Havana Heartstrings



In November I finally visited Havana. For years the island-nation has intrigued me, for a host of reasons: its exotic setting, tenacious politics in the face of huge odds, its epic revolutionary characters, the amazing World Heritage Site quality of its crumbling structures, those cars. And mostly, of course, the Cuban people.

They’ve been through a lot over the past 500 years, eradicated, dragged in as slaves, exploited and dominated and stratified into a stark division of resources that, curiously, was flattened out after the revolution but now appears to be returning in new form.

Most Cubans have next to nothing in the way of material wealth and comforts, still—the revolution didn’t really change that for most. But despite their relative deprivation, their collective spirit seems strong. Most of the people I encountered appeared to be content if not happy. That’s an aspect of the island-nation that especially intrigues me. In the US, those with little often feel a restlessness, and sometimes a simmering or open rage, over what they lack. Here, maybe because most have had little beyond the basics since Castro and Che stepped in six decades ago and altered the values of the nation more or less overnight, the sense of lacking here seems muted. For one thing, you can walk just about anywhere, at night, down unlit streets, and feel no sense of risk.

Healthcare is free here, as is education, and the paltry but apparently adequate food rations keep the gnawing hunger that often drives political unrest at bay. But most get by on about $30 a month in dollar terms—which doesn’t go far even in Cuba—and since the so-called “Special Period” after Russia abandoned the country in the late 80s, withdrawing billions per year of support, second jobs have become a common cash generator for those with the resources (taxis, property to rent, special skills) to pursue them. That situation has re-invigorated the desire for more, and so Cuba’s future as an equality-driven revolutionary state is presently in question.

Those without those extra resources can often be seen resting on stoops or leaning out apartment windows, gazing idly at the doings around them. Taxi drivers, Air B&Bers and home restaurant owners now rank among the relative elite, taking in during one day’s effort more than most make in a month. Elderly Cubans are often the losers in this new schema; it shows in the raggedness of their clothing, the unimproved little apartments in which they live (street-level dwellings here are open for all to peer into—sometime you just can’t help it…). Still, as with the woman in the photo above, the glow in many residents’ eyes has not dimmed.

Despite the claims of the anti-Cuba contingent in the US, most Cubans supported the revolution—clearly they did, because in the face of all they’ve endured, that belief in “the dream” has been the only true source of their dogged cohesion. Most probably still support the ideals of the revolution (I heard a variety of opinions on that topic, from anti- to pro-, via sometimes strident expression), though Cuba is changing dramatically in recent years, and the economic realities have created a complex mix of desires and attitudes.

Capitalism is acceptable in measured amounts (and heavily taxed), bolstered by governmental support that treads a careful line reflecting the leaderships’ search for heightened prosperity coupled with a continuing socialist mindset. That’s a big ask—capitalism and socialism in pure form are obviously clashing opposites. But that is the balance Cuban government and people are wrestling with at present: how much foreign investment to allow, how to decentralize certain services down to the regional or even local level, how much capitalism to sanction to improve the lot of most without tipping the people toward the very Robber Baron sensibility that spurred the revolution in the first place.

Go if you can. And go soon, because Cuba is changing fast.


Newspaper vendors. The gentleman seemed pleased to be talking with an American, but he was careful to note his support for Cuba’s socialist system.


A man carrying dyed wheat stalks that are going…somewhere, for some reason. Most Cubans seem to have two jobs, and often those second jobs reflect a level of ingenuity and drive that are common among those from “underdeveloped” nations (another pro-immigration argument).


Critters are everywhere on Havana streets, where they occupy whatever comfortable spot they choose, often forcing traffic to reroute around them. In the best Marxist fashion, dogs and cats are treated very well in Havana.


A street in Guanabacoa, where I spent the day learning about the santeria religion and spent the evening with several local families for a spirited food and dance party to which I was graciously invited.


Though Cuba is officially an atheist nation, this towering Christ statue across the bay, built before the revolution, was allowed to remain and is a popular gathering spot for locals and tourists alike.


The Ambos Mundos hotel, where Ernest Hemingway lived before moving to his rancho on the city’s outskirts. The operators keep his old room intact and allow pilgrims the chance to ride the perilous elevator up several floors to peek inside.


Banana vendor caught up in screen hypnosis. Wifi is provided in several spots around the city. You can easily spot the broadcast zones by the cluster of locals sitting on curbs and leaning against walls, phones in hand. Tourists can buy 2-CUC (the visitors’ currency, 1 CUC equalling a US dollar) access cards at several Havana locations, mostly at city parks. A single undersea cable from Venezuela provides the link, which makes for abysmally low data rates. But it works, and all have access to foreign news sites and other information resources that had been blocked for decades.


