Going to Cuba? Maybe!

August 31, 2010

When I learned that an artist and writers delegation would be traveling to Havana’s International Book Fair in Havana, Cuba in 2011 my first thought was there’s no way I’d get approved for something like that. Although this is a legal U.S. government approved trip from the United States to Cuba, I have heard it is almost impossible to get approved for these delegations. You pretty much have to be a fulltime professor, member of the clergy, college student, established filmmaker or politician. There’s no way they’d allow little old me, an independent author with just two novels and a handful of magazine/newspaper publications, to visit evil communist Cuba. Even though I am half-Cuban, and my great-grandparents were from the island, my lineage is too far removed to be considered a true family member of any distant relatives I might be able to locate in Cuba. I’ve heard it is very easy to get there illegally, and there are organizations you can join that directly challenge the travel ban, but with a family to feed, I can’t risk a $250,000 fine and 10 years in the pen.

This means I either try for the International Book Fair or I wait until the travel ban is lifted and join hoards of American tourists in a mass exodus to paradise. Waiting until the Castro brothers are dead and joining a mob of tourists doesn’t sound too appealing. Even though the House Agricultural Committee recently voted 25-20 to lift the travel ban, it will be a long time before a plane full of American tourists lands in Havana.

Photo courtesy of Lehman College

I figured I’d  give the Book Festival a legitimate shot. The trip is being organized by Anya Achtenberg of the Minnesota Cuba Committee. The first thing I had to do was put together a writer’s resume. My wife Lupi, a cartoonist, began putting together her own artist’s resume. A list of publications, shows we’ve participated in, awards we’ve won, committees or organizations where we’re members. I wrote a novel about Cuban cigar makers for crying out loud – that has to count for something! Then we each wrote a cover letter describing our purpose for going to Cuba, what we planned to do while we were there, and who would benefit from our experiences.

We basically have to meet one of the following 3 requirements:

  • Full-time professionals, whose travel transactions are directly related to research in their professional areas, provided that their research: 1) is of a noncommercial, academic nature; 2) comprises a full work schedule in Cuba; and 3) has a substantial likelihood of public dissemination.
  • Free-Lance Journalism – Persons with a suitable record of publication who are traveling to Cuba to do research for a free-lance article. Licenses authorizing transactions for multiple trips over an extended period of time are available for applicants demonstrating a significant record of free-lance journalism.
  • Professional Research and Professional Meetings – Persons traveling to Cuba to do professional research or to attend a professional meeting that does not meet the requirements of the relevant general license (described above).

We fired these off and have been told that we have a 99.9% chance of getting approved. I’ll take those odds but am still nervous. Even if we’re approved by Uncle Sam, there is still no guarantee that we’ll be able to handle the finances and logistics involved with such a trip. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit Cuba, a communist country that most Americans are banned from visiting. A chance to visit the island while Fidel and Raul Castro are still in power. A chance to see the land of my ancestors, to experience the Cuban culture, to meet the Cuban people, to learn their language and customs. To see how they live. To see, firsthand, why the United States government thinks it’s a bad idea for Americans to visit Cuba.

What kind of souvenirs will we bring back? Apparently the Feds will seizes our cigars and rum but there is no limit on books, CDs, photographs, artwork and other “informational materials.” See the details from Feds.com:

What Can Be Brought Back
If U.S. travelers return from Cuba with goods of Cuban origin, such goods, with the exception of informational materials, may be seized at Customs’ discretion [Section 515.204 of the Regulations]. Cuban cigars and rum are routinely confiscated at U.S. ports of entry. Purchasing Cuban cigars and rum in a “duty-free” shop at the Havana Airport does not exempt them from seizure by U.S. Customs. There are no limits on the import or export of informational materials [Section 515.206 of the Regulations]. Information and informational materials such as books, films, artworks, posters, photographs, tapes and CDs are statutorily exempt from regulation under the embargo and may be transported freely; however, blank tapes and CDs are not considered informational materials and may be seized.  To be considered informational material, artworks must be classified under Chapter subheading 9701, 9702, or 9703 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (for example, original paintings, drawings, pastels, engravings, prints, and sculptures are all exempt.)

