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!

 

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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.

 

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.

 

Cajun Blackened Friday

I tried to post this here yesterday, but we were REALLY busy being thankful, playing soccer, cooking, and being with friends. I thought maybe it would still be nice to have a Thanksgiving post, so here it is, written in the present tense. Just use your imagination–it was only yesterday, folks.

I gotta say, Thanksgiving outside the US is always so strange, but sometimes in a good way. I don't have to work this year (yes!), but I can call work if I have a question (which I did) because everyone in the office is working. All the stores are open like normal, and tonight we're going to have a beer with a friend at a local bar, just like it is a normal day. Kinda cool, right?

This week I have thought about what I'm thankful for, and here's one thing: I'm not the only one who's yelling. The other day, I was waiting in front of a crosswalk (in my car) and there were quite a few people crossing. Next to me was a school bus that didn't want to wait, so it was easing its way in front of the pedestrians crossing the street (ironic, yes, to consider a school bus running over pedestrians). One fearless guy just kept going, though, and when they almost hit him, he gave them a piece of his mind (and the law) to chew on.

Yes. It was just as good as it looks.

I'm also thankful that things aren't so easy here…I mean, in certain ways. I can't buy pie crusts, so I have to make them. But mine have been turning out so great! Why would I ever want to buy another pie crust? We made the most delicious pumpkin pie from scratch…yes, even the pumpkin filling. Can't buy that here either. Well, I suppose these not the “most difficult” challenges that life has brought me, but still, I am thankful.

There are those deep things, too, for which I feel thankful. They are pains, and wounds, and loves, and questions, and…sometimes too it feels like there's a song down there that's brewing; a latent yolp that's thrashing it's way to the surface, clamoring for air. I guess it's about time to sing. Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Responsibility is Not a Four-Letter Word

I'm having a bad day.

It's ok. Bad days happen, I know. The problem for me is that sometimes I just don't know how to get out of my funk. So I'll write about it, and let's see what happens.

Take advantage whenever you can

As you can imagine, when you move from one country to another, there are a few details involved. This morning, one of those details was to call the person from my rental agency (read: another business created solely for the purpose of taking advantage of others, see also Cartorios and Government Agencies in Brasil) in order to clarify some of the details of our contract. Specifically, I wanted to know whether or not I would be responsible to fix a small crack in the window that we did not make (most likely came from weather changes). The agency confirmed that, yes, I do need to fix the window, because according to the law and contracts and blah blah blah blah blah…

I suspected that would be the case, and I'm not really concerned with shelling out a few more reais at this point. It's the principle: I don't want to be held responsible for a window that I did not break. Of course, I tried to explain that to them, and here's how the conversation goes (this conversation happens over and over again here, so I know it well):

Use with Care

Me: I understand what the contract says, but the reason I'm asking about the window is because I didn't break the window.

Agency: Well, how did it happen then?

Me: You know how it works with glass right? Over time, glass can develop small cracks that, with the aid of changing weather conditions, can grow. This is one of those small cracks that grew.

Agency: Yes, but was the window like that when you moved in?

Me: No, the crack in the window appeared over time. It's not large now, and the window functions just the same with the crack as without.

Agency: Ok, but unfortunately, you have to replace the glass because according to the contract, you are responsible. Does that make sense?

Me: No, that doesn't make sense to me, because I didn't break the glass.

Agency: Who broke it?

Me: No one broke the glass… You know how it works with glass right? Over time….

Exhibit A: Broken Glass

And the conversation could continue in this way for eternity, I suppose. Ours did not, because I was consequently and repeatedly interrupted by lightening fast speaking…this did not go over well with me. I don't like being interrupted. I speak slower in Portuguese because it's not my native language, and because I need time to form my thoughts. That gives people an easy window to interrupt, especially on the telephone. But when I tried to explain my thoughts, they just kept talking over me. That made me angry. I don't like to get angry.

Finally, after I yelled a bit and they stopped talking, I explained how terribly rude it is to interrupt. Here's how that went (also a conversation I have had with MANY folks here):

Me: You do understand that its very disrespectful to talk when another person is talking?

Agency: But sir, you were yelling at me, and this is not acceptable.

Me: I only started yelling after you repeatedly interrupted me. You do know it's rude to interrupt?

Agency: But sir, it is my right to interrupt you. This is my job.

Me: I don't understand how it is your right to be disrespectful. Look I am a very educated person, and I have lived in many other places. I just want you to understand that interrupting people is very disrespectful.

Agency: You are so educated, and yet you would yell at me?

Me: I don't see how my yelling is any worse than your constant inability to wait for me to speak…

Agency: But again, it's my right to interrupt and speak when you are speaking. This is MY job.

Me: But wait a minute. Who is paying for this rental, me or you?

Agency: Sir, according to our contracts it's the renters who pay the owners and blah blah blah

Me: Yes, but you didn't answer my question. Who is paying? Me or you?

Agency: Well, you are, sir.

Me: Exactly. So then without me paying, you don't have a job. So I don't see how it is your right to disrespect me.

Agency: But going back to the original question, according to the contract, you are responsible for….

Taking responsibility is hard, I understand. Here's what I will take responsibility for: I did live in this apartment, I did sign a contract (however unjust and evil it was), and I am trying (to the best of my abilities) to uphold my part of the bargain. I will paint and try to make everything “bonitinho” before I leave, even if it is tantamount to robbery to hold me accountable for fixing things that were old and not well taken care of before I arrived (many things that, as far as I can tell, you possibly covered up so that I wouldn't notice until after I already moved in). And I did yell. I'm sorry for that. That happens sometimes, especially when I feel that others are not giving me the respect that I deserve. Respect that EVERYONE deserves.

And how about you? What will you take responsibility for? And herein lies the rub: almost everyone I meet here is NOT WILLING TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR ANYTHING THAT GOES WRONG. This is a serious issue, a character flaw. And it has infected an entire city, and large portions of the country of Brasil (believe me, I have been more places in Brasil than most Brazilians). When a person (or a culture, I suppose) responds to criticism or problems with either blame or apathy, that person has what is called a “character disorder.” I know this affliction (heck, I slip back into this from time to time…it's very common in men), and I have to say, it's pretty serious. Too serious to tackle in the same blogpost, so let's leave it here for now. Dangling…

(from Shawshank Redemption: the first 30 seconds will suffice)

 

My day hasn't gotten any better yet. I think I need a beer.