A Havana dance troupe was shooting a commercial before the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Moro when I wandered by. The director had no problem with my photo-gathering. Intellectual property concerns are probably lesser here than in capitalist nations—although I did watch art vendors on the pedestrian-only “Prado” walk that bisects the city center angrily chasing away a photographer who was moving methodically from one stall to the next, snapping images of everything his camera could take in. One vendor told me they’re often besieged by photographers they regard as art thieves—often, they say, from China. They stay vigilant but really can’t do a whole lot to prevent the practice.


One of countless Fidel shrines in and around apartments throughout the city. Che gets more or less equal billing in paintings and graffiti imagery.


This ageless door knocker is one of countless design elements that grace the decaying buildings throughout the old city.


A World Heritage site in dramatic decline due to lack of resources, Habana Viejo’s crumbling elegance is obvious in this and countless other structures.


I was struck by an eerie sense of deja vu as I passed this cafe. Then it hit me: it’s the Havana version of Nighthawks, the iconic painting by American artist Edward Hopper.


This aging taxi driver’s arms and hands intrigued me. They seem the physical record of a life of hard work and probably ingenuity, crucial traits in Cuba’s car-owning community. Fidel banned imports of cars from the 60s onward—though Russian Ladas and other non-American imports are common on Havana streets, and lately it seems any car a well-heeled buyer can ferry over is acceptable. Few can afford the newer American models, though. One man I spoke with shared with me an old Cuban adage: “You’re born with your father’s car and you die with it.”


Plaza de la Catedral, historic center of Catholic worship in Havana.


A fruit vendor stands before an image of Fidel, one of countless images throughout the city that honor the late father of the revolution.


Rocks in My Head


Landform on the Navajo Nation, Arizona.

I’ve been pondering the wondrous landscapes of the West—a big reason I live here. It’s telling, I think, how people from the Midwest and East often visit the West and ask, “Where’s all the greenery?” And I go East and kinda wonder the opposite: “Where are all the rocks? Where’s the dirt?” I suspect we’re conditioned to love the land we grow up in.

View of the Sonoran Desert from Gates Pass near Tucson, AZ.

Many years ago I moved to Midwest farm country. I only lasted about three years, or maybe it was one that seemed like three. Kidding. That’s not to diss farm country—I know many people there love it. I also know that some of those folks consider a primo vacation to involve traveling west and hanging out with rocks and dirt and strange poky vegetation. But I don’t pretend to be neutral on the subject.

View of the Santa Rita Mountains, southern Arizona.

My main thoughts in relation to writing fiction revolve around how one designs the landscapes of a fictional world. I wonder if writers do their best work when their stories are set in their own most sacred places, whether the Wild West or the wilds of NY’s 5th Avenue. Might a story hold more resonance for the reader if it’s set in a writer’s beloved home ground?

The Little Colorado River on the Navajo Nation, Arizona.

Does setting a story in an inner landscape that mirrors a well-loved outer one add some kind of magic to a story? Flipside: Do the best writers possess the ability to thoroughly resonate their passion regardless of their fictional setting? If so, how do they do that?

“Catfish Paradise” on the Colorado River, border of Arizona and California.


Home-Grown Fiction


Weatherford Hotel, Flagstaff. The story: the hotel’s (fictional) owner is a devastated widow who puts heart and soul into the operation, vowing to avoid love. And then he falls for Linda, a humble server with a violent ex who won’t leave her alone….

Here are some images I got in various seasons around Flagstaff, my hometown. I processed most of them via multiple exposures (HDR), which can look fairly whimsical if you’re not real subtle about it. I guess I probably crossed that line here a few times.

Alleyway, Flagstaff. But also the site of a (fictional) murder. The killer leaves behind a single clue, a shattered jar of locally made honey. It’s up to the alcoholic ex-detective who moved here to hide from a failed life to pull himself together and figure this one out, to save his girlfriend, who had a conflict with the victim and just happens to own the town’s only honey shop.

I’m posting these here because a) I’m determined to get to posting again, and b) to explore the notion that there’s a wealth of creative material for fiction right where one lives. Seems like the trend these days in mass-market fiction as well as literature has been to feature exotic locations– which has many fiction writers scrambling to Cuba or Africa or Asia to generate settings for their stories, many of which I imagine could be created much closer to home. I would argue that the human heart gets in and out of drama-worthy conflict with self or others whether the protagonist is saving elephants in Kuala Lumpur or flipping burgers at the backyard BBQ.

