That Sinking Feeling

I have been waking up pretty early these days. One morning I even slept in all the way to 7.

It's like the saying: We're neither here nor there. Actually, we are here, but it just doesn't quite feel like it yet. My kids have started school, we have done plenty of shopping, we are trying to get cellphones (ugh! It's all so darn confusing!!!). And we really look the part, I mean, we fit in here much more than there.

But the problem comes with the inevitable question: “So, where are you from?”

While on vacation we just answered “Brasil!” and waited for the next round of questions, if they came. I had the best time giving that answer while we were at DisneyWorld–there people would often look with surprise and then say something like “Wow! You speak English so well!”

The food here sure is good!

But it's good to be home, even if it doesn't feel so much home-y yet. (Full disclosure: I was on vacation for the better part of a month…so, no, you shouldn't feel too sorry for me. I did yell and scream a lot on this vacation–roller coasters are the best for that.) And I'm looking forward to discovering America again, this time from a small town perspective. Who knows? Maybe all those years of Brasil telling me to slow down, slow down, will finally sink in.

I really am trying to slow down. Really.

 

Sometimes I Put the Wrong Date on the Check

Ahh, the New Year has arrived. Time to wax poetic on the past and publish new hopes for the year to come. And how lucky I am to be changing countries and jobs and as many things as I possibly can at the same time. Lucky? Yes! Lucky! Because I have always found that internal transitions are made more powerful and affective if our external conditions are similar.

Rio NYE 2013. I was not there.

And so this New Year I find myself in Puerto Rico…not just a beautiful island, but also a land of in-betweens: one foot in Latin America, and the other in the United States. How fortunate for me, because that's how I feel too. One foot firmly and happily moving back towards my country of origin, and the other lingering in Brasil, anticipating the samba schools of Carneval, and yelling at the poor drivers as I cross the street. It will be like this for a while, I am sure, and those I am with will have to hear a lot of “In Brasil, we did it like this…” and “I'm thinking of the word in Portuguese…” If that's you, sorry! I can't help it! That's what happens to all of us on some level as we move from year to year, decade to decade. Things change, and sometimes we don't move as fast as the time requires.

So from this land of in-betweens, I wish you all a wonderful year of full of the wisdom from years past, and hope from the changes and challenges that are to come. Happy 2014!

 

What I’m Looking For

The best part of saying “this is the LAST time” is changing your mind.

That said, I have found the perfect thing to do on my last morning here in beautiful Belo Horizonte. Ok, so it really isn't all that ground breaking that I would be reading the New York Times, but the article (or group of stories, really) that I found could not be a more fitting close. “The Lives They Loved” is a collection of short obituaries written by family members or loved ones and accompanied by a photo. No, I'm not dying, and no, I'm not overly morbid, but as I was reading, I was overwhelmed by two things: One, my life is not nearly over yet (I hope!), and two, I could not be making a better decision–now is definitely the right time to return.

I know that people often say nicer things in obituaries than were the reality, but as I was reading folks saying things like: “I never heard him say a mean thing about another person,” and “she saw potential in everyone she met” I realized that some goals are just not within my reach. I'm just being honest with myself–I am far from perfect, and I'm okay with that, most of the time. But I have no regrets either, and I look back on much of my life, including these last four years here in Brasil with joy and thankfulness.

And if there is one thing I have learned from the culture here in Minas, it is the importance of family. Yes, there have been many occaisions where the blind devotion I have observed in many Brazilian families has seemed absurd, crazy, time-consuming and burdensome. But there is beauty in extremity, and in the end, don't we all want to be able to tell unforgettable stories about those that we loved? Well, that's what I want, and just like any good story, this next one will require proximity, patience, and sacrifice before it can be well-told.

So, this morning as I was reading and drinking my coffee, my son came into the room, and with my emotions running high I grabbed him from reading the Guiness Book of World Records to hug him tightly. “Are you ready, buddy?” I asked, with the full weight of what is to come. I waited. “Well, I really have to go to the bathroom now.” Sigh. I guess we aren't all looking for the same thing.

Thanks so much, Brasil, it was worth every sacrifice. Now we are off to learn some new stories. Grande Abraço!

Foi inesquecível pra todos nós.

 

I’m Telling You This for the Last Time

I don't know what to say, except that it's close to the end here in Brazil, and it has been a whirlwind of emotions, and things to do, and anxiety, and parties with friends, and alcohol, and emotions, and wait…I already said that.

Update: until last week, I was excercising every day, just like I said I would try. But this last week I didn't make it…unless you include frantic sprints or angry gesticulations towards bus drivers. But I'm sure anxiety burns it's share of calories, so maybe I'm ok. Except no, I'm not.

