Train Wreck

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beautiful-wedding-dress-168964_1920You guys, confesson time: I did an awful thing.

We went to this gorgeous wedding. The venue was a beaten-up sports arena, and the decorators had done wonders. Draped in fabric, dim lighting, and simple, elegant decorations transformed the locale into a fancy dance hall. In our little backwater, it was just magic.

Magic has a way of not lasting long when you have a toddler. My daughter’s diaper suffered a blow-out, and I found myself changing a child behind a photo booth, cleaning up spots of poop around our table with diaper wipes and and tiptoeing barefoot–did I mention that my heels broke a strap on the way to the car to get the changing pad?–to the trashcan in a bathroom that had started the night as Slightly Dodgy and was rapidly downgrading itself to Seriously Sketchy (sadly, draped cloth and mood lighting can only take you so far).

Magic has a way of not lasting long when you have a toddler….I found myself tiptoeing barefoot to the trashcan in a bathroom that had started the night as Slightly Dodgy and was rapidly downgrading itself to Seriously Sketchy.

Whew. Mommy Warrior merit badge earned. And then as I waited by the door at 2 a.m., waiting for Mr. Crônicas to return from the car with the pair of flip-flops that were stashed there, I had the misfortune of looking down at the floor.

What was that in that dark corner? Chipped paint? Or was it… My daughter had been running all over this stadium with that diaper.. She had been playing in that corner.  Was it…?  It couldn’t be. I stood there by the door, barefoot, with no paper towels at hand (Sketchy Bathroom had been out of them by 11p.m.), armed only with the diaper wipes in my bag, I contemplated looking closer at what that might have been… just in case. I contemplated getting down on my knees and cleaning that floor, walking all the way across that hall with handfuls of poopy diaper wipes to brave that sketchy bathroom again barefoot… And I turned my head and walked out the door.

I’m not proud of what I did. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe I literally left someone else shit to clean up.

To compound the guilt, the bride had this lovely, long, flowing train on her dress that she insisted on dragging all over the place to greet everyone. What if…? Oh, I don’t even want to know the answer. I’ll never forgive myself.

I closed my eyes and turned my head. YOU GUYS. Last night I had a nightmare about hiding a dead body! I think all this shitty guilt is getting to me.

Because here’s the thing: Courage is a muscle. You start small. You do something bigger the next day. And then next. Until you can brave things that you never thought imaginable.

Courage is a muscle. You start small. You do something bigger the next day. And then next. Until you can brave things that you never thought imaginable.

Staring life in the face has got to be a correlary of that. And so much of our world these days requires this flavor of courage. From Syria, to South Sudan, to Flint, Michigan, to the Dakota Access Pipeline, to Black Lives Matter, to our current American president. It would be so easy to just close our eyes and look away. But can we live with ourselves? Someone is going to have to clean up that shit. Maybe not you, but somebody. And we’re all in this together.

Sure, facing life as it is will probably make you uncomfortable. In fact, if it doesn’t, then I’m pretty sure you’re not doing it right. Change requires discomfort. No one ever changed the world watching Netflix re-runs in their PJs and munching Doritos. You gotta get uncomfortable to move ahead. 

And I think in addition to training our courage muscles, we have to identify our kryptonite, that thing that makes us weak in the knees and robs all the gusto from our forward-charge. I just found some of mine–public humiliation–that kept me from doing the Right Thing. I want people to like me, or at least not stare at and ridicule me. Turns out I’ll go pretty far to avoid that. But my old kryptonite has me up at nights. It’s time for it to go.

Sadly life doesn’t have a reverse button. I can’t go back and do that moment over. So for me for the next few weeks I’m going to keep reminding myself that I’m a good person (good, not great, just run-of-the-mill-good) in incredibly trying circumstances, doing the best she can and sometimes–because she’s only human–she goofs. I’m going to keep saying that until I believe it. And I’m going to practice being courageous in the face of ridicule until I can take it every time. Because I don’t enjoy disliking myself, and I don’t want to reach that day where it truly matters and not have the strength to face things head-on. I’m pretty sure those days are coming. Lord knows, this isn’t the time to be backing down from life.

So for me for the next few weeks I’m going to keep reminding myself that I’m a good person in incredibly trying circumstances, doing the best she can and sometimes–because she’s only human–she goofs.

So, my friends, what’s your kryptonite? What’s your thing that keeps you from being your courageous self? How do you plan to stretch that muscle?

‘Merrica, Can We Talk?

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photo credit: Global Street Art and NOK Crew

[Scene – A car in a mall parking lot, in a Red State somewhere.]