El Pueblo Motel, Flagstaff. The tale of a series of itinerant travelers, all with pasts that eventually converge.

This comes to mind as I finish up a long slog on my present novel and start exploring ideas for the next one. (I’ll probably avoid current events and politics next time around. That element has plagued me mightily with this one, which addresses immigration, with things changing so constantly…and now Trump…)

Carnival, Flagstaff. The story of a roustabout and his outre life.

Beaver Creek. An elderly man whom everyone thought was long dead suddenly appears at a campground by a local creek. His story is unbelievable. But…possibly…true.

Elden Trail in winter, Flagstaff. Telemark skiers keep disappearing from the trail. Finally, the police chief’s daughter joins the list, and the only suspect the chief can ID is his wife/best friend/mom….?

I have something of a theme rattling around for the next one, but I’m wondering where to set it. Exotic elements can add flavor to a story (and I do love to travel!), maybe more important than ever for today’s multi-jaded reader (are there still readers?) who is exposed to everything everywhere at all times via our ravenous media culture, from news to reality TV productions set on faraway islands or featuring round-the-world journeys.

Train station, Flagstaff. 80-year-old Sanford J. Smith came to the area as a young man and has worked on the railroad until his recent retirement. The novel is a memoir of his fictional life as it chronicles the history of rail in the region and the U.S.

So…all elements of a story should be interesting, but how crucial is it that this include the story setting, or is the primary source of interest the writer’s ability to conjure deep and meaningful emotions and ideas, regardless of where the story happens (yes, but…there’s more to think about here…) Both, you say? What do you say? If a story can be set anywhere–if the location doesn’t play an irreplaceable part in the theme and/or storyline–is it truly necessary to site a story in some exotic locale? Does that mostly represent gravy for a good tale, or a dodge to prop up a writer’s pedestrian talents? Both? Neither? Depends on the writer? The story? Just asking. Love to hear your thoughts on this.

Oak Creek, night. The story: This one is all yours. There’s water, a canyon inhabited by locals and Sen. John McCain (one of his seven homes). Gotta be a story here.



The Art of Artful Thinking


“The Age of Maturity or Destiny or The Path of Life or Fatality,” Camille Claudel, circa 1899.

I was rooting around my overstuffed photo stash, looking for a blog, and I hit on a folder of Rodin sculptures that I got at the Museé Rodin in Paris a few years ago, lucky me. One image after another—such beauty and drama, such an expansive view of the human condition. The Thinker, of course, is his iconic work, the naked guy sitting on a Modernist toilet, pondering…uh, no, not a toilet, a big chunk of marble, what was I thinking? Anyway, that’s his biggie, immensely popular because, I guess, we all think, or think we do….

“The Thinker,” Auguste Rodin, 1904.

So I’m going through his images—of Voltaire, Victor Hugo, one powerful image he called “The Three Shades,” depicting a tortured version of death that may nor not be accurate—I’ll try to let you know, no promises, or you can let me know—I plan on sticking around for awhile. Each work evokes fictional possibilities, an emotional impact that, for a writer who is listening, might shape itself into a concept, a reality, a story.

Rodin (1840–1917) was hugely prolific, and the museum can easily fill your entire day or more. All this diversity of incredible works, each telling a story, your story if you’re listening. And then…I found the one above, and it seemed particularly swollen with fiction-pulp. And I thought, yes, that’s the ticket.

And then I reviewed my notes and realized this one was actually created by Rodin’s “mistress,” Camille Claudel.

Camille Claudel, 1864–1943.

The work works on many levels. One take: It depicts an aging guy whose mistress reaches out to him as his elderly “lover,” old age, caresses and seduces him. There’s a story here, obviously. But what story? I imagine for a receptive writer it’s a story that’s bouncing around inside you. Not Rodin’s or Claudel’s story, but your own.

The basic concept of the sculpture, as translated by artistic smarties (age pulls the lover away from his young paramour) would be enough to fill a few fat novels, and it has. But when you consider that Camille—Rodin’s much younger lover—created it, abundant new possibilities leap out:  mistress experiencing the angst of knowing her aging lover will soon be taken from her by time. Or maybe the lover’s real wife is pulling him back now, late in his life, that although he and his young lover enjoyed the physical and emotional pull of their semi-illicit relationship (this is France, after all)—not to mention his ego-gratification at having a beautiful young woman who adores him, and hers for a relationship with a world-famous artist—it’s his lifelong relationship with his wife, filled with immeasurable richness, the deep soul-attachment of two who have traveled a long life together, that ultimately wins out as he moves toward the end of his life. Of course, if you want to know their real story, I’m sure there’s a book out there that covers it.

