Listen to this: More true crime on the air

It's hard to do when you're caught up in a story but one fun way to listen to a true crime podcast is binge-listening. That requires you to wait until the entire season or series is posted before you start. But it means you can just listen to as much as you want without being stuck waiting for the next episode — and possibly trying to remember who the different characters are.

I recently did that with In The Dark, a podcast produced by American Public Media in Minnesota. It's about the abduction and murder of a young boy in 1989. It's not a whodunit so much as a why-the-hell-did-it-take-so-long-to-catch-the-guy. There is a lot — trust me, a lot — to be pissed off about in how this case was handled. But the approach is so even-tempered that you can work yourself up into outrage right alongside the host, without feeling like you're being manipulated into it (like the Geraldo model, one episode of which focused on this case). I will most definitely be signing up for whatever their next project is and am putting this on top of my true crime list, even ahead of those podcast stars at Serial. One thing I really appreciated: I never had to hear about how the host felt about the information she was uncovering, or her feelings about talking to people who had been victimized in various ways, from having their child go missing without an answer, to being molested as a kid, to having strangers call them at all hours to tell them THEIR feelings about the case — a useful reminder that people were capable of terrible behavior to strangers well before the Internet — to being publicly suspected of the crime when they were actually totally innocent. The focus was all on the story.

Cuba — it's complicated*

 Graffiti on the wall at the top of the Bacardi tower in downtown Havana. Photo by Nancy Klingener.

Graffiti on the wall at the top of the Bacardi tower in downtown Havana. Photo by Nancy Klingener.


That was my friend Vern's response when I told him I was going to Cuba.

He's right, of course. I've lived in South Florida since 1989, and in Key West — famously closer to Havana than Miami — since 1991. People I know travel to Cuba all the time. My husband had been twice, more than a decade ago.

It's not that I was anti-Cuba or uninterested. I'm interested in Cuba just because of the proximity and influence on our local culture. When I moved to Key West, one of my first stories was the restoration and re-opening of the San Carlos Institute. It's on the site where José Martí spoke and united the anti-Spanish exile factions. The current building served as a Cuban consulate - and in county property records, it's still owned by the Republic of Cuba. I've always loved doing stories on the long and (until the last six decades) close relationship between the islands. I've always been proud and a tiny bit smug that Key West had Cuban-American mayors, judges and state legislators almost a century before they started reaching those milestones in Miami. Cuban culture is part of the Conch culture DNA.

Still, in the time in which I have lived 90 miles from Havana, I have traveled to Fairbanks, Alaska, and Fort Kent, Maine. I've been to Germany, France, Italy and England. But I had never, until last month, gone to Cuba. In my defense, much of my vacation time has been spent either visiting family or going somewhere that's entirely different from where I live - we really like Europe in late November. It seemed kind of silly to use precious travel time and money going to a warm place with palm trees.

 The cigar industry made Key West rich — and Cuban — in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are a lot of beautiful images from the cigar labels of that era. This is one of my favorites. From the Dewolfe & Wood Collection of the Monroe County Public Library.

The cigar industry made Key West rich — and Cuban — in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are a lot of beautiful images from the cigar labels of that era. This is one of my favorites. From the Dewolfe & Wood Collection of the Monroe County Public Library.

I wasn't going to go to Cuba as a reporter. There are so many other journalists — at the Miami Herald, where I worked for my first 9 years here, and at my current employer, WLRN News — who know so much more about Cuba than I do. Who speak Spanish fluently. Who are willing and able to delve into the difficult, complicated land of reporting about Cuba. It just seemed like my efforts were better directed elsewhere.

And I wasn't all that tempted to sneak into the country as many people did until recently. I could probably have gotten a ride on a boat, but I get seasick very easily and I know the Straits are a notoriously bumpy ride. (If you think that sounds wimpy, maybe you've never been seasick.) And I just wasn't willing to go to the effort and expense of the fly-arounds of Mexico or the Bahamas.

Besides that, I was uncomfortable with the idea of going there just because the place was nearby, yet exotic. As soon as I moved to Miami and started working with and getting to know Cuban-Americans, I got that the story of this relationship is far more nuanced — and yes, complicated — than the shorthand many Anglos understand. Cuban exiles are cartoonishly portrayed in much of the country as hard-core right-wingers, but I've only met a couple of those. From what I saw, mostly of people my generation and younger, families were separated, and suffering. I covered the 1994 Rafter Crisis from this end, and I saw the desperate risks people were taking to leave. I still remember the notes covering the walls of the Transit Center where they first tried to cope with the increasing numbers of people making that journey, Ellis Island in a Stock Island storefront. Those notes had names of people whose relatives were trying to find them, hoping they had made it across safely. The perils of that crossing were re-emphasized just this week, when a boat carrying 23 people capsized. Only three survivors made it to shore here in the Keys.