California: Middle America, honey, can we talk? I know I said I needed a new dress for the Inaugural Ball, and the help of my best gals to pick it out, but that was a lie. Your wedding is just a few days away and… Well, we just really wanted some time to talk to you…. alone.

M.America: What? Why? Oh, this is about Donald isn’t it…

Massachusetts: Sweetie, we’re really worried about you.

M. America: I told you, I love him. We’re going to be great together. Our wedding is going to be huge. We’re inviting all the best people. Why can’t you just be happy for me?

New York: Look, all we want is for you to be happy. Really, we do. You haven’t been yourself for years. And I know this guy helps you remember what you used to be like…

California: …We’re your sisters. We’re there for you always. And we were kind of hoping that you would break this thing off by yourself, but you went and got engaged to this guy and…

M. America: He and I share the same values. We want the same thing for our kids. Why can’t you just give him a chance?

Massachusetts: Look, we’ve all dated some doozies. Look at Maine…. her husband isn’t even invited to the Governors’ Christmas parties anymore…

[Maine rolls her eyes, throws up her hands, and goes back to staring out the window.]

Massachusetts: …but marriage is big step, and we wouldn’t be your best friends if we didn’t talk to you about how we’re feeling.

M. America: [Sighs.] Ok. Whatever. Go ahead.

California: Well, for starters. We really don’t like how you get when you’re with him. You’re not yourself.

M. America: What? What do you mean?

California: You’ve got one of the biggest hearts that I know. Remember Mrs. Hernandez? How her son was killed in Iraq and you sent casseroles ‘round to her house for a whole month…

Massachusetts: And that time that Rachael had to move? She didn’t have anyone to help—her and those three little kids—and you showed up with all your pick-up trucks and had her moved in a few hours.

New York: And don’t tell me that you don’t go snowblow Mr. Hudson’s driveway for him every time it snows. I’ve seen you do it.

M. America: Yeah, but he just had that hip replacement, and if he slips…

Massachusetts: That’s my point. You’re always looking out for your neighbors. But when you’re around this guy, you forget all that. And he says some really awful things.

M. America: Oh, he doesn’t mean any of that. You know how he is…. He just says those things to get a rise out of people.

New York: I don’t know about that… He has some really nasty friends. And since you guys got engaged, it’s not like he’s hanging out with them less. If anything, they’re coming around even more.

Massachusetts: And he likes to blame other people for problems, says that if they just went away, if we just shoved them out, things would be better.

M. America: No, you’re exaggerating what he said. He doesn’t… He wouldn’t ever…

Massachusetts: No, I’ve seen you nodding your head to what he says… You think it’s funny. But Mrs. Hernandez doesn’t have papers. She’s undocumented. Did you know that? Mr. Hudson’s on Medicare. He needs it to pay for all his medications. Without those Medicare discounts, he told me he’d have to cut back on groceries or heat.

M. America: Donald wouldn’t ever do anything to hurt them.

California: I hope not, honey. But look, you know Rachel? She’s Jewish. His friends painted a swastika on her house the other day.

M. America: [pales] That’s awful. Poor Rachel. But Donald didn’t do that! You can’t judge him for what some of his friends do. That wasn’t him.

New York: Maybe not, and I know he told them to cut it out. but he still went to play golf with them the next day. What does that say?

M. America: Ok, so maybe he’s a little unpolished. He says things he shouldn’t. But his heart is in the right place. He listens to me. Remember how I told you how much I hated that China was always pretending to be my friend, then stealing my jobs? Just last week he went and told them off! Isn’t that great? I need someone to stand up for me.

California: Yeah, that was…. interesting…. how he went about that. But let’s talk about that. You can’t have a husband who goes around beating up everyone who talks bad about you. That’s not normal.

M. America: He’s just protective. He makes me feel special.

California: Protective is one thing. But he’s talking about shutting everyone out, not letting you go and hang out with all those other countries anymore. Don’t you remember that mixing with all sorts of people, the Irish, the Italians, the Swedes, the Polish—yes, even the Chinese and Japanese—that’s what made you so great in the first place? Honey, getting out there and meeting new people and learning new things from them is who you are.

M. America: Look. I know you girls mean well, and all, but I’ve dated a real strong of losers…

New York: They weren’t…

California: Just look at that last one…

M. America: Yeah, I know you all liked them. But here’s the thing. They said nice things when we were out in public, but then they treated me like dirt. They said theý’d be there for me, but they ended up taking my jobs and splitting. Thanks to them, I lost my mortgage to those guys from Wall Street. Donald, he’s rich. He’s going to help me get back on my feet.