Uma cesta de Natal: cheio de coisas que você não quer :)

Another update of sorts: after I blogged about that special graffiti in my old neighborhood (notice I said “old neighborhood”–that is because I did succeed in moving out of my apartment. Juuuuuuuust barely. Money and tears can do wonders. And money. Did I mention money?) there were some folks that reminded me that it's not true that “no one cares.” You are right. Sometimes my language tends towards the realm of extremes. Well, maybe all the time. But here is what I meant: there are some who care, yes, but there is such an overwhelming majority that are indifferent or ignorant or apathetic or lazy that it brings all the rest who care down. In fact, it wears us out so much that sometimes we even forget that we care, and we start making excuses for the majority that don't care, saying that the situation is complicated, and we try to offer excuses for them. But here is the reality: it is not complicated. Life is ugly. Cultures are not perfect. We all have improvements to make, and those improvements require LOTS of work. I am worried about Brazil, but I have not yet given up hope.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve…doesn't matter your tradition, your religion, your culture: now is a season of hope. And it's also a season of mistakes. Of reality. Of shitty decisions. Of grace. I wish you all the best, but you must understand, MY best includes things that you may not want: truth, tears, chocolate, suffering, good music, hoppy beer, loud voices, perfect cookies, children laughing and complaining, difficult questions, beach vacations, forever covenants. If you don't want my best, ok, don't take it. But this is all I have to offer. Beijos! Até a próxima!

 

One of a Kind

I'm moving out of my neighborhood in a couple of days. It's a bit stressful yes, but before I leave, I thought I might give you an idea of my everyday experience here in Brazil. I live on what looks to be a small street, but it is a major thoroughfare in and out of my neighborhood. There is often traffic on my street–honking horns, and honking delivermen on bikes (delivering bread from the bakery, of course), and like almost everywhere in my city, there is always a constant din of construction noise.

To avoid the traffic and driving as much as I can, I often walk where I need to go. Just up my street is a very fancy boutique for women's clothing–I have never been inside, but I'm sure they have some great deals on dresses in the R$5,000-7,000 range. Seriously. And I will sometimes run into the new BMW that belongs to one of my neighbors–not such a huge deal in the US, but here it was purchased for three times the amount of retail in the US. I'm not bragging, and certainly not everyone around here lives like that (myself included), but it does give you an idea of the kind of traffic that frequents my neighborhood.


Graffiti tagging is hugely popular all over my city–it's ugly, but a fact of life that we deal with. Just about a month ago (maybe more?), this unusual graffiti appeared on the side of an apartment building about two blocks away from mine:

I know what you're asking: Yes, it is a direct translation. Many questions have arisen for me as I have hiked past this wall many times a week (it's on the way to my kids' school). Why? Why this word? Is it an advertisement? Does someone living there have this specialty? I know, these questions are impossible to answer, and most likely, it was just a cruel joke played by a random drunkard with some extra blue paint. So here's my real question: WHY IS IT STILL THERE? Does no one in that building have any time to cover it up? the self-respect and respect for their neighbors to paint over it? Why, after more than a month, is it still shouting at me every time I pass?

I don't know. But I have a guess. No one really cares. Its an incredibly lucid symbol of why its so difficult for me to live here. There's so many things I love. But now it's time to leave.

 

This is What it Sounds Like

It's 7:30 in the morning, and I am already fielding emails and sifting through dates and events in my calendar. I probably shouldn't be writing, but I will keep it short.

My mom (and maybe yours too) used to say “You can never have too much of a good thing.”

I'm not going to argue with that, except maybe to tweak it a bit. You CAN have too many good things. I suppose it doesn't help that I have children–just multiply all those good things by three. Oh, and add in my wife, too.

Do you hear that? It's the sound my heart being stretched and pulled and…eventually I guess I'll just leave part of it here. That's a good thing too.

 

Will the Real Piano Guys Please Stand Up?

The other day I was on Facebook looking through my newsfeed, and I came across a link to a video that said something like “If you don't think this is the most amazing thing you have ever seen, then you should check your pulse, because you might be dead!”

I took the bait (needless to say) and in a few seconds found myself watching the latest Christmas video from The Piano Guys. I am positive many of you have seen these videos too: there are usually a couple (or more) smiling middle-aged nerdy white guys playing a piano (and sometimes, cello?) arrangement of anything from Coldplay to Pachelbel to Christmas favorites ('tis the season!). And did I mention, they are always smiling? They are GREAT! I LOOOOOOVE THEM! Especially when someone in my Facebook community POSTS THEM ON MY WALL! These videos are the syrup and coolwhip for my pancakes, the five lumps of sugar for my tea, the three generous pumps of chocolate for my venti-nonfat-nolac-caramel latte, the butter for my oreos…Oh! I could go on and on!

I hate them.

But I must say, I am thankful for that fantastically false claim that was made on the link to the video, for otherwise I may never have truly come to terms with my strong feelings (update: someone has just now–Thurs. Dec 5–tagged me on facebook in this video. I love it. It really doesn't get any better than this).

Now, let me be clear, if you like these videos, I understand, and I don't want to pour cold coffee over your warm breakfast. Not at all. Enjoy your breakfast. But I don't want to eat it–instead, I will share a few words here about why these same videos that bring you joy, are for me like a lyme-disease-infested-tick under my skin.