Or does the younger woman claim him? Another twist—who does he end up with? Does he choose the younger woman? Does she then reject him, maybe recognizing the depth of his relationship with his wife? What does that do to her psyche? To his? To his wife’s? Oh, and do the two women know each other? What happens there? Gawd, seems like a story here for sure.

Rodin self-portrait.

On the meta level, what is the writer’s (you) take on this whole business of older man/younger woman as lovers? Of fame and its impacts on emotional relationships? How might you explore the feminist perspectives of this work? Start with a modern, “conventional” notion (of your choice) and then shatter it? Just as real life often overwhelms logic, rationality, decency, politics?

If you’re looking for a subject, you could do worse than to visit an art gallery. It’s all there, every twist and turn, every emotion, every story. Your story.


Back in the Saddle


This Streak-backed Oriole has settled into the SE AZ community of Cave Creek for several months. I was fortunate to have a little time during a family visit to Tucson to drive over and eyeball this beauty.

After a long hiatus, I’m going to start posting again on the links between fiction writing, nature and travel. Is anyone still out there? Hope so. To kick things off, I’ll put up several photos of rare birds that have shown up in Arizona over the past year. Please let me know what you think, or take a minute to say hello again, or flame me for whatever…naw, don’t do that last thing, it’s important to be nice. I’d love to hear from you. If you have an idea for a topic I can try to tackle, please let me know about that, too.

And this is Cave Creek.

Here’s a Pine Flycatcher, another rarity from deep in Mexico, that showed up in S. AZ last August. Getting to the bird required a heart-thumping drive until the road gave out, a bike ride until the slope got too steep, and then an eye-crossing climb the rest of the way. Worth every bead of sweat.

This is a Lesser Sand Plover, an Asian bird that inexplicably turned up on the Navajo Nation outside of Flagstaff last October. Lots of rare birds coming in these days. I think because it’s warmer up here. I guess that’s no longer official federal policy, but tell that to the scientists who’ve been studying the issue for decades. Can’t have your own facts.



Green Fiction



Hello all. I’m going to try something new to overcome my erratic posting habit. I’ll post at least one image as frequently as possible and relate it somehow to fiction-writing and all the other stuff this site is about. Hope this works.

My experience capturing the photo of rare Red-billed Pigeons seems a lot like a well-constructed fiction piece–not exactly earthshaking, but solidly built.

In November I visited South Texas on my regular birding rounds, and one of my target species was this one. To find it (organizing goal/action of story), I had to drive a couple of hours from my usual birding grounds to the town of Laredo, where the birds had been seen on a golf course (driving time, if not abused, can be a good time to develop essential story info–although pondering characters can get ponderous quick). Got there an hour before dark, rented a…golf cart…(story interest, including humor–because birding by golf cart is, to me, just damned funny—middle-story details, focused on goal but ranging a bit, lots of stuff going on, including interactions with golf crowd, other birders, proximity to Mexico and all its drama, and several friendly juvenile Roadrunners who posed with little fear), and started out.



After making the rounds of the grounds for 45 minutes, I still hadn’t located the pigeon (apparent failure, buildup to climax).

However, another birder I’d spoken with earlier had mentioned in passing (plot point slipped into the narrative without, hopefully, excessive foreshadowing) another possibility. So with minutes to spare before dark, I headed to the other side of the sprawling course to Hole #14. Cruised around the area, nothing…more cruising…some Killdeers but that was about it…sun falling fast, ready to give up…and then, just as the sun disappeared and my quest seemed hopeless, there they were in all their drab-plumaged glory, three birds in a little tree I might have missed had my peripheral vision not been tuned into the shape and perching height of the target species—info that would need to go into the story earlier. Goal accomplished, story over.

Not the most riveting tale, but the parts are there. Fiction, like birding, often follows a similar track, I think–an organizing principle in place, accompanied by first-draft-style openness to the experience of the developing story. As Aristotle liked to point out in his geeky Greeky uber-logical manner, every story has a beginning, middle, and end. This one did, too, with a happy ending even.

Birding by golf cart. I could get used to that.


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