Massachusetts: I understand you’ve had some hard times. But you gotta understand, those jobs, they’re not coming back…

M. America: Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. You don’t know.

Massachusetts: Ok, so let’s say they do. Who’s to say that he’s going to share his money with you?

M. America: He’ll be my husband. He has to.

Massachusetts: Oh, honey. It doesn’t always work that way… And those Wall Street guys? ‘Merrica, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I was at the bar last week, and he was talking about how he’s going to invite them to his Bachelor Party.

M. America: No, he told me he’s not hanging out with them anymore. His kids are going to deal with that part of his business. He promised me.

New York: Maybe he promised, but he doesn’t seem to be following through on that. Just last week I heard that he invited a bunch of them to his Fantasty Football league. In fact, that entire league is filled with either people who talk bad about people like Mrs. Hernandez or Rachel, or they’re those Wall Street types.

M. America: You’re exaggerating. Just because they’re rich doesn’t mean anything. They know how to make money. That’s a good thing.

California: Ok. Maybe. But let’s talk about this one last thing. It’s really got me worried. Have you noticed that every time you start to talk to him about his friends or about his businesses, he changes the subject? And not just once, every time. You start to talk to him about something that’s bothering you, and he goes and says something awful. It’s like he’s trying to make you react and get distracted.

M. America: That’s just coincidence.

California: It’s happening an awful lot. And he talks really bad about people who disagree with him. And some of his nasty friends? They have even nastier friends. I mean this really violent guy. And your Donald has even said he admires him! Doesn’t that worry you?

M. America: Donald would never hurt me.

Massachusetts: I hope not. But that whole pattern—not letting you out to see others, insulting people who disagree, admiring violent men… Honey, I’m really worried about your safety.

M. America: Wha?? He’s not going to beat me! He loves me!

California: I hope you’re right. I really do. Nothing would make us more relieved than to see this work out in the end. But you can see why we’re worried, can’t you? I mean, I think we all hope that you’ll just leave this guy at the altar, but you’ll probably go through with it.

New York: And just know that we’ll be there for you, no matter what, okay?

Massachusetts: If things get ugly, you can call us, you know that right? No matter where you are, or what time of night it is.

M. America: You guys! You’re being so dramatic! Nothing is going to happen! We’re going to be great together!

Massachusetts: But you know you can call, right?

California: Anywhere. Anytime.

New York: Because we’re your sisters. We’re family.

M. America: Yeah, yeah, I know. Thank you. I love you too.

California: Good. [Starts the car.] Ok. Who’s hungry? Fries and a milkshake? Or I think I just saw this new taco truck on the corner back there…

This is What Corruption Looks Like

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You really couldn’t imagine anything more dastardly or shameful. This week, in the middle of the night, while all the press was looking towards Colombia, and the nation mourned the loss of a whole team of talented, young men, Brazil’s politicians gutted an anti-corruption bill.

The President declared three days of national mourning and the Congress went into overdrive and held an all-night marathon session aimed at protecting their own asses. They tried to protect themselves with amnesty from investigation (this provision ultimately failed). They removed the legal definition of what constitutes unlawful enrichment. They made it possible to sue and imprison judges and prosecutors who would investigate them. They shortened the statute of limitations so that they wouldn’t face jail time if accused.

The politicians are falling like dominoes

“The politicians are falling like dominoes.”

They did it because they’re all guilty, and they’re scared. Right on down the line. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look. In August they voted to impeach the president, Dilma Rouseff. Shortly after that, her predecessor and mentor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (“Lula”) was also investigated and many of his private holdings were siezed. Her vice-president Michael Temer took the seat of power and shortly after was acccused of asserting pressure on other politicians to get a luxury hotel deal to go through. In September the Speaker of the House Eduardo Cunha, who was running Rouseff’s impreachment process, was also impeached. This week the Senate president Renan Calheiros was indicted for corruption and the Senate voted to ignore an order from the Supreme Court to remove him from power. This led to 24 hours where no one knew exactly who was running the government. Finally a compromise was forged and he has been removed from the sucession to the presidency until cleared of charges. Ex-Governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro Anthony Garotinho  was likewise accused of corruption–buying votes to be specific. He then claimed chest pains and was admitted to a local hospital. Upon medical release, he had to be literally dragged kicking and screaming from the hospital and carried to prison. It has been an exciting past few months. Across party lines, the politicans are falling like dominoes.