They are NOT musically interesting, amazing, complex, edifying, artistic… No. No. No. They are not. I realize it “looks” like they are, and I will say that the men playing in the video have been trained, some probably very well. But they are not selling that training, and they have watered it down for the masses as much as they can. Take for example the Kung-Fu Panda video (DID THEY REALLY DO THAT? ARE THEY REALLY WEARING WHAT APPEARS TO BE TRADITIONAL CHINESE CLOTHING? yes, and yes): the music here is simpler than most pop-songs–lots of repetition, pentatonic scales (more on this later), and yes, lots of smiling. The ONE INTERESTING MOMENT (at 1:20 if you want to find it) is borrowed from none other than…Chopin! (Op. 28, no. 20, if you care to check) I have no problem with musical borrowing, especially when it enhances the greatness of what is already present in the music. But when it is the ONLY great thing in the music?

And what about these “pentatonic scales” you mentioned, Matt? Oh ho! I'm glad you asked. They are fantastic five-note scales that are frequently used (in all types of music) because they are beautiful and basically without dissonance. But when they are used ALL THE TIME? well, yes, you are correct, they can become a bit monotonous. And, on the piano, they are SIMPLE. Go ahead, try it for yourself. Sit at the piano, even if you know nothing, and play something using only the black keys. Isn't it beautiful? and easy? Yes it is! In fact, anyone can do it. Now, these Piano Guys are adding some complex rhythms at times, and overdubbing all sorts of harmonies, and even standing around an open piano and plucking strings, playing them with hair, beating on the sides with paper to make rhythms…there was some thought put into it. But not too much, because the core of the music is VERY simple, so much so that almost ANY tune can be adapted to function within pentatonicism.

“But, Matt,” you say, “What is wrong with simplicity in music? Can't I like it? Isn't most pop-music pretty simple?” There is nothing wrong with simplicity. Many times it can be beautiful. And I love me a good pop-song that is well-sung and produced. But I feel like this is different: this is simplicity in complexity's clothing. This is slight of hand, tricks of the eye, the stuff of side shows. I say call a spade, a spade, and PLEASE don't call this the most amazing heart-stopping thing you have ever seen. Because, when it comes to greatness, complexity, artistry, jaw-dropping amazing-ness, this does not even come close.

But here's a catch: The Piano Guys are extremely popular. Millions of views on YouTube. They tour, and they sell CDs on iTunes. Are all of those fans wrong? Doesn't popularity count for something? Well, I think the video content is possibly the best thing they do: they are well produced (from my non-professional vantage point), and they keep you interested and close to the action, all of which is important for them because the video is the first place we encounter their music. But the video experience is far more interesting than the music, and since we are always looking for that next cool video to share with our friends, we click and share and feel somewhat happy and maybe even “creative” as we post it on our wall.

And that is what concerns me: everywhere I look, I see the depth of our culture lessening, the experience we have with art waining, and our ability to create thinning. I understand that it may be different for me–music is my profession and my passion, and as such I am always looking to discover new things, improve my technique, and deepen my experiences. But aren't we all looking for that too? Are we settling for too little? I suppose it's possible that these videos are inspiring folks to seek out more music in their lives, but for the majority I don't think so. Like I said above, it's a side show, it's one minute of fireworks, a three minute YouTube high, and then we go on our way. It's not enough. No, it's not.

We all need to seek out more excellence in our lives, and we need not be afraid of it: excellence is not the same as elitism, and just because you enjoy listening to classical music doesn't make you better (or worse) than anyone else. So PLEASE, don't stop with The Piano Guys–seek something deeper because it's out there. You may just start on YouTube, but don't stop there! Go to a concert! Start to paint! Learn to play an instrument, or pick up that one you used to play! Sing in a choir! Start a blog! Learn a new dance! And do all of this with other people too!!!! Why? Why should you do this? Because participating in the arts teaches us something that nothing else can, something that we need to keep learning every day, something that we were made to do but isn't so easy to do when we are out of practice, something that can feed the world and fill it with immeasurable happiness and joy…

The arts teach us how to create–how to be creative.

You should need no better reason than that. Need a place to start? I can't speak for all the arts, but I can give you some new musical ideas, and for me, if you want pyrotechnics, complexity, people working together to make something beautiful and amazing, it just doesn't get any better than the Symphony Orchestra. There's 80 or more people on the same stage, playing all sorts of different instruments, and somehow it all fits together so beautifully!! If that doesn't knock your socks off… well, you get the picture. And how about this for a suggestion: Try listening to some of Gustav Mahler's symphonies–they are truly amazing, and for those of you in the US, they are all on spotify, and many video performances are on YouTube as well. The beginning of Mahler's first symphony is otherworldly, and after some poking and prodding from the clarinets, it evolves into one of the most beautiful and festive melodies that you can imagine. Heck, you probably have already heard it before, and maybe when you listen, you will rediscover something that you already knew! And Mahler always reminds me of Christmas–it's so festive and warm and sentimental. But a whole symphony is too much for you? Not enough time for Mahler? Okay, then why not start with those Chopin Preludes that you already heard part of in the Kung Fu Panda video? They are short! Listen to one a day! But don't stop there! Go to a concert! Get in close! Experience it, let it change you, teach you, inspire you to create something of your own.

Maybe that's why those Piano Guys are so happy–there's a lot of simplicity and immitation, but in the end they did create something together. And that's a good feeling–at least for them.