You can 1) think that the embargo has been ineffective and 2) also understand that Cuba is not a lefty paradise for those who live there. I didn't want to go just to admire the picturesque old cars and decaying buildings. I definitely did not want to be the person who wanted to see Cuba "before it's ruined," as Natalie Morales brilliantly portrayed in this column. The educational and cultural tours that local nonprofits have been organizing for years were out of my price range.

I'll admit I found it frustrating that more recent arrivals, once they'd gotten their U.S. residency, were allowed to travel back and forth more easily than I could. I understand why it's so important for them to send back money and goods for their families, but it seems to conflict with that sacrosanct embargo, or at least the principle behind it. And of course there's the abuse of the Cuban Adjustment Act, detailed in this investigative series in the Sun-Sentinel. It's hard to watch that happen, when refugees from Haiti and Central America are being turned back, imprisoned and deported.

I've been an interested observer since President Obama announced the normalizing of relations in December, 2014 — and I've been covering some of the various reverberations. Will we get a ferry again in Key West? How could this affect the wet-foot, dry-foot immigration policy that was the result of the 1994 crisis? Could we return to the days when Key Westers go to Havana for the weekend, or a doctor's appointment, because it's easier than going to Miami?

The stars seemed to align when friends told us they were taking their family vacation to Cuba. They're British, so traveling to Cuba is much simpler for them. We like to meet up with them every couple of years in various places, from Florence to Boston — and this place was so close. So we made the reservations and made the trip.

Officially, our travel was educational — and that was no lie. I feel like I finally have some firsthand experience of Cuba even though I am far from understanding the place. How was Cuba, people have asked since we returned. "Really hot," is my first answer. I figured it would be no big deal since I live in South Florida, but the heat kicked my ass a couple times. I didn't quite realize how well we insulate ourselves with AC. But my next answer is: "really interesting." Surreal, in some ways, to see a place that is so close and yet so different from home. Really impressive, to see how people have coped with what are clearly challenging conditions. Beautiful, both in the grandeur of Havana that has withstood decades of neglect and in the countryside around Viñales. 

We stayed in casas particulares, as small guesthouses or rooms for rent in private homes are known. Even though I felt a bit envious when we were briefly in the elegant, air-conditioned lobby of a downtown hotel, I'm glad we did. We were in Centro Habana, a real neighborhood, and can only hope our stay was helping the families who hosted us and made us beautiful meals. I would like to return, though definitely not in the summer. The overall attitude was of genuine hospitality — not in the determined tourism-industry manner, but more in a hey, come check this out kind of way. Once you've made a personal connection, they deploy their network to help you out. 

When we returned one of the first things I did was sign up for Spanish class at the community college. I've been reading some Cuban fiction, crime fiction by Leonardo Padura and science fiction by Yoss. I look forward to returning, which I hope will be even easier now that regular commercial flights have started. And I look forward even more to a time when going over to Cuba will be no big deal. Like 100 years ago. I don't think I will ever fully understand Cuba. I feel like I'm just getting a handle on this three-by-five-mile island, 25 years in. But I'm OK with that. It's complicated.

* One of the highlights of our time in Havana was a tour of the Museum of Fine Arts. Our excellent guide took us through the galleries, which are arranged chronologically, roughly by decade. Each time we went into a new room she would say, "In the 1930s in Cuba, it was ... complicated." Or "In the 1970s in Cuba, it was ... complicated." Which of course it was, and still is. More than most places, from my perspective.



Note to self

Lately I've found myself making some snarky remarks on FB comment strings. And I *want* to make a lot more than I do.

This isn't usually my thing. I think these comment debates are largely pointless, have real potential for needless harm and my job as a journalist means I shouldn't be spewing my opinions all over the Internet anyway. Either you're arguing with a total stranger, or you're possibly fracturing a relationship with someone you may get along with perfectly fine otherwise. I value social media a lot, as a way to stay in touch with farflung family and friends, to read and share interesting articles I wouldn't otherwise have seen, to find out what's going on in my community. I like funny comment strings but I've never been tempted to use that as a venue for argument, except about important matters such as what will happen next on Game of Thrones.

But lately ...  I *want* to. I think this is the result of this bizarre and intense political season and our recent outbreak of publicized violence. I recently wound up making a snarky remark in response to a total stranger's comment on a friend's post. The post was about the recent shooting of Charles Kinsey, an unarmed therapist who was attempting to help an autistic man who had wandered out of the group home where Kinsey worked. Kinsey was lying on the street with his hands in the air when he was shot in the leg by a North Miami Police officer. That officer may have been aiming for the autistic man, who was holding a toy truck that may have been mistaken for a gun.