When Dilma was being impeached and the town was boiling with anti-Dilma fervor, one friend of mine confessed that he actually supported her. Why? I asked. “They’re all dogs, Malvina,” he replied. “They all eat the cow and give the people the bones. But at least with Lula, the people got a few bones with some meat left on them.”

“They all eat the cow and give the people the bones. But at least [with the PT Party] the people got a few bones with some meat on them.”

And there you have it.

See–at the same time that everyone was running around complaining about how corrupt politicians are, in our small town everyone was vying for a job with the city, or for the city to rent one of their apartment buildings, or for the city to contract to use their construction company. Everyone wants a better job for their brother, or more revenue for their family business. Corruption is horrible on a national scale, but fine on a personal level. That’s not corruption. That’s just getting ahead.

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“Everyone wants a better job for their brother, or more revenue for their family business. Corruption is horrible on a national scale, but fine on a personal level. That’s not corruption. That’s just getting ahead.”

In our small town the political parties divide almost absolutely by family affiliation, who’s doing business with them, and who their friends are. The City Hall changes hands, and fleets of government workers are laid off, only to be replaced with the ruling party’s friends. It’s no way to get anything done, but people only complain when they’re on bottom of the pile.

It’s great when election season comes around. City machinery runs around everywhere, government outreach workers do the rounds. The town over was drilling wells for free. That’s a great service. We’re in a drought, the surface springs are drying up, and drilled wells are prohibitively expensive for most rural folks. Our nieces got school bus service. But then the elections happened, the ruling party spent money from the city coffers on their campaign, they lost, and now all services have ceased as they cut back in order to hand over a balanced budget. No more wells for thirsty citizens. Our nieces went back to walking the 1.5 miles back and forth to school every day.

I don’t say this opinion to many people. I’ve hesitated a while in writing this crônica. I’m not from here. I don’t know who’s voting for who, and who I might be offending with my outsider’s assessment. But this is me calling it as I see it.

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Government Graft: Don’t think it can’t happen to you

Right now I’m calling it at the top of my lungs–THIS IS WHAT CORRUPTION LOOKS LIKE–because how it starts is simple. It starts with knowing someone in power who can make your business deal easier by pulling a few strings or leaning on a few people. It starts when people in power have business holdings, and you can curry their favor by being their best customers. Before you know it, to succeed at business you need to know a politician. It happens when you dip into funds that aren’t yours to use, and then you dip again, until you forget that public monies aren’t your reserve banking account.

It’s so easy to say that extreme corruption is what happens in other countries. But once political favor becomes the main way for a business to be successful it’s all over. Then it becomes every person doing “just one little thing” to help their family, and no one is guilty and everyone is. 

What is happening in my own nation is terrifyingly familiar. I watch the news with horror because news in Brazil and news in the United States are disturbingly similar. Just one is a only a toddling calf that some wonder how it could harm anyone, the other is a full-grown raging bull. Same cow, same bones. And this particular animal grows overnight.

Broken Hallelujah

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Goddamn you, world. You just gotta kick a gal when she’s down. Leonard Cohen died this week, one of my favorite poets. This loss coming on the heels of Trump winning the election in the USA, and the Republicans taking both the House and Senate. Seriously, life just isn’t fair sometimes.

People here in Brazil are shocked at the election results, if you’re curious. They’re sad and angry and confused. Lots of them want to process those emotions with me, want to understand more about what they are seeing on the television.

I am walking through my days with that tremor behind my eyes–the kind that warns you not to blink too hard or the tears will sprout–and a lump just above my heart and just below my throat that just won’t go away.  I can’t unplug from social media. I keep trying to reach out across thousands of miles to lay my hands on my ailing nation.

I’m a lousy ambassador. All that I have been able to offer those poor, concerned souls that want to talk to The American about the elections is a half-smile, a quiet nod to their statements, a half-hearted agreement, and a silence that says: Please, don’t ask me about the elections. Please. I’m not going to be able to hold it together. It hurts to explain how much this went wrong, what it’s going to mean for so many people. Please, just… don’t.

One friend asked straight up why I was suddenly so silent these days. I took a deep breath and, I’m in pain, I replied. I can’t laugh with you at jokes about the election. I’m sorry. I just can’t. It is difficult to smile, because these are my people; that is my country, the democracy that I care so much about. This isn’t just a normal election,  I tell him. We’ve lost elections before. This is about that uncontrolled man who is sitting in the highest seat of power. This is about a nationlistic fever that has seized my nation. People are going to get hurt. I am watching images of them getting hurt now in his name, and I’m really afraid that it’s going to get worse. My country and our democracy might not recover for a long, long time. This isn’t just any old election. Forgive me, my friend, I can’t talk right now. He nodded his head; he understood.

