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Preconceptions of Cuba

Gifts for Cuba compress photo by Jenifer Joy Madden

A picture forms in my mind, constructed by bits and pieces I’ve read and heard. I’m going to Cuba, a place that’s been shrouded in mystery and intrigue all of my lifetime. I consider this a baseline visit—a chance to see the country just as it begins to thaw from the long freeze out.

Wikipedia paints a picture in contrasts.

The average monthly wage as of July 2013 is 466 Cuban pesos which are worth about US$19.

Every Cuban household has a ration book entitling it to a monthly supply of food and other staples, which are provided at nominal cost.

Yet, there is this:

  • Cuba is ranked very high for human development by the United Nations, and high for health and education.
  • In 2015, it became the first country to eradicate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis, a milestone hailed by the WHO as “one of the greatest public health achievements possible.”

I review my travel packet one more time. Bring toilet paper, toilet seat covers, DEET bug spray. Don’t drink any water except from a bottle. “U.S. cellphones will not have access to service in Cuba due to the embargo.”

An article in The New Yorker describes how Havana is being remade, now that the U.S. and Cuba have started to normalize relations. I want to see the former peanut-oil factory, La Fábrica de Arte Cubano, now a glitzy night spot that “hosts dancers, filmmakers, painters, photographers, and musicians.”

I will be on a “person-to-person” cultural exchange. The exhaustively detailed book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, reveals the exchanges were devised by the Clinton administration to advance “the economic and cultural magnetism of the U.S. and the promise of economic/political benefits which Cuba could gain from more rational behavior.”

Person-to-person exchanges have been on and off over the years. I will be with one of the few recently approved U.S. tour operators.

We are told we must keep a travel journal: “This journal will serve as proof that you have traveled to Cuba for educational purposes and should be kept for a period of five years as proof of the educational nature of your trip.”

At least two local community projects are on the agenda. “These organizations are in need of supplies and are willing to accept any gifts that you may wish to bring to them.” A long suggested list includes syringes, crayons, reading glasses, inhalers, and disposable razors.

I want to talk to the people we meet, but I don’t know the language. A wise Spanish-speaking friend helps me devise a short questionnaire people can answer in writing. She will translate when I get home.

The questions I hope pass muster:

  • How would you describe the culture of Cuba?
  • What aspects of Cuban culture do you and your family value the most?

I want to go back to Cuba in a few years to see what about the culture has been gained—or lost.

What are you curious to know about Cuba?

Spanish questionnaire reverse compress photo by Jenifer Joy Madden

I invite you to read The Durable Human  Manifesto (now also a 25-minute Audiobook). It’s all about the art of living in the digital world, a world largely unknown to most Cubans.

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Making Suburbia Durable

Walmart in Tysons, VA by Jenifer Joy Madden

With a little imagination, there’s hope for the burned out strip malls and acres of asphalt formerly known as “suburbia.” They can be turned into active, usable, livable places.

That’s the word from Ellen Dunham-Jones, an award-winning architect, Georgia Tech professor and author of “Retrofitting Suburbia”. I caught up with Ellen at the International Making Cities Livable conference in Portland, Oregon, a town I’ve written fondly about because it helps people to be weird.

According to Ellen, “Underperforming properties present tremendous opportunities.” In some cases, Big Box buildings can be re-purposed. In others, a stream underneath a parking lot could be returned to its former splendor.

Here, she summarizes her TED talk in three minutes: Continue reading

3 Reasons To Use an Alarm Clock Instead of Your Phone

Retro Alarm Clock compress

Lots of us are in the habit of using our phone as an alarm clock. It’s likely we also jump directly down the rabbit hole of reading whatever arrived during the night. By doing that, we can actually prime ourselves to feel rushed for the rest of the day. Switching to a good old-fashioned alarm clock can help to:

Carpe Diem Just like at any other time, when you look at your phone in the morning, you’re flooded with status updates, email, and pleas from destitute princes. Once out of bed, outside forces—whether the kids, the dog, or the boss—begin to determine the course of your day. If you don’t grab your phone right off, you can take a few minutes to think through a plan of action. You can seize the day, rather than letting the day seize you.

Dwell in the Positive As human animals, we are attuned to potential danger. That’s why we worry more about predatory co-workers than about getting sun at lunchtime. But if we dwell on a positive feeling or thought for at least 10 seconds, we can train our brains to have a more upbeat outlook, says Rick Hanson, PhD, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence. That’s why it pays to spend a little time basking in that cozy, warm wake-up feeling before you do anything else.

Love the One You’re With For couples, one of the biggest beefs is that mates Continue reading

Report from Wisdom 2.0: Time Well Spent

meditator crop compress

Wisdom 2.0 is an unlikely conference. Its goal: to help people “not only live connected to one another through technology, but to do so in ways that are beneficial to our own well-being, effective in our work, and useful to the world.”

There, tech titans such as LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner mix with masters of mindfulness, including Jon Kabat-ZinnHaving experienced that breadth of perspectives, each attendee leaves with a different takeaway. This is mine.

The 6th-ever Wisdom 2.0 felt less wide-eyed and more mature. Soren Gordhamer, founder of the W2.0 movement, set the tone: “At the end of our lives, what’s gonna be important?” Adding, “What is it like to live like any one moment isn’t more important than another moment?”

The conference covered compassion in business, wisdom in leadership, and mindfulness in everything. But the overall theme was Time—and the battles being waged over how we spend it.

The term “peak attention” emerged. Like peak oil, or “the point of maximum [oil] production,” peak attention suggests we humans are maxed out mentally. We’ve reached the point that every moment of our time can be filled with Continue reading

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