We’re keeping our fingers crossed for what will certainly be the trip of a lifetime!

Click for more information on traveling to Cuba from the U.S.


10,000 Visits!

August 24, 2010

Thanks for stopping by….for adding a comment, for writing content for the blog, or for just hanging out and reading the articles. The Boogle thanks you!

Who Stopped the Sale?

August 22, 2010

Who Stopped the Sale?

Richard F. Libin

CreateSpace, 2010

4 out of 5 stars

Richard Libin successfully asks tough questions of those who work in both the customer service and sales industries. He’s not about to let anyone in the business merely coast. Yet, ironically, while imploring salespersons and service reps everywhere to strive for quality in their work, his book shows need for improvement. However, as you read on, you hear the wisdom of his 30 plus years of customer service and sales experience, and the content begins to resonant, ring true—rising above what may be lacking in ascetics, excellence and charm. That is truly the gift of this book. This is real stuff. The voice of an experienced professional.

Thankfully, Libin presents industry truisms without attempting to package them as the “latest sales secrets.” You quickly discern that the author walks the proverbial walk. For example, he skillfully exposes the victim mentality permeating the current sales and customer service cultures and encourages professionals to avoid this harmful mentality in every way. It’s all about the customer. Above all, he champions for the always-essential positive attitude, the need to make meaningful connections with customers, and taking ownership of sales–or the lack thereof. His approach is less about the importance of products and services and more about people—the human connection necessary for success.

As mentioned, some of the sales and service advice is basic but still worthy of repeating. In many ways, the truths aren’t repeated enough, and Libin confirms our need to hear them again. Libin’s ultimate point is that if someone who doesn’t understand the basics of sales and customer service, there is no need to show him the secrets. He won’t get it no matter what. (Moreover, that person shouldn’t even be in the business of working face to face with customers. Keep him away from the public altogether!) Being in the retail/sales/customer service business for over 25 years myself, I mined the book searching for some hidden gems from the 30-year veteran, but I should have known better. There are few secrets. Libin wisely touches on customer service basics, which truly are the secrets.

Where Libin truly succeeds is with the book’s readability and ultimate practicality. Using the easy-to-read format to that of The One Minute Manager and The One Minute Sale Person books, he gives those willing to learn, quick tidbits for success. Now, if he could only sell enough of his book, it’s possible he could start a much need revolution among customer service and sales professionals! God knows we need it.

Visit Libin’s website.

Also available from Amazon.com.

Reviewed by David Stucki, August 2010

The Art of Failing Buddhism

August 8, 2010

Ryan Dow

Create Space, 2010

204 pages, comic

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Ryan Dow’s The Art of Failing Buddhism is not a comic filled with skintight spandex people slugging it out above giant cities but is about the quiet heroism of maintaining a positive outlook in a world that seems Hell-bent on growing more grim with each hour. This good-natured collection of shorts brings our subconscious to the forefront as it follows an average, everyday man who prefers the solitude of his thoughts to the mass media and clogged city streets of daily life. This quiet and deeply personal series of introspective comics is a winner.

Despite the title, it is not a book about Buddhism but about a man on a journey to discover who he is but to do it at his own pace, with no urgency. When it’s ready to happen, it will happen. Throughout the journey, our hero is flanked by L’il Buddha, a watchful voice of reason. The angel on our shoulder. Like the spirit of Obi-Wan that advises Luke Skywalker, L’il Buddha hovers above our hero and alternates between being a gentle sage to a relentless nag. The funny and light-hearted exchanges between these two characters creates a philosophical base where it is more important to be at peace with yourself than to accumulate wealth or increase your number of Facebook friends.

Ryan explores the simple things in life, like learning how to cook and cleaning an apartment. As he sifts through desk drawers, he is confronted with past disappointments like an old speed-dating scorecard, and remembers the past anxiety of an old student loan statement. And throughout the book he meditates, plays video games and drives an injured, destitute woman to the hospital and then feels guilty because he did not do enough.