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is arguably his most famous song in Brazil. Lots of religious musicians sing a Brazilian version it in Portuguese that always makes me chuckle because the original English version of Hallelujah is racy and beautifully sad. They have no idea what they’re singing, or not singing. The original song isn’t about traditional religion at all–just the opposite. Regardless, it’s one of my favorites. It leaves me gasping for air every time.

I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
But love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Somehow it is fitting that it is echoing in my mind this week.

RIP

(I drafted this last night. Then after I went to bed Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon played this version. Yeah.)

Stars in the Sky

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“Don’t be jealous of others’ successes…. 
Imagine how sad the night sky would be with just one star shining.” – me

My students were bickering over who had stars on the Awards Wall. One was proud of her achievements, but disgruntled that there were other students’ on her heels–soon to achieve the same thing she did.

Negativity is not allowed in my English classes. I watched the dynamic for a minute, conjugated a few verbs in my head for good measure, then interrupted with–“Just because someone else has beautiful things in their life, doesn’t make your own any less beautiful.” Not my most poetic moment, but it got the point across. “Preach it, Malvina!” one student hooted.

I thought about it all evening. How often do we do this? How often do I do this? Someone gets a new house, a new car, that key promotion, and we feel that sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs. They’re doing SO GOOD. I didn’t do anything like that lately. Maybe I’m not as special as I thought I was.

beach-1d-web-copyYou guys–it’s a such sick cycle. It has us chasing possessions and working too many hours and talking about our friends behind their backs.

And yet so many beautiful things can only exist because there are MANY of them. A field of flowers. Trees in a forest (each one bent its own particular way, not a single one trying to bend like its neighbor). Grains of sand at the beach (this last one is a mind-blower, by the way–have you ever seen those up close? amaze-balls!)

And stars. Lordy, if there’s one thing I love it’s a night sky full of stars. At the farm, far away from the city lights, it’s steal-your-breath fantastic. Each sun up there shining its heart out. Only beautiful because they’re all doing it at the same time.

So you just do you super-trooper. I’ll try to do the best to just do me. Together, we’re gonna light up the night sky.

 

p.s., the above is my first meme in Portuguese. It took me all evening, but I finally worked out the poetry of it all. I get there eventually.

12 Things About Brazil the Guidebooks Never Tell You

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Photo courtesy of Mark Hillary