This is all very terrible in so many ways, except that at least Kinsey wasn't killed. One friend posted a story about it. Other people started commenting, adding that there were positive things going on in the world, you know. But "the media," those jerks, just like to post about the negative.

So I snapped, just a little. I've always been kind of annoyed and defensive when people gripe about "the media," as if there were some cohesive, organized collective that coordinates its actions with nefarious intent. The media is a vast, fractured cacophony, people, and in these digital and social media-dominated times you have more access and control than you ever have. (And yes, I realize that people in other professions - say, "the police," or "the government," probably feel just as annoyed when their entire, diverse, disorganized profession gets categorized and blamed for stuff. I swear I try to keep that in mind when I'm reporting, or making snarky social media commentary.)

But I was particularly annoyed in this case because I work for a South Florida news organization where my colleagues, led by the apparently tireless Nadege Green, have been covering the hell out of this story. And even though I work 150 miles away and have not been involved in the coverage, I know for a fact that they are not doing it because they enjoy inflicting negative feelings onto the world. Covering this story is not easy. It is not fun. I'm quite sure my colleagues would much rather be leaving work at a reasonable hour, spending time with their families and friends, working on stories about some more fun aspect of life in South Florida (and yeah, we do those - lots of them). But they're covering the hell out of this story because it matters. When an unarmed therapist lying on the street with his hands in the air gets shot, possibly because the cop was actually aiming at the unarmed autistic client sitting in the street with a toy truck - yeah. Maybe people should know about that. And think about how it happened, and how such things might be prevented in the future.

I didn't put all that in my snarky remark but that's what's been obsessing me ever since. If only I could yell at enough people, they would get it, right? The International Court of Facebook Commentary Justice would issue its ruling on my behalf! Which leads me to another point, which I think applies to the original commenter at whom I snarked - and to me. I totally get feeling overwhelmed and occasionally enraged by aforementioned media/social meda cacophony. It is overwhelming and occasionally enraging and your social media channel of choice (mine is Facebook) can be horribly addicting. So take responsibility and take a break. Walk away from the computer or phone. Read a book. Walk the dog. Watch something totally silly on TV. I recommend "30 Rock," "Arrested Development" and "Flight of the Conchords" - they all hold up to repeat viewings. Listen to a podcast, or an audiobook. When you are unhappy with what the media is posting, you are unhappy with your choices in media intake. You have the power to change that.

So now, I just need to take my own advice.

Here be dragons

I read a couple of Anne McCaffrey books as a kid, but I was never all that into dragons. I like them when they show up in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire — and especially in the HBO Game of Thrones adaptation — but that series is really about the people. Dragons are just a superweapon.

league of dragons

But in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, dragons are characters and that's the genius of the series. She just wrapped it up with League of Dragons, and she did it well. Fortunately there are nine books in all so if you're feeling bereft about the end of the series you can just start from the beginning again, with His Majesty's Dragon.

I can't really suggest these books for people who are jonesing for Game of Thrones between TV seasons or the much longer wait between books. The better comparison is with Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series — because both are set in the British service during the Napoleonic wars and have a friendship at heart that is the most important in both parties' lives. But Naomi Novik is obviously writing an alternative/fantastical version of history (there are dragons!). So you get fun twists you'll never find in straight-up historical fiction. Like: Some dragons only allow women to be their captains/companions. Napoleon ranges even farther afield — all the way to South America. And most importantly, our protagonists and the society as a whole are forced to wrestle with their treatment of the dragons, many of whom are more intelligent than most people. Temeraire is an exceptional dragon, to be sure, but he is expert at mathematics and speaks multiple languages. And all the dragons are sentient beings, even if they are too often treated like livestock — or convenient weapons.

Really, these books are best suited for anyone who has ever felt strongly connected to an animal, like a dog or a horse. The fantasy isn't so much that there are giant, flying reptiles but that your companion from another species could communicate with you directly — and both delight and exasperate you with his or her idiosyncrasies. Dragons, in Novik's world, are imprinted on the first human who harnesses them and will do everything in their considerable powers to protect that person. Many are intelligent, though they have a weakness for treasure, especially the shiny kind.

That consideration of how dragons should be treated within society as a whole is really the heart of this series, and what elevates it above just another fantasy ... with dragons. Though it may have inspired me to give Anne McCaffrey's books another look (it's been more than 30 years). And also to finish the Aubrey-Maturin series, which I have been drawing out for well over a decade now.