It’s hard not to like this character, or this story. We understand his desire to be a better cook, or a better artist. We watch thoughtfully as he contemplates religion, social media, limited liability insurance, public transportation and the times in which we live. The way that we live. How we set money aside for an emergency, preparing for failure. This is a man who is easy to root for, because he confronts what we all confront. In rooting for him to find peace, we are rooting for our own contentment.

Some of these vignettes are quick, just six panels on a single page. Some are longer and unfold in series, like when Ryan is confronted with a planned layoff. In nearly every story, he is at a crossroads, as we all seem to be at nearly every moment, where no matter which decision we make, nothing will ever be the same. Our hero realizes this, and is nonetheless almost completely at peace.

This is a very easy and a very quick read, filled with amusing scenarios (How to Make a BBQ Donut is hilarious is its absurdity). But above all the awkward (and actual) situations Ryan finds himself in this is a book about satisfying that inner Buddha and quieting that nag, at least for a few minutes a day. This is a book about a man who feels like a spectator of the world, but not a part of it, and is completely okay with that. A book that says that as we go through life, we may fail and fail again, but reminds us that failure is not permanent.

The Art of Failing Buddhism is available at Ryan Dow’s Comic Book Shop. Be sure to visit Ryan’s site to see more of his great artwork.

Reviewed by Mark McGinty, August 2010

The Old Cigar Factories…of Minnesota?

August 5, 2010

When I was invited to a book signing for The Cigar Maker a few weeks ago, by the Dayton’s Bluff Town Council, they told me they were considering hosting the event in an old cigar factory in St. Paul. I said “Wait a minute. There’s an old cigar factory in St. Paul? St. Paul, Minnesota?”

Turns out there is.

The John Doeren cigar factory, built in 1909, is located at 699 7th St East in St. Paul. Doeren arrived in St. Paul in the 1880s, already a cigar businessman, and in 1909 his company opened in a brand new building, where cigars were rolled by hand until 1940, when the company finally closed its doors. That’s 60 years of cigar history that most locals don’t even know about!  Nowadays the small brick building is the current home of the St. Paul Police East Team. Here’s how it looked in 1910…

And here’s how it looks today…

But the cigar industry was not just active in St. Paul. The town of Two Harbors, located in VERY northern Minnesota on the north shore of Lake Superior was home to two cigar factories in the early 1900’s and produced over 30,000 stogies a month!

And then there’s the town of Benson (pop. 3300ish) on the west side of the state. Mostly an agricultural town, tobacco was grown in the county and back in the 1880’s the town was said to have several cigar factories.

There’s also the Close-But-No-Cigar History of Minnesota, which includes last year’s Minnesota Vikings, the 2002 Twins, and of course, Norm Coleman.

What kind of cigar history exists in your home state? A quick Google search can uncover quite a bit!

For additional reading on Minnesota’s cigar factories (from some really old newspapers! ) click here and here.

The book signing for The Cigar Maker is scheduled for September 22nd. Click here to learn more.

Mark McGinty is the author of The Cigar Maker. His work has been published in Cigar City Magazine and La Gaceta, one of the nation’s oldest tri-lingual newspapers.

First sentence of my next novel “Unit 731”

August 1, 2010

So I’ve been putting together a few story threads for my next novel, and doing some initial research. After knocking a few opening scenes around in my head, I finally decided on where the story should start. I still need to decide on the character’s name but I was able to write the first sentence of the story.

First, a little about the book, Unit 731. I’m trying to condense my log line into a single sentence. Here’s what I have:

In the final days of World War II, a Japanese doctor attempts to flee Japan with a state secret and is pursued by an Imperial police officer through Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Here’s the opening line (I haven’t decided on the main character’s name yet)

<Name> was given a cyanide capsule and instructed to take the secret to his grave.

Still have a few more sentences to write so don’t expect Unit 731 to be in print until around oh, summer of 2012?? If you need some reading before then, be sure to check out The Cigar Maker!