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  1. Waiting in line is over-rated. Brazilians don’t really do lines. Unless otherwise directed, they tend to form a large, organic crowd and all push forward to the front. Why is this important? Banks, grocery stores, bus stations, they’ll probably have lines that people respect. But if you’re trying to get through a market or a concert or a traffic jam don’t expect a line or turn-taking to take place naturally. You’ve got to ignore any idea of personal space and push forward or you’ll be waiting for months.
  2. There’s a difference between a hotel and a motel. A BIG one. In the USA “motel” and ”hotel” are largely interchangeable words. In Brazil they are very different: hotels are for sleeping, motels are for sex. In a country where the youth often live with their parents well into their 20s or 30s until they marry, having a private place to rendevous with your lover becomes quintessentially important. As a tourist, knowing the difference is equally important if you want to avoid (un)pleasant surprises. (But maybe the names might clue you in: “Yes Motel,” “L’Amour Motel, “Motel Red Love,” and “Alibi Motel” are just a few fun, random examples)
  3. Brazilians stare. A lot. There apparently is no taboo about staring in Brazil. So get ready for curious children and strangers on the street to look at you an embarassing amount. Ladies, the amount of staring you’ll get might even make you feel threatened; it’s not (usually) intended that way.
  4. Requests are often phrased as commands, in a loud voice no less. To this day I still jump out of my skin when someone shouts at me, “Malvina! Drink some coffee!!” However, I have managed to learn how to shout appropriately at my houseguests.
  5. Shop clerks will be all over you like white on rice. Brazilians will get offended if they enter a store and aren’t approached within a certain (short) amount of time. It is considered good customer service to have a clerk there to answer your every question and accompany through your entire purchasing process. Personally, I often find it overwhelming and prefer to make my decisions without a salesperson peering over my shoulder (the fact that half the shopclerks don’t understand my accent doesn’t help), but you should expect it when you enter a store. They’re not stalking you; they’re trying to be helpful.
  6. On the other hand, waiters will not. The opposite is true of restaurants. The expectation is that you should be left to enjoy your meal in peace. If you want help, you can signal to the waiter. Compare that with the American expectation that the waitstaff check on you regularly to see if liked the meal and/or have any additional needs. Also they won’t bring you the check until you ask. Since they’re trying hard not to crowd you, this sometimes makes flagging down a waiter and paying your bill a little complicated.
  7. Not all banks accept all ATM cards. I’m used to walking up to an ATM, any ATM and withdrawing money. Maybe I’ll pay a handsome fee, but I get my cash when needed. In Brasil, some banks only accept their own ATM cards. The two banks I’ve found with essentially universal access are Banco do Brasil and Bradesco. Luckily, they’re in most towns. Silver lining to this inconvenient cloud? Brazil has no ATM fees.
  8. There is no such thing as “unscented.” Brazilians LOVE their perfume. They are one of the world’s top consumers of perfumes, and everything here has a scent. Air fresheners, perfumes for your car, perfumes for your mop water,  perfumed soaps, perfumed detergents, scented fabric softeners, perfumed lotions, and large daily doses of colognes are all standard and even expected. They even sell perfume for babies (because that beloved basic baby smell isn’t good enough?). As someone with skin allergies I try to avoid additives, and I’m hard pressed. I can’t imagine if scents actually made me physically ill. Travelers, be warned, and if necessary pack lots of your own products.
  9. Everything closes on a holiday. Every.thing. No grocery stores. No corner marts. No shopping malls. No restaurants. The only thing maybe you’ll find open is a pharmacy. As a tourist this is important. If your vacation spans a holiday, don’ t assume that you will be able to go visit the usual recreation areas. You might have a hard time just finding a bite to eat. It’s wonderful for the service workers, who actually get to enjoy their holidays with their families like everyone else (unlike in the United States), but if travelling you should be aware of this and plan accordingly.
  10. “Large” coffees are not. Brazilian coffee is served in small shot-glass sized cups. Even the large size is only 6-8 ounces, probably smaller than any small size in the United States. Since they make their coffee incredibly strong and sweet, that little drop will do you. But if you want a large cup of coffee to sip for the next 30 minutes? Good luck.
  11. This is no place for a vegetarian. Isn’t Brazil filled with delicious fresh fruits and vegetables? Sure it is. Doesn’t Brazil have vegetarians? Sure they do. But I’m sure they huddle for safety in the large cities. And all those vegetables? They’re just meat-delivery accomplices, my friend. Tell someone in the interior that you don’t eat meat and they’ll offer you chicken. Everything is cooked with meat. If pieces of meat aren’t actually mixed in with the vegetables, there’s a strong probability the pan was greased with lard. Happy events are celebrated with barbeques with very few side dishes (you might get a grated carrot salad if you’re lucky; it probably will have chicken mixed with it). “Salads” are usually just lettuce and tomato; salad dressing is olive oil and salt. Luckily Brazilians eat beans and rice with every meal so you vegetarians won’t starve, but at the end of your trip your taste buds will want to have serious words with you.
  12. SIM signThere’s no shame in asking for directions. Roads are poorly marked. Maps are rare. In some places asking for directions would mark you as a tourist. Here everyone on a road trip asks for directions–multiple times, even. The technique is simple: identify the landmark(s) close to where you want to go. Ask for directions to that landmark. When you arrive there ask for directions to the next landmark. Continue this way until you reach your destination.

Elevator Talk

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img_6233They were all waiting for the elevator: a businessman, a young man and his stylish wife. Three in a row, all staring at their cell phones. 

The young man sighed and reached out to impatiently tap the “Up” button again.

The tall, thin Steve Buschemi look-alike in the business suit looked up. “It’s on strike,” he said.

(cultural translation: All the public banks are currently on strike and withholding all but the most basic services. Financial transactions are slow, slow, slow these days.)

The young man looked up from his Facebook feed and chuckled. “It was arrested,” he said.

They both grinned and said together: “Lava-Jato!”

(cultural translation: The Brazilian government is currently weathering a storm of corruption probes where major political leaders took bribes and engaged in money laundering in trade for lucrative government contracts. The investigations include Petrobras, the state-funded oil company, and all of the major political parties. The investigations go all the way to the top, and even the current president and her predecessor, Lula, are being investigated. Just this week the previous president’s Minister of Treasury was arrested. The investigations  are called the “Lava-Jato” or “Carwash” scandal.)

Everyone had a good laugh for a moment. Then they returned to gazing at their cell phones. No one said anything more.

