiti, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba

18 responses to “I Suck at This, But Will Get Better

  1. Laraine O'Neill

    I can’t tell you I happy I was to get your newsletter! Last news from you seemed that you were down and felt sad and I’ve missed you. Now you’re brimming with news. Toot your horn, woman! I vicariously live through you. Always wondering why I didn’t take the road you did. Sigh….Just jumped on to Amazon. Bought your book. Excited! Only one left in inventory now. Hopefully they’ll soon stock more. And I’ll share your newsletter with my wonderfully woke Florida friends. Sadly, we’re outnumbered by fascists now and they’ve got the S. Fl Hispanics believing Biden is a Socialist. If only. ¡Adelante!

    • Gracias Laraine! It has been a second since I last wrote. Hahaha. But we lurch from one crisis to the next and survival is time consuming. I also didn’t want to write about crises, survival, and all the other depressing daily realities we are facing. There is a lot of good movement too and I have (reserved) high hopes for 2023. So keep your eye out for some happier news in the coming months.

      Thank you so much for purchasing 100 Places! If I see progress towards paying back the advance on my next royalty report, I know who to thank.

      Don’t even talk to me about South Florida. We need to stop DeSantis NOW. HE’s Trump with more political power and brain cells. Dangerous.

  2. Peter Clough

    Conner,
    Whatever else your mother, my cousin, may have done, she certainly wound up with two daughters who could write. For Carolyn, suffice it to say, I’ve always enjoyed what little of hers I’ve been able to read.
    You impress with each article, in lucidity, in honesty, and in terms of the subjects that you write about, the things you have done, researched, know first hand. You are admirable, literally. For what you do as much or more than the writing. This piece brought a flood of thoughts:
    1. the three hour conversation Fidel had with my father after the revolution (that trip of his to the UN) when dad tried to convince him that his natural trading partner which would provide prosperity for Cuba lay 90 miles to the north, advice ignored with subsequent stupid estrangement for political reasons on both sides. And stupid US cold war foreign policy.
    2. that equally dumb Clough “don’t toot your own horn” nonsense, more honored in the breach by your grandfather and my father, but almost enforced at child and grandchild level.
    3. the self-serving politics for personal gain of the Batistas and other landed pre-revolution Cuban families like Rubio (who has never even set foot in Cuba I understand) who are also probably behind a lot of the anti-Cuba press articles presumably with the same fantastical dream that all will someday be restored to 1950 with their properties delivered back to them.
    4. In terms of publishers, only two thoughts and nothing tangible:
    one Trinity School graduate lives in Havana and has published some glossy cookbooks (actually they are recipes from fancy Havana restaurants, not useful to the gringo cook who wants to recreate Cuban food here). She gave a lecture on modern Cuba which while informative had a major book PR component. Perhaps a thread you could tug on. Or engage your alma mater to give a lecture (as she did) to promote her writing.
    The other thought is if you or your siblings have any residual memories of Reader’s Digest contacts from way back when. (I have recently talked to some folks who lament the passing of Life and Time and who are trying to do mini startups with similar formats). I read and liked the 100 Places conceptually but felt a bit excluded for obvious reasons.

    Anyway, Jane and I enjoyed our all too brief time in Cuba (as disorienting as the incongruity of our transportation was to the reality of Cuba on the ground), with you and Salgado; I fervently wish we had all remained in contact in the post-Old Saybrook era. And wish we could still travel as we used to, see you, and have the families know one another.

    From an admirer of you and your accomplishments and your literature. Adelante!

    Peter

    • So here is where writer as chronicler, writer as observer and distiller of memories gets sticky — when your own family is reading what you write! I always warn (interesting) people to be wary of me because they could end up in a story, as a composite character or their actions written in to a plot.
      So the no horn tooting you get. You, like me, were on the receiving end!
      I think its kind of intriguing that not one, but two, of your family members have had multi-hour meetings with Fidel Castro. MAkes me go hmmmmm.
      Politics everywhere continue to be toxic and pile on misery for the majority of peoples in this world. Sickening. Marco Rubio has never set foot on the island. And people listen to him about Cuba. I wouldn’t listen to someone trying to school me about New York City if they had never been there. Mind boggling
      And about Readers Digest: I met a 90-year old renaissance man yesterday who was asked to build something he has never built before (and this guy has built a lot in his life, including several homes, koi ponds, botanical gardens etc) – a fireplace. He had no idea how to do it, but he got one of those Reader Digest how to guides and made a perfectly functional and beautiful fireplace. Weird coincidence….Reader’s Digest is kind of triggering since Reg lorded that over me when I was just starting as a writer, but wouldn’t extend a hand. Typical, I guess.

      I, too, wish we had the money, time and health to travel and share together. In Salgado’s case, its a visa question. So heartbreaking when I sit back and think about it. I wish the USA would just get their dirty hands out of Cuba once and for all. Big hugs to you and the family.

      • Peter Clough

        Conner, intriguing. Did you meet with Fidel?

      • 8 hours worth. Think I should put it in the book?!

      • Peter Clough

        YES! With a blow by blow of what you covered and his reaction.

      • HA! Ok, will do. Just to whet your appetite with some off-the-top-of-my-head recollections: watching the nightly soap opera on the edge of our seats in the protocol anteroom pre-meeting; being pitched a sachet of ginger tea (a gift from some asian dignitary – maybe even a president, I’ll have to check my notes) from across the room by the man himself; and being addressed directly, privately by aforementioned tea-pitcher about my behavior during the meeting…STAY TUNED 😉

  3. Arturo

    So pleasantly surprised to see this update from you, Conner. A lot of good things going on at HL, I hope to visit again this year and spend some more time taking it all in. -All the best.

    • Thanks Arturo!! It has been a looooong time since Ive had the motivation and time to write. But now it’s priority #1. Hope you make it back to the island in 2023. It’s getting very interesting!

  4. It’s so good to hear from you! I hate promoting myself – it feels icky, like I’m pestering everyone, so I get it. Also can relate 1000% to hatred of book cover choices (at least with Amazon self-pub choices).

    • Pestering….exactly! It’s why I turned down an on-air, TV correspondent opportunity. I do not like rolling up on people with only my own agenda. Feels icky. But a woman’s gotta eat, so….unleash the horns!! hahaha

  5. Jenny Cressman

    Good tooting, writing and work in general. I thought you were awesome before and now…. I’ll have to search my favorite online thesaurus for something better than “awesomer” but I’m currently in Cuba and my connection is not good. Next time I’m in Havana, I won’t let anyone or anything stop me from finally meeting you!
    – Jenny

    • Hola Jenny and welcome back to Cuba! Thanks so much for reading with a bad connection. I know how that goes!! Cuba Libro is going great gangbusters as my mom used to say. Hope you can drop by. Enjoy la isla bonita!

  6. Bill

    Thanks for the post, its been a while…I cant wait to read the new book , hope it will be on amazon !

    • Thanks Bill. If I can hook a good, solid publisher, it will definitely be on amazon. And available….everywhere (for those who eschew Amazon). Fingers crossed. Stay tuned!

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