And, that, my dear readers I can’t help but feel somehow sums up Brazilian politics at the moment. 

True story.

Racial Panels and a Drop of Blood

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I have this cringeworthy memory where I’m pretty sure I offended a whole roomful of people of color repeatedly.

I mean, it’s one of those really bad memories where it flashes back and I mentally go: “LA-LA-LA-I-CAN’T-HEAR-YOU. LA-LA-LA-I’M-STILL-A-GOOD-PERSON-SO-GO-AWAY-LA-LA-LA-LAAAAA!!” 

Sigh. It’s an “oops!” memory of Epic Proportions. All of us probably have them (well… everyone except maybe Donald Trump, who seems to be suffering from massive amnesia in these sorts of things).

So what happened? Grassroots leaders had been called together to help communicate to minority communities the importance of declaring your racial status at the local hospitals. That’s because health disparities exist between races. Studies and research are almost always completed on white men, so there is little data on how various medications and treatments affect various populations. In addition, there’s growing data to suggest that people of all shades of non-pinkish skin get different treatment when they go to the doctor’s office. So, in sum, the goal of the meeting was good, verging on radically excellent.

I had a point to make: the U.S. Census racial categories suck. From years of work as an interpreter, I was tired of asking a series of questions that just don’t work that well to describe peoples’ actual realities. Case in point: I helped my partner (boyfriend at the time) and other Brazilian roommate complete our U.S. Census form. My partner checked “Of African Descent.” Yeup, that probably matches what the form-designers intended. Our roommate did too. Not so much. Unless you literally subscribe to the “one drop of blood” definition of African descent–in which case, 95% of Brazil probably qualifies–he didn’t really fit the category. But the U.S. Census definitions are arbitrary and confusing, and they’re often not descriptive of how people see themselves. And when you have people from other countries, they often have OTHER systems of defining themselves that don’t fit into our American set. It’s confusing. So be it.

In that meeting I perseverated on that point. And perseverated. And perseverated. See, that’s the problem with us white people. Sometimes we’re so used to people listening to our opinions that we forget that there are others in the room. I can only imagine how it came across–this white girl assessing the race of this unknown Brazilian guy. There were others in that meeting with a LOT more first-hand knowledge about what it’s like to be a person of color in American hospitals. Really, I should have just said my point and then shut-the-eff-UP. (Note: So for all the people I know who were at that meeting, I’m so sorry. Really really sorry. I’m older now, and have learned how to shut up more and listen better. I hope.)

Then this week I learned that since practically everyone in Brazil is somewhat descended from Africans, Brazil uses controversial boards that visually assign racial categories to assist its affirmative action. The whole cringeworthy memory came rushing back and I got to thinking about the whole problem all over again.

The affirmative action part makes sense–every country has its histories of oppression; it makes sense to make policies to try to equal the playing field. Brazil didn’t outlaw slavery until 1888–making it the last country in the Americas to ban it. In that time it imported more than 5 million enslaved people–more than any other country. Even though there was much more egalitarian racial mixing throughout the slavery years than in the USA–for example, slaves could win or buy their freedom and the predominantly single, male European settlers often married female slaves freeing them in the process*, etc.–there is still a strong class divide in Brazil between those who have darker skin and those who are lighter in tone. You can probably guess who’s on top and tends to be on TV, running the government, and in the cushy, administrative jobs.

In our town’s conversations there seem to be four general labels for race in Brazil. There is branco/a (pale pink), pardo (beige to creamy-coffee colored), nego/a (cinnamon to dusky-dark), and africano/a (dark brown to blue-black). There is also the term “preto/a” (black) and that is a slur, similar to our “nigger.” The Brazilian government seems to recognize three of these–branco, pardo, and africano.

How does this work out in daily life? In the USA, I and my daughter are white, my husband is Black. We’re kind of an odd couple there, I guess. At least that’s what I gather from the double-takes we get. Here in Brazil, I’m branca, our daughter is branca to pardo (depending on how much she’s been in the sun lately), and Mr. Crônicas is probably legally pardo but everyone describes him as the negão. His father is probably somewhere between nego and africano, his mother parda.In Brazil lots and lots of families are like ours–mixed race. No one even bats an eye. One parda friend of mine always proudly displays her two very different daughters in this manner: “Here is my white one, and this one is my black one!” (the girls’ grandmother is very, very africana).

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Which goes back to the original question: how the heck do you define all this mess? How to make sense of this complexity of the human experience?

I stand by my original assertion–our U.S. system of considering anyone with a drop of African blood as African-American is bollux. Plus, it makes life confusing for anyone with more than one identity, for example, Afro-Latinx or Blasian (Afro-Asian) American.

I’m not sure that Brazil’s racial panels are all that much better. Judging someone solely on visual appearance ignores the fact that while maybe you could pass as white, other members of your family maybe suffered discrimination and that limited your family’s ability to get ahead or carve out a stable existence. Transgenerational trauma is a real thing, y’all.

Both Brazil’s and the US’s systems judge the biological individual, not the social networks within which we live. But isn’t that racism in general? Defining and dividing people based upon arbitrary genetic factors? Wouldn’t it be dandy if the policies enacted to correct it managed to look beyond that?

* The marriage of slaves is definitely still problematic (is it really an equal relationship if you have to marry to be free? did these women enter into their marriages of their free will?)  and at the same time it can be compared to the USA’s history of racial mixing where up until the past century the children with mixed heritages were often born of rape or to women obliged to be “mistresses” (again problematic) to slaveowners.

Be Careful What You Ask For

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When I first arrived, it seemed to me that those crazy Brazilians sure liked to chop things down a lot.

“That’s a gorgeous, living being!” I gasped.

“Hah. It will grow back,” they said.

IMG_3998.JPGNowhere was the debate strongest than around the base of the huge tree in our back yard. Towering and shady, it was the corner coffee shop for all the local birds and even a few monkies. Its canopy provided the most delicious shade in the heat of summer. You could stand under it in the hardest of rains and not get wet at all.

“You’re nuts! Chop it down!” they said.

“No way!” I bellowed.

So I ate my serving of hippy, humble pie all toasty and warm one morning last year when we awoke to realize that it wasn’t thunder last night, it was part of that gorgeous canopy coming down.

It just missed our car, and shaved off the shed on our outdoor kitchen.

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Whew. We counted ourselves VERY LUCKY. We cleared the mess, rebuilt the kitchen roof for the better (really, the tree did us a demolition favor), and we were fine. That could have been so much worse.

I was sold. That tree had to go. It was a public health hazard. Grandpa Crônicas gave the aftermath one sideeye and started parking his car on the other side of the yard.

For the past year Mr. Crônicas and I have been sitting in its shade, eyeing up at that monster, wondering HOW, for the love of God, were we going to chop it back safely before it fell on the house? That gorgeous tree was the Wall Street Big Bank of our backyard–too big to be safe, too big to take down.

And then a torrential storm happened yesterday afternoon. We’re in the middle of a drought. Everyone has been praying for rain for weeks. In retrospect, maybe a little too hard. The rain and winds knocked out power in multiple sections of town and flood waters pulled up street paving stones.

We came home from work that night to find our driveway completely blocked by this:

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On closer inspection, it is more than a little amazing. 

It didn’t scratch the house.

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It didn’t hit the power lines.

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It didn’t hit any of the surrounding trees.

 

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And the whole tree came down at once.

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Seriously, we couldn’t have paid someone do to it better.

So whatever you call it–guardian angels, Mother Nature, Pachamama, dark matter, whatever–something out there is looking out for us.

And just a little reminder to you: be careful what you ask for. You might just get it.

Time is Everything

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bb_wos_title_800x800Hey y’all—I just wanted to share something with you. I’m wicked excited.

I started this great course (Happy Birthday to me! Thanks Dad!).

Why? You might have noticed that there’s been a lull in the writing over here at Minhas Crônicas do Brasil. Part of that is life with a toddler and a full-time job. Part of that is sometimes life gets a little too real to share. Who wants to read someone’s angst as they push through it all? Maybe once, sure, but not repeatedly.

So I was excited about the course as a way to work through some of that. Life adventures. “Brutiful” (brutal +beautiful) life experiences. Storytelling your way through it all. Yep. That’s what we’ve got going on over here. Sign me up! And let me tell you that it hasn’t disappointed.

The quote of the day: “Time is everything…. When you give [writing] out, it has to be a service…. It has to be because you have gone through all the personal stuff and gotten to the universal place. It has to be because you have seen the patterns and you want other people to learn from it. You need to write from a scar, not an open wound.” – Glennon Doyle Melton

So there you go. I found the words to describe my reasons for my absence. I knew in my heart of hearts that parts of this adventure weren’t ready to share. That lull was for a purpose.

It’s kinda scary writing this, dear friends. What if I write this and then…ppphffft. Nothing?

But I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen. The scar tissue is forming. It’s stiff and hard to bend some days, but I’m starting to move. Something is coming out of this, I can just feel it. I can’t wait to see what it is.